Monday, November 15, 2010

Andaman Islands of Thailand


Ko Phi Phi

Starting early, we retraced our steps back onto the Thai peninsula. From Suratthani a bus took us across the thin strip of land into Krabi on the Andaman side. From there a ferry took us about an hour and half out to Ko Phi Phi where we arrived mid afternoon. Ko Phi Phi is probably the most beautiful island I've ever seen. The rich waters surrounding the small densely forested island are part of a marine reserve. Don a mask and fins and the protected biodiversity attests to the restorative power of such measures. Limestone cliffs that jet from the turquoise ocean have inspired photographers for generations. Miles and Coop stayed for two nights but had to leave when their visas expired. I spent an additional four nights. Once we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet in Vietnam I took a water taxi, essentially the only mode of transport on the island, out of town and discovered Viking Nature Resort tucked into a small bay with a beautiful white sand beach. I booked the remainder of my time on Phi Phi at Viking where my bungalow faced the beach and was protected from the elements by a large fig tree. I spent those four days hiking trails cut out of dense jungle, snorkeling coral reefs rich with life and just enjoying the scenery. I spent those four nights eating fresh sea food, chatting it up with fellow travelers and reading multiple books. I have to say there's nothing quite like sitting on a perfect beach drinking an ice cold beer while reading a Haruki Murakami novel, in Thailand no less. One night I sat and watched a massive storm build in the distance. For about three hours it built up on the horizon, occasionally illuminating the darkening sky with flashes of sheet lightning. The island was quiet except for the occasional boom of thunder in the distance. Then the rain started falling, soft at first but persistently getting louder as it landed on the roof above. Flashes of sheet lightning came in shorter intervals followed by thunder. Soon it became deafeningly loud. The full force of nature unleashing its raw power on this tiny island in the Andaman was an incredible experience that I'll remember for years to come. I thought about the shrimping boats out on the horizon and almost wished I could experience the storm from that angle.  That changed however when the wind picked up and the storm intensified, forcing my retreat back inside to wait it out. It was by far the biggest storm I’ve ever experienced first hand.

Ko Lanta and Phuket 

A few days later I took the ferry across rough seas (the lingering effects of the storm) to Ko Lanta in the south. Lanta is a long island with a ridge running down the middle. I found a place on the beach and stayed for four nights. It rained two of those days and nights so I spent a good amount of time reading and waiting for the sun to break through the clouds. It was quite inexpensive; my room was less than five dollars a night so at least I got rained in without it adversely affecting my budget. On the third day the storm finally cleared and the sun came out. With my first day of sunshine I headed south into the national forest. I hired a guide and along with a few German guys I’d met earlier, trekked into the jungle through waterfalls and rubber tree plantations. We toured a limestone cave system, spending half an hour exploring caverns and tunnels. It got pretty tight at times and exiting I had to crawl on my stomach through a tunnel for about ten yards with only my headlight to guide the way. The next day I rented a motorbike and drove around the island, stopping off at points to eat and shoot pictures. The roads were dried out by then so the riding was fast and a lot of fun. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more: the beautifully lush scenery of Ko Lanta or hitting curves at eighty kilometers/hour.
As I’d been traveling alone and been rained in for two nights, I'd been pretty friendly with the staff and guests and on my last night the staff invited me out for karaoke and drinks. At ten we all piled into a Honda and drove out to a Thai karaoke bar. As I found out, the Tha├»s take their karaoke seriously. The english selection of songs was limited to early 80's dance hits that must have been hits back in the day but, to me at least, were humorously from another time and also completely unrecognizable to me. The whole experience was a lot of fun, from the singing itself to the social dynamic among the Thai’s. I'd managed to find myself at a locals karaoke bar in Thailand, drinking beer with the guy who’d been taking my food and drink orders. It was great. I left Lanta early the next morning and arrived on Phuket still feeling the Chang's from the night before. Phuket is a beautiful island. Its sheer natural beauty and reputation draws the flocks from all around the globe but I found that to be its biggest drawback. Too many package tourists for my taste. To be fair I was only on Phuket for a night but it feels more like Hawaii than Thailand. From Phuket I flew to Bangkok, had lunch in the city and then spent the rest of my layover walking the super modern international terminal and getting free samples of Johnny Walker Blue Label. After a few samples and an Economist it was on to Ho Chi Minh City. Finally, Vietnam!!.