Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kho Phangan

The trip to Koh Phangan was a long one. The train took 12 hours, but smart us, we got the overnight one. We didn't get the AC compartment, but it cooled down amazingly at night. I have to say, I enjoy the gentle rocking of a train as I sleep. There's something comforting about it. We arrived at the Suratthani train station in the early morning darkness and were immediately greeted by bus operators offering us rides to the ferry terminal. We searched for and found the company that our combo train-bus-ferry tickets were for, and then waited until the bus decided it was time to pick everyone up. An hour later we found ourselves trundling through the city on a rickety old bus filled with other white, college-student type tourists, on our way to the ferry docks. We made one stop where we had to switch buses, but soon enough we all found ourselves waiting patiently at the dock, sitting on and amongst piles of luggage, looking out to the sea in the hopes that we might spot the ferry boat coming to pick us up. We weren't there but 10 minutes when dolphins were spotted out in the water, very close to the dock. They turned out to be pretty good entertainment as we waited. They were obviously feeding, seeing as we could actually see the silver fish speeding ahead of them, leaping out of the water in their desperate bid to escape. I suspect the dolphins enjoyed it when the fish jumped because they got to come swooping behind, skimming the water as they snapped them up, and then finishing with a showy acrobatic roll. About the time that everyone was getting bored with the dolphin show the ferry showed up. Luggage was stacked on the deck, people claimed their seats, and within four hours we had arrived. Luggage was now tossed back onto the docks and claimed by their respective owners, and the battle for reasonably priced transportation ensued. I'm 99% sure that all the songthaew drivers there were in some sort of taxi gang where they had all agreed on a fixed price, because everyone - every last one of them - was charging a flat 100 baht per person to go to Haad Rin, which was the beach we needed to get to in order to go to Haad Tien, which was the beach we wanted to stay at. Getting around the island isn't exactly easy... But we refused to pay 100 each and kept asking different drivers for a discount. Finally someone agreed to take us for 200 total, but asked us not to tell the 7 other people in the truck that we were being charged less. I was happy to keep my mouth shut. The drive to Haad Rin gave us a little taste of how beautiful the island is as we passed over some large hills which offered fabulous views of the crystalline water. I haven't been to too many beaches around the world, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the beaches of the Thai islands have got to be on the list of "Most Beautiful Beaches. Ever." Add the lively green foliage that inhabits all the spaces between buildings and roads and it becomes almost magical. It will be a pity when one day most of the jungle is gone and replaced with big resorts and condos and whatnot. Ah well. Once we got off the songthaew we were, once again, accosted by taxis. These were water taxis though. And they were much harder to haggle with than the drivers back at the dock. Unfortunately, Haad Tien is basically only accessible by boat, so that left us with no other options. We cajoled and rationalized and begged but they would not budge. 200 baht per person. 200 per person! That's $6 a person! In Thailand, that feels like a huge rip off. But they can get away with it because there are only a few water taxis and a lot of desperate tourists. We eventually gave in. At least the ride was fun! Well, I thought it was fun. Femke didn't like it. The ocean was rather choppy that day and as our precariously balanced longboat bounced off one wave and crashed into the peak of the next, we were flung into the air, our butts leaving the seat momentarily, again and again. It was a bit spine-jarring, but lots of fun I thought. And the views of the island from our vantage point on the water were all that much more breathtaking. Picture perfect, like a tropical fairy tale. As we passed around the jutting rocks that separated Haad Rin from its neighboring beach the boat driver sprung on us the news that he would only be landing at one beach: Haad Tien, where we had asked to go, or Haad Yuan, where two of the other tourists on board had asked to go. He said it was too choppy to land at both beaches. I wanted to complain about him charging us 200 each and then not taking us where we wanted, but instead I told him that Haad Yuan was fine after consulting with Chuck and Femke. The only reason we agreed on Haad Yuan was because apparently there was a footpath between it and Haad Tien. So! He drove his boat full force onto the beach, coming to a screeching halt in the process. We got out, got our stuff, and followed the kind gentleman who was also going to Haad Tien, along the footpath. I learned something on that walk. Something about myself. I learned that there is no way I am ever going to go hiking or camping with a huge backpack strapped to my back. I think I nearly died on that short walk. It wasn't even a hard or long trail. It would have been fine without my bag, but my god. With my backpack on I was panting and sweating and burning as I hauled myself up the stone steps, across the gently sloping peak of the trail, and back down the other side onto Haad Tien. And as my eyes swept the secluded beach I found myself disappointed. It wasn't as nice as the one we had just come from... And the hotel/bungalows we had been wanting to stay at were full, except for one expensive room. Chuck and Fem checked out the other two bungalows, but had no luck. Looked like we were going back along the trail of death to Haad Yuan. We took it slower the second time around though, so it wasn't nearly as bad. There were a few bungalows along the way that we popped into, but we wanted to check out what was available on the beach before making up our minds, so we continued past them back onto the white sands of Haad Yuan. A place called Big Blue had one room available. We were discussing whether the price was reasonable (it was 400 baht a night - $12 a night, and we were considering how reasonable that was - hah!) when another couple came up looking for a room. That made the decision easy. Big Blue it was. I felt kinda bad as they walked away, shoulders slightly hunched and looking dejected. My guilt passed quickly though. Our room consisted of a small, freestanding bungalow complete with two beds and a shower. No hot water, but it was pretty hot anyways so it wouldn't be a problem. No TV or AC or anything fancy like that. Just a wooden, shanty, cute little bungalow set amid the manicured greenery maintained by the owners. So! First things first. Time for a swim. We quickly changed and made our way back to the beach. The water, although somewhat rough, was amazing. It was warm enough that I hardly flinched when I sank in all the way up to my shoulders. Not cold at all. We did some body surfing and avoided the undercurrents and had a good ole time. The rest of the day was restful. We ate at the open-air restaurant that was run by our Big Blue bungalows, and I found a nice thick book for me to read on their community bookshelf: the Dark Materials Trilogy. I must have been pretty exhausted though, because at around 6:00 PM I managed to fall asleep in our hot, hot room, waking intermittently throughout the night to the strange new sounds of the jungle around us. Chuck and I were both woken up at one point by what sounded like a dog's squeaky toy. Squeak-eeee, squeak-eeee. Of course, we later found out it was just a Tokay Gecko. Those suckers are pretty big and will leave little steamy piles of poo on your bed while you're away, if you're lucky. We were faced with the poo a couple times during our stay... Stupid big geckos... Pooing on our sheets... Pft. Here's what they sound like, it's bizarre: Tokay Gecko's

I managed to stay in bed until 8:00 AM, giving me a good 14 hours of fitful sleep. Chuck and Fem had been awake for a while by the time I finally got up, but waited for me for breakfast. After filling our bellies Chuck got the internet itch and ran around to the various bungalows on the beach, trying to figure out the best way to get our fix. Let me tell you, internet on the islands is not cheap. I think it's all satellite internet. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't even any cable internet on the island. The cheapest he could find was 2 baht a minute, or $0.06 a minute, or almost $4 an hour. Big Blue, the bungalow we were at, was offering this price, so we just paid up and used their internet. The day consisted of smoothies, reading, blogging, ogling the beach, swimming, laying for a bit in the sun, etc. Basically enjoying the sort of lazy vacation one has at the beach. In the evenings, Big Blue would show two movies at the restaurant. The first one tended to be goofy and funny while the second was a bit more serious. Watching these movies became our ritual for the next 3 weeks.

Femke ended up leaving us on the 21st. She was meeting up with a friend on the north end of the island, and our Haad Yuan beach wasn't quite the atmosphere she was looking for anyways. We ended up switching rooms after she left, to a bungalow that was a bit further back, but in a somewhat secluded location up the slope of the jungled hill that encased the beach. It was much cooler in that bungalow, so we were happy. They have a nice plot of land there at Big Blue, and instead of cutting down all the natural trees they've just manicured them to fit nicely into their bungalow set-up. They've got a few papaya plants, jackfruit, and coconut palms around the property. I'd never seen a jackfruit tree before, so I was a little bit fascinated with how the fruit grew from the trunk rather than the branches. All this natural foliage attracted the local butterflies, which reminded me of my Mom's yard back at home. She also has tons of butterflies flocking to her natural garden. The butterflies on the island were much more varied than I had ever seen, though. I think we must have spotted at least 10 different kinds during our stay. They seemed to like to flutter across our path as we walked to and from our bungalow, teasing us with a splash of color and making us stop to watch. Ok, well maybe it was usually just me who stopped and watched. They just were so pretty!

The days blurred together. Every morning we would get up (usually around 8:00 AM or so), throw on something simple and head down to the restaurant with our laptops and my book. We would check out what the evening movies were and order a fruit shake or some tea. There was usually a daily internet check, and if we were lucky the staff would forget to change the wifi password for a while after we were finished and we could sneak a little extra internet time. We would read, I blogged a lot, food was ordered more often than my butt appreciated, and we frequently found ourselves distracted by the green and blue crystal water churning against the beige colored sand not 50 feet away. We took our daily swims, and as the weeks passed the ocean got calmer and calmer, some days lying completely still all day long. I ended up developing a taste for coconuts and would order one every afternoon. First I drank the clear juice, then I had the bungalow staff crack it open and I would eat the yummy white meat. That was good stuff. In the evenings we would watch the movies on the big white projection screen and enjoy dinner and perhaps a drink. It really was a version of paradise. Not much happened while we were there. We just were.

A few things stick out in my mind though. Such as one day when the water was a bit rough. I swam off to the left a ways, where the sand - unknown to me - sloped steeply downward and I suddenly couldn't touch. Deciding that swimming towards shore to get my footing was a good idea, I started doggy paddling my way in. After a minute I realized I wasn't actually getting anywhere, so I doubled my efforts. And still, I got nowhere. After a few minutes of straining against the currents I started to panic mildly, my arms getting tired and breathing harder. I shouted to Chuck and Fem, getting their attention in case I decided I really needed help. Remembering those warnings on the beach signs back at home, where they say to swim parallel to the shore for whatever reason, I decided to give it a go. That finally worked and I made my way back to dry land, relating my story to Chuck along the way with wide eyes.

Another day, Chuck went on his own (I was still asleep) down to the beach around sunrise, leaving his shoes at the "shoe spot" by the restaurant so he didn't have to traipse through the sand with them on. After his stroll he came back to find his shoes had disappeared. Once awake, I helped him search. We looked all around the restaurant, we asked if they had a lost-and-found of some sort, we kept our eyes open all day in the hopes that they would magically reappear. Chuck was kinda sad, just because he'd had those flip-flops for over ten years, and shoes become nostalgic after that long. But still, nothing. He was now flip-flop-less. The next day, after our afternoon swim, we were making our way back to our bungalow when Chuck stops with a surprised look on his face, points at one of the bungalow staff disappearing behind a "Staff Only" sign and proclaims "He's wearing my shoes!" Before I really had a chance to respond he was off and after the guy, right through the "Staff Only" gate and around the corner. I caught up to him as he shouted "Kap!" at the fellow, who was now a good 30 feet ahead of him. Luckily the guy stopped and we all met each other halfway, where this awkward pointing and motioning dance occurred as Chuck tried to tell him the shoes were his. The guy looked faintly bewildered as he shrugged the shoes off and handed them to Chuck. "Kop kun kap," Chuck told him as he gathered them up and we headed back to the main path. I was, quite frankly, incredulous. I couldn't believe we had actually gotten his shoes back. I had heard a few stories of people having their shoes stolen on the islands, and they would never end up getting them back. Instead, they just took other people's shoes! Spread the love and all that. But Chuck actually got his back! Craziness.

I remember taking a swim every day, most of the time being sure to put on sunscreen before hand. Luckily, we never got sunburned, even when we neglected the whole sunscreen thing. When the water was rough we did some body surfing. Man, it's pretty awesome when you catch a nice wave and can feel it lift you up and tear you towards the beach. It's always great when you're knees scrape the sand because you've managed to ride the wave almost all the way to the shore. The only problem with a good ride is that it tends to want to pull your bathing suit off in the process. I always had to be sure to check that everything was in place and covered before popping back up out of the water. I tried to catch some waves on my back too. I think I managed to get one decent ride, but it's much harder doing it that way. Chuck and I even tried a tandem surf where we held hands. I guess it worked a little bit once we actually managed to catch a wave. And when the water was calm I whipped out the goggles we bought in Croatia and poked my head around the rocks that encased the beach. There was a decent bit of life going on there - tons of crabs. They were an opalescent dark green and mostly 2 to 3 inches long, although there were some bigger ones. They liked to cling to the rocks above water. Meanwhile, down below there were various fish, a strange black, spongy looking tube, sea urchins, anemones, and I even found a starfish. He felt funny when he used his tiny "feet" to walk across my palm. Another day we chased a hermit crab through the water for a bit. He was so fast, we never caught him. There was also a puffed up pufferfish that washed up on shore one day, that funny little pufferfish smile plastered on his face. Chuck and I stood around poking and staring at the dead fish for almost 10 minutes. I think there were a number of beach goers that thought we were strange because of this, but come on! How often do you see a puffed pufferfish? Investigation was warranted.

One day we had an unexpected visitor at the bungalow. He was big and black. With an orange and yellow beak. And white tail feathers. Can you guess what it was?? Yes, that's right, it was a Rhinoceros Hornbill! At first he positioned himself up high in the branches of a palm tree where it has hard to get a nice view of him. People were craning their necks upward in order to check him out. He must have decided that everyone seemed alright, because he swooped down to the basketball hoop that sits right in front of the restaurant and stared at us. He found something tasty in the hoop that he picked at for a bit, then he once again spread his big wings and flew off to a far away palm. He was really beautiful in person, as a wild (but obviously used to humans) animal. And there was something impressive about seeing such a large bird take off and fly away, up into the tree tops. I mean, that's a lot more body to have to haul around than a hummingbird has. And he had a prehistoric look about him with that bulbous crest sticking out of his forehead that was pretty cool. Anyways, I was thoroughly delighted by his visit.

He wasn't the only bird in town though. The Big Blue bungalow had a happy little Green-naped Lorikeet who liked to talk to everyone. Every day, at 10:00 or 11:00 AM, the bird was let out of his cage to roam free for the day. One of his favorite things to do when the door opened was to fly a big circle around the back of the restaurant, down and across the beach and back to the restaurant to land on the counter next to his favorite human friend, who was the manager of the place. Then the bird would go on chirping and squawking for the rest of the day as he flew to people's tables for a chat, or maybe out to the hammock strung between the trees out front, or down by the sand to play with any children that might be around. He had a thing for kids. Whenever a new kid would show up with his parents, looking for a room or maybe just having lunch, he would land on their table, or on the railing lining the restaurant and softly chirp at them, twisting his head back and forth as he got a good look. I saw him follow a little girl to the bathroom once. Some kids were scared by his curiosity while others picked him up as freely and easily as if they had been friends forever. He liked to be tickled too, which was really cute to watch. The only person who did this to him was his lady friend, the manager. She would flip him onto his back and basically tickle his belly, gently pinch and shake his beak, or spin him around in circles on his back. He would cackle and laugh at all this and appeared to have a grand old time. Here's a video. But his all time favorite thing was bath time. His human lady friend would, every day, turn on a sprinkler set in a short palm tree, it's head coming up just among its lowest branches, and he would be so happy. He sang as he clawed his way up and down the palm leaves, soaking wet and fluffing his feathers. He sounded so happy during bath time! Singing away and wobbling trough the branches. Here he is at bath time. He was a really cute bird.

We got to enjoy the island for three weeks. We would have stayed longer, but our Thai visas were going to be expiring within a week, and we would have to leave Thailand if we wanted to get new ones. So we bought a combo ticket back to Bangkok and sadly checked out on the 10th of March. We were not looking forward to another 21 hour trip, but there wasn't much else in the way of choices. We had to wait a while on Haad Yuan for a water taxi to decide that our money was worth a trip to the next beach. Chuck and I watched a huge, huge hornet digging a tunnel in the sand while we waited. I might have been nervous about having something so deadly looking flying around so close to us, but he (or she) was completely engrossed in his (or her) digging and couldn't care less about us it seemed. Eventually we were waved onto one of those longboats and chugged around to Haad Rin where we would meet a pre-arranged taxi to take us to the ferry. While waiting in Haad Rin we decided to get something to commemorate the birth of Chuck's newest niece back in the States. A Thai newspaper and a vibrating panda toy named Shakey were our choices. We're gonna keep Shakey with us so he can experience the rest of our travels and report back to little Jenna when we get back to the States and can give it to her. Before we knew it we were back on a ferry, motoring towards mainland Thailand, back to the “real world.”