The Viewpoint – Ko Ang Thong Marine Park

This is what you see from the viewpoint on Koh Wua Talap:
This picture is nearly identical to a postcard that I bought 3 months ago, and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. Only now do I feel like I can actually mail it because I can now check it off my list of places I’ve been.
The idea for this trip to Ang Thong National Marine Park had been tossed around for much longer than three months — closer to 6 or possibly more.  This trip turned out even better than I thought it would — maybe, like wine, these things get better with time.  
The day we hiked to the viewpoint, John, Janet, Blake, and I woke up around 6:15 a.m., unzipped our way out of our slightly damp plastic tents, blinked our way into the reality of the early morning, and then ambitiously proceeded to climb up a very steep hill, just so we could be the first ones to see the archipelago from the top.  The night before, Janet and I had mandated to the very enthusiastic but impractical men that we shouldn’t go before sunrise: better to go after it started, we said, so there’s light and so we wouldn’t have to climb in the dark.  We were right.
Pictures of the climb itself don’t do it any justice, really.  The trail is unassuming at first: you see a nicely carved wooden sign that announces that there is a viewpoint 500 meters beyond it, and there’s an accompanying map that shows that there will be rest stops every 100 meters in between.  To begin, there’s simply gray rocks, a thick long rope that disappears upwards, and a scramble of leaves, tree branches and roots leading every which way.  Little by little, though, it becomes apparent that these rocks are a) slippery, b) sharp, and c) stacked sharply upwards to where the rope is necessary for 98% of the steps you take.
Each viewpoint gives you a progressively more beautiful view of the islands and each section of the climb gets progressively harder.  And remarkably hotter. As we left the jungle tree-cover that we had been hiking under and neared the peak of the cliff, the temperature seemed to jump by another 10 degrees.  The sunlight reflected off the water below us and off the jagged limestone in front of us; there were no clouds in the sky and the breeze seemed to disappear completely.  Although I’m smiling in the picture above, I’m also secretly praying that you won’t be able to see the sweat that’s accumulated in more places than I care to reveal.
The beach on Koh Wua Talap from a lower viewpoint (picture taken the day before by Blake, who had a solo adventure of his own). Still postcard perfect.
When we made it to the last and highest viewpoint, we triumphantly surveyed the islands below us and agreed that this view was amazing, breathtaking. So of course, the boys proceeded to climb higher, past the “No entry” sign, to go to the even higher, possibly even more perfect point.  But Janet and I stayed on the wooden platform and gulped water; we laid down in the little bit of shade we could find and watched sparrows fly overhead as we waited for the breeze.  Everything was peaceful and quiet and serene.  It felt good, with just the four of us being up there.  
***
I feel like I say it about almost every new place I visit, but this was one of my favorite trips so far.  Here’s what we got and what I liked about it:
  • The price of the boat trip.  When we first got to Koh Samui and inquired about going to Ang Thong, people only told us the one-day package tour price, anywhere between 1000 baht and 1400 baht (the latter included kayaks).  We encountered all kinds of pressure from travel agencies to buy tickets right then and there – some agents claimed the boats would be full or unavailable in the morning.  Although we partially worried that we would be overcharged if we waited until the morning (maybe they would see the desperation in our eyes), Janet and I were determined to trust our gut instincts and wait.  When we went to the pier at 7 am, the first person we approached let us talk him into lowering the price from 1,100 to 800 baht and finally down to 700 per person.  Lesson learned: it definitely helps to take out the travel agency middlemen.  And to speak Thai.  
Sun deck! Wild hair.
  • An all-inclusive boat trip. We got a free breakfast of bananas, coffee, and croissants; the guide on our boat was really personable; we got a really big and delicious free lunch with massaman curry and sweet and sour chicken; we got snorkels to borrow for the entire time; and finally, we got to visit an additional island with the tour group before going back to Samui (with even more free coffee and snacks).  
  • Camping. We brought our own tents and it was 30 baht per person per night – $1! So cheap. The camp area was well maintained (and the restrooms, too, were surprisingly not disgusting). We borrowed sleeping mats the second night and they made it doubly comfortable.

One of the most scenic campgrounds ever.
  • The friendliness of the national park staff. The first person we met was P’Gon, who welcomed us warmly when he found out that we knew his former coworker (our future landlord!). He joined us after dinner one night to play his guitar for us, serenading us with his own composition, “Don’t Eat My Cat.” Shortly after we met P’Gon, we became acquainted with Doc Wak.  Our first impression was that he seemed stern and unapproachable, but we eventually won him over with our Thai-speaking abilities.  Later, he came over to us, got a faraway look in his eyes, and asked us if we knew the history of Stanford – then proceeded to tell us. This incident and his other random stories solidified him in my mind as a memorable man.  Last but not least, we met the drunk cook, whose name escapes me.  He came to sit with us after dinner and talked a million words a minute in southern Thai, pouring us drinks and giving impromptu massages and giving us free food. My favorite part was when he took away my bottle of wine and put it on another table, just so he could refill it himself. Lesson learned (for the millionth time): if you don’t want your glass to be endlessly refilled, you gotta leave a little in there.
  • Independence from the group.  Since we came specifically with the idea to camp on Koh Wua Talap, we got to structure our time differently from the people who were following the one-day tour they paid for.  The boats that took us to the archipelago and back had upwards of 50 people on them, and there were multiple companies running these day trips.  Our group got to Koh Wua Talap around 10:30 and were told to get back on the boat by 12:30.  By then, other tour groups had showed up to have a buffet lunch.  It seems as if there’s a scheduled rotation of companies, coming and going until around 4:30 pm.  After that, luckily it ends.  No more boats and no more tourists, so it felt like we had the island to ourselves.  The first night, there were maybe 4-5 people camping, and the second night, it was just us and the park staff.  Instead of getting rushed through climbing through the viewpoint alongside other people, we got to do it when and how we wanted to. Kayaking worked out to our advantage as well – we took our own kayak trip around the island (500 baht per kayak per day) and I felt virtually alone while we paddled between islands and beaches.  In contrast, the group tour went in hoards (2 groups) and only had about an hour to get from one beach to another.  

***

One of the things I’ve grown to love the most about teaching in Thailand is the amount of free time we have here. This sentiment is confirmed by practically everyone I work with: again and again, we pinch ourselves and wonder, how do Americans work 40+ hours a week and only take 2 weeks of vacation a year (if that)?

My summer break lasts from March until mid-May, which is great.  The trade-off, of course, is not being able to earn money year-round.  But I’m glad I’m doing this now – what I may be lacking in money, I’m gaining in self-knowledge and experiences…which is really why I wanted to travel in the first place. 

According to the now-defunct 40-20 blog (in which women in their 40s give advice to 20-somethings), women in their 40s say they wish they had traveled more and taken more time to do things alone.  I’m lucky; I’m doing both at the same time.  It’s hard to break away from the group sometimes, but I’ve been really learning to embrace my “me” time out here.  I’ve found that more of an introvert than I thought – and I love it. 

I also love having a job that doesn’t make me want to sit and watch TV because I’m exhausted after work – instead, I’ve started on mini-self-development projects, like completing the 12 week creative unblocking program in The Artist’s Way. Plus, since I don’t have tons of money, this lifestyle inherently helps me choose buying experiences over material possessions, which reportedly leads to greater happiness in the long run (as long as they’re positive experiences).

Lastly, the advantage of having more time than money out here is that I’ve really learned to embrace not rushing from place to place – learning how to do nothing. Instead of scheduling a detailed itinerary when I travel, I find myself doing things on impulse and how I feel that day, rather than on a time constraint.  The few times that I’ve made plans on a schedule, I’ve regretted not leaving them more flexible because other new and interesting possibilities popped up.

I’ve found myself trying to learn to practice slowness, mindfulness, and patience while I’m out here – values which aren’t necessarily taught or cultivated in America, but that I’m glad I’m learning now.  If I picture myself in an alternate universe, one where there wasn’t a recession in 2008, I could definitely see myself as a stressed-out workaholic in a corporate job.  So while “English teacher” was never what I answered when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it’s a pretty good growing up to be doing right now.

***
Well, this post has been in the works for over 2 weeks now. It started on one topic but eventually morphed into a completely different thing! In the meantime, Julie has come to visit and I’ve completed a slow carb diet with my boyfriend and I’m on my way to Nepal soon.  I’ll try to write more – or maybe more pictures, less writing next time 🙂 Love you, Mom and Dad!

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