Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

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Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

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


Adventure Hangover

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

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

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

Spirit Houses

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

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

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

Night Market

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

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

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

Street Food

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

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

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OK That’s Creepy

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

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

Language Barrier

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

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

Firefly Boat

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

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

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

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Local Knowledge

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

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

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

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

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

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Magic on the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Good Things Happen

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunrise Beach & The Fine Print

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

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

On the other side of the island!


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

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

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

Farewell Koh Lipe

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

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

The Bus That Wasn’t

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

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

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

Towlephants

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

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


Finding Birth Control Abroad

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

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

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

Pharmacies Without Prescriptions?

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

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

The Night Market

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


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