Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

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Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

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It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

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The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

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The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

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The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

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While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

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I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

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I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

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Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

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Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

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Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

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Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

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


Hinagdanan Cave

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

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

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

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

Songculan Lake

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

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

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

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nova Shell Museum

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

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

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

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

Fire Rainbow

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

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

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

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

Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

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


Adventure Hangover

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

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

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

Spirit Houses

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

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

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

Night Market

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

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

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

Street Food

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

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

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OK That’s Creepy

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

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

Language Barrier

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

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

Firefly Boat

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

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

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

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Local Knowledge

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

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

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

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

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

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Magic on the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Good Things Happen

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

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

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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