koh samui

Taking the Long Way Home

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A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable. ― Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus

I’m struggling a bit for words with this post - what is likely my last post from this journey. (Whether I keep writing, we’ll see, but I have enjoyed the process more that I ever expected.) I started planning this trip in January, but I know that it will shape the way I see and do things for much longer. It has been many things - adventure, challenge, inspiration, frustration, relaxation, an education and full of many, many serendipitous surprises.

I was reminded that true travel can be hard. The kind of travel where you are ignorant of everything, the spoken and written language, how the most basic things work - even crossing the street seemed daunting at first. Every step was a guess (some more educated than others). Sometimes it was just a hope…”I hope this works…I hope this driver knows where he’s going…I hope I read the map right…I hope I didn’t offend him/her.”

I have some amazing memories, some (I think) have been worth sharing and some were my own challenges, mistakes and achievements. I got to stand in, but still outside another culture. I was witness to other people’s days and lives. I have been awed by the devotion and austerity of the religious monks. I have watched people “make merit” and provide food for the monks. I have also seen these same monks stroll the markets, talk on their cell phones, and sit have a smoke. I have seen poverty. Shacks with corrugated metal roofs and old street banners for walls, but also families sitting in the shade of these metal roofs sharing a meal together in a society where family matters. I have stood at the base of temples and city walls that are over 1000 years old; and stood a top peaks that take your breath away. I have been blessed with nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those who took the time to share with me a story or a meal, point me in the right direction, or were just fair when I was negotiating for ride. I have eaten some incredible food prepared in the most unlikely of circumstances.

I learned to listen to that inner voice that told me when to keep going and when to ask for help, or in some cases, call it day. I loved the challenge, the guess work, the opportunity each day held. I asked myself in the first post “Am I still a traveller?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” But it is time to put away my passport and backpack (for a while). Because each and everyday I was on this journey, something reminded me of home and those things that had seemed painstakingly familiar are the ones I missed the most. So on that note…

All journeys eventually end in the same place, home. ― Chris Geiger

Getting From Here to There

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Since being in Thailand, I have ridden on a bus, a train, a tuktuk (a three-wheeled moped taxi), an actual taxi, a boat, a songthaew (a pick up with passenger seating on the bed of the truck), a mini van, the back of a motorbike, and my own two feet, but I haven’t driven myself anywhere in almost three weeks.

I decided that was going to change. I would never have have considered it in Bangkok or Chiang Mai - the traffic is insane, the drivers potentially more so, and the kicker, they drive on the left side of the road. Yesterday I rented a “motorbike,” looked like a moped to me, but it was my ticket to freedom, all for $8 a day - less than a songthaew one way.

I started the motorbike, tried to adjust in my mind what a right and left hand turn might look like, and set out for the beaches on the eastern side of the island. I have to admit to being a little scared with the trucks, tons of other motorbikes, and my demonstrated lack of direction, but I made it. The beach, Chaweng, was a beautiful stretch of white sand. The crowds…less beautiful. Music pumped out onto the beach, euro-partiers everywhere…it was a quite a show and in a way, fun to observe on the sidelines.

I brought the motorbike home before dark. I decided I wasn’t brave enough to drive at night. This morning, after a quiet breakfast in my little fishing village, I thought maybe I could venture even further. I set our for the waterfalls in the center of the island.

After 40 minutes, I turned on the road towards the waterfall. There were some very touristy options, including a 4-wheeler ride to the base of the falls. I turned it down and started hiking up a dirt road, then over a bamboo bridge and once again followed a rope trail up the rocks. I’ve decided ropes lead to good places. The upper falls were deserted. It was quiet and cool. I sat in pool under the falls, until I was ready to try the beach again.

I drove to Lamai Beach on the southeast coast, and paid for a day pass to a resort on a secluded stretch of beach. Lounge chairs, pools, quiet, drinks delivered… a huge contrast to the life I have been lucky enough to have had the last few weeks, but it was the perfect end to my stay on the island.

When I got back to Bophut, I turned in the keys to my motorbike and tomorrow I head back to Bangkok (minivan, ferry, bus, train….).

To Tour or Not to Tour

I was looking back at my first post from this trip and had asked myself the question “Would I like traveling alone?” First, I think I would rephrase the question to “Do I like traveling solo?” I have learned that solo does not mean alone, and the answer is “mostly yes.”

I think when you are traveling solo, there are lots of obvious perks, like getting to do what you want, when you want; seeking solitude when you want it, but also, it’s relatively easy to make connections with people when you want.

When you are traveling solo, especially as a solo female traveler, you are approachable to other like-minded travelers and locals. Local people want to know your story and are willing to share theirs. Other travelers tend to gravitate to people doing the same things. You also are forced to ask directions (a lot) which naturally starts a conversation.

Northern Thailand was definitely a place for travelers - not necessarily a tourist destination. There were many more like-minded travelers and we were easy to spot. As I have spent the last couple of days in Koh Samui - which is beautiful, I have learned it is definitely more a tourist destination. People (mostly Europeans) come in groups (friends, couples, families) and the solo traveler is more of anomaly.

I realized I would have to work harder if I wanted to meet people (and not start talking to myself). I signed up for boat tour today to Angthrong National Marine Park. As I’ve said before, I’m usually not much for organized tours, but it was the best decision I could have made, not only was it an amazing experience, but I met some great people.

We left the main dock on the island at 8am, and headed 1.5 hours out into the gulf of Thailand, until we reached the park - an archipelago of 40+ small islands. I had my first sea kayaking experience and it was ton of fun seeing the island and caves from the water - despite having to stand in line for a kayak and say twice, “yes, single.” I should also note, it appeared much easier when there were two people paddling the kayak.

We paddled to a small beach, and then hiked up to a beautiful salt water lagoon. We paddled back to the boat and had lunch, while we cruised to another island. We took a long boat ashore, and I opted to make the hike to 500m peak, up a steep and rocky trail for what they promised was a view of the entire chain of islands. Steep and rocky does not begin to describe this climb in the middle of a 100+ degree day - mountain goats would have been challenged. I hung onto a rope and at some points literally pulled myself from rock to rock. But as promised, the view was inspiring - the climb down, not so much.

On the way back, some of my fellow climbers and I rode on the top sun deck and watched the sun begin to set over the islands as we headed back home.

So while I tend to shy away from an organized tour, it was definitely what I needed today.

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Changing Gears

I left Chiang Dao yesterday around noon after a last hike along a mountain side trail, then began the long trip south. First a pickup truck/taxi, then a bus, then a tuktuk from the bus station to the airport, then a plane to Bangkok, another plane to the island of Koh Samui and then finally a minivan to my hotel. It only took 10.5 hours, but my backpack and I finally made it.

I woke up this morning, stood out on my balcony and looked out over the Gulf of Thailand. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore or northern Thailand for that matter. I walked out on to the main street in Bo Phut - my first look in the daylight. Cafes and restaurants lined the streets - no shouting in Thai, but lots of French and German. I felt a little culture shock if that is possible.

I wandered in search of coffee. There are few if any street vendors, sandwich boards in front of restaurants had menus in English, French and some Thai. I found my coffee, settled in and watched the town come to life.

I knew I wanted to end this trip with some time at the beach, but in a strange way, I was already missing the challenge of the previous days. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, no list of sights to see, no travel plans to figure out - just drink my coffee and go to the beach. It was harder than I thought to change gears.

Eventually, I packed a bag and headed towards Mae Nam on the north end of the island. I had heard it was quiet and more remote than the eastern side of the island. It was. I rented a chair on the beach, and tried to sit still. I got up, walked the beach, came back, read my guidebook (there must be something I should be doing), but slowly I started to relax. I went for swim, read and ate pineapple from a beach vendor. By 3pm, I thought, “I could get used to this.”

But in reality, my time in Thailand is running out, so tomorrow I will go in search of waterfalls on the interior of the island and have booked a sea kayaking/snorkeling trip. I’ll still fit in some beach time though.

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