Monday, February 13, 2012

Island Hopping

It's Sunday night (more like 1am Monday morning) and we're in Bangkok, relaxing in our air-conditioned hotel room after a nice shower that washed off all the sweat and dust of this crazy city. We didn't grasp the size of the city until a few hours ago when we went to the rooftop bar located on the 64th floor of the State Tower building and had a moment of awe. We've come to this great city from the south of Thailand, where we sat on quiant little beaches and hopped from one island to another on wooden longtail boats. Worlds apart, they are both part of the great Thai experience.

While I am not Bangkok's biggest fan, the islands have won my heart. Flipping through my notebook earlier, I ran into a scribble I made while we were hiking in Patagonia a few months ago. It said: "Nature makes me happy." A plain statement that unartfully summarizes the core of my feelings and outlook on this world, as well as a recent self-realization. I am at my happiest in the middle of pure, unspoiled nature. Big cities vs. small towns or remote wilderness, shopping vs. diy (or hand-made), partying vs. chilling/hiking/reading/writing. I've clearly chosen my side, the side of life that makes me happy, meaningful and fulfilled. One stop after another on this trip, one experience after another only reinforce and emphasize what my heart truly desires, what it's longing for and where it's at its happiest. The islands were one of those good stops.

The photos in this post are more true to chronology than the previous posts. Here we are in the budget terminal of Singapore's Changi airport, ready to board our plane to Krabi, a small town on the western coast of South Thailand (on the Andaman Sea.) There are lot of budget carriers in South East Asia, so we were able to find a cheap flight that saved us a lot of travel time and stress. This is also the moment when we met Pascal, a cool dude from Canada who was going to Tonsai to climb and chill for a few weeks.

On the short flight from Singapore to Krabi we had some of the strongest turbulences I've ever experienced on a plane. Ya, it looks sunny and blue skies, but the plane was shaking and dropping. It made my stomach cramp up and for a second I wondered if it's all worth it.

This is Pascal, the French dude from Canada. Since we were both going into the same direction (Tonsai and Railay, which are 2 neighbor beaches), we shared a cab from the airport and a water taxi. He was quite an interesting and smart fellow, having traveled for two years and working once in a while remotely as a programmer. I wish we spent more time with him, but after we said goodbye that day we never saw him again.

Anne on our first long-tail boat ride from Ao Nang to Railey. Railey is a peninsula surrounded by oceans and steep limestone cliffs, so the only way to get to it is by boat.

This is Phra Nang Cave (also known as Diamond Cave) on Railay East. My camera is just not good enough to capture the true beauty of this place. You can see Anne in the far distance, taking a photo of the stalagmites/tites. (I still don't know the correct name for the ones going down vs. those going up.)

 What the ceiling above my head looked like when walking inside the Diamond Cave.

 The cave was full of bats and we got eaten up alive by mosquitos, but it was worth it.

There's 4 ways to get from Railay Beach to Tonsai Beach (or maybe 5, if you include swimming): by long-tail boat (pretty much the only option late at night), by renting a kayak, by walking around the cliffs that separate the two beaches during low tide, and by hiking through the jungle for about 30 minutes. We did all of them except for the low tide walking, mostly because there are tons of sharp rocks under the water and you need good water walking shoes. God, how much I regret not having brought my Tevas... I miss them every day. Above is Anne walking on the jungle trail between the two beaches.

 Moi, walking on the trail between Tonsai and Railey. I have to admit I was a total lame-ass at first. We started walking and then saw monkeys jumping from one branch to another high up in the trees. I was afraid of going further; somehow the monkeys here terrify me. They are quite aggressive, have no fear of humans and shamelessly approach you to steal your food or bottles of water. I was mostly afraid of being bitten by monkeys, knowing that some of them may carry rabies. So we turned around. Then we ran into a German couple, the guy seemed fearless, so we followed them back on the trail. (Note: if you want to do this trail during the night to get back to your hotel/bungalow, make sure you have a headlamp with you.)

 Bungalows in Tonsai.

Tonsai is pretty much a place where people come exclusively to climb. Or, they could be posers like us, and come there to enjoy the chill vibes or stare at the hot guys with toned bods. On a more serious note, Tonsai was by far my most favorite place in the islands. It is an escape from commercialism, crappy top 40 music, cheesy spring break tourists and all the tourism industry that caters to them. It's an oasis of coolness and I already miss it.

Anne chilling on Tonsai beach at one of the many hangout spots that were either playing raggae music or hosting a cover band or just some acoustic guitar dude playing cover songs.

 Tonsai beach.

I bought this sarong on the beach in Rio and lost it on the beach in Tonsai, soon after I took this photo. I guess I just left and forgot to pick it up. Hope its next owner enjoys it. :)

 Sunset on the beach in Tonsai, shortly before we got 1-hour long Thai massages right on the beach.

 Sweet hangout spots on the beach in Tonsai.

 Another sunset shot on Tonsai beach. As much as I want to share the beauty of this place with the rest of the world and my friends, I hope that by putting these photos online I'm not contributing to turning this place from a peaceful oasis to a touristy clusterfuck. So here's the disclaimer: if you don't like cold showers and cockroaches in your bungalow, don't come here. If you like house beats and drinking buckets, don't come here. Spare this place, and go to the Full Moon Parties instead.

Raggae is alive and well and Thailand. Bob Marley seems to be a national hero. But I absolutely loved the raggae bars and their vibe. It seems that the raggae culture is enjoyed more by cool local Thai kids, rather than by western tourists, so going to a raggae bar is indirectly an escape from the tourist bullshit.

Bar on the beach in Tonsai. Lined up at the bar is a whole crew from Finland, whom we partied with that night. We were stuck on Tonsai beach with not much money to pay for a boat to get back to Railey and these guys offered to give us a ride. They had rented a boat for the whole day, which they used to party-hop from island to island. They were pretty cool and one of the girls had a little boy, who was up and full of energy until the wee hours of the night. During the boat ride, the mom and the boy were sitting on the top of the front end of the boat enjoying the breeze and the stars, and I said to myself: how cool to be able to say that your mom took you island hopping in Thailand when you were 5 years old and that you were riding longtail boats at 12am?

 With Toni from Finland and the Thai boat captain, who was pretty drunk and annoying.

Thai raggae band. These guys were amazing. They were excellent musicians and played all sorts of stuff, from raggae to old rock to kletzmer. I danced my ass off and loved every minute of it.

 The venue where the band performed. Dancing barefoot on sand = one of the best things in life.

Beach in Railey. The only downside of the beach in Tonsai is that you can't really swim. The bottom is very rocky and shallow. But the Railey beach next door is pretty much your perfect beach: fine white sands as far as the eye can see and great swimming.

The other side of Railey beach.

 Lunch at the Flaming Tree on Railey beach.

We rented a kayak and went beach hopping. We first went through a little cave to Phra Nang beach, where the main attraction is the cave full of penis statues at the far end of the beach. Dedicated to the spirit of the drowned princess (phra nang) who gave the beach her name, this small shrine in a small cave is notable primarily for the dozens of carved red-tipped phalluses donated by fishermen seeking her favor.Sorry, not posting any photos of that.

Kayaking away. Great excercise for your arm muscles.

Boats equipped with full kitchens come on Phra Nang beach, which doesn't have any development on it (thank God!)

On these boats, shawl covered Muslim women cook you up full meals, from chicken curries, to pad thai to fruit smoothies.

Going yellow: with my mango shake and probably the best roasted corn on the cob I've ever had in my entire life. No joke, no exaggeration. It was sweet, buttery, crunchy, salty, all that at the same time. 

Phra Nang beach. According to Wikipedia: "it was recently voted one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. Phra Nang is arguably the finest beach in Thailand, if not southeast Asia. A broad strip of white sand with massive cliffs framing each end of the beach." You get the point.

 Those are all the rocks we climbed.

Kayaking to Tonsai beach.

Lunch on Tonsai beach.

So great to be eating outside, right on the beach.

Kayaking back to Railey during sunset was a bit of magic.

The next day we took a longtail boat tour to some other islands. This was our tour guide, a fun guy, 30 years old, Muslim, married with a kid, and still hitting on us hardcore. Hope his wife doesn't read this, haha..

Fun day on many beaches begins with Anne trying to pick up this big rock...

 ...and me enjoying the waves.

 ...and running around a little.

 ...and finding sweet spots to take more sweet photos...
 ...and playing with overexposure camera settings...

 ...and motor-boating to yet another island...

...and swinging on giant swings... By the way, this was my favorite island during our tour and I hope to get back there some day. It's called Hong Island and it's a tiny circular cove, surrounded by cliffs on all sides, except for a small opening in the middle for the boats to come through. The island is a national park, so there are no hotels and no development on it at all. However, you can talk to the guard and for a fee, he'll let you camp there with a small group of friends. Aside from during the day when hoards of tourists come to see the island, you could have it all to yourself from 5pm on until around 10am the next day. 

Hong Island.

Police boat on Hong Island.

Fishermen's net and sunset on Andaman sea.

This is where we made another stop to eat dinner: Tom Yum soup, BBQ skewers and rice. We had the entire island to ourselves. It had a narrow tongue of sand jutting out into the sea.

Sunset photoshoot.

Dinner time.On our boat we met a nice couple: he was from San Francisco and she was from France. They met via CouchSurfing, liked each other and decided to travel together. So there is hope... haha.

 Taking the ferry to Koh Phi Phi island. The ferry was too big to come to the shore (where there is no pier, the boats drop you off in the shallow water at the shore), so we had to take a long-tail boat from Railay to get transferred onto the ferry. As you can see, the ferry was so packed that the only place we found to sit on was on the side, with our feet dangling out in the air.

 Anne and I during the ferry ride to Koh Phi Phi.

 On the ferry. Next to me is an Aussie couple who looked like they've been partying hard the night before.

Our humble bungalow in Koh Phi Phi. The accommodation on this island is quite expensive, so we were lucky to find this bungalow for only $19/night. It only had a cold shower outside (which was actually really enjoyable) and there were huge cockroaches roaming around at night, but we're here to tell this story, so it means we survived. :) I'm usually not shy of killing roaches, but these motherfuckers were so big, that I was afraid their juice would splash all over my leg and the whole floor would look like a carnage.

 Our alley of bungalows.

 Getting massages right on the beach. And massages we got, every day. Because why not, we deserve it!

Sunset on Koh Phi Phi. Something happened to my camera around this point in time, that every photo I took has a blotch right at the top middle. It must be on the sensor, because I can't get rid of it, even after thorough lens wiping.

Phi Phi Leh in the distance... where the movie The Beach was filmed. I'm actually about to buy this book on my Kindle and read it during our 12 hour train ride to Chiang Mai... I heard the book is much better than the movie was and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Night time on Long Beach, a place where we read books, swam, chilled for hours, met some cool gay dudes who were playing awesome music on their portable stereo, got massages and lived the good island life.

Ripped Thai kid, blowing flames out of his mouth. The poi performers here were by far better here than anyone I've seen at Burning Man or in San Francisco. These kids must've been 18 years old and they were killing it.

A tourist invited up on the stage to light up his cigarette from a wheel of fire.

We fell prey to the tourist trap and paid money to get our photo taken with these two adorable baby monkeys. I just really wanted to touch the monkeys, held them in my arms and cuddle them. They were so soft and as soon as they got in your arms, they'd wrap their arms around you or climb on your head and play with your hair.

Dear friends and family, after trying hard to find us some good men, we decided to turn lesbian. We've adopted two monkeys, we're going to travel to Africa and work in a humanitarian organization.

 Arrival on "The Beach"

Maya Bay, where the movie The Beach was filmed. The sand area is incredibly beautiful, but the water is very shallow and rocky. Not a good place to swim, but we haven't been there during high tide, so that may be different.

Away from the beach there are a few trails, one of which takes you to Losama Bay, on the other side of the island. Imagine an island with towering steep cliffs, coves and bays that are interconnected via trails across the island. I think I've just been to paradise.

 Maya Bay

Just a reminder that this beach was hit and completely destroyed by the tsunami in 2004.

 Inside Maya Bay.

 Island rooster.

 Perfect fine white sand in the middle of the island.

 Mangrove trees.

 Thinking of Leo.

 Back to homebase.

 Beach bar on Koh Phi Phi.

The music was pretty bad on the party side of the island, but we found a little nook at the end of the beach and chilled in these hanging bird nests.