In September of 2017, I stood at Bonita Beach ankle deep in the lapping waves watching the sun set. It dipped below the horizon, leaving its clementine haze for the world to enjoy, with a moon brightening the indigo sky behind me. My feet were planted, my gaze was unwavering. My sister sat behind me, taking it all in from our blanket in the sand.
We went through an unspoken amount of pain together. Swayze had just died and my partner had just deserted me without a trace. I looked at the horizon as if expecting it to give me an answer to questions I didn’t have.
At the end of July 2018, I stood ankle deep in Krabi, Thailand, looking at a horizon decorated with karst rock formations. They stood in solitude, a characteristic that uncommonly added to the beauty. I think I’m humming to a similar beat these days. Looking back to that September 2017 evening, my heart glows with pride and love.
It’s taken me quite a while to write about this trip, given that it’s somehow already almost October (how?). I’m working on remembering that I do not need to feel guilty for not always communicating promptly. It’s an effort of self love and health to focus on being present – listening to what I presently need, which sometimes means time away from the energy of others, and the energy of screens altogether. It seems that instant communication is considered required these days – an expectation – just because we have the means to do so. I’m choosing to view it from a standpoint of gratitude, acknowledging how many loving relationships I have in my life with individuals who are willingly patient with my communication.
On that note, let’s rewind to the last weekend of July.
We were starving when we finished the long journey – a six-hour bus trip to Bangkok, followed by an hour-and-a-half flight to Krabi. We stopped into one of the first restaurants we could find along the beach-side streets of Ao Nang, a town in southern Thailand’s Krabi Province.
The service was an interesting experience. We received knives with our silverware. Outside of Thailand’s big cities, I have yet to see a table knife in Thailand – we eat only with fork and spoon. We also received ketchup packets with our meal which can be easily found in Thailand but rarely served at restaurants. What made it particularly unusual: we had ordered pancakes.
Wherever we go in Lomkao, Jenn and I need to rely on our small knowledge of Thai to order food, but in this restaurant, our waiter understood our English much better than my Thai.
John explained, “He’s probably from Australia. So many people from Australia come here on vacation and then end up moving.” Australians enjoying Thailand as a common vacation spot makes so much sense, but I had never considered this from across the globe. Still getting used to my location globally, I think, though I’ve lived 10,000 miles away from my hometown for five months now.
Throughout the rest of the weekend, every overly-friendly sales person in Ao Nang tried to get our attention by referencing Australia. I guess it never crossed my mind that I would be mistaken for Australian in Thailand. It’s funny how many common sense revelations travel will inspire – things that you’ve never realized solely because up until now they haven’t been relevant to you.
I’m not sure if it’s the increased humidity – because I don’t remember feeling this drained from the heat in Florida – but Thailand’s heat practically sucks the life out of you. We arrived in Krabi early on the morning of July 26th, tired from travel but wanting to make the most of our first day. After exploring the beach-side streets and eating our strange Australian tourist meal, the heat had other plans. We spent a sleepy afternoon napping in the hostel. This was okay with me – we had not arranged any adventures yet, and the beach town was much more touristy than I anticipated. Store after store held the same inauthentic souvenirs and trinkets, the kind of junk travelers lug home as gifts and keepsakes but never get much actual use out of. In this way, it reminded me of Clearwater Beach, FL, but the views of stunning rock formations among the glittering aqua water signaled otherwise.
Jenn had been suffering from a sinus and ear infection since before the trip and travel only exacerbated the issue. We set out in search of a spa with ear candle treatments – for those of you who aren’t familiar, this is a holistic treatment for unclogging and cleansing the ear canal. As usually happens when we track down an empty songtaew with a driver who speaks little to no English, asking for a destination not commonly requested, we found ourselves on an off-route adventure attempting to communicate directions with lots of map pointing and other gestures.
We finally arrived to find a peaceful yoga oasis. The universe certainly guided us where we needed to be. The moment we arrived, it was like the air changed. We had stumbled upon an island of love.
Although we have SIM cards in Thailand, our phone plans only include internet, so unless we are calling a contact through WhatsApp, LINE or another application, we are unable to make calls. We showed up at the yoga studio with no idea whether they’d be available or not and found that they were in the middle of hosting a teacher training at the studio.
Despite the untimely and unannounced arrival, we were welcomed into the space and asked to wait until they could figure out a plan for Jenn to receive treatment. Friendly dogs roamed the shaded outdoor refuge. I was offered water while I waited, allowed to rest and take in the calming environment with new canine friends. Soon after, I met some kind ladies who were on break from the teacher training. Both were from Sweden and invited Jenn and I to join them for lunch after she was finished with her treatment.
We shared a tuk tuk ride and they brought us to a beautiful vegan cafe within walking distance from our hostel. The menu was primarily made up of mediterranean dishes – chickpeas, tzatziki, beets, pita – flavors my tongue seemed to have almost forgotten existed. Eating the same flavors every day can certainly dull the tastebuds, but this meal combined with a fresh-pressed juice blend brought them back to life for the time being.
Asahna Bucha Day, the first full moon of the eighth lunar month, fell on Friday, July 27th. This Buddhist holiday commemorates Buddha’s first sermon, in which the Buddha spelled out the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. This day also marks the beginning of Vassa, or the ‘Rains Retreat’, the Buddhist lent period.
We were aware of the holiday, but were unaware of how our nights out would be limited as a result. On Buddhist holidays, alcohol sales are prohibited in Thailand, but this usually only lasts for one day. For this particular holiday, due to the beginning of lent, we discovered that alcohol sales were prohibited for almost our entire vacation in Krabi.
This holiday, combined with under-anticipating how touristy the town would be, resulted in our trip to Krabi being very different from what we expected. Finding things to do in Krabi for an affordable price was difficult – a cooking class for over 1,000 Baht, for example, was out of the question, and I wasn’t interested in paying absurd amounts to kayak when I’ve already had my fair share of kayaking in Florida.
Despite the drawbacks, we filled our time in Krabi with memorable sights and experiences, starting with our long-tail boat island tour.
Only around three weeks before, Thailand experienced its biggest tourist-related disaster it has had in years. A tourist company in southern Thailand ignored weather alerts and recommendations not to take boats out in the rough waters. The sky was perfectly clear when the boat left, but when a sudden and powerful storm hit, the boat capsized and sank. The last reports showed 41 tourists dead and 15 missing.
Needless to say, this recent news was in the back of our minds as we made the arrangements for our island tour. We checked the weather beforehand, but Thailand weather predictions are so unreliable that I generally ignore them altogether and hope for the best. The predictions tend to be so off, in fact, that one of my friends who does not have a roof covering his laundry rack must “watch the sky” until his clothes are dry.
We started our tour with an all-day sun weather prediction and beautiful skies. We visited Railay Beach first, home to the famous Phra Nang Cave, a phallic shrine to princess goddess Phra Nang. Legend says the princess was the wife of a fisherman who was lost at sea. She is said to live in the cave awaiting his return, and the phallic offerings, meant to represent the Hindu god Shiva, are presented by local fishermen and boatmen who believe their gifts will ensure safe travel.
Railay Beach is also famous for rock climbing. As we peered at the interesting and somewhat comical sight of Phra Nang cave, we watched dare-devil tourists scale the magnificent karst cliffs.
Once everyone made it back to the boat, we anchored further out in the water for time to snorkel. I remember snorkeling a few times in Florida before this occasion – once in Key West when I was in eighth grade and a couple of other times off the west coast of Florida while diving for clams – but I don’t think anything compared to this. The water was so clear that I could see absolutely everything around me and the fish were so abundant that it felt as if I were swimming amidst their school. John remarked afterward that he had experienced much more spectacular snorkeling before with coral and different sights than just fish, but I had a truly fun experience regardless.
On the way to our next stop, we passed Chicken Island. The waves were starting to get rough, so instead of stopping at the island, we continued on to Poda Island and took in the view of the chicken-shaped mountain from the boat instead.
Poda Island is home to one of the most photographed rock formations in all of southern Thailand, and for good reason. Standing next to such geological beauty is as humbling as looking into the stars at night.
Our tour guide advised us that the weather was worsening – the plan had changed, and instead of visiting the last island on the tour route, we would be spending more time at Poda Island to see if we could wait out the storm. We ate lunch on the island and relaxed as we watched the clouds become increasingly dark.
A couple hours later, our boat departed anyway, despite the ominous storm clouds. The rain did not hesitate to join the party; the waves grew rough, the sky grew grey and fog surrounded the boat. Before long, we could barely see the ocean around us. If we turned around, we could not see the island we had just departed from.
The boat was crowded, so Jenn, John and I were seated cross-legged on the stern of the boat with life jackets on. The rain was cold and we had little to no shelter given our position. I had a great view of my lap for most of the time on the boat, keeping my head down to shield from the rain. We found out later than John, Jenn and I, without talking to one another, had all been thinking the same thing – Are we going to die on this boat? How can we survive if this boat capsizes?
The waves became so rough that the driver of the boat anchored and decided to wait it out. As the boat rocked violently, I shivered and focused on my breath. As soon as the storm was manageable, we made it back to our starting point. By the time we were offloading, the sky had almost cleared.
On Saturday, we were all so sunburnt from the boat trip the day before (regardless of the multiple coats of sunscreen we had all applied) that visiting another island or beach was not an appealing option for the day’s activities. It turned out to be a rainy and cloudy day, anyway, so we decided to visit Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi. We saw the golden tip of this temple during our cab trip from the airport to our hostel far in the distance amidst rolling hills of green, and a second nudge from the universe when a poster hanging in the hostel lobby prompted us to speak with the staff about visiting the mountain.
We’ve had this amazing coincidence happen almost every single time we’ve been to a temple, with the exception of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It has been rainy, foggy and cloudy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t cool off the air much. If anything, it only makes the humidity worse on top of the usual heat, so it’s almost more comfortable not to wear a poncho (a “sweat bag” as John calls it). The real positives:
- The white fog is a stunning contrast to the dark green forestry of the mountains.
- Fewer tourists tend to visit outdoor temples in the rain, so it’s less crowded and more peaceful for us to enjoy.
- The rain awakens the temple’s wind chimes. It makes for an incredibly serene experience.
Tiger Cave Temple was no different, though the hike to the top was by far the hardest we have done yet. 1,237 steps lead to the summit and some of the stair risers are more than a foot high. I typically have a more difficult time managing my asthma in the heat, so I let Jenn and John go ahead of me while I took my time with the arduous climb.
About half way to the top, I was climbing near a young teenage Thai couple. In usual teenage boy fashion, the boy was making a point to show off, but instead of impressing the girl, his decision to turn the climb into a race was visibly frustrating her. She stuck by my side at a steady pace instead, and a classic turtle and the hare journey ensued. We were soon passing him, leaving him at a resting point and climbing ahead. This is, of course, despite how difficult the climb remained for the two of us.
When we got to one corner resting spot on the stairs, there was a gap clearing in the clouds, gifting a breathtaking view of the mountainside and town below. I turned to her and said, “Su su, na,” meaning, “Keep fighting, love.” She gave me the peace sign and bent her two fingers down and back up – air quotes in American culture is actually the symbol for “su su” in Thailand.
When we reached the top, I spent some time by myself before reconnecting with John and Jenn. The longer I stood and admired, the more the clouds cleared out. I got to see the best of both worlds, a sea of beautiful white clouds, and then the actual aquamarine sea in the distance, where we had just been on a boat the day before.
With how few people were at the temple, and with how high we were in the mountains, walking around this temple felt surreal. The book I am currently reading, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, claims that it is easier to connect with universal energy or consciousness when immersed in nature or when at a very high summit, like the one we were on that day. At the time, I had not yet read this book, but Tiger Cave Temple was the first place my mind went when I read it later.
The sights were magnificent – rock formations and cliffs that seemed to jump straight out of a National Geographic magazine, sights you dreamed of one day seeing with your naked eyes. Black rock with every shade of green decorating the stone stood powerfully in contrast with the gold and white Buddha. The Buddha gazed thoughtfully over all of Krabi.
After another 1,237 steps back down, we followed a trail to the back of the sanctuary. We came across a stunning view where monks were taking refuge. We paid merit to the monks and received blessed bracelets in return. It is common to receive a string bracelet that a monk has blessed in appreciation for your merit, but these bracelets were red rather than the traditional white string. We found that red is a color specific to the region of Thailand we were visiting. The bracelet is meant to represent unity among beings – a circle of compassion and togetherness.
Male monks are not allowed to come into contact with females, including touching the same object at the same time as a female, even if they are not touching each other. Because of this, the monks were unable to put Jenn’s or my bracelets on our wrists, and they signaled for John to help us instead.
We continued on the nature trail, a refreshingly shaded retreat from the sun that was not too physically demanding, until we came to a truly incredible sight – a 1,000 year old tree. Standing next to this beautiful miracle of a being was something I wished I could have experienced alone. The energy was so powerful – I could have meditated under the tree for hours.
Tired and hungry from our day of hiking, we found a cab into downtown Krabi without any particular location in mind other than “must. find. food. now.” Our cab driver dropped us at a random spot along a riverside walking trail that we followed for a few minutes before I looked over and spotted a hole-in-the-wall joint that looked like it might be a candidate for good food.
My intuition was spot-on. It turned out to be a combination cafe and book swap, with books in many different languages, including English! Adorable post cards and other stationary was for sale and – better yet – they allowed us to buy two craft beers each despite the fact that alcohol sales were still prohibited that Saturday for the Buddhist holiday.
Craft beer is essentially nonexistent in little Lomkao, so being prohibited from enjoying Krabi’s breweries for Friday and Saturday was a bit of a letdown. Luckily, Sunday was fair game as far as alcohol was concerned, and we were lucky enough to visit an awesome brewery in downtown Krabi called The Hobby Hops Craft Beer Bar.
We played cards with a rooftop view of downtown Krabi, enjoying quality drinks and quality company, for a great last night in the area. Our vacation was certainly much more laidback than we anticipated with the lack of affordable or authentic things to do, our severe sunburns and the Buddhist holiday. But if we set aside our prior expectations for the trip, it was a really nice time. The touristy nature of the southern islands was a disappointing surprise, but with the absolutely stunning views, I’m sure I’ll want to visit again.