My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.
The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.
Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.
One of the biggest challenges I set for myself for this trip was to really step outside of my comfort zone and to venture out a little bit. I think I’ve been doing a lot of that — especially in SEA — but I never thought it would involve sharks.
A day after we moved into our beachside bungalow, we met Kamille and Angela, a Danish couple next door to us. I was feeling antisocial as usual but in friendly neighbor fashion, N chatted them up and invited them to have dinner with us. My reservations faded away as we clicked immediately, and we spent the next few days commiserating about the shitty management of the bungalows we were staying in, and who was still able to talk the family running the place to please give us a roll of toilet paper or to please swap out our pillows because their mildewy smell was overwhelming. We told them about magical Tanote Bay, which our friends Ina and Daniel had introduced us to. When the girls finally got fed up with the insufferable owners and moved to friendlier lodging in Tanote Bay, we were surprised to miss these near strangers and decided to head over to hang out with them for the day.
That afternoon of reacquainting ourselves with the beauty of Tanote sealed the deal. We moved the next day and spent the next week hanging out with them in the quieter side of Koh Tao which was more our style anyway. The staff at Tanote Family Resort were still apathetic Burmese (I don’t think there was one Thai person on the island) who didn’t know how to smile, which is weird to me because you’d think that getting out of a poor, highly corrupt country like Burma to end up on a beautiful Thai island would bring them joy but maybe they show their happiness differently.
Snorkeling was amazing even on the drizzly days, and we stuffed ourselves with mangosteens and longsats (affectionately called “potatoes” by the girls) on the beach. Tanote was perfect for us because the snorkeling was great in both the shallow and deeper parts of the bay. We climbed onto the rock jutting out from the middle of the bay and watched people courageously jumping from it into the water below.
It’s been an eye-opening couple of weeks and I have the sunburned backside and cuts to prove it. We arrived in Thailand at the same time monsoon season came swooping in to start drenching the beautiful beaches for the next… Six months. We had a little more than half of our 30-day visa left and time was of the essence. We were itching for good swimming and beaching. Thanks to knowledgeable friends, we achieved just that on Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Ina and Daniel — a German couple we had met in Vietnam — had been spending two weeks on Koh Tao learning how to dive, so we decided to join them for the last few days they had left on the island. In typical German fashion, they managed to breeze through their studies and snag their Open Water dive certifications while also watching the late-night/early-morning World Cup soccer matches. ‘Schland!
The first day on the island, Ina and Daniel told us about the best snorkeling bay they discovered and we were game. We rented goggles and snorkels for 50 baht (almost $2) and got ourselves a pickup truck taxi to bring us across the island to Tanote Bay. After barely surviving the insanely steep, windy and bumpy roads, we arrived on a quieter beach, which was a stark contrast to the thumping dance music that plays on the Sairee side all day and all night long.
This unassuming little bay holds a hidden treasure of marine life beneath the turquoise water, and it would be an understatement to say I was blown away by it all. I realized just how much I’ve been missing all of my life. One of the only times I’ve been snorkeling was in Cancun when I was about nine years-old and my sister and I swam out to deeper waters and discovered a severed giant fish head rolling about in the otherwise fish-less water. That ended my desire to explore, and I sat on the beach for the rest of the day, disturbed and wondering how such a huge head ended up in the water without a body. Looking back, it was a minor incident, but it’s one of the only vivid memories I have of Cancun.
A few years later, my mother, sister and I were in the Cayman Islands stashing our millions. We went on a snorkeling trip, where a nice guy named Paddy took us out on his boat and dropped us off in a quiet area. Soon, stingrays were swarming around us, and I don’t mean like three of them. In my memory, there were at least a dozen all around us, and Paddy told us to be careful not to touch their backs. My mother was having the time of her life cuddling with stingrays. My sister was clinging to the side of the boat in terror. I was wavering between the two emotions my family members were experiencing, and I remember desperately treading water while rays brushed against my legs and arms with their soft fins.
Snorkeling in Koh Tao was nothing like my childhood experiences. Fish were everywhere, doing stuff I’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. When a school of yellow rabbitfish swam in front of me nibbling loudly at the dead coral, I lost my cool. Within the yellow blur of fish, larger parrotfish and smaller fish got in on the feast as they glided from one coral to another. I glanced up and was shocked to see a crocodile needlefish floating close to the surface, almost invisible except for its silvery side glimmering in the sun. I looked down and saw tiny little fish popping in and out of the holes in the coral, the reef a quiet but intense battlefield of each fish fiercely protecting its territory. It was amazing, and this was the beginning of two weeks of returning again and again to the world under the water.
It started off with a random guy who made eye contact with us at a bar. “Hi, are you Thai?” Minutes later, this British expat close-talker had me awkwardly pinned against the back of someone’s chair, practically touching my face with his as he excitedly talked to us about how much he adores New York. After asking us what we were doing later and getting a vague answer, the friendly fellow recommended a few go-go bars that “aren’t boring”. We closed up the bar at the early hour of midnight and ducked into a cab with our new friends, Power, a Taiwanese friend-of-a-friend and Rebecca, her German friend.
The cab stopped in front of Soi Cowboy — the red light district of Bangkok — and we made our way down the narrow street aglow in a rainbow of neon lights from the big signs above. Scantily-clad young girls sat or stood by the bars that lined the street, calling out to the (usually Caucasian) men looking for a good time and a happy ending to the night. Power pointed out a bar she’s been to and we were made to order our first round outside the bar as an “entrance fee”. While we waited for our drinks to be delivered, we sat outside and people-watched.
A loud group of white guys in flower print shirts caught our attention and Rebecca called out to one, asking him why all of them are wearing a similar floral print pattern. “We’re here for our friend’s bachelor party and we had to wear the ugliest shirts we could find.” It was interesting to note that the majority of the shirts are perfectly nice, and the men wearing them clearly had zero taste. The guy chatted up our German friend, asking her if she teaches English in Thailand. She laughed and his drunk eyes steadied on mine as he slurred, “You’re very beautiful.” We all laughed at this poor drunk guy and headed into the black light of the club.
A stout woman wearing a Japan soccer jersey (for some reason, the Thais rooted for Japan during the World Cup) gestured to the stools by the brightly lit stage and we sat ourselves down. We looked up at the girls in white shirt-sleeved shirts and tiny skirts and realized they weren’t wearing any underwear. Neither were the girls on the floor above, standing on the plexiglass floor and swaying back and forth. So this is what Power was talking about at dinner. I looked at them for a bit as all of them stood on the stage unenthusiastically shuffling around like cattle at auction and I felt like an involuntary perv who enjoys looking up girls’ skirts.