Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Hello Bohol: Waterfalls

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


Mas Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google Inspired Adventures

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

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

Malingin Falls

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

Maybe I should have parked and walked a good bit earlier, but it was hot, and I was reasonably confident in my ability to keep driving as the road became more narrow. Once or twice I hit a mud puddle and slid around a bit, but I was going slow and making progress … until I wasn’t. I managed to drive right into a deep and long patch of mud that claimed the bikes tires and stopped me flat. Putting my feet down, I sank in the mud past my ankles, and I worked hard to get the bike unstuck, only running into the bushes once in the process. In retrospect, it might have been less work to walk the longer distance than to fight with the mud, but it wouldn’t have been as cool a story, and one of my favorite lifestyle adages is to live your life for the stories it creates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Female Traveling Safety

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

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

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

Stuck in the Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kawasan Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. ❤