Turning Twenty-Nine in Thailand

One of the most exciting things about living in Hong Kong is the proximity to all the extraordinary exotic lands around South East Asia. It is our intention to see as much of this part of the world as we can while we are here. High on the list is Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, Myanmar, and New Zealand. The call for both of us to return to India is a sweet ache that gets stronger and stronger as each day passes. My birthday seemed like the perfect excuse to begin on this most excellent to do list. About five weeks ago we booked a trip to Thailand for a long weekend in Koh Samui. Between moving into our new apartment, settling into our daily schedule, and exploring Hong Kong time flew and before I knew it was time to pack for Thailand- which is so much easier with only two bags of stuff to choose from! Living on Lantau Island, the airport is a mire half-hour public bus ride from the apartment. Zooming through customs as a resident, I met Eric at the gate with plenty of time to spare.

IMG_6796After an easy three hour flight from Hong Kong we land around 7pm at Koh Samui Airport- one of those sweet little airports where you get to walk down the moveable staircase right onto the tarmac like royalty. A short shuttle bus ride brings us to the terminal and through immigration. We are greeted to the island of Samui with the subtle scent of jasmine blossoms and the sounds of croaking frogs. The small difference in temperature and humidity from Hong Kong is surprisingly noticeable. After a lifetime of frozen New York winters, experiencing November at an average temperature of 70 degrees fahrenheit you start thinking that any warmer would be absurd. We figure out what direction to go to grab a cab and Eric stops by the ATM to take out some Thai Baht… and leaves his card in the machine. He does a impressive job at staying calm, despite the accumulating sweat on his brow, while first searching for it and then eventually calling the bank to have them replace it when we get home. We hire a taxi to take us to Hansar Samui Resort and Spa on Bo Phut Beach in the Northern part of the island. The sun has already set so we can’t see too much during the 10 minute ride… Some restaurants, thai massage centers, girly bars, and a wonderful break from soaring skyscrapers. We arrive at the hotel to an open and breezy lobby with a “zen” feel to it. The friendly hotel staff greets us with a “Swatdeekah” and invite us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable. They offer us fresh juice and a cool towel as we review our booking details. We are then guided up to the third floor to a beautiful room which overlooks the pool, beach, and ocean. After settling ourselves into our new space we dine at the hotel restaurant, H Bistro. It is then that we meet our first feral cat of Thailand, a talkative ginger. He enjoys a proper dinner of scraps from our meal of tradition Thai fare. The waitress, seeing I was not the least bit bothered by the begging cat, proceeds to show me pictures on her phone of her two cats. We talk about our furbabies like proud grandparents with a wallet full of precious grandkids. After dinner, we dip our feet into the ocean. The beach is grainy but the water is warm and calm. We go for a short stroll to help digest dinner but decide to turn in early, tired from the busy week.

IMG_6802The next morning we wake up refreshed and fully realizing how much we have been needing a vacation after the whirlwind of relocating our lives from New York City to Hong Kong. The floor to ceiling curtains in the room manage to entirely block out the morning sun and when I open them up I am blinded by the sunlight rushing in. We make our way down to breakfast. A buffet of exotic and familiar fruits, cheeses and breads, cold pad thai and fried rice, the asian breakfast staple congee, made-to-order omelets, coffee, and fresh juices. No cats to share our breakfast with but some determined black birds have no problem eating from my hand, despite Eric’s comments on Asian bird flu. After breakfast, we venture out to the Fisherman’s Village, a nearby main street that is filled with al fresco restaurants and shops selling everything from Thai wrap pants, white cotton shirts, and coconut beauty products to your standard tourist goods; T-shirts, sarongs, and various home decorations with “THAILAND” carved into them. My mind tries to make room for one more conversion rate to keep prices in perspective. Because of recent protest threats, the Thai Baht was down and our money went a little further; about $31 TB to $1 USD, or $7.75 HKD. After some gentle bargaining we purchase a few items at really excellent prices. The next few hours we spend simply relaxing on the beach. The water is just perfect- I could spend hours in it swimming, floating, diving and bobbing- and I did! As the sun began to set, I got an hour long “strong” thai massage on the beach for $400 baht ($12 USD). We enjoyed a Thai-style seafood dinner and drinks at Nirvana in Fisherman’s Village.

DSCF0925In preparation for this trip, I read an excellent travel memoir entitled A Fortune-Teller Told Me. After receiving a warning from a Hong Kong fortune-teller not to risk flying during 1993 journalist Tiziano Terzani commits to a year of earthbound travel throughout the Far East and discovers the joys of moving more slowly and closer to the earth. Along the way he consults fortune-tellers, intuitives, shamans, and monks. These explorations begin to spark for him an interest in the occult throughout Asia. In Thailand he speaks at length about the Phii, ghosts or spirits, of Thailand:  “To propitiate the phii and keep them quiet so they would not bother ordinary mortals, shrines were erected in their honour in every corner of the city, in every street, in front of every house. The people were assiduous in leaving them food, little wooden elephants, plaster figurines of dancing girls, a glass of alcohol, cakes, sweet-scented garlands of jasmine. Whenever they laid the foundations of a new house or dug a well, they immediately built a little altar to the Earth Spirits to apologize for the disturbance caused, and begged its protection in times to come. These apologies and prayers were regularly renewed with fresh offerings.”  It’s true, I noticed practically every shop and restaurant had an elevated golden altar outside with either the elephant-headed Ganesha, a Thai-style Buddha, or another Thai deity usually painted gold with it’s palms joined in a prayer featured at the center. Surrounding the central image are offerings of brightly colored soda or bottles of water with straws pointed in the icon’s direction, as if coaxing them to stay hydrated. Flower garlands, orchid blossoms, and other sweets also fill the platform space. I even noticed the fig tree on the corner had a half a dozen garlands hanging off it and wondered if they were put there to please the earth spirits of that tree. Needless to say, these practices of altar-building and beauty-making make me smile.

IMG_6809Saturday was November 16th, my birthday! We wake and return to the hotel’s decadent international breakfast buffet to discover a new offering on the spread. Something that looked like a strawberry but with a thicker skin and more brownish in color. I pealed away the outside to find a soft nut-like inside. The taste was that of a sour strawberry, consistency of an apple, with a big inedible seed at it’s core. We learned Snake Fruit it’s commonly called but Salak is it’s proper name. It is revered as a healing food of Malaysia. Buddha is even said to have referred to the Salak Tree in discourses with his students.

1459790_10201600640270174_1282827655_nIn our wanderings the previous day I spotted a fish pedicure spa. I have been on the search for one of these since an old yoga student of mine talked about visiting one in DC. I have recently even attempted to find one in Hong Kong. So, obviously I had to try this out! We went there right after breakfast. Somehow, I convinced Eric to try it with me. $200 baht for 15 minutes… about $6.25 each. We slid our flip flops off outside and dipped our feet into the tanks of small fish. The fish take a liking to us right away and before you know it almost every fish in the tank is feasting off our dead skin. First it feels SO STRANGE and my feet coil back in resistance. I’ve had little fish nibble at me in the Adirondack lakes but never so many at once. After a while it feels almost electric and after 5 minutes you get used to it, and start to watch the dynamics between the fish. The hardworking orange one. The straight lines they munch along. The aggressive big one who rules the kingdom but doesn’t eat much. The two dead fish that are also being eaten… It was awesome, it worked, and I would totally do it again! With smoother feet, we returning to the room to grab our things before venturing out to see Koh Samui’s “Big Buddah”. We get a knock at our door from hotel staff. I open it and I am handed a big bouquet of colorful orchids and a slice of chocolate cake saying “Happy Birthday”. The staff and Eric sing me Happy Birthday. So lovely. What a man. Seriously, he’s the best.

DSCF0958After pinning some flowers into my hair, we take a short cab ride to Koh Phan where the Big Buddah sits. Lots of smaller statues are situated at the base of the staircase with their own altars. Water gardens sprout lotus flowers. Roosters and chickens run free as stray dogs and cats nap or beg for attention from visitors. We offer the suggested $50 baht in exchange for a brick to help “build the temple”. While I enjoy decorating it with the permanent markers provided, Eric is off exploring the grounds. By the time I look up to see where he’s gone to, he is walking toward me with a bundle of incense, a thin taper candle, and flowers in his hand to offer at the feet of Buddha. He smiles ear to ear and says he was blessed by the monk with holy water and got TWO strings tied around his wrist! Together we walk up the short staircase to the golden Buddha. I arrive at the top a little before him and a orange and white cat appears before my eyes, having jumped down from the roof onto the railing next to me, and begins begging for pets. Of course I oblige and watch as every other visitor after me is equally captivated by this holy feline greeter. We circumambulate the Buddha, ringing the large brass bells that surround his seat. Eric presses the incense into the pans of ash and lays the flowers down on the altar.

image-1Wanting a blessing for myself from the monk (it is my birthday after all!) I purchase a plastic covered offering bucket of household items, reused throughout the day, I’m sure. I throw my scarf over my shoulders, and approach the platform which the saffron draped monk is sitting upon. I kneel and offer the monk a “namaste” gesture and he asks where I am from. “The States” I reply, “New York City.” “Oh, very good. Good luck, good luck, good luck” He takes a wrapped bundle of sticks, dips the end into bowl of water, and sprinkles it over me while he chants mantra. Then taking a piece of synthetic woven string he swiftly twists it into a patterned knot, ties it around my wrist, and seals it with a few more drops of water, and repeats “good luck, good luck, good luck”. I say thank you and tell him it is my birthday and that I am very happy to have met him on this day. He dips into the water again and sprinkles over me once more “good luck, good luck, good luck”. I think if I encounter any moments of feeling sorry for myself or a lack of inspiration or bravery during this last year of my 20’s I should recall the monks simple and sweet blessing of “good luck, good luck, good luck” which guided me into my new year. For dinner more Thai food! This time at Starfish and Coffee. Also in the Fisherman’s Village. Delicious.

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We wake up on Sunday at 7am to go on an boat excursion to Angthong Marine Park which we booked the previous day. A small bus picks us up at the hotel and we are brought to a dispatch point at Bangrak Beach. The small breakfast the brochure spoke of was instant coffee, ritz crackers, and a banana. Slightly disappointing. We wait here for about a half an hour before they divide us into groups which fill three outboard speedboats. We dash across the bay to another small island to collect a few other people, and then travel on for another hour to Koh Wae Yai to enjoy some snorkeling. Jumping in butt-first to the warm water I try to avoid getting too close to the big jellyfish swimming nearby. The water is calm and I swim alongside the fish with ease assisted by my flippers. I swim down deep and capture images on my waterproof camera of underwater creatures, wishing I could become one, and really explore the ocean’s depths. The sea has eroded the underside of the rocky island which we are near. I flirt between swimming under it and then rushing away afraid that an unexpected big wave might come and sweep me under or knock me unconscious. I swim over to what looks to be a school of fish, or at least jellyfish that I could watch from a safe distance. What I think to be marine life is not at all, and my heart sinks when I realize that it’s trash which has gathered from the converging currents: water bottles, plastic bags, pieces of styrofoam, and other debris. I make a promise to myself and the ocean to drastically reduce my plastic bottle use in the “don’t drink the tap water” city of Hong Kong. We spend close to an hour swimming and then gather back onto the boat for our next destination, Mae Koh Island.

1452398_10201606887346347_810269040_nThe small beach here allows for the boat to park just a few feet from shore. The guides give passengers a hand as they take a leap of faith off the back stairs into thigh-deep water. It has started raining but we are so wet it hardly matters. We take a very steep staircase 200 meters up to a viewpoint. Now when I say “very steep” I want you to think of your average step. Now cut the depth of that step in half and add some rust to it. More space between each step then would be allowed in the states- like, space enough to fall through. And don’t forget it’s raining… those steps are a little slippery. Ah, awesome- there is now lightening and I’m holding a hearty steel handrail! Meh? I have made offerings to the Phii- I’ll be fine. Crawling up and down these steps I find my grace embracing it like a four-legged animal using my arms for as much stability as my legs. I bound up the to the top and back down into the lagoon at the center of the island with no problem. The rain keeps me cool.

DSCF1081We hop back on the boat and are taken to the area where we will eat lunch and then have time to swim or kayak. Lunch is decent. A yellow curry with chicken and rice. Watermelon is also served. We eat on picnic tables under thatch-roof canopies. After lunch, we walk around the “campsite”. Remnants of broken down fishing boats, trash, and makeshift hammocks litter the beach. It doesn’t feel like a precious national park. It doesn’t even feel like a secret place that happens to be run down a bit. I am upset that people are bringing tourists here and not contributing at all to the wellness of the land which they are taking advantage of. What do those Thai earth spirits, the Phii, have to say about this!? We decide to swim by ourselves on the beach rather than kayak with the lot of them. It’s nice and we enjoy floating around in the salty water but we are ready to go when the others get back. With the passing in and out of rainstorms the water is rough. We (I) decide to ride in the front of the boat for a more visceral windswept journey back. The bow of the boat slams down on the waves so hard I can imagine the front of the boat cracking off entirely. If the driver went a little slower he wouldn’t crash down so hard. I imagine my father on his boat carefully maneuvering lake waves to avoid anything like this ever happening. I watch as a scrawny Russian woman in front of me loses contact with her seat on a big wave, happy that I have a little more weight to my bottom. The guide sees her take flight and insists that we all come inside the boat. One at a time, he helps us back to our seat. Inside the boat, people are looking a little green. A big reason I wanted to travel in the open air. The French woman in front of me is making gestures to her boyfriend to explain the direction her stomach is swirling in. The guide continues to offer small plastic baggies to anyone who feels like they might get sick. He says he doesn’t want his boat to be puked in. I am feeling fine but know if one person gaks on board it will be hard to not do the same. I get my iPhone out and play some Krishna Das, pull out my coconut scented lip balm, close my eyes, and enjoy the rough rocking of the boat. Eric falls asleep. No one on the boat gets sick. We dock on the beach, and the boat is getting tossed by the rough waves. Two guides help passengers leap off while others pull the boat towards shore as if they’re trying to control a bucking bull. Loading back on the shuttle bus with people from nearby hotels we are back to our room shortly.

1462978_10201606901186693_1353594163_nWe hang our things to dry on the patio and go down to the infinity pool where we meet a nice couple from New York City. Cracking the ice with passionate discussions over where to find the best restaurant in Bo Phut Beach, we discover that Eric and the woman have mutual friends from high school. All of a sudden, the world seems as small as the Upper West Side. They settle back into their lounge chairs and order some Pina Coladas as Eric and I continue to frolic in the water. We watch as the full moon rises over the peninsula. Eric gets out of the water to grab his camera. Pulled by the moon, I leap out of the pool, and submerge myself into the warm embrace of the ocean, seeking absorption into the Moon’s glory.

Thai Dancer NamasteFor dinner we choose Zazen, a restaurant with great reviews and traditional Thai dancers performing on Sunday nights. We walk along the beach in the opposite direction as the Fisherman’s Village. The grainy sand is hard to walk on, softened from the high tide of the full moon. A nice way to build a proper appetite for dinner. Along the way, lanterns float high into the sky, fireworks pop every once in a while, and lights from the Full Moon Party twinkle from a nearby island. We come upon sand art that could be nothing but a symbol of the Goddess. The curves of a feminine being encased by a yoni, or vulva, shape. What a beautiful and auspicious sight to see under the full moon light. We eventually arrive at Zazen, rinse the sand from our feet, and sit down. The best way to describe this place is by calling it “pretty”. Draping canopies, make any table feel like you are dining outside and the simple tropical decor helps your relax further into vacation mode. Percussionists play breezy ambient music in between accompanying the dancers which take the stage every ten minutes or so. Eric orders a local lobster and I get the set tasting meal of Thai seafood to be sure I have tried as much variety of local flavors as I could in one weekend. Along with the meal we both try our first bottle of Thai wine from the Northern part of the country, which was surprisingly good!

IMG_6934At the end of the meal, the staff of Zazen gives us a pink and green boat made of hardened bread to release in honor of the full moon holiday. Loi Krathong, meaning “floating crown” or “floating decoration”, is celebrated annually in Thailand as well as in parts of Laos and Burma during the full moon of November. The incense and candle on this floating altar is lit and then released onto the ocean or a river surface as an offering to the water spirits. The bread boat we were gifted eventually breaks down in the water and is eaten by fish. Keeping it simple, guests of the Zazen Resort released theirs onto the pool after taking a picture with it. We instead, carried our Loi Krathong offering back to the beach by our hotel. After a little struggle lighting it in the wind I pull up my dress with one hand, walk waist-deep into the ocean to get past the waves, and offer sincere thanks to the beauty of the water and all beings that inhabit it. Wet-bottomed, we have a drink at a bar with beanbags couches on the beach. Lying back with our feet in the sand, we watch the clouds dance with the full moon to the sounds of techno pop coming from the bar’s sound system. We reflect on the softness we have both found in a new land and a refreshed sweetness shared between the two of us.

Our flight Monday is scheduled for 5:25pm so we leave the day open to improvising. Eric wakes with a rumbling stomach, which we decide came from the poorly washed plates which we saw after lunch. After sleeping a little longer, he gathers up the energy for one last stroll through Fisherman’s Village with me. The restaurant hostess’ try to entice our lunchtime appetites and Eric responds with a groaning “nooooo” and hand over his belly. We come back and he rests on the patio as I go for a final swim in the ocean. Giving our thanks to the hotel staff, we check out, and take a cab to the airport. Moving through check in and immigration quickly, we walk outside through a strip of airport shops. The waiting area of airport is a covered but open area with wicker chairs and tables. Our flight is a little late but I am able to sit in the sun as Eric reads his book so it’s a stress free delay while we wait. A tailwind pushes us home to Hong Kong and we navigate our way to the local Lantau Island bus stop. Eric brings my bag home while I stop by our friend Janet’s apartment to pick up my cat, Boo. All together at home, Boo nuzzles between us, and we sigh ourselves to sleep.

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