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21 December 2002, Ko Phi Phi

We woke up early to get ready for our snorkeling trip, arriving at the tour office at around 8:00 to buy our tickets (900 baht for the two of us). Then we went out and had roti (usually called “pancakes,” but they’re actually more like crepes) with bananas and chocolate. I’m not sure if they are traditional Thai fare, but they’re tasty and good for a quick breakfast. Basically, it’s a large crepe topped with bananas and then folded over and fried. When it is finished, chocolate is poured over it. You really can’t go wrong with chocolate and bananas.

The snorkeling tour left at around 9:00, with a few dozen of us on a large boat. We brought our own masks and snorkels (the ones we had bought in Bangkok), but rented fins from the tour place. I don’t think it cost anything extra to use the equipment provided by the tour company, but the idea of using a snorkel that had been in thousands of other mouths didn’t really appeal to me.

There are a number of places on the island that offer similar snorkeling tours, and I had thought that they would stagger the tours to give us some breathing room. As it turned out, though, we not only left at the same time as the other tours, but we also followed the same route and even tied up with the other boats at the various stops. It didn’t turn out to be that much of an inconvenience, as there was generally plenty of open water and coral reefs to go around.

Our first stop was a place at Ko Phi Phi Leh called Maya Beach. I think our guide might have said something about Maya Beach being part of the location, but I can’t be sure. I suppose I’ll actually have to see the movie someday. Anyway, the water was clear and there was a variety of coral, as well as a surprising number of fish. It wasn’t my first time snorkeling, but it was my first time snorkeling on a coral reef, and it was really an amazing experience. The fish would swim right up to you, past you, and around you. I even had a few come up and stare at me from a few centimeters away. In fact, now that I think about it, they were like pigeons in the park—the “pigeons of the sea,” I suppose. And to continue with the analogy, at some of stops the boatmen would throw rice into the water to attract schools of fish. I’m sure that this had a negative effect on the ecology, but the schools of fish were an amazing sight. I had mixed feelings about it.

Our second stop was in deeper water, so the coral wasn’t as close as at Maya Beach, but there was a large jellyfish in the area. I got within a few meters to take a picture, but I didn’t want to get too close. I’ve never been stung by a jellyfish before, but I hear it’s a less than pleasant experience.

At our third stop the water was so deep where we stopped that we had to swim a long way to reach any visible coral. Hyunjin and I were swimming around above the coral when we heard the boat’s horn. I looked up and discovered that we were alone in the water and the boat was over a hundred meters away. We started to swim back, but I was having problems with my mask. Apparently my moustache was keeping it from sealing properly, and water was leaking in. The water got into my nose and I pushed it out again, but my breath fogged up the mask. I tried to lift up the mask to clean it, but I went under (I wasn’t wearing a vest) and took a gulp of seawater. I looked up and saw that the boat was still a hundred meters away, and for a moment I panicked. Then I reminded myself that I could just breath through the snorkel (it’s not natural to breath through a snorkel, and when you’re panicking it makes it even harder), and after a few moments I calmed down again and swam back to the boat behind Hyunjin (later she told me that she was worried and was trying to swim back to the boat just in case I needed help. The funny thing is that at the time I was worried about her, and deliberately kept her in front of me so I could watch her).

I was pretty tired when I got back to the boat, and fortunately we took a break for lunch, which was fried rice. We had a bit of a break to digest and then went on to our fourth stop, a place called Shark Point (which, in retrospect, might not be the best name for a snorkeling stop). The coral was supposed to be much better than at our previous two stops, but the current was very strong. Up until then we hadn’t used the fins—we did try them briefly, but had difficulty getting the hang of them—but the current was so strong here that we didn’t have a choice. After a bit of flailing around I got used to the fins and discovered that I could keep myself stationary with minimal effort and advance against the current with only a little more effort.

The coral was indeed better at Shark Point, and it was interesting to see the various formations and fishes. The one drawback, though, was what Hyunjin dubbed badamogi—“sea mosquitoes.” As we swam through the water, it felt like we were being pricked with a thousand tiny needles. At first I thought it might have been sand in the water, but I didn’t think the current was that strong. We later found out that these were tiny (practically invisible) jellyfish. It made me wonder what it would be like to have been stung by the big jellyfish.

Our final stop was none other than Monkey Beach. I hadn’t expected much, but I was pleasantly surprised. By that time the tide was well on its way out, and the coral at some points was only a meter beneath us, or even closer. We swam through the mini-caves and along the sea cliffs, where we saw a wide variety of coral and fishes. The water was also mostly in the shade, which meant a refreshingly cool swim.

We returned to Tonsai Bay at 16:00, and along with the memories I took back a splendid sunburn. I wore a T-shirt while I was on the boat, but took it off when I went in the water because it was cumbersome. Well, no matter how cumbersome it may be, I’m definitely going to be covered up the next time I go snorkeling.

When we got back to the island we bought some “after sun lotion” at an exorbitant price (then again, pretty much everything is exorbitant on the island). I’m not really sure how effective it is, or even what exactly it’s supposed to do. From my experience, it’s apparently designed to delay the peeling stage and thus prolong the pain stage. I guess it might be able to save the skin if the burn is not too severe, but anything over a mild burn is pretty much a lost cause. All things considered, I’d rather just have the process proceed at its natural pace and start peeling like an onion as soon as possible.

After applying the lotion, we rested until dinner. We chose a place called Sunla Restaurant, a Thai place opposite Fatty’s that was recommended by our guesthouse owner for its seafood. Seafood is obviously going to be more expensive than tamer fare, and there might be places on the island that do barbecued seafood cheaper, but Sunla is a little family place with a comfortable atmosphere (i.e., it’s kind of like sitting down to dinner in mom’s kitchen—if your mom happens to live in a small and somewhat dirty Muslim village on a tropical Thai island, that is), and the food is good. We had some grilled jumbo shrimp (“jumbo” as in “bigger than your fist”) and some grilled red snapper as well, but the real treat was the tom yang kung. We had tried this Thai hot and sour soup at No. 147 Thai Food on Khao San Road, but only after trying the Sunla version did we realize how utterly abysmal 147’s attempt had been. Sunla’s tom yang kung not only had the traditional shrimp, but shark and squid as well. The broth had this amazing taste—very spicy, but the spiciness did not overpower the rich, deep flavor of all that seafood (even now, over two years after the fact, I can still remember how much we enjoyed that soup—without a doubt the best version we had during our entire trip).

After finishing dinner we took a walk on the northern beach (which was empty once again) and then decided to head to Fatty’s for a drink. We both started out with fruit shakes, but then I thought I would give the Thai beer Singha a try (a small bottle cost 50 baht). It was bitter, but not unpleasant. In fact, the bitter, crisp taste was very refreshing in the hot Thai weather. The bite was augmented by the high alcohol content—6%, which is fairly high for your average quaffing lager. All in all, I liked it. It is definitely suited to its environment.

Fatty’s was our last stop of the night. It wasn’t that late, but we were pretty exhausted from snorkeling and being baked by the sun (getting sunburned always makes me incredibly tired—must be my body trying to recover), so we went to bed early.

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