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 🙂

Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!