Hello Bohol: Beaches

There are a seemingly endless number of tiny beaches on the island of Panglao, and each one has pros and cons. I wanted to look at several to get a good idea of the best beaches for my tastes. While only the paid beaches (resort run) are “clean” in the sense of pristine sand and crystaline waters, the other beaches aren’t what I would think of as dirty. They do have natural debris, tree branches, leaves, seaweed, driftwood, etc, but I didn’t feel like any of them were trashed by human junk, a few pieces of litter sometimes. If you’re looking for a postcard beach, it’s better to pay the entrance fee for a resort. If you don’t care so much, just get a decent pair of water shoes and have fun!


Momo Beach

Momo was my first beach visit mostly because it was between two other stops we were making on Sunday, and it had decent reviews online.  Momo was almost eerily quiet. Despite the fact that it was Golden Week in East Asia and it felt like half of China had come to the Philippines, Momo’s only tourists besides ourselves were a diving class practicing in the shallows. There isn’t any deep swimming off the beaches of Panglao; it’s all shallow for a long way out, making it great for kids or weak swimmers, and it’s full of life which is fun for everyone.

The water at Momo was dark with the sea grass growing just beneath the surface, but it was so clear I could see all the creatures who lived there… including lots of spiky sea urchins. I waded out carefully, working to avoid stepping on anyone sharp, and tested out my underwater camera apparatus. In preparation of snorkeling, I’d purchased a phone bag that was water-safe, and a floater in case the phone strap broke. Although a cursory test of waterproofness had been done before, this was my first chance to try to take pictures underwater. It was harder than it sounds.

The touch screen worked great through the plastic above water, but went nuts as soon as the sea surrounded it. It took a while to get all the settings under control so I could launch the camera and take photos with buttons instead of touchscreen. In the end, I never did figure out how to get it to focus on what I wanted, so my underwater shots are a little hit or miss, but it was nice being able to take any at all. Along with the fields of sea grass and myriad urchins, I found a beautiful brown starfish, colored like a pointed Siamese, and managed to get a single focused photo without having to lift the creature out of the water, yay!

Alona Beach

Also on Sunday, we headed over to the famous Alona Beach. I had read that it was once a paradisaical white sands tropical beach which has become overrun with tourism and is no longer so pleasant, but I wanted to look anyway. Alona certainly is beautiful, but there is none of the quaint island charm that I found at Momo. The beach was better tended and the water cleared of sea grass and urchins, but other than a tiny marked off swimming area no larger than a pool, the ocean was covered in boats.  Just above the high tide line, the beach is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and diving shops.

Since we were on bikes, we had to park in a lot just off the main circumferential road and walk the rest of the way to the beach. (parking was only 5p, btw). I don’t think this is as bad as the blogs I read made it sound as long as you know what you’re getting into. We passed every kind of food, drink, cultural market, and tour group set up you can imagine. I didn’t want to join any tour groups myself, but if you need a tour experience, you’ll find it on Alona beach. Ok, that’s not totally true, I did want to join one group at least to get myself out to the island with all the turtles for some snorkeling, and I found that there too.

Once I hit the beach, I walked all the way to the right, scoping out the options for dive groups. It’s not a huge place, so within a few minutes I’d reached the end. Vendors were constantly calling out, selling tours, drinks, food, pearls… so many random guys selling pearls out of a box on the beach. They may be fakes or they may be cultured pearls, but I’d say if you like them, just don’t pay more than you would for costume jewelry. I have my grandmother’s pearls, so I’m set. I did cave in and buy from one street vendor: an older lady selling fresh mangoes. It was 20p, probably more than it cost at the market, but she peeled and sliced it for us on the spot and it was ripe and delicious.

I headed back the other direction, trying to figure out which of the diving shops I wanted to patronize. I wasn’t planning on diving (I’m not licensed and also it’s super expensive), but after some internet research and asking people who’ve lived/traveled there, I found the best bet for good snorkeling without being ripped off is to join a dive group and just snorkel from the boat while they dive.

At one point, I thought about doing a tour over to swim with the whale sharks (because how cool would that be?), but as I read more about it, I came to realize that the tours at Oslob are damaging to the environment, and to the animals. Although the sharks are rarely harmed directly (though sometimes by thoughtless tourists or bad guides), the fact is that the Filipinos feed the sharks to keep them there year round as a tourist attraction which interferes with their migration, breeding, and feeding habits. It also teaches the sharks that humans are safe, which is not true outside of Oslob, and it puts them at greater risk elsewhere in the ocean. Whale sharks are gentle giants who eat only krill and plankton and have no teeth to hurt humans. As much as I would love the opportunity to swim among them, I cannot do it in a way that endangers their future as a species.

However, while I was learning about this tourism tragedy, I found a dive shop in Alona that felt the same way and offered all kinds of conservation based dive classes for advanced learners. Even more hilariously, it turned out to be the same dive shop that an old high school buddy who moved to Manila an age ago had recommended, although he’d given me the name of an instructor rather than the shop at first, so I didn’t realize until later. With all that coincidence it felt like fate. This ecologically sound dive shop is called Sierra Madre Divers (on Alona).

Inside I found a very frazzled young man running the front. I explained the desire to join a dive as snorkelers, but it turned out that every spot on every boat was filled for the entire duration of my stay in the Phillipines… by Chinese tourists. One day I’m going to get back on a holiday schedule that is not the same as a billion other people. However, he was kind enough to recommend another company. I figure all these dive shops have to know each other at least a little on such a small island, and I was more than willing to take his suggestion rather than try to filter through internet reviews searching for another by myself. He called over another young man who introduced himself as Rafi (short for Rafael) and told us he’d be happy to take us out the day after tomorrow, just show up at 8:30am.

We paused on the way back up the beach for milkshakes and as I sat on the bench overlooking the water, the most adorable tiny little girl came up to me with a ukulele and began to sing “I Wanna Be a Millionaire”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of money scams in my travels. I still remember the little girl in Petra who gave me postcards “as a gift” but wanted money in return.  I like supporting the locals who are trying to make a living from the tourism trade by doing things like making and selling goods or food (the totally grown up women in Petra I made sure to buy handmade jewelry from, or even the mango seller earlier that day). I also like busking as a way to earn money, though I’m hesitant to give money to bad performers. Not only was this girl so adorable she could be on a cereal box, she was a very talented musician. Her uke work wasn’t complex, but it was solid and her voice was very nice. I am big sucker and I only wish I’d thought to pull out my camera, but she was so close, she was nearly in my lap, and I was genuinely enjoying the song so I didn’t think about filming until it was too late. Of course I gave her money, don’t be silly.

White Beach

The last beach of Sunday was another locals only kind of place. Despite being just up the coast from Alona, it was far less developed and by late afternoon it was occupied by Filipino families doing evening barbecues on the beach. The sand beneath the water was much less infested with urchins than Momo,and we waded out into a clear sandy patch where we could play around in the warm water that came only up to our hips. Some of the locals came by to make conversation, and I felt obligated in the growing darkness to lie once more about my marital status.

I haven’t done that since the Middle East, and I have to wonder if I would have done it in the daylight, but the sun was behind the trees and it was getting quite dark.  I felt exposed in the sea, even with another American woman beside me, as a man I didn’t know asked about my age and my husband. I want to believe he was just being friendly. I’ve learned that in many places the standard questions are “Where are you from?, What do you do?, How old are you?, and Are you married?” I want to be a proud single traveler. I want to scream from the mountain tops that I don’t need a man to do this. And yet, from time to time I feel less than safe admitting to my spinsterhood, as though by admitting I’m single it will become an invitation for attention I do not want, or worse be taken as an admission of promiscuity. So until the day women are safe and independent all over the world, I may sometimes have an imaginary husband in the US military to scare away unwanted male attention. Sigh.

We splashed around in the shallow water, trying to take selfies in the dark and watching the lightening pop in the distance until it got so dark we couldn’t see our bags on the beach. Looking back on it, I need not have been worried about the bags on a local beach, but at the time I didn’t know yet how things were, and although there wasn’t too much in the bags (phones and keys were with in the waterproof bags with us, money in the wallet was minimal, important ID was in the hotel,etc) it would have been a bad first day to end with them stolen. Plus we were getting more looks from the men as women and children became scarcer in the water. I still don’t think anyone would have hurt us there, but there’s never a need to take chances, and I wasn’t sure how long that lightening would stay in the distance before the thunderstorms hit. I did NOT want to be on a motorbike in the dark and the rain.

Dumaluan Beach

After getting a monumental sunburn while snorkeling on Tuesday, I figured a rest day would be in order and decided that Wednesday would be a great time to check out the “semi-private” beach at Dumaluan that had been recommended by both the hotel hostess and the taxi driver. Panglao has three types of beaches: public, private, and semi-private. Most of the very public ones are not what anyone would put on a post card, the sand has debris from the jungle and the sea, and the water has things growing in it that show it’s clean and healthy, but do not promote a turquoise tropical beach vibe. I personally find these places worth visiting, but there is also something deeply luxurious about the postcard beach experience.

There are a couple of hoity toity resorts with private beaches, and some of them will let non-guests use the beach for a day fee. Unfortunately, I found zero information on what that fee is, or which resorts do and don’t allow, or if there’s a limit, or anything really because all their websites are geared toward getting people to stay in the resort, not just stop by for the amenities. The Bohol Beach Club is supposed to be right up on the top of that list, and I had been thinking about checking it out, but when the locals told me about Dumaluan instead, I decided that was a better option.

Dumaluan is semi-private, meaning that it’s tended to and cleaned up, and there’s a small fee for use, but anyone can go. It’s attached to the Dumaluan Resort, but not exclusive to guests. The fee to enter the beach area is only 25p (about 0.50 US) and the parking fee for motor bikes is the same. Plus, there are little cabin/picnic areas you can rent out for the day. Ours was a “B” and cost 350p for the day. I only saw the B and C cabins; the B were granted an unobstructed view of the water, while the C were set farther back. I presume the A were possibly somewhere nicer and the D somewhere less desirable? I looked but never found them. The cabin area included bathrooms, showers, some entertainment options like volleyball and a karaoke room, as well as a little grill serving light meals, fruit shakes, and cocktails.

The cabin had one long table between two benches, and was covered by a thatched roof, making sure guests would have plenty of shade. There were also lots of trees around which helped keep the area shaded and cooler. Although the sun on the beach was bright, making the sand and sea pop in white and azure, there was a nice breeze and I felt comfortable in my shady seat. It seemed once again we were the only tourists there. There were people at the restaurant, in the karaoke room, and in a few other cabins, but as far as I could tell they were all Filipinos. The cabin next to ours was having a big family birthday party for one of the kids and they’d arranged to have a whole roast pig delivered in for their picnic! We were generally surrounded by (but not crowded by) happy families and playing children throughout the day.

And dogs. So many dogs. In Thailand, there was a profusion of semi-wild street dogs which (other than on Koh Lipe where an animal shelter works to keep them safe and healthy) they are generally scrawny, sick, diseased, injured, and very shy of humans. It’s sad. When I got to Bohol and saw dogs everywhere I was worried it was going to be a similar situation, but as I got settled in, I found that most of the dogs here were better cared for and while collarless, seemed to have good relationships with the humans. Someone told us that they were really family dogs who just wandered around at will. I guess they’d have to be well trained or the chickens and baby goats that also wander around unattended wouldn’t last long. Either way, however many dogs I saw, I never saw a single leash.

Many times throughout the day, a dog would wander over and hop up on a bench to lay down in the cabin. I don’t want to  judge, some people might like that. I don’t hate dogs, but I am allergic, and I also had no idea if these were trained, well behaved, or just thought they owned the park. There are safety concerns with unknown dogs when no owners are nearby. I tried to shoo them off with great difficulty several times until finally one of the Filipino neighbors noticed our predicament and told me what to say. For all the world it sounded like “sit” to me, perhaps with a less aspirated “t”? And when I said it the dog obeyed at once getting down from the bench and moving on, so it was clearly a well understood command and a well trained dog. Later on, I found a list of Tagalog dog commands, but none of them seemed phonetically similar, and the island dialect Boholano is too small to be well documented or have a Google Translate option, so I’m afraid I can’t accurately relay the “go away dog” command for I was taught that day.

The beautiful sun made the water more attractive, but I didn’t want to risk worsening my burn, so I hid under the cabin and partook of the snack bar, which was decent, but not really on par with the amazing food I had elsewhere on the island. Finally the sun retreated behind some clouds or trees, and the beach was no longer quite the burn threat. By this time the tide was in full retreat and it was amazing to see the huge swaths of land revealed. The beaches around Panglao are all very shallow for a long way out, so when the tide goes out, it really goes. I got up to have a walk around the beach and try to take some nice pictures. The clouds there are basically stunning all day, so that helps.

Kids and families played around in the wet sand, hunting down clams and other critters that had dug down during the tidal retreat. There were places where the sand was a little deeper and the water hadn’t gone out with the rest of the sea, creating miniature ponds replete with tiny fish who were trapped until the next tide returned. I waded around the shallows, but had avoided wearing my swimsuit that day to let the burn work on healing. Instead I contented myself looking at the textures in the sand, the piles left behind by digging clams and the ribbons left by the retreating waves. I found a few places where cool water came from under the sand, including one where it emerged with such pressure it almost seemed to be boiling, but it was ice cold.

There were resort workers out raking the piles of debris to keep the sands clean and white. I played a little game of how far out can you walk before the water hits your knees (quite far), and had some fun taking pictures in the glassy reflections of the tiny pools left behind.

Doljo Beach

The last beach I visited was a quick stop I made between two other stops on Thursday just to see if it was a beach I wanted to return to a different day. Doljo is another small, local, free beach that’s far away from the resorts. By the time I made it there, the tide was out, leaving a fleet of boats stranded on the wet sand, but I could tell it was still a pretty place. There wasn’t much around, a couple of huts that were falling apart and some guys selling fresh coconuts to a family of Chinese tourists. It’s small, and a little out of the way. I gather there is at least one resort over there which gets good reviews, but I would have been happy to go there when the water was higher, or even stayed with the low tide to see the sunset. It was amazingly quiet and private. However, sunset wasn’t an option for that day, since I’d already booked an evening activity, and I never did make it back, opting instead to spend my final day of holiday chasing waterfalls.

Conclusion

I think a person could easily visit 3 beaches a day for a week and not see them all. Choosing a beach on Panglao depends a lot on your goals, but regardless of your plans, I would advise:

  • looking at a tide chart because the water goes far far away at low tide and although it is still fairly shallow at high tide, it is much more beautiful and easier to swim in
  • getting water shoes because only the pay to play beaches are safe for tender bare feet (although the locals might have Hobbit blood because they don’t seem to mind)
  • using more sun protection than you think you need because you will burn. Double up, sun screen and covering clothes. The locals swim in street clothes, only tourists go in only swimsuits, so you’ll actually stand out more in a bikini than you will in a covering, skin-saving shirt.

Don’t forget to go over to my Facebook page to see more beautiful sunny beaches! Why? Because WordPress charges more for photo storage than Facebook, and I’m putting off the day I have to beg for money to supplement this blog. Enjoy!


It’s hard to reminisce about beaches in December with below freezing temperatures outside. I’ve been busy job hunting for my next posting, and while I know the responsible thing is to try to get hired for the spring semester, a tiny beach bum part of my brain can’t help but wish for a fall start and the chance to spend 5 months living on a beach in SE Asia while I wait. It seems like I’ll be ok either way, but no out of country trip this January :/ I’ll have to make do with a winter wonderland weekend in the snow instead. 

Hello Bohol: Introductions & Disclaimers

During the Chuseok holiday this October, I took a 9 day trip to Bohol in the Philippines. It’s taken me a long time to get the rough draft out of my head, and it’s going to take even longer to devote time to polishing the words and photos. I’ve broken up the story into small, and hopefully joyful vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. This post is a little introduction to Bohol, and a little explanation about why this story is being told differently. Yeah, it’s another post with no photos… it’s been that kind of fall. If you’re really craving photos, you can go look at the chrysanthemums I found here in Korea last weekend.


I usually take holidays by going to all the places. I can look at my color coded spreadsheets of past holidays and it’s a little bit non-stop. I think the last time I stayed in one place more than a couple nights on holiday (not counting family visits) was in that resort in Egypt, and even then I did a day flight into Cairo and may have done more if not for the food poisoning of doom. Every other holiday has been a whirlwind of exploration, and I love that. I love seeing all the things. But, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last did a “relaxing” holiday, and considering how I drove myself into the ground in Thailand, I decided Chuseok was going to be a single destination vacation.

Even in the spring when I started to look at plane tickets, the holiday prices were already sky high, and my decision to go to the Philippines was influenced by the fact that they were some of the cheapest flights left. After asking a friend who has lived in Manila decades where to go, I decided to spend my time in Panglao. Panglao is a tiny island that’s off the coast of tiny Bohol.

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Some people may look at the tiny island of Panglao and say, really 9 days? What did you do? Especially when you consider I don’t really DO laying on the beach all day, nor do I have my diving certification (the two main reasons to go there). It turns out that there is a LOT of amazing stuff over there, most especially if you can control your own transportation. I didn’t make a spreadsheet for this holiday either (to be honest, I was a little focused on the US trip, and the dental work). I did make some tentative itineraries based on interesting things and geographic proximity, but I did not have a day to day PLAN. I made fewer itineraries than there were days, so that there would be resting time and I would avoid the kind of burnout that happened in January. I was also meeting a friend there and wanted her to feel like she had some room to suggest things and not be railroaded by color coded schedules.

Researching Bohol ahead of the visit was a little tricky since it’s not a real popular stop on the backpacker routes and the tourists listed the same few “must-do’s” over and over without a whole lot of information on them since it seemed nearly everyone who went joined a tour group or hired a guide to make these tried and true tourism routes. I was largely content with the idea of doing the same things, but on my own time and without an awkward guide trying to make conversation, take silly photos, or rush me on to the next thing (it turned out I couldn’t avoid this altogether, but the few times I was forced into it, it made me grateful for the self touring I did the rest of the time).

The posts in the “Hello Bohol” series are not strictly chronological, but more organized into categories:

First and Last – I thought about calling this one “airports and hotels” but I thought, who’s going to want to read that? It’s the story of getting to Bohol, and a rather special experience on my last morning there.

My Own Two Wheels – After Thailand, I realized that I needed to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around SE Asia. With it’s small size and lack of cities, Panglao seemed like the perfect time to try. These are the stories of learning to ride a motorbike and how it felt.

Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers – Two of the most famous tourism attractions on the larger island of Bohol. I visited the Chocolate Hills, two tarsier parks, and a few other attractions nearby.

Balicasag with the Turtles – I got a spot on a diving boat heading out to the minuscule island of Balicasag, best known as a serious gathering place of giant sea turtles. I didn’t join the divers, but I had excellent snorkel experiences and finally got my own underwater photos!

Beaches – There are so many beaches on Panglao. I didn’t have a chance to visit them all, but I managed to get in quite a variety.

Food & Fancy Restaurants– There is an amazing plethora of gourmet food on Panglao. Everybody has to eat, and vacation is the time to indulge. Vacation calories don’t count, right?

Panglao – things to do and see on Panglao besides beaches and restaurants

Loboc River – a lunch cruise by day and a firefly cruise by night, the Loboc river is another tourism hotspot in Bohol that’s worth the visit.

History & Historical Sites – For anyone who likes history as much as I do, this post includes several old churches, military fortifications, and other historical points of interest, as well as some backstory about the Philippines I didn’t know about before.

Waterfalls – My last full day of the trip I went on a three waterfall adventure quest that took me to muddy back roads and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

What’s going on with me this holiday?

Every time I write, it’s a work of balancing the best story with the actual reality. This is not to say that I make things up, but sometimes I leave things out. Like any good storyteller, I leave out boring details. You don’t want to read about what movie I watched on the airplane or every time I had cup noodles as a snack or how often I brushed my teeth or what book I’m listening to when I fall asleep. These are pedantic details that do not add to the story. Likewise in life, there are small discomforts and dissatisfactions that happen but do not serve to advance the story or to entertain the reader.

Facebook and Instagram have been accused repeatedly of creating false narratives of our lives wherein all our friends look so happy and successful all the time, while we feel like useless failures. Of course, the irony is that everyone experiences the same distortion because we all post our best selves online, right? I mean, who wants to look bad? Well, me, sometimes. I mean, I don’t want to look bad per se, but I don’t want to create a fantasy version of myself that I won’t recognize in 20 years.

So how to decide what bad things to include and which ones to leave out? I have no idea. I’m totally faking it. Mostly, it’s about how much of an impact did that have on me (did I forget it and move on in less than an hour or did it alter the course of the day/week/year?). And the rest is how good of a story does it make? I mean, let’s face it, we love tragedy and schadenfreude so yes suffering makes good stories sometimes.

In many ways, I think of this blog as a journal. I hate diaries and always have, but every therapist ever says that journaling is a very important part of mental health. I do have some blog posts that will never see the light of day because they are just for me. But mostly, I don’t mind sharing, and there’s something about pretending I have an audience that makes me more attentive to the quality and content and frequency of my writing. But times like this I have to remember that it’s not my diary. It’s one thing for me to tell stories of people I’ve met on my journey who will almost assuredly never be identified by this blog, or even to tell stories of people who are identified as long as the story is the kind that makes them happy.

This time it’s harder because something happened on this holiday that is having a profound and lasting effect on me, and it might even be a good story from an external perspective. But it’s not my story alone. A person I care for quite deeply is involved, and I don’t want to hurt or embarrass her by telling this story in a public forum. But there’s no denying that her presence, her actions, and her choices had an impact on the holiday, on me, and on my writing afterward. Re-creating this adventure was an emotional roller-coaster as memories unfolded taking me from happy times to “oh, and then that happened…”. Photos show us smiling and laughing and I cannot help but remember my joy in sharing those moments with someone so close to me, but the gaps between photos speak to tears and hurt and confusion.

At the time of writing this, it seems that this trip spelled the end of our friendship, so this is my compromise. I won’t tell her stories, but I won’t pretend that everything was great. As you read, if there seems to be a gap where the plot jumps irrationally, or where details are less than they might be then those are the scars left by removing each unpleasant yet wholly private instance of conflict.

Once while talking about death, she asked how I would cope with losing her, and I told her that I would be sad, and I would feel grief, but that those would fade and in the end, it would be the good memories we made together that would last and define my feelings. She’s not dead, but it seems that she is lost to me just the same, so I’m hoping that telling these stories will help me process my sadness and cement the good memories that I want to keep forever.

 

 

Malay Peninsula 12: Koh Lipe part 2

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

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


Good Morning Koh Lipe

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

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

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

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

Snorkeling Adventure

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

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

Tarutao National Park

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

Underwater Life

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

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

Three Reefs and a Rock Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset BBQ on the Beach

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

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

To Neverland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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