This past March, my team at work had a meetup in Hong Kong, so my friend Denise and I decided to head over that way early and vacation somewhere. Denise loves the beach and snorkeling and I love other people making all of the decisions, so we narrowed things down to about seven beaches, and then picked Koh Lipe, Thailand.
Getting there was not quite a ten month sea voyage, but very nearly. I had to fly to San Francisco, leave the domestic terminal, accidentally leave the entire airport and wind up in a warehouse district in the middle of the night, find my way back to the airport, trip the hand dusting test thinger, get escalated searching, fly to Taipei, fly to Bangkok, take a boiling hot bus across Bangkok to the other airport, meet up with Denise, fly to Trang, spend the night at a little hostel, eat dumplings in the morning, get into a van, be driven in circles around the city of Trang for over 90 minutes for mysterious reasons, experience the van getting packed to the roof with burned tourists and a gang of chubby Thai high school boys, be driven to a beach boardwalk, get out, stand around for awhile until we realized no one was going to tell us where to go, walk to the pier, get on a boat, and THEN finally approximately 72 hours after I left, transfer to one of the little wooden boats that take you onto the island and then we were there! Except we just had to walk around for a bit to find a taxi.
Koh Lipe is really beautiful. I am not sure it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been as there are a lot of people on it so I’d probably end up giving that nod to some sort of misty early morning mountain scape, but it’s certainly up there. I think it was somewhat remote maybe ten years ago, but it’s hot spot now — there’s a big central thoroughfare winding through the meat of the island packed with restaurants and shops and massage parlors and dive shops. But the beaches were not very crowded at all! Denise and I stayed at Coco Beach Bungalows on Sunrise Beach, the back side of the island, and it was PERFECT. It was very easy to spend an entire day with a massive buffer of personal space all around you. And best of all, right off the shore were endless coral reefs. I only first snorkeled a couple of years ago in Belize, as it had always sounded suspiciously like a sport, but it’s actually not at all. It’s the most chill thing you can possibly do, you just drift around on your stomach and below you, a magical fairyland unfolds. You can even do it if you’re super hungover. And in Koh Lipe, the water is smooth and warm as a bathtub and the reefs are just a short paddle away. Almost no one was ever in the water; I have no idea why. Denise and I practically had the entire ocean to ourselves.
I slept for 14 hours and then I spent the rest of the time doing as little as humanly possible. I drank iced coffee in the mornings and read ebooks, snorkeled until it started to feel like work, laid around on the beaches mostly sleeping until I got too sweaty, went back and drank beer on our shady porch until Denise came back, went out and ate grilled fish somewhere with her, and then went to bed at like 7pm while she went out to investigate the night life. As I understand it, Denise had sort of similar days, but with more snorkeling and massages and less sleeping. We also both smoked as many cigarettes as we liked because it doesn’t count when you’re overseas, and whiskey was like $4. And best of all, everybody on that whole island left me the fuck alone — I have never in my entire life been so not bothered by all manner of people. Unless I approached someone else intentionally, nobody talked to me the entire time I was there! It was all pretty perfect. If I had one complaint, it would be the mosquitoes. I was pretty plagued, and I had some sort of allergic reaction to the local repellent which caused me to break out in hives all over my hands and up the insides of both arms, which meant I had to always decide whether I wanted hives or mosquito bites (and possible Dengue fever).
Also, when I went for a snorkel the final day, it was really too shallow and I spent the whole time stressed out that I was going to accidentally stand up on a coral reef or knock into one, so eventually I just came in.
Also, we both charred our entire backsides the first day, and I’m pretty sure Denise got sun poisoning, but we were both much more careful after that. Except on the last day, I fell asleep under a palm tree and then the sun migrated and I roasted my back again.
But that was it — everything else was great, and I’d definitely go again.
The one thing that we did do that was an actual thing was go on a day long snorkel tour.
The tour was us, and then an older Thai guy who’d lived in the States for a long time and either his daughter or his partner, I wasn’t sure which. He wasn’t a dentist, but he was something responsible and boring like that, and had that sort of manner about him. They were very friendly and pretty quiet. Our guide was a wiry 30-something guy who didn’t really speak English and was very into making big pantomimed jokes and then pausing expectantly for laughter.
The ride out was super long, but the first snorkel spot was deep and lovely with rainbow-colored coral and lots of different types of fish and animals, and there was basically no one else there. Our guide went from mildly annoying to extremely, as he kept swimming up to each of us in turn and pushing his Go Pro in our faces, which, we were wearing snorkel gear, so there wasn’t much mugging for the camera we could do facial expression-wise. And then he pointed out different sea creatures, even picking them up and putting them in our hands and things, and attracting our attention to various things. All of this is what he’s meant to do, I didn’t blame him for it, but it was irritating, as we just wanted to be left alone to drift around and enjoy looking at everything.
The dentist, meanwhile, was hauling his (wife? daughter?) around in a life-preserver, which was odd. They seemed to be making quite an ordeal of the entire experience.
After that spot, I think we went to another one, which I cannot remember somehow. And then we went to a rocky hill that was part of a national park. There were a ton of other tourists there, and not much else, just a bunch of rocks and a little hut thing. We ate lunch there. The sea around it was stunning, although when I waded out into it, some sort of crab or something laid into my calf (it didn’t hurt, but it surprised me, and I came out again).
Then, we went to another snorkel spot, all around a big rock out in the middle of the water, and that was amazing, too. Except our guide really started bugging me, even taking my hand and dragging me all around. I really wanted to get rid of him, but it’s very hard to lose somebody in a coral reef. It’s not like a mall or a festival.
Then we went to another national park bit, which was just a giant pile of black rocks. There, we saw a couple, one half of which was a pretty stunning muscled young fellow who immediately ruined whatever mystique he had by unironically flexing for his girlfriend’s photo. Also, there were all these signs saying not to pile the rocks into cairns, and every single person there was creating rock cairns and photographing them.
From there, we went to a monkey island. Now, I had told Denise that I was not keen to go to a monkey island, and I explained to her why. But we went anyway. From the boat, the monkeys seemed adorable and peaceful.
It always starts that way.
The dentist approached the monkeys with a bag of snacks, and they flocked around him, standing on their hind legs, crowding around. Climbing up his calves with their little feet. Oh, so adorable. All the other tourists came around, and clumped, and the monkeys wound in and around between them. So cute.
I kept my distance and waited.
Soon, a big male monkey violently snatched the bag from the man’s hand and made off with it. He then sat in a prominent spot, eating at his leisure, so secure in his primacy that he didn’t even guard his plunder.
Denise and I wandered off down the beach observing some small babies up along the tree line. After awhile, we headed back…and then the screams began.
A young couple from another boat had sat down — just sat down! — right in the midst of the monkeys and were feeding them snacks. At first, it was adorable, the monkeys flocked around them and they were so happy. But then, a monkey attacked the girl’s back, violently, with claws. She screamed and flailed and her boyfriend valiantly tried to get the monkey off her. The boatmen laughed – still from the boats, because they knew better than to even set foot on monkey island, and I turned to Denise in vindication. The couple ran into the water (that’s when you go when monkeys attack). She had red gouges all over her back.
After that, we went to one last snorkel spot. This was deep in the middle of the ocean, with a very heavy current. A huge flock of tourists pulled themselves along two cross ropes and looked down. The coral down there was pretty amazing, but it was exhausting trying to get through the current and far too crowded to be around the other people — a huge chain of boys dragging themselves along in life preservers just ran right the shit over me with zero hesitation. Also, there were a ton of little jellyfish bits in the water that got all in my bathing suit under my boobs. I mentioned this back on the boat, and our guide was like, ‘yes, I wouldn’t go in there today, because yesterday I saw all the jellyfish getting chopped up.’
At the end of the day, we arrived at an island where our guide announced that we could watch the sunset, and promptly vanished up the shore. “The sunset isn’t for two hours,” said the dentist. We all looked at each other.
The shore was exposed to the setting sun, it was brutally hot, like being pinned down on an operating table under a heat lamp. I took off my bathing suit, which meant I was commando under my dress, and hoped the sun wasn’t lighting up my business to all the many Thai families who were having picnics and grilling out up under the tree line. Denise and I found a shady spot near a malarial inlet and squatted there, as our various layers of sweat and sunscreen and seawater and bug spray melted into a paste in the radiating heat. And then, like a mirage, the flexing tourist guy and his girlfriend appeared out of the shimmering light. They waded into the malarial swamp, and there attracted a small gang of Thai children who leapt around them and giggled and posed for pictures…at which the guy flexed AGAIN, this time having one of the little kids squeeze his bicep.
Eventually Denise and I went back to the boat and napped on the benches under our hats. Finally the sun set, our guide came back, and asked what we were all doing in the boat, and then we went back to Koh Lipe.
All told, we really only had four days on Koh Lipe and then Denise headed to Singapore to visit her uncle, and I headed to Phuket to work and hang out for a week. To get to Phuket, I had to take a five hour trip on an un-air conditioned speedboat, which was packed to the gills with angry, exhausted tourists from various countries where people don’t feel compelled to suppress their emotions the way they do in the US and I was really afraid this Australian guy was going to punch this Brazilian woman he didn’t even know for taking up the seat he wanted. It was a long, miserable ride, and it eventually involved a second boat, and then in Phuket, the cab ride was far longer than I had thought possible, through winding mountain roads, and the cabbie insisted on having the windows up for the AC, but it wasn’t getting to the backseat, but what WAS getting back there was thick, choking clouds of incense. And then the cabbie pulled over and asked me if I’d mind waiting while he did some banking, and straight up vanished into a bank for 30 minutes while I sat in the hot car. And then it turned out we were only two blocks from my Air BNB anyway.
I was staying in Kamala Beach — I had googled ‘most boring beach in Phuket’ and gotten Kamala and then had looked for Air BNBs there. It sounds super glamorous to work from anywhere in the world, but actually, it just causes me a lot of anxiety, and I don’t like to do it. When I travel, I can only enjoy myself by reminding myself that it doesn’t matter if I get stranded or things are sort of shitty, because I have nowhere to be and nothing to do except to take in my surroundings, so I should just take each thing as it comes and focus on the small pleasures as they arise. I am not that kind of person at all, but I manage to do a really good impression of her and fool myself when I travel, so travel lets me escape my horrible, tiresome self in a way that is extremely refreshing.
But working while traveling ruins all that. When I’m working, it does matter if I get stranded, or if things aren’t as described on the website, or if I’m late or not where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there. And most of all, it really really matters if there is no or poor internet. And I’m a team lead now, so I especially worry about setting a good example. It was very important to me that I be back at work when I said I was going to be, with a full connection, and I was really stressed out at the idea that the internet where I stayed wouldn’t be good enough to work and I’d be screwed.
But it was fine! I got there on time, the place was very nice, completely quiet, and the internet was perfectly adequate for everything but video calls. My place had a kitchen and a really nice balcony overlooking a massage parlor where a gaggle of women of all ages sat on the stoop all day having small dramas with each other and eating. It was also a two bedroom, because I couldn’t find anything smaller that was a whole apartment situation and didn’t cost more, but all the super sweet young women who worked in the building lost their minds that I was staying in a two bedroom by myself every time they came in to give me new towels. “All you?” they kept saying, looking in the unoccupied bedroom in amazement. “So big for just one person!”
“Well, you know,” I said. “I like to have some elbow room, I guess.” I felt completely ridiculous like I was lolling in a wading pool of Cristal lighting my cigar with stacks of flaming baht instead of hunkered over my laptop at the kitchen counter periodically squishing the ants that kept swarming the keyboard.
I had a quiet week working mostly at night and eating all the street food I could get my hands on, and then occasionally having a nightcap at the depressing bar downstairs where the sad bar girls pretended to be entertained by the most disgusting collection of expat men I’ve come across yet (which is saying something). The beach was really nice, although nothing compared to Koh Lipe, mostly full of families with children, and had those sunbeds you can rent, which I’m normally opposed to on principle, but which I discovered are actually super great and now I always want to have one, but only as long as I can get one in the front row where I’m viewing the ocean, rather than further back where I’m viewing the bald sunburned heads and hair shoulders of other tourists.
I only got one full beach day in, partly because I made the mistake of dropping my bathing suit off to be laundered at a place with a very nice young woman who told me I could pick it up the next day. But when I went back, it was closed down with a sign saying it would be open the next day. And then the next day, there were only a bunch of very confused teenage boys there who let me (well, didn’t stop me) search the entire laundry room (no dice) and then put me on the phone with some lady who just kept saying “my staff go to mountain, back tomorrow, ok?” And then the next day, the young woman was finally back and thoroughly steamed at everyone else who worked there. “I put your stuff right here behind the bar for those idiots, and I told them exactly what it was,” she said, but nicer than that.
Finally, my week there was over and I flew to Hong Kong to meet my team. Hong Kong was the first stop of my grand three-month long solo backpacking trip when I was 25, and it was the first time I’d really traveled, so going back was kind of fun. We were in a totally different part of Hong Kong than I had been before, however — we stayed in Wan Chai and worked downtown. We mostly worked and ate giant meals, except for one day, when we all went to Hong Kong Disneyland.
Now, if you know me at all, you will have trouble picturing me at Hong Kong Disneyland, but one of my coworkers, Drew, used to work at Disneyland and his extreme love and evangelism for all things Disney is so winning and persuasive that all of us very much wanted to go to Disneyland with Drew specifically. And apparently Hong Kong Disneyland is one of the deadest Disney parks anywhere because China has put all its Disney promotion money into the one in Shanghai (obviously), and when it comes to a Disney theme park, you really want it to be dead.
This was my first ever Disney experience and will probably be my last unless I have a kid who’s into it, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. There’s a train that goes right from Hong Kong station out to the park, and it’s all tricked out in Disney stuff with little Disney statues in plastic display tubes, and Mickey-shaped handrails and things. The park is not that big, and it was not very crowded. We waited a max of maybe 20 minutes for the busiest ride, and it was usually much less than that. The rides were more around experience and theme and detail than thrills — there were a couple of roller coasters, but most were pretty tame. Interestingly, many of them had nothing at all to do with any Disney movie, but apparently are the same rides you’ll find at many Disney parks. I thought all the Disney rides were based on Disney cartoons. I also was worried that I would be accosted by many people in giant costumes, but Drew explained that you actually have to seek them out and wait in line, so it’s not as all the Very Special Disney episodes of my favorite 80s sitcoms had led me to believe. We went on an Iron Man thing where you sat in a closed car that jerked around to a 3D movie, and a roller coaster where some sort of bears had taken over a mine, and a super racist jungle boat cruise, and a ride about a mansion where a creepy monkey opens a chest with evil spirits in it, and a stressful one where you had to shoot fake guns at targets and try to get points, and another one to do with space. And a couple of other ones, I don’t remember all of them.
I rode each ride once, and the roller coasters twice.
And then I went home!