Thursday, February 23, 2006

Vacation Land

Southern Thailand is the vacation spot. It hardly feels Thai at all in comparison to the North. People were worried tourists would stay away because of last year's tsunami but they are here. Oh, are they here - sunbathing and swimming, sucking alcohol through straws stuck in buckets of coke and rum, watching fire dancers on the beach and dancing all night at full moon, half moon, and black moon parties (Any excuse, right? There are even 'no moon' parties). Southern Thailand is nothing if not a hedonist's dream.

We are moving south, to more remote islands and beaches... less tourists, more nature. Traveling the Andaman Coast, we are voyaging on water that a year ago sucked itself up into a giant wave killing thousands... it's hard not to look at the crystalline water and the seafoam stirred up by boats and not think of all the lives lost, the bodies the ocean claimed. In most respects, you can hardly tell such devastation happened here. Things have been cleaned up. If we hadn't been to Koh Phi Phi before, we would not have known that the low-lying palm trees have all been swept clean from the sand and that the stretch of beach between its mountains was once full of bungalows and hotels that now cease to exist. Now there are new trees planted, but not enough to replace the dense coconut grove that's now gone. And there are a few makeshift buildings and huts for villagers, but everything looks temporary and quickly constructed.

We are now on Koh Lanta, an island at the edge of the 'tourist zone'... there are much fewer people here and the vibe is more relaxed. At the southern end of Koh Lanta, there are long stretches of beach nestled in a series of beautiful bays that have, to date, been spared over development. Most of southern Lanta is unspoiled - the paved road becomes dirt here and any place that still has a main road of dirt is a good place in my book. The road is not lined with hotels and shops and restaurants, ugly concrete constructions with corrugated tin roofs and a haphazard placement of signage (Koh Samui)... it's not packed with tourists and touts (Koh Phi Phi).

Sadly, Koh Lanta will probably change to be like the others, it's only a matter of time... For now, there is plenty of woodland and jungle and clear water that's sometimes the color of emeralds, and others the color of sapphires... there are plenty of places where you'll find yourself alone on a beach too beautiful to remain so secluded in developers' eyes.

There's a national marine park at the southern tip of the island, which includes several islands far off from the shore - we traveled to one of them, Koh Rok, and by speedboat, it took one hour. There we found amazing coral reefs with all sorts of colorful fish, giant clams, moray eels... snorkeling here was, aside from Bali and Lombok, the best ever. On shore, huge monitor lizards live in the forest.

Tomorrow we head farther south. We will leave Thailand for several minutes and then re-enter (not for fun, our visas run out). From Satun, we'll head out to the Koh Tarutao National Marine Park... Reality TV buffs might recognize the name; Survivor Thailand was filmed here. In the past, Tarutao was used as a prison island, chosen for an inhospitable environment of malarial mosquitoes, crocodiles, and predatory sharks. As part of the park, Koh Tarutao is totally unspoiled and I hope to see the langurs, sea otters, fishing cats, and tree pythons (OK, maybe not them). Another boat ride will take us to Koh Lipe... perhaps we'll learn to scuba dive...

From Tarutao, we'll head back north to the islands off Trang and then make our way further north towards Bangkok for (drum roll please) our flight home. We have a few ideas in mind... side steps from our beach vacation... we'll see how it goes. I have a feeling you won't hear from me for a while. We are heading to remote places... but you never know where we'll end up! Destinations are all TBD.

Tonsai Dreamin'

On Tonsai Beach, the locals spend their time following their dreams. One man explores uninhabited islands cataloging rare species of tropical birds and monkeys. Another climbs Krabi's immense and vertical rock walls, without ropes or harness, despite the fact that he's an amputee (right arm). A young boy is constructing a giant butterfly collection to, one day, be entered in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest of its kind. You may be thinking, 'what an amazing bunch of people', and they are... in their dreams... for the people here spend most of their day sleeping. And since I am here I'm doing as the locals do: sleeping, daydreaming, vegging out.

I watch the passing clouds and see rare and unknown animals: rabbits with elephant trunks and serpents with riders who sit upon their camel-like humps. I see faces of old women and wise men - even monsters - in the shadows on the rock walls surrounding the beach. I see kayakers approaching and imagine them to be pirates so brave and bold they come to plunder in broad daylight. Bikini-clad women are mermaids from the sea, given legs upon land by the grace of the shadow-crones in the limestone cliffs. The enormous spiders in the forest are spirits of shipwrecked sailors. And the sailboats in the bay are all mine, each and every one of them, waiting to sail me around the Indian Ocean in search of a secret island known to the sea creatures as heaven. Ah, if only it were all real. Sometimes a good imagination can be devastating. I'm a daydreamer here and what is the beach if not the perfect place to entertain fantasies?

The "real" Tonsai, in comparison to the surrounding tourist hot spots like Ao Nang and Railay Beach, is a lost tropical paradise. I say 'lost' because it is more like a pirate ship than a luxury liner; it's more backpack than suitcase; it's hand painted signs versus glossy brochures; it's fisherman pants instead of 20-pocket khakis. There are no high rise buildings or asphalt roadways... no souvenir shops strung together like the shell necklaces they sell... no tourists promenading in newly acquired vacation attire. It is only accessible by boat. The beach is not superb - in fact at low tide the water retreats so far from the shore there is nothing left in the bay but mucky rocks. At high tide it's much more scenic, but still too shallow and rocky for swimming. And here in lies Tonsai's greatest asset: a shitty beach (when compared to others). I don't think it's shitty myself, it's just not 'ideal' and most tourists head for the ideal and consequently spoil it. Not on Tonsai.

It's a favorite of rock climbers, but you don't have to be Spiderman to enjoy this place. Scuba and kayaking and snorkeling trips can fill days. A quick trip by longtail boat takes you to unpopulated islands - limestone outcroppings that jut out of the sea and appear to 'drip' rock... stalagtites cling to vertical walls and resemble a dripping candle that has hardened into something bizarre and beautiful.

At night, bonfires light the beach, fire dancers spin flaming batons and people lounge on bamboo mats laid out on the sand, a reggae beat here... dance music there... It's surprising, really, to see a crowded restaurant at night. In the daylight hours it's as if hardly anyone is there at all... perhaps they're all too high up to notice, scaling the rock walls. Or perhaps they are all below the sea. Or perhaps they are like me, off daydreaming somewhere no-one but them may go.

Tonsai Arrival

I was feeling blase when we arrived –– the changes we saw in Ao Nang: more tourists, more buildings, higher prices got me down, and the chore of looking for yet another 'home' in the baking heat, hauling 15 kilos of weight on my back (that's over 30 pounds) is not the picture culled in fantasies about arriving somewhere tropical and beautiful...

My mood was lifted when, as we waited for a longtail boat to ferry us over to Tonsai beach, we saw friends from Samui and Chiang Mai on Ao Nang's beach. John and Nyla were returning from Tonsai -- we were just going there. How serendipitous to run into them, how unfortunate to have missed them. It's a small world, where 2 Americans can accidentally meet 2 Brits on a beach in Thailand after having parted ways over 1 month prior without contact since.

Another chance encounter once we reached Tonsai: we came upon a small coffee shack on the lonely end of the beach. It was run by a man named Dam (pronounced Dom), whom we'd befriended 4 years earlier when we stayed in Ao Nang. Benjamin and he'd kept in touch through email over the years but had fallen out of contact in the last several. After the tsunami last year, Benjamin was dead set to find him when we returned to Southern Thailand. We didn't know where he was, or if he had survived, and voila! There he is. Even if you don't believe in 'signs', you must be thinking that all of this has to mean something. I did, and as we relaxed on the beach at Dam's coffee shop (drinking beer), a feeling of contentment washed over me as I took in the surroundings: monkeys taunting boatmen on the beach; a little boy pulling a brick tied to a string across the sand; rock climbers looking like ants on the enormous walls of limestone rock surrounding the beach; turquoise water sparkling in the sun...

I realized that on arrival, it was just one more arrival in many over the last year: they have become inconsequential. Such a shame! Having seen so many beautiful places and fascinating things packed so tightly together in such a short span of time, you become immune to the wonderment of the places you go. They lose their 'spark in the gut'... But I could see, once I settled in, how amazing it was, the place I'd just arrived. It's odd, that when you travel for a long period of time, the 'oohs and aaahs' that are normal upon arrival during shorter trips become reversed. On shorter trips, you stand agog in the place you have just arrived and then, after some time, it becomes 'ordinary'. You take the scenery for granted. But with long term travel, you take the scenery for granted at first and then, after time to settle in to the place, the 'oohs and aaaahs' come.

I watched the sun sink behind the last ocean wave visible and in a state of total happiness, I felt like time didn't exist. Damn the sun and the moon for reminding me that it does.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Beach Bums

We've finally left the North and are sweating and sunning in Southern Thailand -- for the new few months... SO, don't get concerned with infrequent postings... think of it as our last hurrah before heading home: our last vacation for a long, long while... the beach and the internet don't go well together anyway.

We're currently in Krabi, on Tonsai beach and plan to go South, island hopping the more remote of Thailand's beaches (well, less touristed anyway). While I may not be writing with any frequency, you never know... so don't forget to check our site now and again!