Island Hopping

We left Kota Kinabalu bracing ourselves for a long day in transit. First was our Air Asia flight in the early morning from KK to Kuala Lumpur, an airport we had been through once already and will see one more time before the trip is over. It’s not a terrible airport to have a layover in. The food selection isn’t the best in the budget terminal, though, so we spent our two hours at The Coffee Bean enjoying two things we had missed in Sabah: good coffee and dairy products. When we went to check our bags for our second Air Asia flight, the scale read that they were three kilos overweight. Try as we might to show our luggage tags from KK with the lower weights printed on them and insist that we had not touched the bags since retrieving them from the last flight, they would have none of it. We proceeded to empty anything we could fit into our carryons out of our packs once again, and managed to make the weight limit.

Things went seamlessly once we were back in Thailand–at first. A bus from the airport in Krabi took us straight into town, where a bus to Surat Thani was waiting. They promised to take us to the ferry pier. Instead, however, they dropped us off at a tourism office somewhere in town, telling us that they would sell us tickets to the island of Ko Tao, our final destination. We had been told by our hotel that the only way to get there would be the night ferry, which would arrive the next morning. However, this travel office told us the night ferry was not running that night, but that they could sell us a ticket to Ko Phangan, where we could buy a ticket to Ko Tao. They assured us that, since the full moon party was going on at Ko Phangan, there would be frequent ferries to Ko Tao, and one should leave an hour after we arrived. We were very suspicious, since what we was saying went against what we had been told. We suspected that the night ferry was running, but that he was lying to us because he did not sell night ferry tickets. However, we were nervous about risking it. Plus, he was saying we could get to the island that night, rather than spending the night on an uncomfortable boat. There was another couple there who had already paid and seemed confident. And finally, no one had tried to rip us off in Thailand so far. So we opted to trust the guy.

As you might suspect, this turned out to be a mistake. Everything we paid him for, we got, that is true–a bus came and brought us to the pier, where a ferry took us to Ko Phangan. But when we arrived, we found that there were no ferries to Ko Tao until morning. The latest one was 1:30 pm. Needless to say, we were pretty angry. After we finished spouting expletives, we knew we needed to find somewhere to sleep. We bought ferry tickets for the 8:30 am boat and went to a hotel close to the dock. They assured us, however, that they had no room and neither would anyone else on the island, because of the full moon party. Luckily, as we were walking away contemplating the wisdom of setting up our hammock somewhere and sleeping in it, a lady called to us from next door and offered us a room for only 400 baht (rougly $13). To our surprise, it was a nice room too, albeit with no AC.

Knowing we had better make the best of a bad situation, we decided to go to the full moon party. This is a blowout of mythical proportions, occuring for a few days once a month on the beaches of Ko Phangan, a mecca for the sort of backpackers we have come to dislike on this trip, who consider any night spent sober a night wasted. It was really just like we pictured: a string of bars and booths along a beach packed with crowds of people in bathing suits, covered in glow paint, dancing and drinking. Locals (and sometimes drunk tourists too) spun firey batons and hawkers sold the drink of choice, the “bucket”– a plastic pail filled with your choice of liquor, mixer, and Thai Red Bull (the original). We considered it a cultural experience akin to our time with a tribe in the Amazon–an opportunity to observe and briefly participate in a very foreign custom! We bought ourselves a bucket, pocketing the Red Bull so we could sleep that night, and wove our way through the crowds, screaming to each other over the pounding music, watching the party unfold. When we got back to the hotel, we found ourselves covered in smeared glow paint where we had brushed up against the revelers.

Catching the ferry the next morning was an even more entertaining experience. Shuffling onto it with us were crowds of hung-over, paint-covered backpackers looking, quite frankly, really bad. The ferry company gave everyone a sticker with their final destintion on it, and we joked that this was because everyone passed out as soon as they got on board, and the employees need to know who to wake up where. Others still hadn’t gone to bed and weren’t slowing down, as they drank beer after beer from the ferry snack bar. We watched as one paint-covered individual with his pants falling down stumbled on deck with a half-finished bottle of rum in one hand to light a cigarette with the other. Suddenly we realized why the locals in Surat Thani didn’t have much of a problem ripping off westerners, if this was what they usually saw.

Our arrival in Ko Tao was beautiful and smooth after everything we had been through the night before. We were picked up at the dock and brought to our gorgeous beachfront accomodation. There weren’t any hostels on Ko Tao that we could find, but most of the hotels and beachside bungalows were quite cheap, and we were very happy with ours. It was like paradise. Our resort was situated on a bay in the south part of the island. In the morning the sparkling turquoise water was so shallow you could walk nearly to the edge of the bay and still be knee-deep. In the afternoon the tide would come in, turning the whole thing a deep, lovely blue. We took a walk out into the water as soon as we got there. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and in the pool. Later we rented a kayak and explored the bay some more. It rained in the evening, so we ate dinner at the restaurant there. It was all so peaceful and wonderful.

The next morning, Tommy went scuba diving while I stayed around the resort. He said there were some spectacular fish, better even then in Sipidan, although the coral was not as good. I spent my time walking along the beach and out in the shallow water, and playing around in the pool with a snorkel mask like a six-year-old (and enjoying every minute of it). When Tommy got back we swam for a while and then walked to Freedom Beach a little ways down the coast. When we got back, we got drinks and played chess by the pool. (It was a rough day, I know.) For dinner we met up with an Israeli physician who Tommy had met while diving and his fiancee. We went to one of the many Italian restaurants near the pier, which turned out to be really good, and had a great time talking with them.

On our last day, we booked a snorkel trip. People we met told us we could snorkel right off the pier and Freedom Beach, but we wanted to do it right. We didn’t regret it. The first site was pretty empty except for small fish and dead-looking coral, but it was the place to see black-tipped reef sharks, and we spotted three. The remaining sites were shallow coral reefs that were positively breathtaking. At Sipidan, we had to hold our breath and dive down to get close looks at the fish and coral–here, it was all right in front of our faces. We risked hitting the coral with our fins or scraping our stomachs. The water was crystal clear and the fish were spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it. The trip also took us to Ko Nangyuan, a small island off the northwest coast of Ko Tao. It’s very controlled, with a landing fee and restrictions on plastic bottles and aluminum cans, but it has kept the place looking beautiful. There are two islands connected by a narrow strip of sand, cutting through the most gorgeous blue water you have ever seen. We hiked to the top of one to get a good view. Then we rested in the shade, since we were already sunburnt from snorkeling. We got back around 4:30 and played some more chess by the pool. For dinner we sought out a highly recommended and very cheap local place calld Tukta, with fabulous Thai food. The next morning, we were terribly sad to leave Ko Tao. It had been like three days in paradise. One thing is for sure, we’ll be coming back!

Photos from Crocker Range NP, Sabah

Photos from Mt. Kinabalu NP, Sabah

Photos from Ko Tao

One Response to “Island Hopping”

  1. Jenifer says:

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