We took this breakdown, combined with what seems a disproportionately high rate of motorized transport issues during the rare times we have used them on this trip, as karmic punishment for not staying true to the pedal power. However, the important part is that we eventually arrived. I have to admit that until the day we get run over, which does seem inevitable, I actually enjoy the adrenaline of cycling through Asian mega-cities, especially at rush hour. We survived the gauntlet one more time and made it to our pre-booked Chinese-style hotel, which did indeed feel like we had somehow found our way back into China.
We had planned to take our bikes in to one of the city's many quality shops for an overdue tune up, but we soon became fixated on the idea of complete overhauls for a bargain price. We didn't have the required week to spare, so we begged our bicycles to hold up until our return to Bangkok when they could be properly rewarded for all of their hard work. Instead, we went on an all-day across-the-city scavenger hunt for propane gas canisters compatible with our camp stove, finally finding success at a strange flea-market style shopping mall. After marveling at the accuracy with which the shop owner had recreated a mini-REI, we bought four of them just to make our efforts worthwhile.
The most painful part of the ten-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Krabi was getting up at 5:30am to cycle to the southern bus terminal, but at least the deserted streets made for an easy ride in our grogginess. However, I didn't think it was possible to sweat so much before the sun had even risen. About twenty-four hours after arriving in Krabi town, my little sister Danielle and her boyfriend Erik found us eating dinner at the night market after flying in and checking in to our hotel. The reason we had come to Thailand was finally a reality!
The next day we took a longtail taxi out to Railay, a peninsula accessible only by boat due to its dramatic karst formations rendering road construction unfeasible. The beauty and intrigue of Ao Nang lived up to its reputation, despite being by far the most crowded beach we had ever seen in Thailand. We respectfully appreciated the caves lined with hundreds of wooden phalluses next to flower-laden shrines where Thais in tour-boat life jackets knelt in prayer, not far from beginner climbers awkwardly picking their route up limestone cliffs. We swam beyond the reach of the sand under an imposing overhang to a wooden walkway that led in to a complex of cool caverns. Leaving this beach to continue our exploration, we witnessed the sad habituation of a troupe of macaque monkeys as one tourist stuck a GoPro in their faces while another couple donated their piña coladas to the assertively grabby primates.
In contrast, while wrapping up lunch at an inland cafe, Erik noticed a Dusky Langur monkey whose dietary preference for vegetation makes them much more aloof concerning human activities. This species immediately became my favorite when I spied a precious baby with bright golden fur that was such a contrast to the dark coats of the adults with remarkable white patches on their faces. After scrambling over some rock outcrops to get to the hippie haven of Tonsai beach, we were lucky enough to see an extended family of them hanging out in an as-of-yet undeveloped tract of land amongst all of the Rasta-colored mushroom milkshake bars. We just stuck to a boring ol' bottle of beer to accompany some sunbathing and swimming before making the scramble back over to West Beach. It was quite an iconic sight as the late afternoon sun hit rows of longtails tethered in the shallows with karsts pointing skyward as book ends to the powdery white sand beach. But the low angle of the sun indicated we were overdue to catch the last taxi boat of the day back to Krabi. Luckily for us, the boatmen operate on island time as well.
After some careful consideration of the many tempting options for our next destination, we headed to Koh Yao Noi, minimally developed for tourism compared to its famous and overrun neighbors Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. A taxi, ferry, and another taxi brought us to the nicely furnished bungalows of Coconut Corner. The place is owned by an outgoing and smiley young Muslim couple who seemed representative of the general population of the island: very friendly, very laid back, and almost entirely Muslim.
Koh Yao Noi has likely been passed over by the crowds because locals have opted to stick to traditional island life over developing and promoting their little slice of paradise. That is slowly changing, but the shallow murky waters off of the beaches, especially at low tide, will likely protect it from the impacts of reaching world-class status. On the other hand, we easily worked around this limitation with the generous sponsorship of Mom and Dad Fagre by taking an all-day boat tour with Captain Bao, a friend of the Coconut Corner's owners. In his longtail, we visited at least five different karst islets with gorgeous beaches, but the highlight was motoring through a narrow gap in the cliffs to enter a turquoise lagoon surrounded by mangroves lining the towering walls on all sides. It was perfectly still, at least until we jumped in from the bow of the boat, and perfectly peaceful, at least until the other boats started up their engines to depart.
Other highlights were the authentic Thai-Muslim meals we enjoyed al fresco with sand between our toes, such as the amazing concoction of Mussaman curry. For Dani and Erik, it was a birder's dream right from their front porch and Erik even got to fulfill his goal of seeing an impressively-horned water buffalo, with the bonus of a calf by her side.
With so much to do and so little time, we left Koh Yao Noi after two nights. Dani had decided to get a scuba diving certification on Koh Lanta with their remaining time in Thailand. Matt and I would also join them there, but first we had to stay an extra day in Krabi town to get an extension of our initial entry stamp in our passports. We accomplished this without complication and then proceeded to do what we promised to Phallus Belt that we would never do again: we put our bikes on a boat. We were not given any grief, but we did have to bargain down a surcharge that was simply disproportionate to the amount of space a bicycle takes up on a spacious passenger ferry. Perhaps it was actually helpful that we had endured the abuse of Phallus Belt early on; after him, dealing with anyone else is hardly a hassle.
Erik met us at the pier on Koh Lanta and after lunch at a stilted restaurant over the water in Baan Salidan, we popped in to Hidden Depths, an excellent environmentally-proactive dive center, to check on Dani's studious progress getting through her Open Water manual. They were staying not far from the dive shop, but with having our bicycles, we opted to commute back and forth for meet ups from Klong Dao, the first beach south of town. We settled in to a place that we really wanted to like, but being located right next to a stinky canal of putrid water that slowly trickled on to the beach made it difficult. We felt bad for the friendly owners as maintenance of the canal was under the jurisdiction of the local government and their petitions had thus far gone unacknowledged. Pity alone was not enough to compel us to stick it out though and the next day we relocated to a lovely place appropriately called Hans' Bungalows, since Swedes mostly made up the first wave of tourists to wash over Koh Lanta back in the day.
With Dani in her dive course all day and Erik doing some fun dives as well, we met up in the evenings for dinner and sharing about our respective days. On our last day together, we joined them on the boat for our first dives since our honeymoon in Hawai'i in 2012. Once we passed our refresher course skills and were reoriented to breathing underwater, it felt great to be diving again. Our dive master Erika was a joy to follow, the coral was vibrant, and we spotted many new species for us, the most notable being a couple of resting leopard sharks and a black and white banded sea snake. On the boat ride back after two dives, we got to congratulate Dani on her new certification!
The exciting day also had a melancholy undertone for all of us. For the previous week or so, our mom had been keeping us updated on the status of our Uncle Rocky who had been suffering from long term damage caused by radiation treatment of laryngeal cancer. That morning we received the news that he had peacefully passed away after two days of at-home hospice care following an intensive hospital stay. While we breathed from air tanks as we voluntarily immersed ourselves in water, it seemed particularly poignant to consider how his body fought for every last breath of supplemental oxygen with his fluid-filled lungs on dry land. It was far from fair, a fact of life that neither tropical paradise nor travel protected us from. Uncle Rocky, one of the most genuinely caring souls to ever grace the planet, is certainly missed, to say the least.
This was also our last evening together, so we made a grand finale of it by taking a truck taxi to the other side of the island to wander the streets of Koh Lanta's historic old town. Matt was finally successful in his quest to order pineapple fried rice that actually came in a carved out pineapple and Danielle finally settled on an elephant t-shirt that didn't look like it was sponsored by the Republican Party, being that Thailand's national flag colors are also red, white, and blue. Our time together had gone by quickly, but the week we spent with Danielle and Erik was without question a fun and memorable one.