22.01.2013 - 20.02.2013 30 °C
Arriving back in Bangkok, where it all began just three months before, felt very surreal. This time we arrived under infinitely better circumstances, for one I had my luggage and wasn't throwing up my stomach lining, but also, the city that had seemed so daunting the first time round now seemed like a welcome relief from the gloomy hectic streets of Hanoi. We were so happy to be back to the sweet, spicy, colorful cuisine, the shiny blue tuk-tuks and the warm friendly locals. Even the sticky, unrelenting heat seemed like a welcome change.
As some of our friends had asked us to meet them in Koh Phangnan for the full moon party in a few days time, we booked onto a bus and left for the south islands the next day.
On Koh Phangnan, it can be easy to forget that you are actually in Thailand. Instead it feels as if you've entered a backpacker bubble that's filled with 18-25 year old travelers, drowning themselves in buckets of Thai whiskey by night, and darting around on scooters and sleeping off hangovers on the beach by day. So, we spent the next three nights immersing ourselves in a blur of blaring music, crowds of dancing people, fire-dancers, an abundance of UV paint and rows of stalls selling toxic concoctions in plastic buckets. And we spent the next three days exploring the island on a scooter and looking for a suitably beautiful beach to sleep off a hangover. Our favorite night was the Jungle Experience party, that took place unsurprisingly in the middle of the jungle, which really was the most incredible party venue I'd ever seen. House music blared from a huge flower shaped stage, lights were strung from the trees and fire dancers surrounded the hundreds of people who were dancing away as if their lives depended on it. After that the full moon party was unfortunately a little disappointing through no ones fault but my own. The night started well but it must have only been a few hours in before I turned around and realized that I'd lost everyone to the throngs of painted, drunken, dancing people that took up every inch of the beach. So after another hour of futile searching I decided to accept defeat and wait for them back at the hotel.
After an authentic, cultural experience on Koh Phangnan, we decided to head to neighboring Koh Tao to learn how to Scuba dive and get our open water certification.
Koh Tao is a small, beautiful island that seems to be struggling to keep up with the extreme development that's taking place there. Everywhere you turn there's another resort popping up in a cloud of sawdust and cement. The dive sites are used so intensely that even though all of the dive schools are ecologically minded, damage unintentionally still seems to be being done. However, despite how busy and over-developed the island was, it seemed strangely laid back after 3 days on Koh Phangnan, and we soon found ourselves not wanting to leave.
We got picked up from the pier by Roctopus dive school, and started our course straight away. Our instructors were amazing, I'm usually really nervous about open water but they were so enthusiastic and passionate that I couldn't wait to dive in when the time came. Our first session took place just a few meters under the surface while we practiced our basic skills, but nevertheless, my first few breaths underwater were completely surreal, and I was hooked immediately. It was quite an intense few days, working 9 - 5 plus homework, but once the written exam and our confined water was out of the way, the instructors took us out for a meal to celebrate, and the real diving started the next day. Over the next two days we had four open water dives that were all incredible. It felt like an entirely different world down there. A world where you are completely weightless, and alien creatures like the colorful Christmas tree worms vanish into coral as you swim above them, Clownfish dart in and out of Anenomies, menacing looking Moray eels tentatively poke their heads out of their holes, little Cleaner Wrasses nip at your ankles and Butterfly and Bannerfish, Parrotfish and Groupers swim by completely unperturbed by your presence. On our last day, a videographer came with us to film our dives, and that night we met up in a bar to watch the video and celebrate becoming certified divers by drinking dubiously named cocktails, dancing on the beach and playing fire limbo.
We realized we were still desperate to get back in the water, so despite our better judgement at spending almost a months budget in a week, we decided to take a days break and start the advanced course the day after.
Our day off consisted of playing Frisbee in the sea, sunbathing on the beach, drinking fruit shakes, eating seafood BBQs and getting a Thai massage - which Shaun described as paying £5 to get beat up for an hour. The image of Shaun's grimacing face as a tiny Thai woman stood on the back of his legs getting extremely frustrated because he just wouldn't bend like a normal person should, is a sight I hope not to forget in a hurry.
Our first advanced dive took us to 30 meters, the maximum recreational depth. The next was a ship wreck, which I was particularly excited about because as we descended into the deep, a huge sunken war ship appeared gradually from the murkey depths, and it felt just like the beginning scene of Titanic. The last dive of the day was a night dive, which was completely terrifying! We plunged into the black water armed only with little torches, to find mesmerizing blue spotted sting rays, comical Pufferfish and sleepy giant Groupers. What made the experience even more unearthly is that when we hid our torch beams so we were in complete darkness, and waved our hands in front of our faces, a disco of green phospheresence lit up before our eyes. The next day we had a go at under water photography,which is a lot harder than we imagined, but hiring the camera definitely paid off. On our last dive when we were practicing perfect buoyancy, we ended up swimming with a beautiful green turtle (that apparently is quite rare around Koh Tao because the bigger animals tend to go off to find reefs that aren't so congested with amateur divers). It was a perfect end to our diving experience in Koh Tao.
We decided that after an intense week of diving on Koh Tao, that we wanted to go somewhere peaceful away from the hoards of tourists that swarm the majority of the islands. We ended up on the quiet little island of Koh Chang, just off the Adaman coast. As we had to reach the island via a long boat filled with fifteen other people and a load of coconuts instead of a catamaran for 500, I had a feeling we were on the right track. However, when I gracefully disembarked from the long boat by falling head first into the sea, fully clothed, backpack and all, I began to have my doubts. We then proceeded to trudge, soaking wet, for an hour down the beach looking for somewhere to stay. We eventually booked into a little stone bungalow just a few meters from the sea. We did however have to share this bungalow with an enormous gecko that lived on the balcony, a big green lizard in the bedroom and three stubborn toads that lived in the bathroom and refused to be evicted no matter how much Shaun tried to coax them out with a toilet brush. We also had no hot water, flushing toilet or electricity, but this was all made up for by the incredibly friendly Thai lady that ran the place. She couldn't do enough for us, made us feel like part of the family, and cooked an amazing green curry!
We spent the next few days sleeping in hammocks, playing in the sea, devouring a stack of books whilst lying on the beach, eating spicy green curry, sitting by the campfire and watching the stars, going to sleep with the sound of the jungle, and waking up to the sun streaming through the billowing mosquito net and the sounds of the waves lapping up on the shore. It seemed that we had found the tranquil paradise we had been looking for. Except of course when we decided that we (and when I say we I mean I...) wanted to go for a trek in the jungle to look for Hornbills. We ended up getting unequivocally lost and arguing about which way would lead us back to the beach. It was midday, we were running out of water and the eagles that we had thought looked so impressive before, now looked as if they were circling, waiting for one us to drop dead from dehydration (or more likely for one of us to kill the other). In the end it turned out that Shaun was right, and if we'd have followed my finely tuned instincts we would have ended up 10km in the opposite direction - he now thinks he's Ray Mears. Needless to say, we didn't spot any Hornbills. Then, when we were having breakfast on the beach the next morning, one landed in the tree next us... meaning our impromptu trek was unnecessary as well as disastrous!
Koh Phi Phi
After having had such a good time in Thailand so far, we were admittedly more than a little disappointed with Koh Phi Phi. As the boat turned into the bay we were over-awed by the distant strip of white sand that stretches between two clusters of cliffs that reach out of the tranquil turquoise sea. But once we'd reached the pier, we wished we had stayed at a blissfully ignorant distance. Firstly, as Koh Phi Phi is the busiest stretch of island I have ever seen, it is inadvisable to turn up without booking accommodation at least a few weeks in advance. We therefore ended up on an overpriced resort a 'short' taxi boat ride away from the main town. Only once we'd paid upfront and had been left unceremoniously at the rundown resort, did we realize that the taxi boats were infrequent, expensive, and the last one left at 5pm, meaning we were essentially stuck there and could not visit our friends staying in the main town. When we did visit the town however, we were almost relieved that we were unable to stay there.The beautiful stretch of island had been crammed full of bars, pizza restaurants,dive shops, hostels, pancake and burger stalls, internet cafes and minimarts, tattoo and massage parlors. So much so that the hot, smelly, claustrophobic streets are far from the paradise it should be, with piles of rubbish rotting on every corner and beer bottles floating in the otherwise pristine sea. So, we did what we came there to do and went on a snorkeling trip around Koh Phi Phi Leh to see Maya Bay (where 'The Beach' was filmed), and then left. The day was admittedly really good, with Shaun spotting a black tipped reef shark, and the bay being as beautiful as we had imagined - with dramatic limestone cliffs enclosing an almost iridescent ultramarine expanse of water and pure white stretch of sand fringed with coconut palms. That being said, we were more than happy to be moving on the next day.
Koh Lipe was our last stop before heading to Malaysia, and we definitely picked the right place to end our island hopping. It was quiet enough to feel peaceful and romantic, but busy enough not to feel isolated or bored. It's set in the middle of a marine park, and its beaches are the type you dream of when you think of a paradise island. The colour of the sea, the powdery white sand, the colorful sashes tied to the long boats - all looks as if someone has turned the contrast up on a camera, so it feels as if you've stepped into a picture from a holiday brochure. We did a couple of fun dives whilst we were there too, and the underwater scenery is just as spectacular. Billowing soft corals of mesmerizing lilacs and oranges, reds and blues, are home to sea horses, pipe fish, box fish, scorpion fish, stone fish, lion fish and giant Moray eels, and makes you feel as if you've swam straight into a David Attenborough documentary. The snorkeling was impressive too, with Shaun spotting sting rays, giant porcupine fish, moray eels and bat fish. At night, we'd never seen so many stars in the sky, and the phosphorescence that washed up on the beach made it look like there were stars in the sand too. It was the perfect place to spend valentines day (for which Shaun gave me an almost heart shaped piece of coral that had washed up on the beach, and some flowers that he'd stolen from the resort - I am very spoilt!).
We spent our days snorkeling, diving, swimming, sunbathing, reading and playing Frisbee, and spent our nights meandering down walking street where you can eat an enormous seafood BBQ or delicious masuman curry whilst listening to live music or watching a film, then walk a little further for pancakes and ice cream and then finish off the night lying on a futon in a candle lit beach bar.
When the time came to leave Thailand, although we'd had a great time island hopping and were thoroughly relaxed after a few days on Lipe, we were beginning to get a little restless after almost a month of beaches and so we were definitely excited to be moving on to Malaysia.