M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

Down South to the Andaman Sea
February 7, 2010, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , ,

Toes in the breeze

One of the advantages of working for a Catholic school in Thailand is that you get both the Thai holidays and the Catholic ones: Christmas, various saint’s days, etc.  Thailand is already generous with its government holidays, so the combination is great.  Days off at Daruna number around 80, not including the three weeks of summer school which are optional for the foreign teachers that have been here for a year.   Christmas break was about 10 days, enough time for a decent trip.  We’ve both been itching to have a beach holiday, something that so many people come to Thailand for but after 3 months we still haven’t done.  Since Jennifer was offered the job before I was, our funds were limited to her first paycheck and some Christmas money from our thoughtful parents 😉 .  This didn’t stop us…we really wanted to go to the beach.  A 12 hour bus trip from Bangkok took us to the southern peninsula of Thailand along the Andaman Sea on the west coast.  Here in Krabi, a bustling little city on the coast, we caught a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta, with a few thousand residents, is a quieter island according to Thai standards.  Some islands here are absolutely crazy with bars, clubs, discos, and beach parties around every corner.  That didn’t really fit the profile for our lazy and relaxing vacation, which is why we picked this island.  The residual stress of work and travel followed us all the way from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok and all the way down to Krabi, but as soon as we stepped onto the little ferry boat we left our worries back on the dock.  The seas here are impossibly blue, as if they are illuminated from above and below.  We certainly weren’t the only tourists here, in fact we chose the busiest time of year to travel, but it never really felt too crowded.  Koh Lanta is fairly large; it would take a full day to explore its roads on a motorbike, with plenty of little backwaters and secluded coves you could never reach by motorbike.  We stayed 5 nights at a small beach resort in a little thatch bungalow with the simplest of amenities within.  A long strip of beach with about a dozen of these little resorts stretched out and served as little highway for foot traffic.  Each resort had its own unique style and restaurant, each as good as the next.

View from our bungalows on Koh Lanta

The next four days was a hazy blur of blissful laziness.  The water was warm and inviting for swimming, which we did several times every day.  The beaches were peppered with interesting and beautiful shells, which I spent countless hours collecting into a bag.  Sleeping in…every day.  Reading the books that we had been too busy to read back home.  Swinging in the hammock, watching the waves roll gently onto the shore.  Drinking buckets…a Thai creation that involves a small plastic pale, a flask of rum, a bottle of Redbull and a bottle of coke: mixed together it becomes a delicious and deadly beverage.

Occasionally we did actually get out of the resort, and one such day trip was to some caves in the interior of the island.  The caves are protected by caretakers and to see them you’re required to go with a guide, and a good idea too because the network of caves is massive and confusing.  A small group of us climbed up a steep trail for about 30 minutes, entering thick rainforest and encountering a giant flying fox and some monkeys

One of the many cave spiders

high up in the trees.  The entrance to the cave was inconspicuous, but after climbing through the small opening the caverns opened up into huge diagonal rooms and slanted hallways.  Flashlights were our only source of light and mine turned out to be nearly out of batteries, so I found myself nearly falling into deep pits and bumping into walls frequently.  Incredibly hot and humid, the caves also offered some other uncomfortable surprises: huge black spiders with legspans of about 10 inches, disconcertingly large bats hanging and screeching from the ceiling, and some kind of cave reptile that I snapped a close-up picture of.  At one point we all had to crawl on our bellies to squeeze through a narrow passage near the exit.  We all emerged from the other end of the cave’s exit completely covered in dirt and filth and sweat, but with huge grins on our faces.

Climbing into the caves on Koh Lanta

After 5 days we moved on to quieter neighboring island to the north called Koh Jum, although not without a little hitch.  We were told there were 2 ferries per day that left to this island, so we packed our bags, checked out, and took a taxi to the north ferry docks.  Upon arriving we’re informed that no, there’s just one ferry and it left this morning.  We ended up having to hire a long-tail boat to take us there, just the two of us, for 2,000 baht (about $60).  With our limited budget this came as an unfortunate surprise, but we took it in stride and ended up getting a lovely private boat trip.  On Koh Jum we stayed at the Golden Pearl bungalows on a quiet stretch of beach on the west coast.

The pace of life here was even slower than Koh Lanta.  The island, while quite large and close to the mainland, is not very developed save for a small village to the south and about a dozen little bungalow resorts.  A tiny dirt road circumnavigates most of the island, however much of the interior is too heavily forested to explore.  On Koh Jum our days consisted mostly of swimming the still blue waters on our doorstep and putzing aimlessly along the beach.  I found a pink Frisbee on the beach and thus added an athletic component to our lazy days.  Each night the bar down the beach hosted a fire show, where we spent most of our nights drinking and staring in awe at the twirling ropes of flames.

On our last day we hired a long-tail boat with a bunch of Thai tourists and spent the entire morning and afternoon motoring around the various islands of the Andaman Sea.  Koh Phi Phi, a cluster of impossibly vertical islands with the bluest water I’ve ever seen, was about an hour’s ride from Koh Jum.  Here we stopped for some absolutely incredible snorkeling, then moved on to another island for more snorkeling, and then another.  Our last stop was Bamboo Island, a tiny little island park with white sand beaches and still more snorkeling.  Our fellow Thai passengers were a group of co-workers from a city not so far from Kanchanaburi; we never found out what they did exactly, but they were certainly the gayest group of Thai men I’ve encountered yet.  Perhaps the staff of a fashion magazine or interior decorators?  Barely able to speak a word to each other in a common language, we still managed to gesture and smile and had a great time.  They shared all their food with us, the only two farang on the boat, and kept filling our plates with fruit and the best seafood fried rice I’ve ever had.

Panorama of Koh Jam, Golden Pearl Beach

These encounters with genuine Thai people, not after our custom or money, are always so friendly and jovial.  This country’s largest industry is tourism and so much of its economy revolves around taking money from tourists.  Because of this, many people leave feeling a little betrayed by the locals, like the smiles they saw weren’t genuine because the motive was always money.  If you never leave the beaten path, if you don’t try to mix with the locals and never explore beyond the tourist centers, than you haven’t seen Thailand.  Imagine if all you knew of your own country was from the tourist traps that cater to bus after bus of paying sightseers, such as Times Square, Alcatraz, the strip in Las Vegas, or Disney Land.  Thai’s genuinely do like to smile, and the description of Thailand as the “Land of Smiles” is as accurate now as it ever was.  Walking down the street in my hometown here in Thailand, when I take my eyes off my feet and look up I see an ocean of smiling faces and smiling eyes.  Thai people like to have fun, “sanuk”, and you can see it in their twinkling eyes when you look into them.

Eventually our money ran out and work called.  A ferry ride back to Krabi, another 12 hour bus ride north to Bangkok, and then government bus to Kanchanaburi put us in town Sunday afternoon.  Jennifer’s work week started back up on Monday and of course it was harder than ever to transition into work mode after all the beach bumming.  Over the holiday’s one of the teachers, an American named Raymond, pulled a runner and took everything and left, even the TV in his apartment which wasn’t his.  By Friday I had a job, his job, teaching science and social studies to 1’st, 2’nd, and 3’rd graders…in English of course.  Now both Jennifer and I are happily employed teaching elementary school kids and slowly gaining a semblance of financial security (in Thailand).


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