Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thailand Day Two: Ko Phi Phi

Early the next morning, we were eager to hop out of bed and check ourselves out of the ummer Hotel. The night before we'd arranged a taxi driver to take us to the Ratsada ferry terminal, and he was waiting for us as soon as we walked out of our room. The sun seemed obscenely bright after our gloomy hotel room, but I was glad to see that it was a beautiful day. Unfortunately the neighboring coffee shop where Bryan and I had planned to have our morning coffee was closed and (strangely) filled with bicycles. We stopped at a 7-11 and got some cloyingly sweet iced coffee sludge. Mmmm...

The ferry to Ko Phi Phi (pronounced "Pee Pee") was on time, and we settled in for the hour ride. We pulled out right around 8:30, when lots of other boats were headed out as well.
Departing ferries
Takin' it all in

The scenery was breathtaking: sea eagles soared overhead, limestone cliffs jutted directly out of the sea, massive bubble-gum pink jellyfish bobbed up and down in the limpid water. It was all stunning. We enjoyed the quiet ride, snapped pictures of the scenery, and munched on yummy homemade banana muffins that the crew were handing out with "orange juice" (actually Fanta).
Beautiful day
Surreal landscape

Before we knew it, we'd reached Ko Phi Phi.The ferry terminal was crowded with lots of people arriving and loads of touters trying to give people boat rides, or direct them to one of the local hotels.
Playing with the fishies by the ferry terminal
Longboat line-up

Bungalow balcony
We started walking, aiming for hotel a little further away from the hustle and bustle. The main thoroughfare was full of restaurants, massage parlors, food stalls selling pancakes, and shops stocked with the usual tourist stuff- cheap t-shirts, bottled water, sunblock, etc. Once we got out of that area, we found a nice place called Andaman Beach Resort, and decided to stay in one of the bungalows there. Our bungalow was set back a little ways, close to the woods. It was nice and private, and gave us a great opportunity to sit out on our little porch and watch the legions of birds and butterflies flocking to the flowering bushes near our place. It was definitely a step up from lying on the cruddy bed at the ummer Hotel, contemplating the brown smear stains on the ceiling (seriously, how did they get there?!). The little courtyard in front of our bungalow was also a hotspot for flying dragons, making it rich fodder for the lizard game. We also saw some neat insects there, probably trying to avoid being swallowed up by the lizards.
Spotted dove
Mantis chowing down on a brightly colored fly
Displaying flying dragon
Grasshopper looks like a warrior

It was a lovely day so we didn't hang around the room for long. The first order of business was food, so we walked to a nearby place and got some mediocre fried rice for me and some mystery dish for Bryan (he ordered basil beef but there appeared to be a language mix-up). Anyway, even though the food wasn't great it was nice to eat right there at the beach. It was even better when the guided tours departed for the day, taking most of the tourist bulk out of the place. After lunch we put on swimsuits and struck out for Long Beach, where we hoped to snorkel. Bryan tried out his snorkel before we left.

Haha snorkel face

Long Beach was further away than we thought, but the walk was pretty and we saw lots of scenery and cute stray cats along the way, so we were content. We found one little kitten who looked like she'd conked out right in the middle of nursing from her mom. So cute!
Beached longboat
Can't beat the views

On the walk, we passed by a little beach bar where there were a lot of hand-carved things like tables, chairs, and my favorite- this teeter-totter.
Seaside seesaw

Our efforts were finally rewarded when we got to the beach. It was gorgeous! The water was so clear that it was hard to tell where the sand ended and the water began.
Long Beach

Not only was there an awesome beach, but there was a bonus! SOMETHING ABANDONED!!!!!!! Naturally I was overjoyed even though I had no idea what it was. At first I thought it looked like a cable car, but couldn't fathom how a cable car had come to be perched on a little cliff on a remote tropical island. Bryan pointed out that it looked more like a cabin from the deck of a ship, like where the captain would sit and look out. That made a lot more sense. I went up to the thing to take some pictures, disturbing a few lizards while I was at it.
Clearly not a cable car
Spooky door
It looks like they stole the driver's seat from a soccer mom's minivan.

Hermit crab
After tearing myself away from the abandoned ship cabin, I joined Bryan for some snorkeling in the crystal-clear water. The water was nice and warm and the visibility was unbelievable. Right away we saw lots of fat purple and white sea cucumbers lying on the sea floor. We also spotted loads of small zebra fish, and a couple schools of small silver fish that reminded me of the ones that formed the arrows and signs in Finding Nemo. My favorite fish was an iridescent purple color, with turquoise highlights on the fins. Unfortunately my fish identification abilities are about as good as my plant identification skills, so that's about all I know. The snorkeling was nice because we saw some cool fish and sea cucumbers and stuff, and in pretty large quantities but it was also kind of sad because there was a fair amount of coral bleaching, which occurs when reefs are stressed, usually due to pollution.

Ghost crab
Back up on the beach, we hung around in the shade for awhile, as I tried my hardest not to commit my usual sin of sunburning myself to a crisp on the first day of vacation. Hiding in the rocks on the beach we found some hermit crabs, which made me think of my niece and nephew. They had hermit crabs as pets and every time one died my brother would tell them that it'd gone back to the beach.

We liked the ghost crabs too. They were a translucent white and pretty much impossible to see against the white sand. Usually they could only be spotted when they were scuttling along sideways, which they did if we got too close to them. They disappeared into tiny holes in the sand quick as a blink. Bryan had to work pretty hard to catch a photo of one.

After our crab explorations we spent some more time hanging around in the water, relaxing, enjoying a day at the beach, and generally putting off the walk back.
All done snorkeling
Floating in the Andaman Sea

Eventually we headed back, via a different route than the one we'd used to get out there. It turned out our path to Long Beach had been wildly inefficient, and the path we took back was much more direct. We stopped by our bungalow to clean up a bit, then headed out to explore a little more, aiming to eventually end up at a place we thought sounded promising - Monkey Beach. On the way to Monkey Beach, I resurrected my idea for a new blog documenting the creepy mannequins of the world. I was inspired by this freakish specimen.
Like something out of a hallucinogen-fueled nightmare

Monkey Beach proved to be monkey-less but pretty impressive nonetheless. The tide was out and local families were digging in the exposed sand for crabs. Bryan and I walked toward the water, admiring the sea life trapped in the tide pools: flat, pale crabs, sea snails, tiny fish, and some long, primitive, snot-like organisms that were scattered about.
Snot-like sea creature

After poking around on the beach awhile, we headed up to the Monkey Beach Bar for dinner. Since leaving Singapore I'd been having a slightly unsettled stomach so I tried to order something innocuous (egg baguette with fries). I ended up just kind of picking at it, and Bryan found his pad thai similarly unimpressive. But it was nice that the bar had tables right in the sand, and we got to eat there on the beach. However, we couldn't really reconcile the obnoxious music the bar was playing with the otherwise serene surroundings. The music was what you might call experimental- loud, thumping, and incorporating non-musical sounds like static, buzzing, speech, etc., all with volume levels that varied widely and seemingly at random. It was kind of annoying, especially for dinner music, and I think it's safe to say we were both glad to get away from there when dinner was over.
The bar

The sunset
After escaping the bizarre music, we took a meandering route back to our room, stopping at another beach-side bar along the way for a beer. Many of the seafood restaurants we passed had the night's catch displayed out front. Interesting, but to me, not appetizing. Anyway, we had a nice time at the little bar, sitting in the shadows, people-watching (a sunburned family, Thai kids chasing stray cats, a young, arguing pair looking like this might be their last vacation as a couple).

Back in our hotel that night we settled into bed, happy to be sleeping on clean sheets. Or so we thought. As I adjusted my pillow to go to sleep, something caught my eye. I looked closer then jumped up on the bed, shouting. There was a millipede under my pillow! I mean, it was nothing like the gargantuan one I saw at Bukit Timah, but it was big enough that I didn't want to sleep with it tucked under my head. Bryan came to the rescue, scooping the little guy up with a snorkel flipper and flinging him out the front door. After that I thought I might sleep restlessly, with a case of the heebie-jeebies keeping me alert (kind of like after seeing the rat in Sumatra), but I guess I was too tired for millipedes to matter, because I slept like a baby well into the morning.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thailand Day One: Not the Summer Breeze

Our most recent destination was chosen after polling some friends with this question: What was your favorite vacation since you've moved to Singapore? The first three people I asked said "KRABI!" so it was decided. To Krabi we shall go! We booked a trip for over Easter weekend. About three weeks before we were supposed to leave, southern Thailand experienced some devastating flooding. We felt guilty for thinking about our beach vacation at a time when people were losing their homes and even their lives. We also debated about our own safety- even if the flooding stopped, would there be landslides? We thought about canceling our trip but decided to wait and see what it was like a little closer to our planned departure date. About four days before we left, Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor message boards were giving the all-clear, saying that while some people on the outskirts of Krabi were still working on cleanup and rebuilding, most everything was safe and in many places, totally back to normal. We decided to follow through but to keep our plans flexible in case we met up with any washed-out roads or anything. I felt glad to be keeping our plans, not just because we'd heard so much about the area, but also because I know that natural disasters can be doubly devastating for economies based on tourism, as they suffer once from the disaster itself, and again from the aftermath, when travelers cancel trips and keep their distance.

So we arrived at the Phuket Airport without a solid plan. I'd picked out a hotel near the ferry terminal (where we'd depart the next day) but hadn't made reservations. After confirming (seriously three times) that a taxi driver knew how to get to the Summer Breeze Inn Hotel, we got in the taxi. I'd looked up the Summer Breeze online. It was one of the highest ranked hotels on Trip Advisor, and it looked peaceful and pleasant. Ten minutes after we headed out for our nice little hotel, our driver stopped and made a call. He clearly didn't know where it was. About a half hour later, we pulled up at an apparently random, seedy building, and our driver pointed and said "Summer Hotel!" triumphantly. It was indeed, the Summer Hotel. Well, actually, the "S" was burned out, so it was the ummer Hotel. Not at all the scenic little Summer Breeze, the ummer looked like the kind of place you might take someone on basis? I made a few pitiful attempts to explain to our driver that this wasn't the place, but his English was atrocious and my Thai is non-existent, so there you go. He left. We decided to give the ummer a shot. After all, it was about US$10 a night, so if nothing else we'd save money.
The ummer...luxurious, I know.
Summer Breeze. NOT same same.

Anyway, we got a room. It was sketchy. It was a stains-on-the-sheets, maybe-I'll-wait-to-shower-till-tomorrow kind of place. So we plunked down our stuff and did what you gotta do when you find yourself in one of these situations. We walked out the front door and across the street to the bar, where we ordered a couple of beers. The bar turned out to be a neat place, if a little quirky. It was in a kind-of run-down house with a bunch of tables outside. There was a Thai guy singing inside, in Thai. He was sitting in front of a huge American flag and there was a buffalo skull on the wall, next to a bust of a Native American in a headdress. Because, you know, why not? Anyway the guy turned out to be great singer, and I particularly enjoyed his half-Thai, half-English rendition of Hotel California.Part way through a garbled Wonderful Tonight,I realized that the table we were sitting at was actually part of an antique Singer sewing machine, pedal still attached and all! My parents would have loved it.
Hotel California, Phuket, Thailand

And that's the story of how we spent our first night in Thailand, sitting at a sewing machine drinking beers and listening to Eagles tunesin Thai. We slept restlessly that night, a little uneasy in this shady location (I admit it, I slept in long sleeves and long pants). I thought about skipping a post on our first night in Thailand, but I figured maybe our misadventure and our evening spent at the ummer could serve as a cautionary tale to anyone else planning a trip to Phuket. Summer BREEZE and ummer Hotel...NOT same same. Different.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Things We Find in the Woods Part Eight

Well everyone, my apologies for not posting recently but I've been sick and laying around in bed, coughing and blowing my nose. Somehow that didn't seem blog-worthy. Anyway, because I haven't been doing anything too exciting, I made another compilation of fun stuff we've come across on previous nature excursions. I hope you enjoy, and now that I'm feeling better I should be posting again soon!

Man, we have been on a roll with the wildlife lately (well, until I got sick anyway). I think Bryan's mom visiting must have brought us good luck. When we were at Sungei Buloh, we saw this huge atlas moth. I saw one once before, at Bukit Timah, but this one was much prettier. These moths are just giant- this one's wingspan was probably about 9 or 10 inches. The females are even larger!
Male atlas moth

On Pulau Ubin, we saw this butterfly. I think it's a Burmese lascar, but a lot of the lascar butterflies (Perak lascar, common lascar) look really similar to me. Can anyone confirm?
One of Singapore's many lovely butterflies

Bryan photographed this bird at MacRitchie. It looks like some kind of flycatcher to me, possibly a young Asian brown flycatcher.
Fragile little bird

One day Bryan and I were walking down the street right next to our apartment when we heard a cacophonous racket in the trees next to the sidewalk. We looked up and saw three robust birds just squawking away. We'd never seen them before, but I recognized them by their appearance and all the noise they were making. They were Asian koels- two females and one male. Asian koels are members of the cuckoo family, and are interesting because they engage in something called brood parasitism. This means that koels don't build their own nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds (here in Singapore they often use myna nests). Koels usually lay one egg at a time, and they choose nests that are already occupied with eggs. Then the mother tending the nest hatches the koel egg right along with her own! Sneaky! Unfortunately, on the day that Bryan and I spotted the koels, we were just taking a stroll to the store so we didn't have a camera and so we have no photos to share. But we'll be on the lookout for them again!

On our last trip to Sungei Buloh, we saw a green crested lizard right near the entrance. I was told by an NUS biology professor that green crested lizards used to be quite common, but they've been largely displaced by the invasive changeable lizards that are now everywhere. I see changeable lizards on an almost daily basis, just hanging around on the bases of young trees, right along the sidewalks. I've only seen green crested lizards a handful of times, and always in a nature reserve.
The native green crested lizard
The invasive changeable lizard

Another of Singapore's invasive species is the red-breasted parakeet. The bird is common in Changi Village, on the east side of Singapore. In addition to the parakeets, there are also cockatoos. Both birds were introduced through the bird trade and managed to reproduce and thrive in their adopted habitat (more info about the birds of Changi here). I was eager to show these birds to Kathy and my friend Shira when they were visiting, so I was walking along the sidewalk, staring up into the trees. I was so focused on finding the birds that I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. And...I slammed right into a lamp-post. Headfirst. I hit it so hard that my head rocked backward and I saw stars. The sound of my head hitting the pole (GONNNNNNNNG) reverberated over and over through my skull. Bryan, Kathy, and Shira all stared at me and tried not to laugh. They did pretty well for about 3 seconds before they just couldn't help themselves anymore. And who could blame them? If I'd been able to see straight and if my ears weren't ringing so loudly, I probably would've laughed too. I'm sure the hundred or so people eating at the hawker centre 10 feet away got a kick out of it. Sigh. Anyway, we found the parakeets.
Was this bird sighting worth a lump on my head?

Speaking of invasive species, how about this red-eared slider pileup?
Like a stack of dirty dishes. Except cute.

We don't just find animals in our wanderings. Sometimes we find cool plants too. Like this dewy purple flower (yes, you can laugh about the fact that I know the names for the animals, but refer to all the plants as "pretty flowers" or "big trees").
Flower on Pulau Ubin
Young leaves, a monkey favorite

We were on Pulau Ubin when we took the picture of the flower. That same day, we say a red jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of the modern chicken. The jungle fowl was really skittish and took off deep into the woods as soon as we saw it so, sadly, we didn't get a photo. However, we did get a photo of some random chickens we saw inexplicably wandering around East Coast Park one day.
Not red jungle fowl.

Chickens aside, Bryan and I have both gotten way better at spotting wildlife since moving to Singapore, but we still aren't that good at spying the local insects (aside from the mosquitoes. I can ALWAYS find them). But since I started following this blog I've been more vigilant about looking for insects. We recently managed to find this superbly camouflaged grasshopper at Sungei Buloh. Isn't he neat?!
Patience, young grasshopper

Sungei Buloh is totally our hotspot for wildlife. We also saw all of these awesome things there:
Little egret
Spotted house gecko
Batik golden web spider
Yellow-vented bulbul

Again, I leave you with my favorite, the lovable long-tailed macaque. This is Catherine lip-smacking at Arwen.
Monkey love