4/22/14 – 4/28/14: Koh Phangan, Thailand
Ah, the island life. It’s a pleasant combination of relaxation and lack of motivation. When we arrived in Koh Phangan, Thailand, I hadn’t yet realized that’s exactly what we needed: a vacation pit-stop after six months of non-stop travel. Oh yes. Pity us poor and weary travelers. Such difficult lives we lead…
This was an unusual moment on our trip for another reason, too. It was our first time meeting up with someone on the road – my brother, Willie! Willie had never been to Thailand but had always wanted to visit. Since we were planning on passing through, we organized a proper vacation together on one of the southern islands of Thailand.
Koh Phangan is just east of the northern section of the Malay Peninsula. It rests in the Gulf of Thailand with beautiful ocean views and tropical vegetation. It’s also known for a monthly rave called the Full Moon Party. We were so exited to visit the island, relax in its shade, enjoy its tranquility, and to NOT attend a Full Moon Party. Nope. Not interested. Point me to a hammock.
We booked a week at Seaflower Bungalows and it was the perfect lazy-day beachfront stay. When we arrived on the island Seaflower’s resident taxi driver, Chai, picked us up in an open-back truck. Chai was the kind of guy you imagine when you imagine a guy named Chai. He strolled through life in beach bum style floating on a peaceful cloud (one suspected that cloud smelled of reefer). Chai was a Thai native and he wasn’t exactly a hired hand. He was co-owner of Seaflower and husband to Lise, a Canadian expat who, for all intents and purposes, appeared to manage the resort. Meanwhile, Chai’s duties seemed to include picking up and dropping off guests and getting massages. He also enjoyed announcing the weather to us whenever we saw him: “No rain today. Damn hot!”
At Seaflower we shared a three bed, one bath, studio unit with air-conditioning. Walk out our front door and ten seconds later you’re wading in the ocean. I quickly learned that wading was literally our only option. You could walk a half-mile straight into the sea and your feet would never leaving the ground. For this reason I never enjoyed an ocean swim, but I did enjoy several ocean squats. During my squats it was common for the resident dog to come say hello. He was a black dog with longish hair and a name I can’t recall. He would paddle up, reach out his front paws, and sway with you in the water. He was a wonderful dancing partner.
On the beach was a bar called Heaven and tucked inside Seaflower’s garden was a large thatch-roofed hut that was their on-site restaurant. The prices were incredibly low by American standards and the food was scrumptious. Nearly every day we ate our complimentary breakfasts followed by lunch, dinner, and dessert, all at Seaflower Bungalows. They offered everything from Thai curries, to fresh pasta, to mouth-watering smoothies – it ran the gamut of food selection. Not once did we regret staying at Seaflower for our meals. Honestly, it was hard to muster up the energy to ever leave! But we did manage a few excursions.
Early in the week we booked a Thai cooking class recommended to us by Lise. She called in the booking for us and, at first, was told they were closed for the day. But they quickly reversed course and said we could come in at noon for our class. Upon arrival it became evident that: A) we were the only students and B) the teacher had been called in on her day off. Assumption B was based on our teacher’s crabby attitude and general impatience to get the class going. Chop, chop! For this reason we secretly called her “Grumpy Grandma,” though I’m not sure she was of an age to earn that moniker. We actually loved her cantankerous demeanor and found the class all the more fun because of it.
Before starting our cooking lesson we were each given a generous helping of mango sticky rice. I’m not sure why we were given dessert first, but none of us were complaining. Willie fell in love with it just as much as we did back in Chiang Mai. What’s not to love? The mango is so ripe it melts in your mouth and mixes with soft coconut-rich sticky rice. It’s positively delightful! We all devoured it while she asked us what two dishes we each wanted to make. Here were our final choices:
Group appetizer: deep fried spring rolls
Willie: deep-fried shrimp with garlic and peppercorns / pad thai
Katie: fried rice / panang curry
Alice: green curry / tom yum soup
Grumpy Grandma made a list of all the ingredients we’d need for these dishes and threw us on bikes for a trip to the nearby street market. We rode in single file down side streets and visited several produce stalls, each with specialty products –peppers, leafy greens, spices and tropical fruits. She quickly snatched up the best of each bunch and dumped them into our baskets. Chop chop!
We cooked together over three separate woks, simultaneously mixing and mashing to create our given dishes. Grumpy Grandma watched us like a hawk, giving quick instruction and bopping between us like a culinary conductor. All of our dishes turned out to be delicious and surprisingly fast to make (or was it Grumpy Grandma who made sure of that? It’s hard to say).
Once again, the portions were generous. The deep-fried spring rolls could’ve filled our bellies alone. In the end we had enough food to feed a family of ten. Okay, maybe a family of six since Willie was present (he can pack a lot away), but even with his Hoovering capabilities we had a very large doggy bag by the end of our meal. We tried to give it to Grumpy Grandma but she was having none of it. So we gifted the spring rolls to Lise and Chai once we returned to Seaflower and ate as much as we could for dinner that night before throwing the rest away. Sadly, without a microwave we had no choice. Ugh. I hate waste!
The nearby night market also provided some delicious fare as well as arts, crafts, and light clothing for the oppressive heat. Because, yes, it was hot. “Damn hot,” as Chai would say. We were barely north of the equator so we were basically living in a sauna. I suppose our trip to Ang Thong Marine Park was in part an attempt to beat the heat, but it didn’t really work. There’s no such thing as a “cool sea breeze” when you’re in southern Thailand.
We booked a boat tour on the Orion mid week. Despite the free breakfast they offered we made sure to eat our complimentary Seaflower breakfast before leaving that morning. We couldn’t imagine Orion beating Sunflower’s fresh eggs, fluffy pancakes, and watermelon shakes. Yum! As it turned out, we were right on the money. We happily skipped standing in line for a donut on a rocking boat.
Ang Thong is a series of 42 islands protected as a national park in Thailand. Our tour included the park entrance fee and visits to some of the more well known spots. Our first stop was a snorkeling jaunt off a little rocky islet. Orion had a diving board up top and a slide off the back but, for whatever reason, we decided to use the ladder. I have no idea why. So lame.
An aquatic kingdom awaited us below the surface. Schools of fish rose and fell with the ocean’s rhythm. I watched Willie spin somersaults in their midst. The water was clear and calm and provided a pleasant snorkeling experience. For me, it paled in comparison to the Great Barrier Reef but Willie enjoyed it and Katie said it was her favorite snorkeling trip yet. Finally, we all took advantage of the diving board. It felt much higher once I was standing on the edge, but I couldn’t chicken out, right? So I went for it and received a stinging back as my reward. I should’ve gone for the slide.
We ate lunch as they motored us over to Mae Koh for a hike up to see Emerald Lake. The lake rests in a crater on the island and is known for its deep green color. Because it was so hot, Willie opted out of the hike and lazed in the shady shallows instead. Katie and I chose the short but steep walk up. By the time we reached the overlook we were as wet as if we’d stayed in the water with Willie. The lake didn’t seem especially pretty to me, though, if the temperature had suddenly dropped by half I’m sure it would’ve been gorgeous! From our vantage point we had a fabulous view of the nearby islands, so it wasn’t all in vain. Even still, once we returned to Willie we immediately joined him in the shallows and told him he’d made the right decision.
Our final destination was Koh Wua Talap, an island where we got to choose between hiking up a peak or down into caves. We chose down. This choice was strictly based on difficulty level and heat avoidance. Even still, the hike “down” was anything but. We had to go up to reach the cave mouth. It wasn’t an easy stroll, either. I learned this while wearing Teva sandals and scrambling up slick paths. A rope ran alongside the trail to keep your feet steady. By the time we reached the cave opening I was drenched in sweat and completely overheated. I had no desire to continue on. Katie and Willie kept going while I stood there panting, watching them work their way through the enormous cavern. The earthen structure had limestone walls, bone-white stalactites, monstrous boulders, and a light at the end of the tunnel. Air pulled through one end of the tunnel and out the other, creating a cool breeze that I basked in. I stood there with my shirt pulled up, midriff bare, waiting for that moment when I’d feel refreshed enough to move forward.
That moment never came, though. After maybe ten minutes of cool down I heard Willie’s voice bouncing across the cavern walls drawing closer every second. They’d gone into the next cave and decided they’d seen enough and headed back. Fine by me! Back to the beach we went where we lounged once more in the shallows and enjoyed a cool drink of water.
After we boarded the boat for our final meal, we waited for our return to Koh Phangan. And we waited. And waited. Rumor was the crew was waiting for the engine to cool. This struck me as odd considering the engine had already been cooling for two hours. It was a good delay in the end, though, since it allowed us to witness a glorious sunset on our trip home. Lying on the upper deck together, watching the horizon fade from gold to red to blue, was totally worth it. A wonderful way to end a wonderful day.
During our time on Koh Phangan I discovered we weren’t far from a world-class diving spot called Sail Rock. It’s a tall rock spire that juts up from the sea floor. It draws a lot of sea life and you can dive all around it. I’d scuba dived earlier on our trip on the Great Barrier Reef and I enjoyed it enough to try it again. Katie and Willie weren’t as interested, so I joined a tour on my own. It was an amazing experience that I could go on and on about, but instead of boring you with the details I’ll simply share what I wrote in my journal, which sums up the experience very nicely:
“I turned left and stared into open ocean – solid blue cut by shards of sunlight. To my right schools of fish clustered near a rock so densely covered with life you couldn’t see the earth below. I paused, looked around, and drank in my saltwater view. It was all alive: rock, fish, water, me. Even the tiniest specks of pink floating before my eyes pumped with life. The ocean is life.”
When I arrived back at Seaflower I discovered Willie and Katie had both gotten their first Thai massages. Katie liked it initially but then her body started hurting. Ultimately, I don’t think she was a fan. I was still interested in having one, so I booked it for the next day. Willie enjoyed his so much he joined me for a second round of tugging.
Thai massages are unique in that the masseurs use their own bodies as counterweights to stretch and pull you. They’ll stand on the table, grab your arms and lean, or use their heels to dig in as they wrench. You feel a bit like a pretzel. Grimaces will occur as well as occasional groans of pain. My masseur seemed more focused on exercising my limbs than my back, which is where I hold all my tension. For that reason I wasn’t wowed by the experience. But I did enjoy the head massage, especially when she rubbed my ears. Ahhhhh……
My favorite activity of the week was the simplest. I’d pick up my Kindle, walk out our front door, and lay on a lounge under the shade of a palm tree. There I would read blissfully for hours. Sadly, I didn’t discover this joy until halfway through our week. But once I did I was in love. I was reading book four from A Song of Ice and Fire series (more commonly known as the Game of Thrones books), and I found the Machiavellian power struggles nicely tempered by my real-life ocean view.
When evening eventually fell I’d tuck my Kindle away and watch the sun fall off the edge of the earth. Ocean side fire pits danced on the sand cooking seafood barbeques. The resort offered these meals for a special price. On our final night at Seaflower we decided to indulge ourselves. Prawns, crab, red snapper and baked potatoes. I know your mouth is watering right now. So were ours. Unfortunately, we found the fish to be a little bitter and the shellfish to be rubbery. Definitely not the seafood delicacies we’d dreamt of. We all agreed our favorite part was the baked potato. They also provided traditional Thai appetizers of fish balls and mini sausages. I think Willie was digging those more than the meal!
We had an unexpected visitor during our dinner, the co-owner of Seaflower himself, Chai. He sat down with us and immediately confirmed our suspicions by rolling a joint and lighting up. He then explained his theory of life. He believes the world would have no war if everyone smoked marijuana. An interesting theory. One not entirely without merit. Somehow, though, I suspect there’d be little advancement in society and a lot of over eating. But hey, maybe it’s worth the trade off?
Before we knew it our week was over. I wasn’t ready for our vacation within a vacation to come to an end. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing time of lounging, laughing, and living the good life.
I think Willie got a lot out of it, too. Inspiration had struck and he’d found a new goal in life. When he grows up he wants to become Chai. I support you, Willie, because if you succeed you’ll certainly be a happy guy!