Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Thailand, Part 8: Crazy-Eyed Kittens, the Green Lagoon, and the Search for a Bubble Machine

Well, we made it! Here it is, the last few days’ worth of the epic trip log. For those of you still reading along, I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I knew back when I started it all those months ago that it was something I really wanted to do. And I know that 20 years down the road, I’ll be able to remember the whole trip like it was yesterday, and really, that’s worth the effort.

We woke up the next morning feeling pretty relaxed and got a slow start, almost missing the 40-ft ferryboat that would take us back to Koh Samui. The boat actually ploughed its way bow-first up to the beach, but there was no dock for boarding. Instead, we had to wade out about 10 meters to meet it. After a brief bit of drama when one of our tickets went missing and I had to stall the pilot as long as I could, we all boarded and set out into the ocean.

The ferry stopped into almost every beach along the way picking up passengers, so we got a chance to see what the Candle Resort’s competition had to offer on other beaches. Really, no comparison, it was clear that we had the best beach south of Ao Tong Nai Pan. I basked in the sun and enjoyed the spray of the ocean water as we carved through some of the choppiest water we saw all trip.

We landed at Maenam Beach on the north coast of Koh Samui, jumping into the water and carrying our packs over our heads like a troop of conquistadores landing at Hispaniola. Rather than grabbing the first songthaew out of town, we relaxed by the beach (which was narrow and not especially attractive), enjoying a cold drink and contemplating our next move.

So, a little bit about Koh Samui. Samui is Thailand third largest island and some have dubbed it “the world’s biggest coconut plantation” (and yes, there were lots of coconut trees, true to form). Since the 1970’s, however, it’s gotten another reputation, for being a world-class backpacking destination for travelers wanting to get a bit of sand between their toes on a budget.



But since then, Samui’s personality has steadily been changing. As its reputation grows, so do the crowds of beach partiers, and the beachside resorts have been growing right along with them, keeping pace. It’s a very different place from Pha Ngan. A few years from now, it’ll be difficult to tell the place apart from its counterpart destinations in the Caribbean. But the really big hotels still haven’t made it there yet…Chaweng Beach is the hotspot and is well known for its party lifestyle and for its increasingly opulent resorts.

After some discussion, we decided that Lamai Beach was where we wanted to go. We wanted to party at Chaweng, but in the end, we wanted the place with the better beach for the last three days in the area. This was swayed largely by the fact that a young Irish couple, who had just spent a month in the area, recommended Ao Tong Nai Pan to us – and it was amazing. They were equally complimentary of Lamai.

We wandered up through the main strip through town and began to regret passing on the songthaew straight off the boat. There were none to be seen anywhere. We were starting to contemplate throwing ourselves onto the back of the next pickup truck to pass by at a reasonably slow speed when we finally got a songthaew to stop.



The ride across the island was relatively uneventful. However, for the first time on the trip, we were sharing a songthaew with other people. See, in most parts of Thailand, the songthaews are more like mini buses than true taxis – but they look like pick-up trucks with a tall cab over the truck bed (to provide head room) and a wide open door at the back. So they follow a regular circuit, taking people on and letting people off along the way. I thought it was really funny watching the tourists and comparing them to the locals. The tourists were all sliding around and looking uncomfortable and gripping onto the metal bar overhead for dear life. Meanwhile, the locals were sitting cross-legged and reading a newspaper, just like they would on a bus back home.



We got off on the edge of Lamai, and it turned out to be a bit further away from the resorts than we had initially thought. Before too long though, we found the beach, made another long hot trek to find a guesthouse, and then settled on a beautiful little spot called the Utopia Resort. It’s kind of a grandiose name for a simple place, but it was easily the nicest place we stayed the whole trip, with cabins lining a lush tropical garden with winding paths in between and a nice open-air restaurant facing the beach. It was also easily the best room we had, too (TV? bar fridge?! Sheer luxury).



The rest of our day was pretty relaxed. After settling in, we wandered into Lamai village and spent some time choosing and setting up our trek for the next day (more on that later) and doing some light shopping. Then we made a bee-line for the beach. The water was just as bathtub-warm as on Pha Ngan, with the added bonus of some small coral reefs that, believe it or not, came right up to the edge of the water. So I finally put the goggles I’d lugged with me halfway around the world to good use!



It was my first experience swimming around coral. And even though it was dark and in rough shape, I swore I’d always remember it. Beats the pants off snorkeling off the east coast of Canada.

We dried off and wandered into town for some dinner. We settled on the aptly (ironically?) named Will Wait restaurant. Mike and Rachel ordered some rice and some Thai food (including an absolutely delicious chicken with cashews dish) and I ordered two whole ocean crabs. And as per the Thai etiquette (or lack thereof, when it comes to serving), they got served, while I waited. And they finished off their meals, while I waited. And waited, and waited some more.

Finally I got served – and I feel it should be noted that Thais aren’t real big crab eaters, they usually only put it on the menu for the tourists – and they were the smallest, toughest crabs I’ve ever eaten and there wasn’t a lobster-cracker in sight. So there I was, slamming these tiny little crab legs against the table while Mike and Rachel watched on, with crab meat pasted to my fingers and face. And we were the only people in the place, so the waiters were looking at us, probably thinking something like “dude, why’s he taking so long?” In the end, I had to toss half of it because I just couldn’t get any meat out of ‘em. That, and it was 10 o’clock at night.

Meanwhile, while I was eating, we were swarmed by a group of kittens. They were very cute. But one in particular broke my heart, a crazy-eyed kitten with his two eyes pointing in opposite directions, neither of which were facing forward. In a country that doesn’t place a lot of importance on animals, especially cats, I couldn’t help but realize that this poor guy was a gonner. There was almost no way that he would survive to maturity. I did my best to scratch him under the chin and give him a little bit of joy in his undoubtedly short life. It was hard.

We wandered into the village in search of some night life, but couldn’t find much that was worth bothering with. We eventually made our way to the beach, where we found a place called the “Black Boy Bar” that catered mostly to couples looking for an ocean view and a place to drink (it was unfortunate that it was so close to a stagnant-smelling lagoon that kind of spoiled the mood). We listened to some Bob Marley while lounging on some Thai triangular pillows on some reed mats, sipping cocktails and eating peanuts. We watched heat lightning arch across the sky, listened to the waves roll in, and eventually called it a night.

The next morning, we woke early (for some reason, I couldn’t sleep that night) and we caught some complimentary breakfast at the beachside restaurant before the van picked us up to take us on our 3rd and final trek, to Angthong National Marine Park. We went with Blue Star, and if you’re ever in the area, I’d highly recommend them.

Angthong (translated as “golden basin”) is one of Thailand’s most amazing places to visit. The 40 virtually uninhabited islands are breathtaking, formed from the submerged peaks of a flooded range of limestone mountains. In the past, Angthong has been the preserve of the Royal Thai Navy and was off-limits until 1980, when it was declared a National Marine Park. This secretive past gave rise to the book “The Beach” by Alex Garland (and later, the movie, with Leonardo DiCaprio), although I can honestly say that I never saw any Lord of the Flies-like activity going on there – plenty of tourists, though. It was pretty much unanimous that we wanted to check it out, a must-not-miss on a list that already included some of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in real life. We weren’t disappointed.

We arrived at the docks at Naton, the main port of Koh Samui, where we were ushered aboard a fairly large two-deck tour boat. I was stunned by paparazzi-style camera flashes as we stumbled across the gangway. Before too long, the boat pulled out of port and we had a leisurely hour-and-a-half cruise to the islands, munching on croissants and watermelon while our very-German tour guide laid down the ground rules of what we’d be doing for the day.



When we arrived at our first stop, we loaded into a few longtail boats and crossed from the tour boat to the beach of Angthong’s most famous island, Ko Mae Ko. After a short climb across the cliffs and through limestone tunnels, we arrived at the stunning Green Lagoon, formed eons ago when a cave system collapsed and filled with sea water. We looked, but we couldn’t find Brooke Shields anywhere.



After soaking it all in, we made our way back to the beach and had a swim under limestone overhangs while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive with the sea kayaks. Yes, sea kayaks.



If you’ve never gone sea kayaking, go. Go your first opportunity. So much fun.



We pushed away from the beach and toured around the island, exploring the various overhangs, tunnels, and rock formations along the coast. Words can’t describe it. It was amazing.



Eventually, we made our way back to the rendezvous with the tour boat and set into an awful lunch. Really, honestly, unbelievably awful. We’re talking food that was pre-cooked at 5 am that was poured into troughs from clear plastic garbage bags. But at that point, I was hungry enough that I didn’t care. At the same time, I acknowledged the fact that I wasn’t there for the food.

After lunch, we chose a mask and snorkel and spent the next hour enjoying coral reefs. The colours, the fish, the warm water...it was incredible. It made the coral reefs at Lamai seem like your average garden-variety rocks. I quickly replaced my "to-always-be-remembered" memories of the coral from the day before and didn't look back.



After drying off, we loaded back onto the kayaks and set on a second, even more spectacular tour. We crossed through a 20-meter-long tunnel into a completely secluded lagoon, where we stayed for a few minutes to soak in the view. The sea bed of the lagoon was completely encrusted in coral. I’m not sure what the rock was, but it looked volcanic. We made our way underneath another few overhangs and through another few limestone tunnels. This is another point where words don’t do it justice. Honestly, I’d go back to Thailand for Angthong alone.



We made our way back to the boat and made the journey back to Koh Samui feeling like we got every last cent of our money’s worth. As we got off the boat, we discovered that Blue Star has an arrangement with a local entrepreneur, who put all of our pictures from that morning on souvenir plates (remember the paparazzi?). Our photos looked sleep-deprived and awful. We passed on purchasing them.

After getting dropped off at our resort, we made our way into town to buy a couple of bottles of booze and spent the early evening drinking in our cabin. We checked out a seafood restaurant and I had shark for the first time (which was surprisingly good), all the time joking along the lines of “who’s the killah now, huh? Take that! Predator, my ASS!”

At this point, we were determined to find a club and do it up hard. We heard rumors that one of the clubs was having a “bubble disco” night that night, a bar called the Bauhaus Club. Apparently it’s a big trend in Thailand for clubs to start up these bubble machines that spin up a dance floor full of waist-high suds. Which sounded AMAZING.

Unfortunately, we arrived only to find that somehow, we had the wrong night. But we stayed, since they had a promotion where the drinks were half price and if you filled up a card (like a Subway card), you’d get a free t-shirt. Despite our party-hardy attitude that night, we only scored one free shirt. Mike and Rachel were nice enough to agree that I should have it. I wear it regularly. We partied until the wee hours of the morning and stumbled back to the resort.



The next day was a repeat of our day on Ao Tong Nai Pan – we spent it on the beach, reading, swimming, sunbathing, and trying to absorb as much of the scenery as we could. Unfortunately, for me, this was my last day in Thailand, so I had the bittersweet feeling that, as much fun as it was, I would be on a plane heading back home early next morning.

That evening, we went back to Will Wait restaurant (because I really wanted to get an order of the chicken with cashews all to myself). Since I ordered Thai food, we didn’t wait even close to as long as the night before. We watched an awful movie and counted down the minutes until our flight back to Bangkok. Our resort arranged our trip back to the Samui airport for a fee, and we were delivered in style with plenty of time to catch our flight. The flight was packed and uneventful.

Once we were back in Bangkok, we met up with Mikey at Rachel and Mikey’s apartment and we went out for one final night out on the town (for me, anyway). I have to admit, I was dreading the 23-hour flight at 6 am the next day, and I wasn’t in the most animated of moods. We headed out to a hotel lounge where there was some live music and paid an extraordinary amount for a round of drinks (expensive even by Canadian standards….they milk you at the hotels). After it closed down, we made our way to an after-hours restaurant that Mikey knew about where we had another round – but other than watching the drunken farang trying to impress their younger, less-drunk Thai companions, there wasn’t a lot going on.

We made our way back to the apartment and I said my goodbyes to Mike, Mikey, and Rachel, grabbed my pack and caught a cab to the airport. After some confusion (I got dropped off at the wrong terminal), I found my airline and cruised around the duty-free shops looking like a zombie. I think the pic says it all.



Crusty! The flight home was ridiculous, uncomfortable (even though I had an exit row, with extra leg room – ask for it next time you’re on a long flight!! I didn’t know on my way there), and involved a dicey situation at O’Hare in Chicago that almost made me miss my connecting flight …but I won’t go into that. For me, my Thailand adventure ended when I got on the plane in Bangkok.

So there you have it, the whole sordid tale. Thanks for reading along! Go to Thailand as soon as you can! You won’t regret it. And now, MPFH goes back to its regularly-scheduled programming.

(Special thanks again to Mike, I borrowed some of his pics for this post as my camera batteries died about halfway through our trip to Angthong – you’ve gotta love the timing! And be sure to check out Rachel's blog, with more on her continuing adventures in Thailand.)

2 Comments:

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous sagman said...

Hey Andrew,

Great pictures. I really like the colours on the sea kayaks. As you have said in your blog, it sounds like it was a life altering journey. So what's next in the life of AL?

 
At 11:05 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Cheers Bill, I'm gonna post a "state of the union" report soon. Gotta say though, other than Thailand, it's been a slow summer. And the plans for the next trip aren't really there yet. I'd like to go to Mexico (for the beach) and Peru (for the Andes) but these are all kinda loose so far.

 

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