Thailand has turned me into a sun worshiping, beach seeking, piña colada sucking slob. It’s also zapped my motivation for writing, hence the extended interruption in blog posts. To our families, friends, coworkers: we’re still alive! Just being lazy. But while the golden sun and crystalline water pulls at me like a tangible version of gravity, a common cold is all it takes to have me pulling the blackout drapes closed, cranking up the air conditioning, and taking to bed with a feverish pounding behind my eyeballs. I’ve slept so much my back hurts, so now I have no excuse not to write. For those of you who are counting (I am), this is the second time I’ve been sick in as many weeks. But enough talk of sick days – here’s what happened in the time between.
Before we left Bangkok to fly south towards the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, we booked a camping trip that would take us overnight to the famous Maya Bay – you know the one where Leonardo DiCaprio flaunts his shirtless bod in The Beach? Being avid campers back in Canada, Tyler and I were both really excited to experience an overnighter half way around the world – even if it would be with a group of 20 rookies. When we arrived in Koh Phi Phi, the location of our departure to Maya Bay, we checked our email and discovered some unfortunate news: the company’s permit to camp in Maya Bay – a protected National Park of Thailand – had been revoked. So, no camping. In the interest of saving the day, we booked the next best thing: a plankton tour. Exciting stuff.
We departed from Koh Phi Phi Don at 4pm in a Jamaican-colored boat full of would-be campers: those who had also fallen victim to the cancelled Maya Bay overnighter. But with the help of our cheerful Thai captain David and his smiling, relatively shy French girlfriend, our disappointed spirits soon lifted and we set sail onto the clear turquoise water towards Monkey Beach. David had amassed quite an arsenal of English swear words, so his sentences were peppered with f-bombs in all the wrong places and sometimes he would blurt out random cuss words for no reason at all. His hilarious use of profanity combined with colorful stories delivered in an enthusiastic heavily thai-spiced accent had my belling aching with laughter before we even put our snorkels on. And when we did, we were treated to a visual feast of fish in every size, shape, and colour, and coral as varied as the sea life that fed off it.
After Monkey Beach, we puttered around the limestone cliffs of Koh Phi Phi Leh, towards Maya Bay, where we would set anchor to snorkel, explore the beach, and wait for sunset. Along the way, David pointed out the “ba-ness” (translation: bird nests) where Thai people scale the sheer cliffs to collect the nests of Swallows. The nests are sold to the Chinese as the main ingredient to the bird’s nest soup delicacy. Yum.
It was low tide when we chugged into Maya Bay, which meant our captain had to drop anchor further out than normal and we were strongly cautioned not to stand or step on the coral, which at low tide, lurked just below the surface. A bit more time exploring the corals and a quick snack of fresh pineapple on the boat, and we were ready to swim to shore. As we were about to jump from the boat deck, one of our group emerged crying from the water, limping up the steps with a couple of black sea urchin spikes poking painfully from her toes. Two of the boat helpers hurried her into the cabin. I cringed as one of the helpers removed the spikes, then took a flip flop and began smacking the injured foot briskly with the bottom of the shoe, probably thinking to herself with each slap, “bad tourist!” I was ready to reschedule our beach rendezvous when she then began squeezing lime juice on the wound. The injured girl whimpered through gritted teeth as tears streamed down her cheeks. At the same moment I swore never to dip my toes in the ocean again, David clapped loudly and, with a huge grin said “Let’s go!” in a way that suggested we had no choice but to follow. Still not convinced, I countered, “You first”. We all looked around uneasily at each other as David floated buoyantly in the water and one by one, we jumped in after him. “Follow me!” he yelled as we cut a treacherous path through coral, rocks and waves, our bellies just grazing the coral beneath us. “Swim high!” he called out as we passed over a particularly shallow bit. By the time we reached the shore, my nerves were frayed and my body felt as though I’d been swimming for my life. But the sun was almost setting, the sand powdery white between our toes, and the tide already starting to fill the bay. After a couple of drinks and photos, the water was deep enough to take a ride by longtail back to our own boat, just in time to see the sun set. The sky darkened above as we ate a communal meal of rice and barbecued fish, sipped cold drinks, and swapped stories about our recommended Thailand adventures.
By the time our bellies were full and our nerves somewhat calmed, David switched off the boat lights and announced that we would don our snorkels once again: time to swim with the plankton. With this declaration, many of us rushed to look over the side to the black water below, expecting to see the water lit up with the luminescent glow of plankton. It was black. So black that when David laughed and jumped in, assuring us with a flippant, “You’ll see”, he was soon swallowed into the night. Only the sound of an occasional splash marked his whereabouts. “I’m so glad I’m already a couple beers in,” muttered the British girl beside me. I couldn’t help but recall an early childhood lesson. My mother wagging her finger at me demanding, “If your sister jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” Apparently so. I rinsed out my mask and snorkel, stretched it over my head and jumped into the black, black sea. But with my splash and movements, it was dark no longer. It was as if my fingertips, and legs, and toes were sparkling. With every flick of a finger, every twist of a limb, the water brightened and flickered around me with glowing, sparkling, shimmering plankton. I was swimming in a sea of a thousand stars. When I surfaced to look around at my fellow snorkelers, all was quiet and calm as we floated, mesmerized in our own little clouds of sea sparkles.
Maybe it was the drinks. Or my rumpled nerves. Or the lack of any sort of expectations when we booked the dorky-sounding “plankton tour”. Maybe it was the company of friendly Europeans eager to help us enjoy the very best of Thailand. Maybe it was David and his lack of formalities and abundance of happiness. Maybe it was the moonless night or the mounting anticipation as we waited for dark to come. Whatever the magic ingredients were, this was one of few moments, few sites, few experiences on this trip that truly took my breath away. We departed, feeling as though we’d gained friends in a place far from home and an experience we’d never forget. I feel insanely lucky.