Thursday, October 14, 2010

my last few days and the journey home (part 1)

local time (hong kong): friday, october 15, 2010, 1:25 a.m.

i left ko phangan on wednesday morning in time to catch the 12:00 p.m. ferry to chumphon, and from there the overnight bus to bangkok.

i have no regrets whatsoever about returning to thong nai pan for the end of my trip.  although there's nothing terribly exciting to report, my last few days there were fantastic.  i spent my mornings on the beach, my afternoons practicing poi (i've decided that i want to learn to dance with fire, and a couple of my friends were kind enough to give me a few lessons) and getting massages, and my evenings eating, drinking, and being merry.  i'm so glad that i gave myself a little more time there.

you know the saying "go to your happy place"?  well, my happy place has always been an abstract idea, but in thong nai pan yai i found my real happy place.  from now on, that is where i will go in my head whenever my current location or circumstances just aren't quite cutting it.  i know that i will keep this place in my heart and visit it in my dreams; that the experiences i've had there will stay with me as i return to the "real world."  so i tried not to be too sad about leaving.  but as i caught my last glimpse of the bay before my taxi rounded the last curve from which it was visible, i did actually have to fight back tears.

i had planned to spend thursday in bangkok before going to the airport for my early evening flight, but i ended up getting quite sick on the bus and consequently didn't sleep.  by the time i arrived in the city in the early morning hours i was exhausted and still not feeling well, so i decided to go straight to the airport and spent the day recovering there.  not very interesting, but it was all i could manage.

as the day wore on and my departure time grew closer, my sadness over leaving thailand grew stronger.  by the time i boarded my flight to hong kong, i couldn't fight it anymore and the tears started flowing freely.  don't get me wrong - i'm looking forward to seeing my friends and family and good old california, but in some strange way i feel like i am leaving home rather than going back to it.  that is how strong my connection to that place is.  i know that i was on holiday and away from the cares of every day life, so there's bound to be a letdown around coming back, but it feels like more than that.  my heart has been very quiet for the last couple of years - almost like it's been in hiding.  over the course of this trip - between the beautiful surroundings, the new experiences, the time to myself, and the people i met - my heart found its voice again, and by the time i returned to thong nai pan after going to krabi, it was singing like it hasn't sung in a very very very long time.  leaving the place that helped my heart find its song was incredibly difficult.  but at least now i know what it sounds like and feels like again, and i know i can keep it going when i get back.  i just might have to work at it more consciously than i did on my beautiful beach.

there is more to say about this trip and how it has changed me, but i'm writing this from my layover in hong kong (now extended by at least three hours due to technical difficulties) after being up for over 36 hours, and i'm pooped.  i'm going to finish the journey home, get some sleep, give myself a little processing time, and post my final thoughts in a couple of days.

Friday, October 8, 2010

i'm back!

local time: saturday, october 9, 2010, 11:50 a.m.

yes, i'm back in thong nai pan!  i ended up taking a bus and the night boat on wednesday.  i thought that the boat would just be a regular ferry that runs at night, but it was actually a big wooden cargo ship.  the bottom deck was full of all of the stuff being shipped to the island, and on the top deck there was a row of futon-type mattresses and pillows along each wall.  i found my assigned bunk and, thinking that i wouldn't be able to sleep very well, settled in with a book.  but i was wrong.  the bed was actually fairly comfortable, and once the boat started the rhythm of the engine noise was oddly soothing.  i didn't even make it through one chapter before falling asleep.  next thing i knew, the ship's horn was blowing to announce our arrival at the pier at thong sala on ko phangan.

i got a taxi to thong nai pan and, since it was only 7:30 a.m. - too early to check into a bungalow - i asked the driver to just drop me off at one of the paths that goes from the little town down to the beach.  i walked the few hundred yards to the sand, and just like that i was back - and so happy to be here.

tanja, the german woman that i met before i left, is still here, so we met for breakfast.  i told her about what i'd see and done in and around krabi, and she caught me up on the goings on around here.  then i went for a long swim in the beautiful bay that i'd missed so much.

the soccer tournament was still going on, so that afternoon i cheered my favorite team to victory in their semi-final match.  then, after a nap and a delicious dinner at my friend pookie's restaurant, tanja and i headed over to yai bar.  most of the thai people that i'd befriended were there, and i was greeted by a chorus of "rachel!  you back!" and laughter and nods of approval when i explained that i just loved this place too much to stay away.  my friend zin made his way over, grinned, and said "but now you know."  i headed back to my bungalow after a couple of singhas and fell asleep listening to the ocean, the frogs and night birds, and the faint sounds people talking and laughing a bit farther down the beach, feeling so lucky and completely blissed out to be back here.

yesterday was the final match of the soccer tournament.  everyone from thong nai pan and the surrounding area was there, and the atmosphere was even more festive than it had been at the other games.  after the match (my team won.  yay!) and the awards ceremony there was a big party on the beach.  drinks flowed freely, and thai dance music played until the wee hours of the morning.  it was a great night, and i really felt like part of the community here. 

today the sun is shining and there's a nice cool breeze.  my beach towel and my book are calling me.  i'll be spending the afternoon sunbathing, swimming, and chatting with friends if they stop by.  and trying - most likely unsuccessfully - to wipe the silly grin that i've had since i returned here off my face.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

krabi continued

local time: wednesday, october 6, 2010, noonish

yesterday i took a boat tour of some of the small islands near krabi.  it rained for much of the day and the sea was pretty choppy, but it was still a lovely trip.

our first stop was at railay beach, a spot just south of ao nang.  though still on the mainland, it is accessible only by boat, as it sits on the other side of ao nang mountain.  it is where krabi's famous karst rock formations are at their most majestic, and it was easy to see why rock climbers from all over the world flock there.  we took a ten minute walk through some caves and arrived at phranang cave beach.  phranang means woman in thai, and legend has it that a woman died in one of the caves there from a broken heart over her lost love.  people go the cave to pray for love and fertility and leave phallic offerings to the spirit of the dead woman.  just wait until i post pictures - so many wooden penises!!  this was also the place where i was hoping to see some monkeys (they congregate there during the day), but they were hidden away somewhere out of the rain.

next we headed over to chicken island for a photo op and some snorkeling.  most of the people on the boat didn't want to swim or snorkel, so one other person and i got a semi-private tour of the coral from our guide.  the water was a bit cloudy, but we saw tons of tiger fish, sea urchins, swordfish, some gorgeous rainbow colored parrot fish, and the biggest oysters i have ever seen.  pretty cool.

we had a thai picnic lunch on poda island, where i enjoyed wet, cloudy, but still beautiful views of some of the small rocky islands nearby.  we then headed back to tup island - chicken island's smaller neighbor - and found that the tide had gone down enough to expose the sandbank that connects the two.  it was kind of surreal walking from one island to another in the middle of the sea.  oh, and the sun came out for a little while!

it was a lovely day, and i can tell that in nice weather this place must be absolutely stunning.  i will come back someday when the monsoon is not making its southward trek out of the country.  i had hoped to make it to ko phi phi, which is also in krabi provence.  unfortunately there is no lodging within my budget so i can't stay there, and the longtail boat day trip i had hoped to take today was thwarted by heavy seas.  oh well, just one more reason to come back.

while i did end up enjoying ao nang and its surrounding areas, i think that my time here is done.  the weather is iffy in most parts of thailand at the momet, but it is at its worst here (it has rained for all but 2-3 hours of each day that i've been here, and though the sun is currently shining there are more dark clouds looming), and i want to try to find a little more sun before i return to the states (next week!).  regardless of the weather, i've also had enough of the hustle and bustle here.  i want to finish this trip lying on white sand, lounging in hammocks, hearing the ocean as i fall asleep, and walking down the street without being constantly asked whether i want a massage; a handbag; a suit; a taxi; a ticket to a thai boxing match; etc. . .  the pace here just doesn't match my feelings at the moment.

so i'm heeding the syren song of ko phangan and going back to my beloved thong nai pan tomorrow.  maybe it's silly to spend so much of my first trip to thailand in one place, but that's just where i want to be right now, and i see no reason to fight it.  my apologies to any of you who were hoping for more farflung adventure stories.  but this is, after all, my holiday.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ao nang, krabi provence

local time: monday, october 4, 2010, 1:15 p.m.

i'm in ao nang in krabi provence.  the trip here was . . . interesting.  after a two hour ferry ride from ko phangan to donsat, i took a bus to suratthani, where i got on another bus for the rest of the journey to krabi town.  the air conditioning was broken and there weren't enough seats, so i spent the bumpy four hour ride standing sandwiched between two spanish men who had apparently never heard of deodorant or inside voices.  fun times!  i arrived in krabi sweaty, tired, and cursing spain and shared a taxi to ao nang with some other people going that way.

despite having assured me that he knew exactly where the guesthouse where i'd planned on staying was located, the driver got lost and ended up just dropping me off on a random corner.  but it's low season and there are plenty of inexpensive rooms to be had, so i found other lodging without much trouble.  my room here is nice - clean, comfortable, and full of creature comforts like air conditioning, tv, and hot water.  it's a few blocks up from the beach, but i can see the water.  but i have to admit that i miss my little beachside bungalow.  i think that the pace of island life rubbed off on me during the twelve days that i spent there, and last night i felt a little overwhelmed by ao nang.  my hammock has been replaced with a plastic chair on the patio; the soothing sounds of the ocean and the nighttime chorus of frogs that lulled me to sleep have been replaced by traffic noise, thumping music from bar after bar, and the shouts of vendors selling their wares on the street below; the shimmer of moonlight reflected in the water has been replaced by endless rows of neon signs.  it's not necessarily bad, just different.  i'm glad to be seeing more of the country, and i keep reminding myself of something my friend zin told me when i was feeling anxious on the night before leaving ko phangan and worrying that no other place would measure up: "if you no try, you no know.  and if you no know, you no win."

and so i try.  i'm doing my best to keep an open mind, hoping that the torrential rain will let up a little and trusting that i'll find something amazing once i get out and explore more of ao nang and the surrounding areas - railay, ton sai, and the nearby islands.  but i think i left my heart in thong nai pan.  i had vivid dreams last night (a rarity for me) that took me there, and i woke up with its music in my ears and its people's smiling faces in my head.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

the dark side of the moon

local time: saturday, october 2, 2010, 7:00 p.m.

i attended ko phangan's half moon party last night.  it was fantastic!  the dj's were great and played a heady mix of techno, house, and psychedelic trance music.  there were beautiful lights and decorations and some of the best fire dancers i've ever seen.  i danced like a madwoman and drank more than i should have.

although i went with a group of friends, it didn't take long for us to get separated.  we had agreed on a meeting place, and i met other people to dance with and talk to, so i wasn't too worried.  by about 5:00 a.m. my head was spinning and i was ready to go.  i went to the agreed upon place and couldn't find any of the people that i'd come with.  i searched the dance floor to no avail.  i went up to one of the bars on the hillside hoping i'd have better luck with a view of the crowd from above, but i still couldn't find them.  and at this point i just needed to leave.

i walked out of the party into a crowd of taxi drivers and asked for a ride back to thong nai pan.  i was a little out of my head and forgot that: 1) taking a car or truck taxi by oneself is always more expensive; and 2) one must always always always agree on the price ahead of time.  not having done this, i was astounded when we got back to my bungalow and the driver demanded over fifteen times the amount i had paid to get to the party.  i told him that it was too much and that i didn't have the money.  he would not let me get out of the truck but instead drove me to an atm and stood uncomfotably close while i withdrew the money.  having given him a sum equivalent to one week's lodging - all of the money, in fact, that i was going to use for rooms for the rest of this trip - i was allowed to go and returned to my room feeling defeated, angry, taken advantage of, and stupid.

i broke all of the rules last night.  i lost my friends; i drank too much; i left alone.  i made myself an easy target, and i got scammed.  i'm just glad that money was all he took.  looking back at the course of events with a clearer head, i see that things could have been much worse.  but they weren't, and i'm okay.  just hungover, broke, and upset that i didn't take better care of myself, but wiser for the lessons learned and determined to never put myself in a situation like that again.

my ticket to krabi is already paid for, and i had enough money hidden in my room to cover a couple of nights at a cheap guest house once i get there.  another unemployment check is due any day, and i will be just fine.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

the best laid plans . . .

local time: thursday, september 30, 2010, 2:30 p.m.

i'm still on ko phangan.  i was supposed to leave for krabi yesterday, but i was able to change my ferry ticket and am going to stay here for a few more days.  i'm doing this partly because i like this place so much, partly because the weather in krabi provence has been pretty bad this week, and partly because i have made some new friends here with whom i would like to spend a little more time.  they are some truly lovely people, and i find it interesting that i met them all the day after my big moment on the beach that was the subject of my last post.  i finally get to a point where i'm loving being alone, and all of a sudden all of these people want to know me.  funny how the world works, no?

while i've still been enjoying plenty of time on my own, meeting and befriending these people (a mix of fellow travelers and thais who live and work in this area) has changed the pace of my holiday.  my mornings are still pretty quiet (long solitary breakfasts and walks on the beach), but in the afternoons and evenings i've been meeting up with friends to cheer for the local teams competing in a 10-day soccer tournament on the beach; to eat delicious dinners (i'm still ordering the mildest dishes on the menu but am adding a little more spice each night - there's hope for me yet!); and to drink and chat with the locals at my two new favorite spots - bamboo bar and yai bar.  i've been having a little more fun and getting to know some really kind, intelligent, and interesting people.

but even before this turn of events i was already thinking of extending my stay here.  i know that i need to see other parts of the country (and i will - i've still got some time), but i just can't seem to pull myself away from this place quite yet.  and i was feeling that way even when enjoying only my own company.  then i met some people who work and hang out here, and they started talking about the half moon party, which is happening this friday.  apparently it's much smaller, less touristy, and less crazy and intense than the infamous full moon parties.  it takes place in a clearing in the jungle, and the music is supposedly fantastic.  i've been told that half moon and the after party on the beach the next day are parts of life on this island that i must experience.  so it's been decided: my new tourist friends (a german woman, a french woman, and a guy from holland) and my new thai friends and i are all going to the half moon party together tomorrow night.  and while i've been enjoying my quiet solitude, balance is important, and i'm really looking forward to letting my hair down and dancing the night away with these fine folks.

i will leave thong nai pan on sunday, leaving me a week to check out the andaman coast and islands before going to the retreat with which i will end this journey.  but for the next few days, i'm going to shamelessly continue enjoying the little slice of heaven that i've found here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


local time: sunday, september 26, 2010, 2:20 p.m.

i haven't done much since i last posted.  i had booked an excursion for yesterday that was to include elephant trekking, snorkeling off one of the island's other beaches, and a trip to one of the waterfalls, but i somehow managed to sleep through my alarm and woke up at 10:00 a.m. - an hour after my tour's departure time.  i was disappointed, and the strict no refund policy means that it's not in my budget to re-book the tour, but it felt really good to finally sleep in, and i ended up enjoying yet another languid afternoon on the beach.  in some ways, i feel a bit guilty about the laziness of my time on ko phangan.  i mean, this may be a once in a lifetime trip.  i should be seeing and doing as much as i possibly can, right?  but here i am on my fifth day on this island, and i haven't left thong nai pan yai.  i came all this way, and i don't have much to show for it - just two books read, a nice tan, and a few photos (all taken from the same beach).  oh, and one other small thing: a fantastic new love affair - with myself.

it's taken a long time to get started - almost 32 years, in fact.  i've been dancing around it for the last couple of years; getting close and then withdrawing as old fears and feelings of inadequacy doused the early flames of love and self-acceptance.  but over the last few days in this ridiculously romantic corner of paradise, i've gradually realized just how much i enjoy my own company, and that love i've been pushing away for so long has finally come to fruition. 

it hit me like a ton of bricks last night.  i was walking the length of the beach at sunset - something i've done every evening before dinner while on ko phangan.  there were other people on the beach, of course; variations on the same theme every night: a couple walking hand-in-hand in front of me; a couple walking hand-in-hand behind me; a couple enjoying sunset cocktails and a quiet chat at one of the beachside bars; a couple making out in the shallows a la from here to eternity.  you get the picture, i'm sure.  couples, couples everywhere, and i the only singleton in the bunch.  on previous evenings, i'd found it all a little depressing.  though i felt strong and proud eating dinner at my table for one after these walks, i also felt sad that i didn't have someone with whom to share all of the incredible beauty and seduction of this place.  but last night, as i waded in the surf (well away from the aforementioned amorous couple, of course), a thought came to me seemingly out of nowhere: "hold on a sec, silly goose.  you are sharing all of this with someone; someone who will always be here; someone who will never let you down unless you expressly allow it; someone who, if you let go and let it happen, will love you unconditionally and just as you are for the rest of your life: YOU!" 

it sounds so cheesey and sappy as i write it, but that's how it happened.  that's how, after months of claiming to be happy on my own but not really meaning it deep in my soul, i finally fell in love with myself.  some readers are probably groaning at this point.  "come on, rach, this is supposed to be a travel blog.  enough with this airy fairy stuff."  sorry, guys.  deal with it.  yes, this is a travel blog.  and it just so happens that this portion of my travel has been the catalyst for a monumental moment of self-recognition, self-acceptance, and self-love, and the beginning of an affair that - with regular care and attention from me - will last a lifetime.  besides, i haven't gotten my butt off the beach for anything other than a walk to the village store or the internet cafe, so it was either this post or no post at all. 

anyway . . .

i walked back to the restaurant at the dolphin, unable to wipe the smile off of my face.  they serve drinks and tapas there in the evening, and while i've really enjoyed all the thai food i've been eating, i was in the mood for something a little different.  i ordered a mojito and perused the tapas menu, eventually selecting garlic bread, steamed prawns with garlic, herbs, and red chili flakes (yes folks, i've developed a tolerance for a small amount of spice), and the "cheese platter (for 2)," as it's listed on the menu.  my waiter looked pointedly at the empty seat across from me, but i just smiled and assured him that yes, that was what i wanted.  over the next hour and a half, i enjoyed another mojito and ate every piece of that cheese, relishing each bite.

i'm staying on ko phangan until wednesday, when i'll head to krabi provence and the beaches and islands of the andaman coast.  between now and then i might take a boat taxi to hat rin or bottle beach or other parts of the island.  i might see if a motorbike taxi can take me to a temple or to a trail up to a waterfall.  or i might just stick to "my" beach at thong nai pan yai and let this be my experience of ko phangan.  i'm going to see how i feel in the mornings and just play it by ear.  whatever i decide, at least there is now no doubt that i'll enjoy the company.

Friday, September 24, 2010

my first thai massage. dare i say better than sex?

local time: friday, september 24, 2010, 4:45 p.m.

earlier this afternoon i had my first traditional thai massage.  you might wonder why i waited this long.  1.  my sunburn needed a chance to heal.  2.  i was somewhat traumatized by my last massage, which occured on over new year's in guerneville, ca.  i'll stop short of using the word molestation, but it wouldn't be much of a stretch to get there. how that woman managed to get a professional license is beyond me, and since then i've been a bit gunshy when it comes to strangers touching me.  but lured by the shaded canopy on the beach, the proprietor's friendly smile, and the incredible price, i caved today.  boy am i glad i did.

thai massage is unlike any swedish, deep tissue, hot stone, or other massage i've ever had.  with unbelievable strength, this tiny woman used her hands, forearms, elbows, feet, and knees to find and then knead, stretch, prod, and pummel away every ounce of stress and tension that my body had been carrying for the last few weeks, months, maybe even years.  she found knots i didn't know existed and stretched joints i hadn't even realized were tight.  it was like a massage, chiropractic treatment, and yoga class all in one - with someone else doing all the work.  yes, it had its painful moments, but the relase that followed was well worth it.

better than sex?  okay, no.  but i left feeling more relaxed, refreshed, and rejuvenated than i have felt in a very long time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ko phangan and the thailand i was looking for

local time: thursday, 9/23/2010, 12:30ish p.m.

quick correction to last post.  it was brought to my attention that the samui mermaid's website is actually (with a dash).  free advertising complete.  :)

i woke up bright and early (ironically that seems to be the norm on this vacation) on wednesday and caught the 8:00 a.m. ferry from ko samui to ko phangan.  not having paid much attention to the lunar cycle - though i had noticed how lovely the moon was looking on my evening walk on tuesday - i discovered on my way to the boat that my visit coincides with this weekend's full mon, and thus with the island's famous monthly full moon party.  i toyed with the idea of going, but finding that there was no decent affordable lodging available in hat rin (home of sunrise beach and the epicenter of the debauchery), and having heard and read many serious warnings against attending the event as a woman alone, i decided to stick to my original plan and headed instead to thong nai pan on the northern coast of the island.  don't get me wrong; i like a big night out of drinking and dancing as much as the next girl, and i've enjoyed my share of all night parties, but i definitely made the right choice.

after a 45 minute motorbike taxi ride through ko phangan's jungly terrain, much of it along very steep dirt roads with a few harrowing hairpin turns, i arrived at dolphin bungalows.  situated at the western end of thong nai pan yai (the smaller of the area's two sheltered bays), dolphin came highly recommended by lonely planet.  i was soon to see why.  the bungalows are built right up out of the jungle, surrounded by palm trees, lush vegetation, and gorgeous flowers.  a sandy path winds through the maze of structures out to the reception area and open air bar/restaurant, with several tables right on the beach.  tucked away throughout the complex are several shaded pagodas with plush, comfortable cusions - perfect spots for lounging in the heat of the afternoon.  my bungalow is absolutely lovely, despite being the least expensive that they offer: a simple wooden structure with shutter-style windows, mosquito netting around the big, comfortable bed, the cleanest bathroom i've seen so far, and a porch with my very own hammock.  this is what i envisioned when contemplating this trip.  here is the thailand i was looking for.  if there is any danger of me not coming home, this place is to blame.

this morning i took my breakfast at one of the beachside tables, enjoying a cool breeze and the sights and sounds of the day getting going - water taxis lining up; fishing boats coming and going from the bay; nearby resorts setting up lounge chairs along their stretches of the sand.  as i lingered over english tea, fruit, and toast with nutella, i was joined by some delightful company.  the dog belonging to the dolphin's owners wandered over, licked my toes, and curled up for a snooze at my feet.  their cat plopped herself in my lap and promptly started purring (maybe she sensed that i've been missing thumbelina).  a butterfly landed on my shoulder and stayed there a surprisingly long time.  table for one?  i don't think so!

today is going to be a pretty lazy day.  i'm going to try to book a tour of the island's temples and waterfalls for tomorrow or saturday, walk around the village, and then head back to the dolphin.  the plan for the rest of the afternoon?  beach, pagoda, hammock, repeat.  oh, and maybe a massage.

Monday, September 20, 2010

ko samui

local time: tuesday, 9/21/2010, noon

i've been in thailand for one week today.  strangely, although i've been having a great time, it feels like much longer than that.  time seems to move differently here.  i don't think it feels that way simply because i'm on vacation, as i was unemployed and not sticking to a regular schedule for the month before i arrived here.  normally a night owl with a touch of insomnia, i've been falling asleep effortlessly around 9 or 10 each night and waking up with the birds between 5  and 7  in the morning.  and such sleep - my god!  deep, sumptuous, restful sleep; the kind that i haven't experienced in i don't know how long.  during the day, i'm always surprised when i look at a clock and see that it is only noon, or 3, or whatever time it happens to be.  the days - whether packed with activity or spent lazily wandering around and lounging by the pool - seem much longer, and i feel as though i've been here for two or three weeks rather than just one.  maybe it's the strangeness of being in a place so different from my home?  maybe it's the equatorial sun?  i don't know, but i kind of like it.

anyway . . .

i arrived in ko samui on saturday, after a twelve hour bus ride (quite comfy as i accidentally purchased a first class ticket.  note to self - always double check what the quoted fare is for.) and a ninety minute ferry ride.  more in the mood for quiet contemplation than big time partying, i decided to skip the built-up hustle and bustle and raucous nightlife of chaweng - samui's most famous beach area - and took a taxi north to the smaller, quieter, bang rak, or big buddha beach.  with no hotel reservation i wasn't sure exactly where i wanted to go.  understandably, the driver was frustrated with me and stopped and insisted that i get out once we got to the start of the bang rak area.  i wandered a little ways up a street and stumbled upon the samui mermaid, a resort i remembered reading about in my lonely planet guide.  the fan bungalow was lovely, right across the street from the beach, with its own bathroom, hot water, and access to two pools on the grounds.  my pack was feeling pretty heavy, i was dying for a shower, and the low season price was right, so i checked in.  the mermaid has been a lovely home away from home these past few days.  you can check it out at if you're so inclined.

i woke up on sunday feeling suddenly overwhelmed with loneliness.  though taking this trip alone is something i was looking forward to, it is proving to be quite difficult at times.  at that point i hadn't encountered any other english speaking tourists, and my thai is limited to "hello," "please," "thank you," and "how much?".  i found myself longing for a conversation; for a traveling partner to help ease the nervousness when lost in a strange land; for some reminder that i matter to people other than myself (the comments on the blog help immensely with that.  thanks, folks!).  i pulled out the thai cell phone that i bought for emergency purposes and called my mom who, as always, knew just what to say to comfort me.  she reminded me that what comes up in these darker moments is just as important as, if not moreso than, the good times that i'm having.  she commended me on my strength and courage in doing this on my own and encouraged me to put myself in situations where i might meet more people if that was what i wanted.  feeling much better after our chat (thanks mom!) and a good, cleansing cry, i went and got myself breakfast and planned my day.  honeymooning couples be damned!  this is my trip to make of what i will. 

later that morning, i walked up to the big, golden buddha for which this area is named.  i bought some incense and climbed the sixty stairs (yes, i counted them, as i always do) to the top, where i lit an offering and spent some time walking around, taking in the beautiful views, breathing deeply, centering myself, and getting back to the joy and excitement with which i began this adventure.  later i went to one of the local travel offices to book an excursion for the following day, figuring that would be a good way to see some of the sights and to spend some time with other people.  i spent the rest of the afternoon poolside, sipping on singhas and fending off the advances of two much older german men (i know i said i wanted company, but that was not exactly what i had in mind!).

on monday, i took a guided trip out to angthong marine national park, a group of small, rocky islands just west of samui in the gulf of thailand.  upon boarding the boat, i sat next to a lovely couple from wales and a very friendly australian family with two gorgeous kids.  i spent most of the rest of the day in their company.  yay!  an hour-long speedboat ride took us to ko wao, where we dropped anchor and spent a wonderful hour snorkeling around a shallow water coral reef.  the water was clear and the marine life was plentiful, and i couldn't help giggling as schools of fish danced around me.  from there we cruised at a slower, more photo-friendly pace around various islands and rock formations (photos will be posted when i get home, as the internet cafe proprietors frown upon me plugging in my camera to upload them).  we stopped a mae koh island and climbed a steep, slippery staircase (i lost count.  there were many, many steps, often made of slippery rock, and i was focused on not falling to my death!) up to a stunning vista point over the emerald lake lagoon.  so beautiful!  after a heart stopping (for me, at least) climb down, we got back on the boat and raced over to ko paluay, the only inhabited island in the park.  after walking around the tiny fishing village, we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch of fried prawns, rice, vegetables, soup, and some sort of delicious fruit that nobody could tell me the name of.  from there we boated to song pee nong beach on yet another island, where we spent the afternoon kayaking around rocks and caves, swimming, and sunbathing.  i know that the tour was orchestrated for tourists, and not necessarily an "authentic" experience of the place, but it was a great day full of breathtaking views, physical activity, white sand beaches, and good company.  i arrived back at my bungalow happy, exhausted, sunburned (despite copious amounts of spf 70 sunscreen - the sun here is something else!), and feeling as though i'd gotten a little taste of paradise.  aaahhh.

this afternoon i'm going to wander a few kilometers west to neighboring bo phut and its beach and fisherman's village.  tomorrow i leave samui on the morning ferry and head over to ko pha-ngan, where i plan to hike to some waterfalls, hopefully visit some elephants, and indulge in some more beach bumming.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

the first few days - pattaya

local time: friday, 9/17/2010, 1:45 p.m.

after about 20 hours of travel, i arrived in bangkok on tuesday morning.  feeling exhausted and a little overwhelmed, i splurged on a taxi rather than taking the bus to pattaya.  the highway was surrounded by lush, green jungle, broken up occasionally by the brightly colored roof of a temple or a "travel center" - a small row of shops along the highway ususally containing a 7-eleven (they're everywhere here), a gas station, and a kfc or mcdonalds.  though my taxi driver's tactics on the road caused my heart to skip the occasional beat, all in all it was a pleasant drive.  i arrived at my uncle's condo in one piece and was greeted by his girlfriend, pon, with a beautiful smile, a tall glass of ice water, and the offer of a bed to lie down on.  despite every intention of just "resting my eyes" for a few minutes, i slept like the dead for the next couple of hours until chris arrived home from work.

late in the afternoon, chris and i went off in search of a room for me.  i secured one with a fan and my own bathroom (no hot water, but in this climate a cold shower does just fine) about one kilometer off the road where chris and pon live for 400 baht - about $12.00 - per night.  the three of us then headed out to dinner, and i feasted on pad thai and singha beer.  yummers!

riding back to my room on the back of a motorbike (one fear conquered, thank you very much!), i was struck by the sound of the night around me.  it was a symphony of nocturnal birds, insects, and other creatures unlike anything i have heard before.  as their songs lulled me to sleep, i couldn't help thinking, "wow.  i really am in a far-off, exotic land."

for the most part, the few days i've spent in pattaya have been pretty mellow.  pon showed me around the city (again, all on a motorbike) and helped me take care of a few errands.  it's been lovely having some time to get acclimated with people that i know nearby.  last night, however, we decided to liven things up a bit with a visit to walking street, the center of pattaya's sex trade.  i figured that since i'm here, i had to check it out.  my, what a spectacle.

we got there fairly early in the eventing and bought dinner from one of the vendors at the back end of the street.  we sat at a small plastic table next to one of the many many beauty parlors that surround walking street where the working girls go to get ready for the night.  i watched as these women - so beautiful to begin with - had themselves dyed, tweezed, flat ironed, teased, and painted up until they looked almost like charicatures of themselves or their ideas of what their customers wanted.  at first i though it was too much; that they were much prettier going in than coming out; that they were way too overdone.  then i thought about it and realized that maybe this transformation isn't just for the customers.  maybe it's for the women themselves.  i mean, if that were my job, wouldn't i want to hide behind a mask of hair and make-up?  just a thought . . .

we finished our food and venutred out onto the street, a bustling promenade of neon and thumping music.  one beer bar or club after another, each offering the prettiest girls; the sexiest shows; the best drinks.  it was a little overwhelming - even during the low season with its relative un-crowdedness - and i think my mouth was slightly agape the entire time.  girls and "lady boys" (many of whom looked more feminine than i do!) called out from doorways, inviting passersby to come in, say hello, and buy them a drink.  men kept trying to hand me laminated flyers advertising the various sex shows available (believe me - there's something for everyone).  we didn't actually go inside anywhere, but just wandering down the street it was clear to see that if the price is right, just about anything goes.

i left walking street in a bit of a daze and not quite sure what to think.  on the one hand, as a modern western woman i find such blatant objectification somewhat repugnant.  on the other hand, ideas about sex for sale are very different here, and i have to be careful not to look at things from an ethnocentric perspective.  the workers/performers i saw out there were adults and, i'm told, there by choice.  i know that there is also a much darker side involving children and human trafficking, but i didn't see it.  that would have had me up in arms.  but as far as what's out in the open on walking street, i'm left with the feeling that it's really not my place to judge.  there's a reason why prostitution is called the oldest profession.  it exists everywhere and likely always will.  walking street just displays it a bit more flamboyantly than some other places.  i'm sure that some who read this will disagree, but having seen it, that's how i feel.

today is my last day in pattaya.  unfortunately i've had to cancel my plans to go to a meditation retreat at a temple in chiang mai, due to a serious outbreak of dengue fever in the northern part of the country.  i will just have to come back to thailand to see that area some other time in the future (poor me, right?!).  all is not lost regarding the spiritual side of this trip, however.  i will be visiting other temples throughout my travels, and through my uncle's boss i have found one outside pattaya that offers retreats.  they require advanced notice, so i'll be going there toward the end of this visit.  in the meantime, this evening i'll get on the overnight bus to ko samui. 

let the island hopping begin!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

on my way

i returned from burning man less than a week ago, and i leave for thailand tomorrow night.  wow.  the butterflies in my tummy haven't had a break for weeks!  my time on the playa was amazing in and of itself (one that i could never adequately describe in this forum), but it was also the perfect preparation for this next great adventure.  as i reflect on my experiences out there, i've learned so much about myself and my interactions with others and with the world around me.  i feel stronger, a little braver, and more ready for this solo trip than i was a few weeks ago.  that being said, my excitement is tinged with nervousness.  this is by far the biggest thing i've ever done on my own, and the combination of complete freedom and complete responsibility for my own trip is both thrilling and scary.  so maybe that's what this blog is about . . . sharing my experiences as i go, thus feeling like in some way i'm taking my friends and family along with me.  sounds a little cheesey i guess, but hey - that's me. 

i've been looking forward to exploring thailand for years.  feel free to check in here periodically if you want to see what i discover.