Klutziness on the high seas and a resort review

So, now Roman is in Switzerland and I am in the States. Here in Connecticut, it’s the coldest week we’ve had all winter. We’re talking optimistic highs of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows much lower than that. The skies are clear and the sun is out with full force – everything outdoors is beautiful: frozen, brittle and glittery in the glare of the bright light. I’m happy to observe it from indoors and to let my mind wander back to the warmer climes we enjoyed in the Philippines.

Coral Bay: a retreat from the world

My last post on our time in the Philippines was about its capital city, Manila. We had a great few days there but our main objective in the Philippines was to get some beach time in, do some diving and r-e-l-a-x after our jam-packed time in China.

So our next destination after Manila was chosen very specifically with those goals in mind. We were heading to Coral Bay Dive & Beach Resort, an intimate, rustic resort on a wee island in the midst of an archipelago surrounded by beautiful blue ocean.

Back when we were actually there, I did a quick illustrated post on how to get there: Getting to Coral Bay

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 9.01.34 PMThis place is in the middle of nowhere; the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was a cast away on a deserted isle. Popototan Island, where Coral Bay is located, is inhabited only by the resort staff and by one seclusion-loving European in a private home. Most of the islands in the area are uninhabited.

Here’s the link to the map – you can click and zoom out to see just how small this island is!

Being so far from anything, the resort is by necessity – and by choice – a bit rustic.

DSC_0115Accommodation is in the form of simple bamboo huts furnished with the basics – a bed with mosquito netting, bedside tables and lamps, a basic bathroom, a balcony with a hammock. There is a generator that supplies electricity from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. Water for showers is not heated. Hearty, home cooked food is available, buffet style, at prescribed times in the open-air restaurant. WiFi is available in the resort’s office only: the goal of this place is to provide its guests with a chance to unplug and appreciate the spectacular surrounding nature.

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Aside from spending all day in a hammock by the water, Coral Bay offers activities: snorkeling, kayaking, island hopping and diving. The snorkeling is one of the place’s best features. Grab the gear from the dive center, hop off the pier, swim a few yards and you’ll be floating above the resort’s private and pristine reef, where thousands of beautiful creatures make their home. Roman and I did this nearly every day we weren’t diving. Floating peacefully just above the fish, clams, anemones and corals all doing their thing – it’s just magic!

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

For my personal preference, the cottages could have been a bit better furnished – the bed and seating weren’t as comfortable as would have liked. And the food was a bit on the stodgy side for my taste – very carb and meat heavy and a somewhat limited selection. But this was the case for us everywhere in the Philippines. This country is NOT known for healthy eats… On the balance though, the minor discomforts were well worth the chance to spend time surrounded by so much beauty!

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Moments I want to remember

It’s been a walk down memory lane going through my photos from our stay at Coral Bay. Since these things fade over time I want to make sure I get them down in writing now. 🙂

– We arrived from Manila at Coron, the only town on the big island “closest” to Popototan. We had time to kill before our boat for Coral Bay was leaving, so we got to wander the town, have a snack at a cute little restaurant, and check out the local marketplace. Always one of my favorite things to do. Coron was teeny tiny, sweet and welcoming in the warm sunshine. I wouldn’t mind going back some day to get to know it better! 🙂 Here are some of my favorite photos from our short visit there.

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– One of our first nights at the resort, Roman and I went to the dock to look at an inky black sky strewn with a thousand stars. Suddenly, the hotel’s generator broke down, and everything was cast into total darkness except the glimmering stars above. Looking at the water below, we noticed that there were little lights flitting about – fish with phosphorescence no doubt! We ran our hands through the water below the dock and little specks of glowing lights trailed behind our fingers. Nature lighting up the heavens above and the waters below!

Coral Bay's mangroves at night

Coral Bay’s mangroves at night

P1050721– We were on the island for Thanksgiving. One of my friends emailed and suggested we share photos of our turkey-day grub with each other. So me, my friend in Atlanta and my friend in Poland were together in spirit. And that day, the buffet had roast chicken and potato on the menu – probably as close as I would have come to Turkey and mashed potatoes anywhere in the Philippines anyway. 🙂

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– I loved the silence on the island. No traffic, no TV, no machinery, meant lots of space for the sounds of nature. Every night, once the sun had set, there was a slow-paced concert put on by the local geckos which was just awesome. Check out what it sounds like in this post: Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

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No pictures of this memory, thank God!

We did a bunch of dives while we were at Coral Bay. It was my first time ever wreck diving. Things seemed pretty relaxed in the Philippines; I’m not sure we were technically allowed to do wreck dives with our open-water certification. The dives could have possibly been a bit more professional, but we still had a great time and it was a good experience.

Batfish lingering around a wreck

Batfish lingering around a wreck

I had some challenges with the diving (I did a post about it when we were there: Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea) but once I got past those it was a great time – aside from my klutziness, one more my less admirable characteristics that comes to the fore from time to time.

Somehow on the day in question I had equal parts luck and klutziness going with me which was definitely a good thing or else I may have gotten swept out to sea!

During the first dive of the day I managed to somehow dislodge one of my flippers. The thing disappeared and no amount of searching the area around the wreck was able to produce any trace of it. So I spent the dive swimming lopsided and wondering what sort of insane fee we would have to pay for losing the hotel’s gear. Happily though, the flipper had floated to the surface just next to our boat and one of the crew had rescued it. Win number one!

The bigger fail/win came on the trip back to the resort.

We were on a small boat. It was simple but I assumed it was pretty sturdy. After a day of diving, we were relaxing, watching the horizon as the sky changed colors in advance of the sunset. I borrowed Roman’s camera to take a few snaps. I walked to the prow of the boat for a better view. Trying to get the optimal angle, I leaned against a beam – not realizing that the piece of bamboo was being held in place only by the canvas roof bracing it against the bottom of the boat.

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

I guess I leaned too hard, because the next thing I knew, I was toppling over. My feet flew above my head, my torso plunged over the side towards the water speeding below, and my hands grasped! In some sort of divine instinct, they found their marks, and I managed to grab hold of Roman’s tumbling camera in one hand and a bit of thin rope that – thank God – was securely attached to the ship in the other. The camera and my head stopped thanks to my hold on that rope about five inches above the water and the crew ran forward and hoisted me back onto the boat.

My sarong had dipped into the salty brine, I had a rope burn on my left hand (I still have a slight scar from it today, over a year later) and my dignity might as well have been flung overboard too. The sarong that I’d been wrapped in flew over my head as I fell I have an awful mental image of my pale, flabby body in a bright green bikini flopping around for all the crew to see – poor guys!! But I escaped an unplanned dip in the ocean, or worse, and I even managed to save Roman’s camera. So I guess that’s a fair trade off for being embarrassed to the point of utter mortification!

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Feeding frenzy

We’re currently on a little side trip from Santiago at the seaside city of Valparaíso, an hour or two from Chile’s capital. It’s our last night here already – and also my first with internet since we arrived and now that I’m on line I just have to share some photos.

We’re staying at a B&B outside of the city center. It’s a short walk to the metro, which runs parallel to the Bay of Valparaíso’s coastline and gets us into the city in no time. An unexpected benefit is that the metro stop is right by a fisherman’s market and the piers behind them.

Each day there, we’ve gotten to marvel over the spectacle of gulls, pelicans and sea lions hanging out and squabbling over the fish and crab scraps the fishermen toss them from time to time. It’s like our very own David Attenborough special in real life, up close and personal.

The sea lions are too massive to be believed. They are these great hulking monoliths of slick fur and flubbering flesh lumbering across the sand, flopping into worn out piles to sun themselves, baring teeth, bellowing like disgruntled wookies and charging each other over food. Everything changes once they hit the water, where they immediately transform into weightless, elegant creatures gliding effortlessly through the water.

The gulls in the photos might make it seem like the sea lions are not that big. Don’t be fooled. They are colossal. I mean both the sea lions and the sea gulls. The cacophony the birds create when bits of crab or fish are available to fight over is insane!

And the Peruvian pelicans are incredible. They waddle, pigeon-toed, around the pier with their chins tucked deferentially into their chests like they were insecure about asking for fish, but they become magnificent when they take to the air, swooping about pterodactyl-like on massive wings.

So here are some of my favorite photos, in no particular order…

Fishing boats with the pier in the back ground. If you look close, you can already see the sea lions on the beach under pier. 

Pelicans going for fish scraps

Sometimes the sea lions get pretty aggressive with each other. Made me really happy to be watching from the pier above. 

A sea lion dives for crab scraps 

Sea lion and gulls

Gull, pelicans in the background

Diving for scraps

A fisherman dumping crab scraps

And the chaos that ensues…

A tern checking out the action from above

“Back off!!!” I love the look on the one gull’s face

Jack pot!

Pelicans eyeing the action below

Pelican coming in for a landing 

Cormorant and sea lion

Coy pelican

A tern glides above as a sea lion floats below

Great Ocean Road Teaser

We’ve barely begun our tour of Australia’s Great Ocean Road, and already it’s treating us to some absolutely stunning scenery. I’m determined to keep on catching up on the China posts, but just quickly, here’s a peak of just one of the amazing ocean views we’ve seen on our first day of our Aussie Camper Van adventure! Click to enlarge. The spot is Bell Beach, where just this past Easter weekend the yearly massive surf contest took place.

Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea

It feels like ages since I’ve done a post and China is already starting to recede – a dream fading to the bright light reality of a sunny morning here in the Philippines. I’m determined to pick up though where I left off – with all we did and saw after leaving Xinjiang – but first I want to share where we are now.

We arrived in the Philippines nearly a week ago. After what felt like endless grey, cold, foggy and smoggy weather in China, we were ready for a change – and so far the Philippines has definitely been delivering!

We spent a couple of days in Manila before traveling to our current destination: a small, simple, secluded beach resort on a tiny island called Popototan, part of the Calamian Group of Islands, which clusters to the northeast of long, slender Palawan Island, the “most sparsely populated region” of the Philippines. (Lonely Planet)

The resort is simple but lovely. Power is on from 6pm to 6am every day. There’s no music, no traffic, no TV. Not much to listen to besides the gentle slap of the surf on the beach, the wind through the palms, the twitter of birds and whir of insects, the evening communications of a thriving community of geckos.

The beach is small but spotless. The real treasures lie under the water though, with plenty of reefs and wrecks providing a home to some amazing sea life. Kayaking, snorkeling, diving; it’s all possible here and the resort makes it easy to get into the water, how ever you prefer to do so, at a moment’s notice.

Basically, it’s paradise.

That is, if you happen to be an ocean person. Looking back at China I’ve been noticing how totally excited I get about mountains. The frosty landscapes of Xinjiang. The rural, Swiss-like peace of the rice terraces around Dazhai. The hike through the steep ridges of Tiger Leaping Gorge. These are the places that make my pulse quicken and my heart leap.

Beaches, I’m beginning to realize, are not my natural habitat.

Perhaps it’s down to exposure over a lifetime to apparently effective marketing which has led me to believe that upon arrival at a tropical beach, I should instantly transform into some tan, sleek, gorgeous and totally relaxed sort of island goddess.

Thanks to my dad’s mix of northern blood (Irish, English, Scottish, German), deeply tan is something I will never be. My options are limited to pasty white, bright pink or increasingly, disturbingly freckled.

Salt and wind do not agree with my hair or skin; the boat ride here for example left me feeling not unlike a greasy French fry.

Beaches don’t make me any more pretty than I already am or am not.

And, apparently, with all these expectations riding around in my head, they don’t instantly relax me either.

Oh, and I also have some small but irrationally lingering phobia of the vast unknown-ness of the ocean and the possibility of drowning or getting sucked down into it by something with sharp teeth, tentacles, or sharp teeth and tentacles. I am deeply impressed, fascinated even, by the mystery and power of the ocean, but towards the core of those feelings, there is also fear, which potentially also doesn’t help with the whole relaxation thing.

I’m working through it though. With the help of the ocean no less.

The diving we did back in Thailand was such a wonderful experience, and a chance to dive again was one of the main reasons we decided to come to the Philippines after China. We went snorkeling our first day here; we went diving yesterday. I’ve forgotten some of equipment details since our course in Thailand, but the general technique, feeling and lessons of diving are coming back quickly and they’re helping me a lot.

  • Don’t panic.
  • Remember to breathe. And make it as deep and slow and calm as you can.
  • If your mind can master your blind and frantic instinct to want to shoot desperately to the surface, then a whole miraculous and amazing world will open before your eyes.
  • And as soon as it does, you will be fully present – breathe and awareness and intention melding into one as you find yourself effortlessly floating in a wonderland – and any fear and panic that seemed so huge and important will melt away without you even noticing it.

Roman, unlike me, has always loved the ocean. His eyes are the color of a warm sea lit up by golden sunlight, and they started to sparkle as soon as we got into the tropical heat in Manila. He is also a master relaxer. (Oh, and he tans easily and looks darn good when he does.)

We’ve been talking about, among other things, my difficulty in relaxing. He’s been encouraging me to surrender – surrender more to the “what is”. Of being here on the beach, of the realities of the trip, of the fact that I can’t predict, let alone control the future (along with expectations about transforming into that incredible beach goddess comes all sorts of stuff like shouldn’t I have figured out X,Y and Z about what happens after “the big trip” by now?? (not that we even know yet when that will be…)). All I’ve got to work with is the present, so I may as well be there for it.

Letting go of expectations – becoming more present with what is here in the moment, rather than what I think should be here (or what I think I should be here) – I find I’m feeling better in my own skin (even if it doesn’t tan well) and enjoying this beach break more and more with every passing day. And I’m getting to see some pretty awesome aquatic life along the way!

Notes on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most iconic scenes. Before reading up on it, I was familiar with images of beautiful classic “junk” ships set against the dramatic waterscape, but I hadn’t realized this was Vietnam. The lovely Louise and Patrick highly recommended visiting – noting that even though you basically have no choice but to see it as part of a tourist-package, the gorgeous nature is well worth the risks associated with such tours.

(Risks like: Are you really going to get what they are selling you? Will the weather cooperate? Will the people you’ll be stuck on the boat with nice or nasty? We’d read plenty of horror stories about dingy, rat-infested boats, no refunds when the weather turns bad, etc. The bottom line is, yes, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing, but make sure the person/business you’re buying the tickets from is trustworthy (we found some pretty dodgy websites and endorsements on-line!) and it is worth spending a bit more money to get on a decent boat – don’t go for something that is rock-bottom budget.)

We booked (through our hotel) an overnight trip with “A Class Cruise” and got reasonably good service/accommodations for a reasonable price. We had bad luck with the weather – it was cool and cloudy the first day and pouring cats and dogs the next – and good luck with the guests who were all friendly and good company. I’d rather have it that way than the other way around, so I was happy. 🙂

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View of our room from the door (small but fine)

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View of our room from the bed

We knew what we were getting into so we weren’t disappointed. The tour company picked us up in a mini-van; the drive to Halong Bay included a refreshment stop at a massive tourist store full of tacky sculpture and mass-produced paintings. Arriving at the Bay, we joined the hundreds of other tourists being herded like sheep to the slaughter by the tour group handlers. It honestly was exactly like queuing in line for a ride at Disneyland on a busy holiday.

The boat was perfectly nice; the food they served was decent and plentiful. The hours on the boat were sliced up into activities – make your own spring rolls, taste some (dull) Vietnamese wine, go visit a “floating village” (nothing compared to the amazing river-villages at Kampong Chhnang), now its time for swimming and/or relaxation before dinner is served, etc…

The nice thing was that even with this and the grey weather, Halong Bay still is very, very beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it. I wonder though if it was glad to see us – with so very many tour boats cruising through the bay with military efficiency (our boat picked up guests from the two-night tour on the way back and our room was ready to receive the next round of fresh meat before we even docked), one can’t help but wonder about (and feel a bit guilty about contributing to) the impact on the environment…

Panorama view of the bay as we (and all the other boats) dropped anchor for the night – click for a closer look

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We get taken for a boat ride around the karsts and village

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Floating snack shop rows from boat to boat selling over-priced beer, chips, etc. It must be a hard living – she was rowing around long after dark and I’m not sure how much she actually sold…

DSC 0432Beautiful scenery!

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One of the things I really loved was watching the eagles (or hawks? or other?) wheeling through the sky above the karsts. So gorgeous!

Thai Island Dream: Part 6 (Ko Lipe, learning to dive)

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Ko Lipe is surrounded by a group of islands that form the protected Ko Tarutao Marine National Park. It’s meant to be some incredible nature and we’d had plans to hire a long tail and go exploring, but Roman enjoyed the dive intro on the Aquila so much that he came up with a suggestion: Why not get certified?

Lipe has a good number of dive shops that have Lonely Planet’s stamp of approval, so we decided to go for it, and we signed up for the PADI Open Water Diver course the next day. I’ve added “Seeing the Tarutao National Park” to my to-do list for the next time we go on vacation in Thailand, but the diving was such a phenomenal experience; I have no regrets about saving the park for next time. 🙂

We ended up diving with a shop called Ocean Pro. Chilled out but professional, and if all their instructors are as good as the one we learned with then I can recommend them hands down. Rebecca was our teacher, a very cool chick from NYC of all places. She was informative but very fun and knew tons about the fantastic marine life we got to see in and around the coral reefs we dived at. We also bonded over the time we’d both spent working in the in the finance industry making the money to fuel our dreams. 🙂

Learning to trust the breath

The first time I went diving was back in 2002. Getting over a hard break up I decided to shake things up and do something completely new, so I took myself on a short island vacation to Aruba. Following the “be adventurous” theme, I signed up for one of those hotel one-day dive packages, where you learn the ropes in the pool in the morning and then do a simple dive in relatively shallow waters in the afternoon.

It sounds basic, and it is, but for me it was a big deal, because I’ve got a bit of a fear of drowning. I’m not sure where this might come from, but not being able to breathe really frightens me, more so than the normal person. I was fine during the pool practice, but I started to freak out as soon as my head went under the ocean water in the afternoon and I began hyperventilating.

Luckily the instructor saw me and was able to “talk me down” using eye contact and sign language. What happened then was amazing. Using my mind and my breath I was able to calm down enough until the wonder of the dive – the amazing feeling of floating through the water as though I were flying and the excitement of seeing beautiful fish in their natural habitat – overtook and completely replaced all of the irrational but massive fear I had been experiencing.

Power of the breath

Holding to and working consciously with breath is something I learned even more about as I began and developed my yoga practice shortly thereafter. It’s something that is so simple and yet so powerful; it never ceases to amaze me when I can reconnect to it.

It was therefore really interesting for me to come back to diving after my first experience years ago and after all the practice with breath work that I’ve had from yoga. In fact in some ways certain things were actually harder for me – yoga breathing is primarily through the nose and of course when you’re diving everything is through the regulator in your mouth, so I had to overcome some well-ingrained habits.

But it was fascinating and fun to see how big of effect conscious breathing has on diving. The amount to which you can regulate your depth or the amount of oxygen you use is astounding. It was especially eye-opening to me when I was diving with an underwater camera (this was after we’d completed our certification) – I was distracted by taking photos and didn’t pay attention to my breath at all and I went through my air twice as fast!

Dive fans

The course was pretty full on (the days started early and were full of painfully dorky PADI videos, above and underwater practice, independent study and practice quizzes until it was time to sleep) but fun, and we loved the dives so much that we signed up to join a fun dive (means that the crew would set up and clean up your gear for you and you can just show up 🙂 ) bright and early the next day and ended up diving at three different sites.

We didn’t see any big critters under water, but the reefs around the islands were just teeming with life. As soon as your head is under the surface (or sometimes even before!), there’s not a direction you can look where you wouldn’t see something interesting. Puffer fish, clark’s anemone fish, sting rays, trigger fish (some that tried to attack me! 🙂 ), clown fish (the Nemo fish, in case you didn’t know that already 😉 ), porcupine and goat fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, fancy looking lion fish, poisonous and camouflaged scorpion fish, eels, sea slugs and cucumbers – the list goes on. And the anenome and coral were gorgeous and fascinating too!

We couldn’t get enough of watching it all, and we definitely plan to make diving a part of the rest of our trip, depending on location and budget. 🙂

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Dive plan Rebecca drew up for one of the fun dives

We got to use Rebecca’s underwater camera one day. I have a lot to learn about underwater photography yet – the pics aren’t great, but here are some of them anyhow. 🙂 Full disclaimer: Most of the pics have been pretty heavily doctored in iPhoto to try to get the colors to match my memory…

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Can you find Nemo? 🙂

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Sea squirts – This particular version are one of my favorites, they are so pretty and such an amazing color in real life

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Porcupine fish

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Eels

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Can you see the scorpion fish in this photo?

Other random stuff
Just for myself, I want to remember:
– how amazing the sunsets were on Ko Lipe. Some of the most colorful and stunning we saw in all of Thailand, with the sky and ocean reflecting a ever-changing rainbow of pearly pastels at each other until the sun got low enough to turn it all to purple-grey.
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This is a photo of the least pretty sunset we saw on the island – and the only one I had my camera with me for. 😉

– the bizarre incident of breaking up the fight we happened upon as we walked back to our hotel one night, and how the Indian guy, Joseph, who was outnumbered and definitely getting his butt kicked, was happy when he finally found us a couple of days later to say thank you.
– the hilariously unenthusiastic and pathetic karaoke that was going on at the hotel down the street from ours. Hotel California with the words half remembered, sung by a guy who couldn’t even be bothered (or maybe was too ashamed?) to get up from his table. Cracked me up. 🙂

Thai Island Dream: Part 5 (Ko Lipe)

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Our final stop in our Thai island dream was Ko Lipe, an island in Satun province not too far from the Malaysian border. We were reluctant to leave our idyllic spot at Ko Lanta, but were curious enough about what Lonely Planet was calling the “Deep South”, so we got up early, slurped down a last delicious coffee and got driven by the lovely Mango House manager to the dock at the other side of the island.

The speed boat we boarded cut along mangroves and through bright waters, making stops along the way to pick up more tourists who would wade with their luggage from the beach to the boat. Once the ship was full up, we stopped at a larger island and boarded a ferry. A journey of a few hours brought us to a floating dock off the waters of Ko Lipe, where we and our luggage were loaded into long tail taxis.

Another spectacular beach landing erased any regrets I had about leaving Ko Lanta. The sand was nearly white, the water was crystal clear – I could see coral and fish as I peered over the edge of the long tail boat! – and it felt wonderfully refreshing as we hopped overboard and walked onto the beach. I couldn’t wait to get my bathing suit on and go for a swim!

Luckily for us Ko Lipe is tiny, and it took no time to walk to our hotel and get settled.

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Long tail boat like the one that brought us on shore

The island and the hotel

Ko Lipe is more “Thailand Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center” than authentic Thai village. Unlike Ko Lanta, it seems to exist only for tourism. There’s not much we discovered in the way of culture or places like restaurants that were geared towards locals rather than tourists and the vibe was accordingly different.

That doesn’t stop the island and its beaches from being beautiful, and we really loved the immersion in nature we experienced there, but we were also grateful to be there after the high season. It was clear from the number of hotels and restaurants that the island could accommodate a LOT more visitors than we saw. We were told that during peak season the place is just packed with Europeans – especially Swedes for some reason.

The island has a main “walking street” – a sandy pedestrian path that links the two main beaches and is lined with roti stands (a Thai version of crepes), bars, restaurants, tour operators and convenience stores. Most hotels and bungalows tend to be located on the beaches.

We ended up at a spot that was a bit out of the way (which meant just a short walk to the main drag) at a hotel called The Reef. While it didn’t have the charm and beauty of Mango House, still, it was perfectly clean and modern and we really liked it.

The real highlight was the cats living at the hotel. The place had a lovely open lounge at the front, with low tables and pretty cushions set out on the wood floor. The staff had two teeny tiny little kittens that hung out there during opening hours, toddling between guests legs and getting their little kitten claws stuck on the cloth as they climbed up the pillows. SO cute. There was another cat, young but no longer a kitten, who also lived there and seemed to feel pretty displaced by the little fuzzball siblings. She was also way adorable and took a liking to us and was always trying to sneak into our room for some extra attention. Cute fest! 🙂

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Our room at The Reef

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Cutey cat

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Half of cutey cat’s competition, Fuzzball 1

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Fuzzball 1 close up

Lipe eats

We soon found some favorites for food on the island. Everything we ever ate at the Sunrise Beach Restaurant was delicious – we kept coming back for the curries and especially the fried fish with tons of garlic and green onion. Yum!

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Konlay Thaifood on the “walking street” was a bit hit or miss – maybe different chefs for different days? – but the service was really friendly and good and I did have one of the best Pad Thais of our entire time in Thailand there.
I was also excited to find lemongrass salad on their menu. This was something I was introduced to while staying in Ban Krud and I absolutely loved it, but hadn’t found it again since. Any lemon grass I’ve bought in the West is always tough and woody, great to add flavor to a dish but never something I would have considered eating. The lemongrass used in the salads I had was young and tender with a really delicate flavor. The light dressing and chopped onion compliment the flavor perfectly and it makes for a light, addictive salad. I don’t know exactly what was in the different ones I had in Thailand, but this recipe I found online sounds about right, although no version I ate had pork in it and sometimes it had finely chopped lemongrass and cabbage mixed together: http://www.thaifoodplus.com/Thai/Recipes/Salad/Lemongrass_Spicy_Salad_Cooking.php

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I broke down and tried a roti for breakfast one day. Thank God it was towards the end of our stay or else I would have been in trouble. 😉 A thin, crispy/chewy crepe filled with peanut butter and bananas and drenched in condensed milk. Disgustingly heavy and sweet and filling and too much and OH SO DELICIOUS. 🙂

Thai Island Dream: Part 4 (Ko Lanta continued)

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There was lots we enjoyed about Ko Lanta beyond the lovely accommodation.

Ban Lanta

The old town was small but charming. The one main street was lined with a nice mix of new and beautiful old wood buildings housing shops with bamboo cages of twittering birds out front, homes and plenty of ocean-facing restaurants. Away from the main strip, palms and gorgeous flowering trees shaded the streets. There was a long pier out over the water which seemed to be a local hang out and was a great place to catch the sunset.

The people living in that part of the island seemed chilled out and friendly. I got a kick out of the young girl (probably around 9 or 10) who was driving a tuk tuk around one evening while her kid brother swung from a small hammock suspended from the ceiling of the cab. Also fun was getting thumbs up and smiles from some of the local women about my fashion choice when I went for walks while wearing the lovely orange sarong I picked up at a market in Ban Krud.

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Main street

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Fishing boat

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Beautiful trees

Skooter expeditions

We spent a lot of time enjoying, eating and relaxing in Ban Lanta on the west coast, but we rented a scooter for part of our stay and had a blast zooming around the twisty roads and exploring. The center of the island is hilly and more rural than the coasts; sometimes we’d find ourselves winding along roads that curved through lush corridors of towering jungle, which I just loved. There were tons of mango trees on the island and I guess it was just coming into their prime season; was neat to see all the perfect green fruit hanging down from the branches on long, thin stems.

One of our exploratory drives ended up being an unexpected car (scooter) wash. We were on the island for Songkran, the New Year/water festival (learn more here). We knew that anyone on the streets was fair game, but things had seemed pretty tame on the island – until we took a road that led us down a hill where about five groups of kids were waiting in succession, each armed with big buckets. Needless to say, we came out the other end sopping wet and cracking up with laughter – especially when we realized we had come to a dead-end and would have to return through the line of fire. 🙂

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Songkran drive by. This photo is taken from the safety of our breakfast table – a truck full of people dousing folks on the street with buckets and water guns and the pedestrians fighting water with water. 🙂

We did spend some time on the east coast beaches and one afternoon we hung out for a while along the water’s edge, admiring incredible miniature sand sculptures made by equally minuscule artists.

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Amazingly beautiful crab creations! The whole beach was covered in these intricate designs.

Storm views

One other wonderful experience was stopping at a restaurant for a coffee. It was on the west coast, up a hill about a 15 minute drive from the old town, with a spectacular view of the coast, ocean and islands below. (In case you ever want to look for it, it’s a relatively new restaurant and I think it was called the Sea Gypsy and it was beyond the Viewpoint restaurant) We were about halfway through our drinks when we noticed storm clouds starting to move in over the water. The ocean started to change colors as the sunlight faded behind the clouds, and we could see fishermen returning to shore in their long tail boats. By the time our coffee was gone, the storm had arrived in earnest. The restaurant had a peaked thatch roof but no walls, so we had to grab our stuff and retreat to the central most point. Even then, we still were getting lightly sprayed as the wild winds whipped the heavy downpour through the air. The sheer volume of water coming down was just amazing, as were the powerful claps of lightning that hit nearby.

Eventually the storm began to lose steam and eased into a still heavy but less violent downpour, and we decided that we’d wait out the rain by eating dinner at the place. After we’d finished eating, the proud owners gave us a private tour – apparently they’d build the place, including the incredible wooden furniture pretty much on their own and they were really and rightly proud of it. By then, the rain had stopped completely, and we hopped onto our scooter and headed „home“ through dark roads swathed in fog and illuminated only by fireflies and our little headlight, trying our best to avoid the tons of frogs that were celebrating the rain by hopping through puddles all over the road. Really a magic evening. 🙂

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Retreating to the center of the restaurant during the storm. It’s hard to tell from the photo how heavily it was raining; suffice to say the ocean was aquamarine and the view went all the way to the coast before the rain arrived. Also, check out the nifty, handmade chairs. 🙂

Some other Ko Lanta pics

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I really loved the dark woods used in so many of the buildings in town. Here are the houses on the alley leading to our hotel room.

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Hotel detail; our front door

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Blue glass over a wooden door

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Ko Lanta was one of the islands hit by the 2004 tsunami; today there are evacuation signs everywhere

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The ocean changes color as a storm moves in (view from our balcony)

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Song bird in a store front in Ban Lanta

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Sunset view from our balcony

Thai Island Dream: Part 3 (Ko Lanta)

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We woke from our last night on the Aquila to see the sun illuminating the next stop on our journey: Ko Lanta. We enjoyed one last breakfast on board, packed our things, searched for our long-forgotten shoes, said goodbye to the crew, hopped into the dinghy and headed for shore.

I have to say, I love arriving at a new place by beach. Splashing into the shallow waters, taking care to keep the luggage dry, and heading into town with bare, sandy feet to get our bearings – it’s all just tremendously romantic. 🙂

Ko Lanta managed to deliver on the tropical, romantic paradise atmosphere beyond our beach landing.

Island vibe

It’s a small island, with a population of about 20,000. While it’s got a good number of resorts and beaches catering to Westerners, there’s more tot he island than just tourism and it has a really nice, lived-in feeling that is lacking at some other islands. The population is an interesting mix of Thai Muslims and Buddhists and sea gypsies, the chao leh (pronounced something like “chow lay”).

We’d booked our hotel ahead and I’d been lured away from the beach hotels on the east coast by the description of Ko Lanta’s old town (Ban Lanta) on the west coast. Lonely Planet describes Ban Lanta as “the island’s original port and commercial centre…, a safe harbour for Arabic and Chinese trading vessels…, (where) some of the gracious and well-kept wooden stilt houses and shop fronts … are over 100 years old.”

We had booked a few nights at a boutique hotel called Mango House. In the end, we were so charmed by Ban Lanta, the rest of the island, and the beauty, relaxed vibe and friendly hospitality at Mango House that stayed for nearly a week!

Teakwood dream: Mango House

Mango House is a small collection of old, original buildings right over the water that have been tastefully renovated. They are rustic enough to feel really authentic – the doors are massive jobbies of ancient teak that leave gaps when closed, so sleeping under the provided mosquito netting is advisable; the floor boards in the simple, semi-outdoor kitchen area are gapped as well and let in glimpses of the illuminated sea water as it laps around the building’s posts – while still providing a lot of comfort (like effective air conditioning an in-room book and DVD collection).

Our room was huge and shared a spacious, hammock-equipped balcony overlooking the water with the room next door. It was a wonderful place to just hang out and watch the ocean change as the day light turned it different colors and the tides moved in and out of the harbor.

There was a cute restaurant/bar on the road in front of the rooms that was run by the same staff as the hotel. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the woman who managed it – she was totally sweet and friendly and welcoming. The menu was small but everything on it that we had was delicious. It served really good coffee, and awesome breakfast so it became our place to start the day while we were on the island. Just like the rooms, it was a gorgeous dark wood building, and apparently it was even an opium den for sailors and locals back in the day! 🙂

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Our room

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The view from our balcony

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Our super-sweet hostess (I wish I could remember her name! 😦 )

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Her cat liked to come visit us. Here she is, trying to break into our room. 😀

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View from inside the restaurant, flip flops outside the back entrance

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Best fresh fruit muesli & yogurt

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Buddha bar 🙂

Thai Island Dream: Part 2 (Phuket Boat Charter continued)

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The three days on the Aquila passed like a dream. Hours melted leisurely from one to the other until the moments felt timeless. The scenery changed around us continually but gradually and, whether a gently rippling ocean marked by distant islands on a hazy horizon, towering cumulus clouds ablaze in a fiery sunset, peaceful strips of white beach on seemingly deserted islands or chunks of limestone the size of buildings covered in green foliage and appearing to hover over the water, it was always absolutely spectacular.

I lost track of time and the names of all the places we dropped anchor pretty quickly. Roman was more organized than me however, so thanks to him, here is the laundry list of places we apparently stopped to visit or spent the night anchored off of.

Koh Racha
Koh Mai Ton
Koh Phi Phi Don
Ko Yung
Ko Lanta

A lot of time was spent just chatting and enjoying the scenery and relaxed vibe on deck, napping in the sun, listening to music on the boat’s great sound system, snacking on coffee awesome fresh banana bread. When we weren’t doing that, there was plenty of other fun to be had.

Markus is a certified PADI instructor and gave us a basic intro to diving. The first morning we stopped at a resort beach where he took us through the beginner diver exercises in the clear waters just off shore. We spent the night by the shores of another island that had a great spot to do some easy diving. After a leisurely breakfast and getting warm in the sun, we got geared up, hopped into the dinghy, and got underwater to check out the underwater action.

I’d done a couple of hotel dive courses years ago, but it was Roman’s first dive. We both totally enjoyed it – except for the big patches of stinging particles we encountered. I got one big bunch right in the mouth – so painful! Luckily when you’re underwater no one can hear you curse! 😉  Aside from that though it was great – I love the feeling of moving in three dimensions under water like you’re flying, and the fish and other animals we got to see around the reef were fascinating and fun to see. It was enough to whet our appetite for more… 🙂

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View from the ship of the beach where we learned diving basics the first morning

Another thing I loved was swimming and kayaking right off the edge of the boat.

We went to the island where scenes from the movie “The Beach” were filmed. You can get there by the main beach but then you have to pay an entrance fee. We went via the back end of the island. Markus parked, and Roman, Narita and I hopped off and swam through deep, jewel-colored waters to a rickety ladder attached to sharp, craggy limestone. After clambering up the ropes and boards, we made it to a jungle path that led to the main beach. This was packed with tourists, but beautiful none-the-less, and we enjoyed a leisurely swim in light aquamarine waters book-ended by towering lime-stone cliffs before returning the way we came and swimming back to the Aquila.

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View from the ship of the ladder (top right corner) we swam to and climbed to get to the island from “The Beach”

We went kayaking at a couple of places. First within a lagoon created by another set of limestone cliffs. Apparently the place was usually full of tourist-packed motor-boats but we went late enough in the day that we had it nearly to ourselves. Roman and I were in one kayak and Markus and Narita in the other; it was surreal and fun to hear Markus’ perfect Swiss yodel echoing across the water and limestone walls. 😉 Roman and I did a solo kayak run the next day, exploring the edges of some massive limestone boulders off the shore of an island, where we got sprayed as the surf got sucked through small caves, watched beautiful crabs scale the vertical walls of rock and dare-devil swallows wing wildly from their cliff-side nests.

Snorkeling was also amazing. I’d never done that before and once I got the hang of it, I loved it and was totally mesmerized by the amazing world to be seen and experienced under the water.

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A school of sergeant major fish come to greet Roman (and beg for food) as he descends for some snorkelling

The food was also a major highlight – Uan is a phenomenal cook and the meals we got on board were hands down the best Thai food we had while in Thailand. The ingredients were fresh and the cooking was inspired – Uan didn’t plan ahead but let the ingredients and his mood lead the way. Breakfast was western – and even Swiss on occassion. 🙂 Sunday morning Markus was thoughtful enough to serve us Zopf with Nutella – the classic Sunday breakfast treat in Switzerland.

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Fresh tuna just pulled out of the ocean. It may be small but it still made blazin’ good sashimi!

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Fish in an incredible orange sauce with yellow peppers. I wish I had this recipe!!!

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The crew knew I am crazy about asparagus – so, asparagus with shrimp in a simply but delicious sauce

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Another incredible fish dish – tons of garlic and green onion = heaven for me and Roman

I really can’t rave enough about our time on board with Markus, Narita, Uan and (if I remember correctly!) Mai – so I’ll end the post here and let just some of the photos of the beautiful things we saw do the rest of the talking for me.

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Sunset, the first night on board

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The ship’s anchor, with marigold garlands

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Islands on the horizon

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Afternoon coffee on deck

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View from the deck during afternoon coffee…

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Long tail boat in front of limestone karst

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There was heat lightning each night we were on board. This photo is from the second night, docked off of Monkey Beach, when it was particularly beautiful. I tried for ages to capture it; in the dark on a moving ship with my camera, this shot (slightly altered in iPhoto) is the closest I got. The red dot on the water is a ship close by, the green dots on the horizon to the right are the neon lights from squid ships further afield.

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Our neighbor, morning at Monkey Beach

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Morning view

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Uan, Narita and Mai eating food they picked up on shore at Ko Lanta – way too hot for us farangs

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Sunset, the last night on board, off shore from Ko Lanta