The good life – A few days on Turtle Island

Monday, 16th of July, 2018 (2 days, 2 nights)

They are all islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but couldn’t be more different from one another. While Koh Samui is the busiest (and largest) of the three, Koh Pha-Ngan is somewhat more layed back. Koh Tao is not only the smallest of the three, it is also the sleepiest of the island group. As mentioned earlier, not much action can be expected before early noon, with people sleeping in and shops opening at random times during the day. The only folks up already in the earlier hours are the (skuba) divers, preparing for another day in the water. This is also the island’s main business – you can book a crash course and learn how to dive on your own in just a few days, with diving schools dotting the busy western shores of Koh Tao. All in walking distance from the main pier where catamarans drop off tourists in regular intervals.

Horizontal palm tree on Sairee Beach.

Strangely, I didn’t encounter many locals. Some may work in the bars and cafes, or rent you a room in one of the many rows of bungalows and resorts, but there does not seem to be a lot of “local life” taking place (anymore?). Not near Sairee Beach, anyways. It was much similar in the south. Chalok Baan Kao Bay had small shops and bars as well, plus some nice resorts and beaches. But as with Sairee Beach, foreigners were in the majority, sitting in beach restaurant, lounging on bean bags, or studying for diving certificates. There might not have been a lot of local settlement here to begin with, though. Small as the island is it might have been scarcely populated all along, with increasing tourism bringing over people from the mainland.

We quickly learned that Google Maps isn’t as reliable here as it was on the other two islands. We tried to get to Mango Bay in the North by motorbike, but were abruptly stopped at a dead end leading to a resort. A helpful employee of The Place was kind enough to point out that Mango Bay was best reached by taxiboat and only the Mango viewpoint could be reached by bike. Even that included some hiking, as he explained, and showed us many alternativ bays that were in fact reachable by motorbike. We took his advice, thanked him (he even let us keep a copy of a Koh Tao pocket guidebook) and we left in direction of the South.

Had it not been for that error in Google maps, though, we might not have discovered the Viewpoint Resort. Set on the tip of a small headland between Shark bay and Taa Toh beach, we  came across it’s inviting sun beds while looking for shells and small pieces of flotsam along the shores.

Putting up a shell token near Freedom Beach on Turtle Island!

As an outside guest you could use their infinity pool and sun beds for 250 Baht per person, but the nice woman managing the place suggested that she would give us access for free should we wish to eat lunch at their place as well. The weather was somewhat unstable that day, so we took her offer and spent the afternoon in the resort, baking in the sun and finishing novels.

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Disturbing me while reading the last pages of my thriller = a capital offense!

This was in fact a wise decision – suddenly the sky went dark, with big storm clouds assembling rapidly above the sea. It’s fascinating to experience how suddenly the weather can change here during monsoon season. One moment you see a few puffy white clouds above, with the sun peeking through every once in a while. Then you dose off for a few minutes and the next moment you startle awake to a raging thunder storm. I deeply enjoy swimming in the safe waters of a pool during heavy rain, though, and was quite content with the sudden weather change.

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Less than half an hour away from Koh Tao lies another beautiful place called Koh Nangyuan. This private island actually consists of three small rocky hills connected by a stretch of sand. You can either reach it directly by Catamaran from Koh Phangan or by long tail boat from Koh Tao. We choose the latter options since we preferred to leave our baggage in the bungalow. Not the wisest decision, because the sea got very rough that afternoon, and so the small taxiboats were not able to cross over anymore.

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A weekend on Koh Phangan

Saturday, July 14th, 2017 (spent 2 days/nights)

Compared to Koh Samui, the island of Koh Phangan is a somewhat less busy place. That is if you visit in between fullmoon  or halfmoon parties. It is hard to believe that this serene island is buzzing with people seeking noisy nighttime thrills and boozy adventures at least twice a month, with waterfall and lighthouse parties in between. I was quite skeptical before coming here, expecting to find a place defined by noise, drunks, and drugs. Yet when we arrived, Koh Phangan was all quiet. The ferry from Koh Samui dropped us of at 8:30am, and as with many tropical places, where daytime is marked by scorching heat and life takes place during the nighttime hours, only a few people get out of bed before 10am. However, we did see a few groups of orange clothed monks walking the streets, the locals already expecting them with offerings of food on silver plates.

First thing, we rented a scooter at one of the many shops near the ferry pier, were quickly on our way in search of a place to stay.

The Haad Son Resort and adjecent Koh Raham Bar were ideally located in close vicinity to the popular Yao beach and Salad beach.

Lucky coincidence led us to check out the Haad Son resort, a hotel that from the outside seems quite unremarkable. The friendly manager was quick to show us the rooms he had available, and we didn’t hesitate to book a night in one of his clean air conditioned bungalows (we even extended for another night because the resort was so nice). The real surprise was the skillfully arranged bar/restaurant, that was set among tropical plants, palm trees, flotsam and other large pieces of driftwood. A platform made from polished concrete and natural stone led into the Golf of Thailand and wide hammocks functioned as boundary to the ocean.

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We took a quick shower and were back on the road half an hour later, driving along the ocean road, past small houses, little shops and through long stretches of uninhabited land. In between you could often get a glimps at the sea and serene stretches of sand, oftentimes accessible only via private roads. This took me some time getting used to, because it always felt like trespassing when we entered a small street or mud path to get to the ocean. Soon I learned though that those roads led to small bars and cafes and that the best sea views were kept hidden behind jungle vegetation. The bar owners always seem torn whether to prefer seclusion (maintaining the secret jungle flair) or commerce (attracting customers to earn a few Baht).

The main road goes along the west coast of Koh Phangan, with the east strangely undeveloped. Some places you can only reach with a major detour first to the south and then up again to the north east. The beach of Haad Rin in the southern most part of the island was our next major stop, widely known for its infamous Fullmoon Parties. Interestingly, you wouldn’t pick this beach for the “ultimate” party destination when visiting on a regular day, with the bars almost empty.

It did get a little busy as some local fisherman roped in their nets which they had cast close to shore earlier that morning. But except for some small fish and a few crabs they didn’t catch much and the crowd quickly dispersed.

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And so we spend our time basically hopping from one viewpoint cafe to the next, enjoying the water of the delicious young coconuts, or sipping a coffee, or savoring one of the many mouthwatering Thai dishes, all the while watching the sea and hearing the waves below.

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Jungle hike to tropical waterfalls

Tuesday, 10th of July, 2018

Yesterday we did a jungle hike to Koh Samui’s tropical waterfalls and natural freshwater pools. This wasn’t our initial plan for the day, but during monsoon season the weather can change quite quickly and is somewhat unpredictable, and we estimated that an island tour would be not feasible in the current weather. We went to see three different waterfalls instead, and except for Namuang, which unfortunately had an elephant “safari” park and quite a few trashy souvenir shops at the entrance, the waterfalls and pools were hidden gems in the thick jungle and required some hiking to get to. I especially enjoyed the Hin Lad Waterfall and it’s natural pathway climbing over massive rocks and through thick lush green vegetation. The water rushed past us only a few meters away so we had a soothing natural „soundtrack“ for the half hour hike that it took to get there.

 

Beach time on Koh Samui, Southern Thailand

Chaweng Noi beach after a heavy monsoon downpour. Look closely and you can see the end of the rainbow dipping into the Thai sea.

Monday, the 9th of July, 2018

Thailand is quickly becoming one of my most well-known travel destinations I have been to so far. In late summer of 2017 Jelte & I took a roadtrip through Central Thailand, driving all the way from Kanchanaburi in the country’s west to Phanom Rung in the East. We even packed in a day to discover Bangkok, but „only“ visited Malaysias Langkawi for some island relaxation.

This time I flew in over Phuket to see more of the country’s South. Some would say that this is the much more prominent face of Thailand, one with palm tree fringed beaches with crystal clear water and soft warm sand. I have first gotten to know another facet, characterized by ancient temples, rich culture, and incredible friendly people and I was (and still am) excited to discover more. So far I was greeted with the same unconditional friendlyness, ate equally delicious food (though with much more seafood), and even saw a temple with a mummified monk, confirming my earlier impressions. Though the focus won’t be as much on ancient culture and religious sites as before, I’m sure this country will hold just as many strikingly beautiful and exciting surprises as our last trip. The beaches are breathtaking indeed, and the soft waves instill a deep sense of calm and relaxation. However, it is monsoon season at the moment, so the sun is not shining as strongly and uninterruptedly, saving me from the worst of sunburns. The picture above was taken just after such a heavy monsoon rain shower, with thick drops and quite a bit of wind. Though the waves kept low, at some parts of Koh Samui they were pretty strong, making it hard to swim in the water. On this particular day and beach though, I could easily enjoy the downpour from within the ocean, watching the raindrops hit the sea surface and enjoying the sound of the rain.

Traveling through Yunnan – First Leg: Lijiang

May Day Holidays, 28th – 30th of April, 2018


The May Day holidays were spent traveling through Yunnan province! Its a beautiful place with very friendly people, delicious food, and incredible sights to visit. Just sitting in one of the rooftop cafes and enjoying the view of the city is a great start into our travels. The weather was cooler than expected, even though we knew that we were traveling in somewhat higher altitudes than usual.

Its not only available in Yunnan, but breakfast every morning consisted of Xiaolongbao, local bread, and a bowl of Doujiang, which is a sort of Tofu drink. In the background is the oldtown of Lijiang, a UNESCO protected part of the city famous for its cobble stone streets and traditional buildings.

Streets like these are a typical sight in Lijiang, with narrow stone paths winding through rows of old traditional Chinese houses. Many of them are used as hostels now, but it is easy to imagine how people used to live here in the old days.

A well-known feature of Lijiang are the small water ways running through the whole city. In former times these were used to channel water to every part of the city, and today especially the older generation still uses it to wash vegetables.

During the day there are still a lot of quite places to enjoy the architecture and serenity of this ancient town, but come nighttime many of the shops turn into booming tourist bars with loud blaring music and bright disco lights. A lot of local tourists seem to enjoy this as well, we preferred to the quite Lijiang, though.

Mangrove Kayak Tour through Langkawi’s Kilim Karst Geoforest Park

Malaysia, 24th of September 2017


Already a few month back we joined an adventure tour group to kayak through Langkawi’s UNESCO protected Geoforest park. The day before we had arrived on this incredible Malaysian island and even though the resort (and especially its infinity pool) was unbelievably alluring, we made it in time for the pick up at the lobby and were taken to the mangroves. It actually didn’t take that much convincing to excite us for the adventure since we had been looking forward to it for weeks – as a suggested activity in our LP it was very easy to find and book the desired trip online way in advance of our holiday. Early after breakfast the guides came by our resort and picked us up as the last passengers on their mini bus and drove us 45 minutes up to the other side of the island. Some of our fellow passengers split from the group to undertake the mangrove boat trip, whereas us and six others went on to paddle through the maritime forest ourselves. Or so we thought. Actually, the first stop on our agenda was the Gua Kelawar, a small cave inhabited by a few hundred bats. There used to be thousands of horseshoe and roundleaf bats living in the cave, but tourism and the subsequent spot-lightening of the dark interior forced them to abandon the place. When the bats were gone the tourists stayed away as well, so as a compromise the agencies removed the floodlights and returned the stone hall into complete darkness again, allowing only small groups of visitors to enter the cave with one flashlight (handled by the tour guide). After a while, this measure convinced a few bats to re-inhabit the cave, but the colony is still much smaller than it used to be before the human intrusion and the continuous disturbances by disobedient tourists with cell phone lights and camera flashes (a lot of them Chinese, unfortunately). When our group entered the bat cave through a small hole in the mountain wall, there were still a few bats hanging from the ceiling. You could guess from the dark pee stains on the stone walls that it used to house many more winged creatures, but even so we were warned not to look directly up to avoid getting bat droppings into our face/eyes. Another interesting feature of the bat cave were the stalactites and stalagmites that at some points went floor to ceiling in intricate shapes, some of them even connecting in the middle to form a delicate pillar.


A macaque monkey watching our tourist group exit the bat cave.


Occasionally, a macaque monkey would walk along the baluster of the wooden bridge that wound through the cave, prompting the two tour guides to remind us to keep a close eye on our belongings (they love to steal things/food). They also asked all of us not to feed the monkeys with anything we brought with us, since it obviously disturbs their natural hunting habits and makes them depended on tourists to bring food to them. Apart from a divers diet of fruits, leaves, and small birds, the monkey’s full name “crab-eating macaque” suggests that they also go for small crustaceans they find in the brackish water of the mangroves. Since these crabs live in somewhat salty and sandy water, the monkeys sometimes wash them in fresh water before devouring them. I would have loved to see this eating habit, but unfortunately a large group of Chinese tourists (all with their own flashlight) existed the cave after us, some of them handing out crackers to the monkeys, completely drawing the animals’ attention towards them.


On our way to the dock of the small water village to board our kayaks.


It was time to return to the petrol-powered boat that had brought us to the bat cave and begin the actual kayaking tour. Since the kayaks are kept on the docks of a small water village upstream, the boat followed the water way right through the towering lime stone mountains the geopark is famous for. The people living there depend on gas and oil from the “mainland”, so our boat picked up two men carrying a gas tank and some other tools. They didn’t want to keep us waiting too long, so once out boat was moored the men quickly grabbed their supplies and came on board. Or they tried. Right in the moment the first guy stepped onto our boat,  a bow wave from another passing boat rocketed our boat and made him sway dangerously close to the water. And just when we thought he had regained his balance he and his gas tank went overboard. Luckily he hurt nothing but his pride and since it was around noon and temperatures were close to 30 degree C at least he didn’t have to worry about his wet clothes.


Team kayak.


Finally it was time to gear up and prepare to get onto the water. After donning a life vest everyone received a paddle and a short but concise introduction to kayaking. We all booked the trip in pairs so each team of two was assigned one kayak and we set out to take a few careful rounds close to the dock. It was unexpectedly hard to coordinate the movements of the two paddles, not to mention more complicated moves like making a turn or navigating through the narrow mangroves. Even though Jelte & I both thought that we already had some good practice from rowing during our time in Duisburg we discovered that kayaking is an altogether different discipline (not that we were experts at rowing). It was beautiful to be on the water and have the prospect of a few hours of kayaking exercise ahead of us. We didn’t dress for the occasion though: late summer days on Langkawi see a lot of clouds in the sky, sometimes even rain, but still the temperature is very high and when the sun does come out, it is very hot on the skin. It didn’t take us long to understand why our two tour experienced guides were wearing long pants and sleeves, plus a scarf around the neck and a broad hat, despite the heat. Within the first few minutes in the kayak we felt a sunburn develop on our shins and shoulders and we were very grateful when the tour began and we entered the shade of the mangroves.


The sun peaking through the clouds and reminding us that we forgot to wear long sleeves in the kayak.


To get to the entrance of the mangroves we had to cross the lake and paddled a few hundred meters downstream. I would have missed the small gap between the roots if the guide hadn’t shown us the way in. It was so narrow that we could only enter one boat after the other and were greeted by a small group of macaques that roamed the roots in search of a meal. They make use of the low tide to climb in between the otherwise submerged root system of the mangroves looking for clams and crabs. I wouldn’t have though that the tide could have such a strong influence on the water levels of the mangrove’s brackish water, but even the river that flowed right past the visitor center dries up when the water levels fall. With the water gone from the lake many iguanas wade through the mud and mud-skippers show off their jumping skills. There are even some parts of the mangroves that can’t be accessed by kayak, let alone boat when the water sinks, and depending on the time of the day the guides pick a different route for the guests to explore the mangroves.


A gap in the the lush green of the mangroves opens onto a large lake, and ultimately, the Andaman sea.


Within the forest all sounds seemed subdued and a pleasant calm unfolded. We slowly made our way through the tangles of the roots looking for animal life, and the first mangrove inhabitant we saw (after the macaques, who strictly wouldn’t count) was a small black snake coiled up underneath a knot of roots. We had found a poisonous viper that was on the hunt for small fish. All sorts of ocean as well as freshwater fish use the protection of the mangroves to lay eggs and raise their offspring, since the narrow root system makes for a far better nursery than the open ocean/water. Unfortunate for the fish that is no obstacle for the small viper waiting well-hidden and camouflaged close to the surface. After about an hour we exited the first mangrove forest and went out onto a large lake enclosed by karst mountains and water forest on all sides. Through an opening at the far end we could see the open sea but we simply crossed the lake and entered another batch of mangroves through a narrow gap in the trees like before. In the middle of the lake we noticed a few eagles circling above us, their wings spread wide in flight, observing the surface of the water below.

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It didn’t take long to understand why the majestic birds were flying above us. Soon after we encountered a tourist boat stirring up a fountain of water behind it and it seemed as though the eagles associate the revving sound of the gasoline motor with being fed. Unfortunately tourist (and tourist agencies) keep feeding them to attract greater numbers, a practice that ruins the natural hunting instincts of the birds and makes them lazy. In many ways, this is quite dangerous for the eagle population, especially because the fatty diet weakens the shells of theirs eggs to the point that they break before the baby eagle can hatch.

The agency we chose for the mangrove tour had decided long ago that they would not take part in the manipulation of wildlife just so that visitors could get a closer look at the animals. It is always a fine line between ethical tourism and the mere exploitation of nature in pursuit of the biggest profits, and so we are grateful that more and more preservation programs are called into life to protect the scarce and often fragile ecosystems and still make it possible for people to experience them up close.


 

Exploring Beijing’s White Cloud Temple

Sunday, 26th of November, 2017


Apart from the many well-known tourist attractions Beijing has on offer there is a surprisingly large number of remarkable sights that draw a lot less attention to themselves. Beijing Bai Yun Guan is honored as the chief temple of the Three Ancestral Temples of the Quan Zhen Taoist tradition. Originally called Temple of Eternal Heaven, it was built in 741 A.D. under Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. In the Song dynasty it was renamed Tai Ji Gong. At the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, Master Qiu Chang Chun was appointed to this temple by Genghis Khan to preside over Taoism in China, upon which it was renamed Temple of Eternal Spring. After Qiu Chang Chun’s death, Chu Shun Tang was built to enshrine his physical remains, a hall located east of the Chang Chun Gong. In the early Ming Dynasty, the temple was ruined by war. Since only Chu Shun Tang remained it became the center of rebuilding and the temple was renamed White Cloud Temple. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the temple has undergone three extensive renovations with support from the Chinese government and so the traditional magnificence of this time-honored temple had been revitalized. At present the temple buildings cover an area of approximately 10.000 square meters, including nineteen deity halls carefully aligned along three north-south axes, with a rear garden, the overall area of the temple is about 60.000 square meters. Listed as a historic site under the protection of the Chinese government in 2001, it houses the offices of the Chinese Taoist Association, The Institute of Chinese Taoist Culture, the Chinese Taoist College and the Editorial Department of the Journal of Chinese Taoism.