To Bocas or not to Bocas

The last morning on Chichime was moody like the first – grey skies and slight rain. We gathered around for one last United Nations egg and cheese-something breakfast and again boarded the ‘launcher’, this time the seas seemingly even rougher and the boat going slowly along with the current. I didn’t love this boat trip either (maybe I’d feel like less of a paranoid white girl if I didn’t have an obsessive fear of losing my phone or passport) but at least this time we weren’t imitating a rocket ship, making air with every large wave. I sat next to the Dutch girl, Hilda, and we shrugged as the rain came sideways at us. “What are you gonna do?”

Back on the grid in Panama City I was still reeling from my incredible time on Chichime, but the day was young and I needed to begin a motion for where I was headed next. Plans are funny, because people always ask me about them, but the more I’ve traveled the less and less I make them in advance. Reflecting on the first long trip I ever took overseas where I booked everything prior to departure, I’ve turned into more of a laid back traveler (all the “box-ticking” through the city on day one was really not my style) and with no sense of urgency and a sort of blase attitude towards being busy on this trip, decisions aren’t always (or ever) quick to be made. Originally I planned, albeit loosely, to get to Bocas Del Toro on the western Caribbean part of the country, yet opening the iPhone weather app to see only 70F and rain for days wasn’t exactly pushing me to now make the move. Bocas is a bit of a ride from Panama City – 10 hours by overnight bus – which I didn’t really mind, but catching that bus would mean one more full day in Panama City waiting around, and a day of that was already looking a carbon copy of what I was doing today. I looked at other beach options on the Pacific side – SUNNY FORECAST! 80 DEGREES! but reasonable accom booked up. And if I’d want to go anywhere else, I’d have to take a cab to the Panama City bus station and attempt to navigate buying a ticket without being properly prepared with Spanish (I’ve never had a single lesson, and we already know how well my Spanish performed on San Blas.) Although I’d done these difficult bus/train/transit purchases a dozen times in Southeast Asia, this was suddenly all feeling so complicated for a 9 day trip. Am I lazy? Old? Or just holidaying hard? I couldn’t be bothered. The weather app is probably lying anyway – I went on and booked a flight. Bocas tomorrow. 45 minute trip. Landing by 12pm. Done.

By now it was about dinnertime, a traveler’s witching hour of sorts, where everyone is finally “home” from their respective day activities, hanging about in common areas, cracking open $1 beers, exchanging so-where-are-you-froms, making connex, making plans, making moves. I was probably with my nose in my phone looking less than social, but Ivar talked to me anyway, a young Norwegian ostensibly from Babetown (can I say that on here?) passing through Panama City on his way to surf. We skipped the basic backpacker interview (how long have you been traveling, where did you come from, where are you going, zzzz, boring) and got right to ideas and dreams and what it would be like to set up a business based on a surfers getaway trip in the fjords of Norway. We rallied his travelmate, another youngin named Oliver, and Hannah, a girl they’d met from the UK, and grabbed a cab to Casco Viejo. This area is known to be the cultural center of Panama City, the old town, the history, the Spanish influence! Oliver wanted a pizza.

We found a spot and were seated outside at a pair of cafe tables, drinking those kind of beers that just never seem to give so much as a buzz, the Norwegians repeatedly urging me to try this weird Nordic minty dipping snus they had brought from home. Not at all a fan of tobacco my initial reaction was “no effing thanks” but the longer the idea brewed the more intrigued I became. The boys gave me simple instructions: dry out a part under your lip and stick in one of the snus packets. I followed their directions and there I sat, with a derpy look on my face, some tingly crap in a packet pressed up against my gums, like a sitting duck just waiting for whatever was supposed to happen next. The convo carried on, but it was only a matter of minutes before I looked across the table at Oliver and the two weaksauce beers I drank started to feel like ten. “NOPE!” I said – and out was spit the snus.

In the morning I bid farewell to the Norwegians, Hannah would be joining me in Bocas the following day. I’ll save the cliffhanger: the weather ended up being fine.


Kapunka Koh Tao, Sawadee Koh Phangan.

tao boat

Koh Phangan was beckoning us, and after 4 days of Tao it was the least we could do to listen. Sal and I checked out of our backpacker’s building at 10am but with nothing else to do until our ferry departed at 3, we scoped out the best beachfront restaurant we could and parked ourselves for a smoothie and a nap. What we thought would be a nice way to relax ourselves through a slight hangover turned more into an afternoon of listening to a guy with a power sander coating us in sawdust that was blowing in our direction, but the food was cheap and the WiFi aplenty, so we stuck it out as long as humanly possible before catching our pickup to the boat.


Tal met us at the docks and boarded the ferry to our bigger island to the south.  I had envisioned it to be much like my ferry ride to the islands only several days prior, that picturesque dawn journey where my fellow travelers and I had sprawled out on the deck and soaked in the sun. I was clearly disappointed this go-around when we boarded a packed large boat and were left with rooftop seating in the rain. My insides were laughing, but my face was not. At least if nothing I got one use out of that raincoat-in-a-pouch I brought.

phangan ferry

We arrived at a cozy little hostel named Our House in the Haad Rin area of Koh Phangan– just a stone’s throw from the beach and a rightful skip to a bunch of strangely Israeli restaurants. Our bunkmates were a group of Brits we had just seen at our same hostel in Koh Tao (“Yeah, we met in the bathroom and you told me how you were so hungover and about to go snorkeling while you brushed your teeth”) and although we all planned to go out for a drink together after dinner, nobody even made it – a group of 10 in our room, all having a snooze before 11. All the beach parties taking place on the island and nobody even said a word. Koh Phangan can’t even handle us right now.

Two-timin’ Tao Taxis


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Taxi fares on Koh Tao are a total rip off. It’s a minimum of 100 baht per head to go anywhere, and the drivers pile people on the back of an open pickup truck then drive like complete madmen with no regard for if you fall off the back or not. Payment is collected before passengers get in the truck, so who cares if anyone arrives in one piece anyway? They’ve already made their dime.

On my second day in Koh Tao, the talk of Sairee beach had been all about “Castle Party”. I’d explain what it is but I’m not even sure – we never got to go to it. Or rather, we arrived, but were told the power was out (the recurring issue on Koh Tao) and nothing was happening. I’d traveled a whole 3 minutes down the road with 10 of my dorm-mates and now we all needed to go back. “100 baht each,” again demanded the driver. In plain English, this guy was about to make $70 for a max 5 kilometer drive. Sorry. No.

We climbed back into the truck and demanded our return. Unfortunately the driver wasn’t about to take us anywhere without a fare. He stepped on the gas and quickly threw on the brakes, sending us flying off our benches and gripping each other to not fall off the rear. Then he stormed away, leaving a truck of 11 party-goers, arms folded, cranky, drunk, yelling for anything to happen. Nothing did.

The driver was fine with waiting, but our group, not so much. Several people ran off to haggle with other taxis, but I would’ve rather walked an hour than give anyone any more money. I’d been ripped off enough times in Thailand, and this whole thing seemed like some scheme for cars to take people out to a party that wasn’t happening tonight because of the power, and they knew it.

In what felt like a split second and a complete “fuck dis shit” moment, the four English girls and I completely bailed on it all. We jumped off the truck and hopped on the back of the motorbikes of 5 Canadian guys who had just arrived at the party and were heading back to Sairee upon seeing the party was closed, speeding away from the scene with not much more than a “toodles!” wave goodbye. When all else fails, jump on a stranger’s motorbike? Sorry to everyone else who still got stuck paying those dirtbags. Sorta.

zomebie fixed 

Island in the not-much-sun

tao pool

The weather on Koh Tao after the first few days wasn’t the greatest, and beyond a 30 minute sunburn I got on the afternoon I arrived I hadn’t spent any time on the sand. Divers can dive when it’s drizzling, but vacationing backpackers have to wait it out. So I can’t say I felt particularly bad about being a contribution to the laziest place I’ve ever fucking been – besides sitting around and eating with Sal or napping, I took walks, got my nails painted, and tried to come up with ways to make the minute things I did sound more interesting for when I’d converse with divers later in the night. “You saw a SHARK on your dive? Oh, me? I investigated the insides of my eyelids while it rained.” Basically, I sounded really fucking boring on Koh Tao.



The evenings made up for the dreary days though as they were filled with a myriad of nightly hangs, ranging from rum and Red Bull on the front porch of our hostel, to beach parties where cheap drinks and good vibes flowed in equal parts. Lotus was a place about a 30 second walk from my hostel and seemed to be the center of all the haps on most nights, beginning early with flame-spinning shows and turning into balls-out dance parties on the sand with the baby-sized waves lapping at everyone’s feet. These are the kind of picturesque island parties I’d only seen in photographs or reruns of Full House when the Tanner family goes to Hawaii. To finally be there and hearing Daft Punk “Get Lucky” for the sixtieth time while staring out over the ocean felt like a dream. I really started to feel like I was on vacation afterall, and the broken-English note Sal received from an admirer had me belly-laughing far into the next few days. You look better in the photo, Sal.

tao tanner

Even when the nights seemed said and done, the pool bar across the pathway from Lotus was open late and cannonballs into the deep end at 4am were a surprising reality. I kept wondering when the camp counselors would appear and tell us to get to bed. We’d drag ourselves back to our sheets and coat them in kilos of sand. A bunch of big kids in adult bodies. A group of strangers turned friends.

tao friends

tao hangs

Desert Islanding on Koh Tao

After two weeks of hustle bustle sight-seeing and travel, I could’ve cried over how excited I was to be in Koh Tao. When I finally arrived I kept looking at the GPS map on my phone and zooming out to see this little dot in the ocean. I’m on this tiny island. I’m so far away from everything.


The previous two weeks were exhausting. In addition to getting used to a 12 hour time zone change, I had been sweating through religious temples, historically significant mountains and assorted ancient ruins, and now I was in Koh Tao, where there was absolutely nothing I was supposed to do. And since I didn’t plan on diving like 90% of the visitors, this was undoubtedly my time to do just that: nothing. I already had arranged to meet up with one friend on the island, an Israeli named Tal that I’d met in Phnom Penh (hi Tal!) so I wasn’t worried about having a bunk experience here like I had in Chiang Mai. People can change any destination from ‘blah’ to ‘boom!’ and the islands were definitely the latter. Well, mostly.


Koh Tao I quickly pronounced “the laziest fucking place I’ve ever been”. I stayed in a backpacker’s building that wasn’t strictly associated with any particular diving school, so the majority of people I encountered there weren’t far off from me – people who ended up here one way or another and didn’t really have any set plans.

tao pup

I arrived assuming that if nothing else, I could explore the island alone. What I had pictured Koh Tao’s landscape to be was something of a flat island, or at least flat around the edges with one ring road connecting the areas, making accessibility to several beaches easy, thus exploring the island solo an optimal idea. Koh Tao, while beautiful, is nothing like that. It’s not even remotely flat and not only is there no ring road, but the roads that do exist beyond the main beach are not in great condition. Hiring a motorbike is not advised, and bicycles? Ha. They don’t exist. I would tell you all about this island I spent 5 days of my life on, but I can’t. Sairee Beach, what’s up.


Koh Tao is its own kind of experience though – the power goes out everywhere sporadically throughout the day, and internet access is broken more often than not. Who cares about WiFi on a tropical island? People who aren’t diving on a diver’s island. My whole hostel. The laziest people you’ve ever met.

I kid. It’s not fair to really say “lazy” about people on holiday.

First there was Taka, a Japanese guy who seemed to be comatose for days on end. No one really knew what was wrong with him, and his English was “nah so gud” so for all intents and purposes, Taka was dying. I didn’t know any differently. I just hoped whatever was killing him, he didn’t give to me.

Also in my dorm were these four English chicks. I never got around to remembering their names, but they were young and fairly friendly, so I didn’t mind having them around for this total lazy fest. If I had to choose one word to describe them, it would be “Wooooo!” because that’s what it seemed like they were in Thailand for – screaming “Wooooo!” at beach parties with their hands in the hair, probably a bucket of booze or wine cooler in at least one, if not both of them. I’m not even judging. I’m just sure everyone has a better mental picture of them now, right?

Then there was Sal. A buff 30 year old from Leeds, the first time I met him it was the middle of the day and I was confident that he was drunk. I later told him that was my first impression of him and he asked why that was. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on it, but in retrospect it’s because Sal doesn’t really have an indoor voice. Here Taka the Japanese guy is visibly dying in the room and Sal was talking to me at about an eleven and sitting on the edge of Taka’s bed while he was in it. My eyes bulged out of my head a little at the time but truly it’s not all Sal’s fault that I thought he was drunk – he wasn’t diving here either, and with little else to do on Koh Tao during the day I just assumed the bar is where he’d been instead. Turns out, Sal is pretty freaking deaf. Not like, sign language deaf, but definitely repeat-everything-you-say-twice deaf. And don’t ever mumble. Sorry, Sal. I “get” you now.


Sal and I forged a unique friendship over the next few days, one where we would wake up late to get breakfast, drop off laundry that we couldn’t be bothered to do ourselves, and ask each other favors like “Can you go outside, take a picture of the weather, and then text it to me?” Sal and I stuck together like two peas in a pod. Or rather, two non-divers on Koh Tao.

The final addition to what would become our supergroup was Julia, a lovely young lady from Germany. Like Taka, she arrived dead, and I had no idea what she even looked like for the two days she spent in our room with her face in a pillow. With Sal pulling all kinds of mortifying drunk antics like hopping in her bed with a wet swimsuit on at 4 in the morning, it’s any wonder she talked to us at all, but once she was feeling better Sal somehow charmed her enough that she joined us for drinks and dancing on the beach and accompanied us to lazy late breakfasts as well.


An eclectic mix of personalities, from several corners of the earth. This certainly wasn’t going to be so ‘blah‘ after all.IMG_8167

Leaving Las Mainland

Right around the time I wanted to get from Chiang Mai to the islands is pretty much when I realized I should never listen to anyone. Chiang Mai – while still an incredible experience – wasn’t this mecca of Thai culture like it was talked up to be, and worse, the regional flights from the area to the beaches were outrageously priced – where are all these “cheap” regional flights everyone is talking about? I wasn’t particularly in a rush to arrive anywhere, so a long journey I took via train… back to Bangkok. Oye.

I’m not good at math but I’m pretty sure no matter how I add it up, the length of the journey from Chiang Mai to Koh Tao is still a complete joke. I stayed in one country the whole time and it still took longer than my flight from New York to Singapore. Something like 40 hours? Seriously. Now I know why people will pay so much for the flight.

On the train span headed towards Bangkok I met an ageless woman named Renee. I say ageless because she was cool as hell, but actually probably in her early 50’s. Renee was a hippie older sister type, had a zillion stories to tell about Thailand in the 80’s, life raising kids in Africa, and pretty much anything you could imagine to make you feel like you hadn’t lived yet. Where she was leaving and where she was headed hardly mattered. We both were looking to kill a few hours in Bangkok (it was 8am my next train wasn’t until 6 at night) so she took me to the famous Sunday market, a market so big they hand out maps at every entrance. As the market became too hot to bear we bought some coconuts and a mat and sipped the water from under the palm trees by a pond in the park. The things that happen when you travel alone are weird. I don’t even know this woman, and we just created a postcard moment together. Why would anyone bother with that budget airplane after all?
My second sleeper train arrived in Chumphon at 5am, followed by the most immaculate sunrise ferry ride to Koh Tao. At this point, who knows what day it is? Who cares how long it’s taken? Who cares that I paid like, 70 baht to shower in a train station bathroom yesterday? The other passengers and I sprawled out across the deck of the boat on our backs, heads on our luggage, closed our eyes, and soaked all of the rising sun in. Koh Tao, we’re finally almost here.


“Lost” in Chiang Mai


Chiang Mai looked lovely from the minute I stepped foot there. I was thrilled to be in this mountainous country gem after Bangkok, but my pace didn’t seem to be on par with other backpackers this time.

Chiang Mai was lonely.
Northern Thailand is an excellent place to do hired tours – trekking for days, all kinds of elephant nonsense, hill tribe experiences, you name it – all expensive things that I had no intention of doing. These hired tours are an issue when you aren’t going on them – every tour group is it’s own clique, and if you’re just biding time in the same hostel not doing one, you’re invisible. Aside from talking to my bunkmates and a friendly Brit I kept bumping into on the street, I met no one in Chiang Mai. Snore.
I was especially determined to make the most of my time in the area despite my shoestring budget, but it wasn’t coming as easily as I’d hoped. Even to hire a short ride to some areas outside of the city limits had a high price tag which made me sad. I missed Cambodia and my cheapo tuk tuk drivers. I don’t even know where to begin here.

I won’t bother boring myself by telling anyone how far out of the way I walked trying to get to Doi Suthep (the nearby mountain with a buddhist temple and panoramic views of Chiang Mai) but it was awful. I wasted an entire morning, then eventually arrived there on the back of a songthaew for a bogus 500 baht. The hassle was worth it fortunately – even the ride up the mountain gave me chills. Perhaps here it was a better place to be alone.
Later in the evening I walked to the Tham Boon Khan Dok festival at Wat Chedi Luang. If this was the only thing I got out of Chiang Mai, it was still worth it. The festival is uniquely Chiang Mai as it’s a blessing for the city pillar. As I approached the area, the hum of the monks praying was loud, there were stalls everywhere for locals to buy flowers as their offering. The entire experience was very surreal and I walked the whole area feeling completely unnoticed, like a fly on the wall peering into a day in the life of these Thai people. The 14th-century temple was the center of the festival and thr most impressive I’d seen, with its illuminated animal statues surrounding the complete perimeter.
Chiang Mai seemed to have many hidden wonders but I wasn’t too sure where to find them. After two days I couldn’t put any more time into this city and I really wanted to get to the islands. Thailand has felt so touristy that I didn’t mind continuing the trend but instead on the relaxing tip. Time to even out this tourist tan with some real beach rays. 20130630-173817.jpg