Friday, May 10, 2013

Backpacker Paradise Anniversary

Snorkeling on live coral reefs has become a rare experience in the past few decades.  Before coral bleaching began, coral reefs were accessible in warm waters off the coasts of many countries.  Coral reefs are mostly surviving in deeper waters now, so only scuba divers are able to enjoy the beauty of the gardens under the seas.  One of the last seas with really great coral reefs in shallow waters is the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Thailand.  Day trips from coastal areas are possible, or from established islands like Phuket (which no longer has good snorkeling reefs itself).  The backpacker’s island of Koh Lipe, a few hours south of Phuket by speedboat, is much closer to the living corals in the Thai Tarutao National Park.  And so it was that a couple of grandparents, teetering near the edge of their seventh decades, found themselves roughing it in the company of people about the ages of their children.

This is why it's called Sunset Beach

Just about 33 years ago, my Dear Husband and I were married in Cambridge, and flew to Key West for our honeymoon.  And a perfect time for our visit it turned out to be!  The Mariel Boatlift was underway from Cuba, and Key West was occupied by US Navy personnel and briefly by Cuban refugees.  It was a great time to honeymoon there, because we had the place to ourselves and of course, that’s the way we preferred it.

I was a Yankee clergyman’s daughter, and he was the son of teachers from the desert Southwest.  We had had no experience of the warm Gulf waters, and were very curious about life under the sea.   We bought our first snorkels and masks at a dime store (a thing of the past now) and dunked our faces in the water right off the beach by the Southernmost Point of the United States.  Wow!  We had no idea how magical it was under the water’s surface!  And so, two snorkeling addicts came into being.

In the past decades, we have snorkeled, together or apart, wherever we could.  Together, we’ve been to Florida (again), Mexico, and Malaysia.  My Dear Husband, the inveterate business traveler (while I stayed home with the kids), has also experienced snorkeling in the Philippines, the Red Sea, and off the east coast of Thailand.  Nothing has ever measured up, for either of us, for our first view of the coral reefs, then vibrantly alive, off the coast of Key West.  Living in Southeast Asia gave us a rare opportunity to snorkel as we did on our honeymoon.

We were making this plan at pretty much the last minute, having chosen a period around a weekend during which my Dear Husband could remember no pressing appointments.  We ransacked booking sites until we came across a “resort” on the northern, or “sunset”, coast that promised a thatched bamboo hut in a quiet, romantic setting.  The island was said to have good snorkeling right off the beaches, funky bars, and great Thai seafood.  Since the pricier hotels close to the main beaches of Koh Lipe were full, we booked into the sunset beach resort.

The resort's restaurant

The way in is by ferry, and we chose to fly to the ferry terminal on the larger island of Langkawi, Malaysia.  Of course we were imagining as easy a trip as to Nantucket.   So we just packed our bags, and took off.

Langkawi Harbor

Our first shocker was when we arrived at the Telaga Ferry Terminal in Langkawi.  Seems that boating from Malaysia to a small Thai island with no Immigration office is not simple.  The ferry personnel hold your passport from the moment you check in for your ferry until after you have landed in Thailand, during which period of several hours you simply must trust them not to abuse this possession of your most powerful document.  We freaked out, to put it mildly.  Then it appeared that we really had no alternative, if we were not to give up on the whole trip, except to let these authorities take and hold our passports.  So we did that, and gritted our teeth throughout a rough and rainy ride to Koh Lipe, until, after jumping off the ferry into the Thai surf, we were reunited with our precious documents.

Our fellow travelers have just jumped off the back of the "ferry" into the water on the beach.

After wading through the water up onto the beach and retrieving our passports and bags, we set off down the beach to secure a “longtail” taxi.  We shared one with a friendly young (everyone here was young) couple from Kuala Lumpur.  Their eyes grew wider as the longtail slowly approached a deserted little beach.  Greeted by a friendly dog as we jumped into the surf, we began the steep hike uphill to what was clearly not yet a resort.

Island Taxi Parking Lot

Straggly gardens, partially washed out dirt steps, an open-air restaurant with four tables, no reception desk, a staff of five (including the dog) only one of whom spoke English, no swimming pool, and a half hour walk down the steep hill to reach the busy commercial part of the island.  

The back view of our bamboo and thatch hut reveals its concrete underpinnings.

The brand-new air conditioner in our bamboo hut was a nice surprise, but the hut had a gap between the walls and the roof so we still had to use the mosquito net over our bed. The door to our bathroom was a curtain of seashells.  But it was quiet, and the view from our little balcony lovely, the resident dog was awesome, and inertia has a lot of power over us as we age.  So, we stayed, never completely comfortable but okay, for five nights and four days.
During the almost-daily heavy tropical rains, the bathroom ceiling leaked!  Also, the outlets shown were all there was.

The "resort" dog offered a complete package: welcoming services, guarding, companionship, and good humor.

On two of those days we signed up for snorkeling tours of the reefs off the nearby islands.  We shared a longtail on each tour with 4-5 other people, huddling on wooden planks under a tarp roof for shelter from the merciless sunshine.  Each day we visited between three and five reefs, and snorkeled at each one as long as our captain would permit.  The varieties and the psychedelic colors of the corals and the lovely fish are beyond my description.  If you have been to a good aquarium with tanks of living corals and tropical fish, imagine swimming in warm water marveling at such beauty around you.  We saw velvety purple-edged giant clams, huge blue starfish, and even a sly moray eel, waving innocuously on the sea floor.

Cheat Alert:  I took this photo at an aquarium!  Don't have an underwater camera!  Am no Jaques Cousteau!  But this is to give you an idea of the beauty of the tropical coral reef we saw in the Andaman Sea.
One of our snorkel tour boats
Island Lagoon Picnic Area

 Each seven-hour trip featured at least an hour’s ride to the reef area each way, and lunch on a nice island.  There were also stops for us to admire odd islands, like one made entirely of smooth stones where we were expected to stack as many as possible.  We also visited a Monkey island where it was clearly not safe to eat your lunch, or even swig from your water bottle (monkeys are daring thieves). 

Monkey with Plunder

Amazing Balanced Boulders in the Tarutao National Park
Unlike the 20-somethings with us, the exertion tired us.  After the last few 45-minute swims, it became an increasing challenge for us to heave ourselves, suddenly no longer weightless, up onto the boat by means of a barnacled and rusty ladder made of steel pipes.  I was grateful I’d at least been faithfully doing 30 minutes of yoga daily and taking long walks. After the last swim, I nearly landed myself on the floor of the boat (and a few laps) after finally hauling myself on board.  Hard as that was, I was proud that I could still manage it, could still reach outside my comfort zone, and experience wonder.

Scrumptious Thai Barbequed Giant Prawns
Funky Island Bar

Most of the other island visitors were from Thailand and Malaysia, with a smattering of Westerners speaking a variety of languages.  With few exceptions, we were twice as old, and out of shape, as everybody else.  On our last night, strolling Koh Lipe’s “walking street” after dinner, I heard American voices behind us and turned to say hello.  The three had just graduated from college, and were glad to talk to other Americans for a few minutes.  After swapping stories of our Koh Lipe experiences, we modestly mentioned that this place was kind of hard for a couple of grandparents and the girl from Pennsylvania said, “I know, right?  You have huge cred!”  We needed that pat on the back!

But a gentle pat, because on our last snorkeling trip, I had somehow missed a few square inches on the backs of my legs with the 110 SPF sunblock which protected all the rest of my absurdly fair skin.  Now I have a little memento of our trip, a deep but quite small tan (after the peeling ended), and memories to last through our next 33 years together.

1 comment:

  1. Those are ridiculously beautiful photos. You DO have huge cred :)