So I have left her, my first love, possibly never to see her again: India, how I will miss you. I feel it is always best to move on quickly after having your heart broken, so I am now, after a brief flirtation with Malaysia, embarking on a torrid affair with Thailand. So far it has all been romps on the beach, romantic sunsets, cocktails in beach bars made of bleached driftwood and early morning swims under the rising sun. Thailand has shown me a different kind of love; opened my eyes a little. She is easy, she serves up incredible food, possess a more traditional beauty, is more predictable and less stressful than India and, thankfully, asks for very little in return. The only drawback is that she is a much more expensive date, which means she is nowhere near as dirty as India. You certainly get more bang for your buck in India, but Thailand possess an exquisite beauty and a cultured charm that she has been more than happy to reveal, for a price.
In truth, I have never been entirely faithful to India. In the six years years we spent apart, between our first and last
meetings, living our long distance relationship vicariously through novels, movies, music and documentaries, I have been unfaithful with numerous other countries including, previously, Thailand. So, this affair is a reunion of sorts, a resumption of a passionate fling, an attempt to rediscover the ease and grace which coloured our previous encounters. To help smooth the reintroductions it was decided that we'd spend our first couple of nights on known territory. For this purpose we chose to return to Ko Lipe, a small island with two beautiful sweeps of sand which, along with the other forty odd islands in the vicinity, go together to form the Tarutao National Marine Park that lies, caressed by the clear and warm waters of the Andaman Sea, in the far south of the Kra Isthmus.
I believe the above country as lover metaphor is now, if it wasn't long before, lying on the bed panting, covered in sweat and well and truly spent. Enough. It is always a little disconcerting when you meet again with someone you've known previously, especially after a number of years. You half expect them to have withstood the effects of time and to have remained exactly as you remember
them, it can be something of a shock to find out that they are just as susceptible to aging and change as you. As our ferry chugged past the forest covered bulk of Ko Adang which had several beaches of varying size lining its base, like a line of Morse code in yellow, I caught my first glance of Ko Lipe and, thankfully everything looked exactly as I remembered it. There were many longtails lined up in the pale blue shallows of Sunrise beach and the usual conglomeration of beach huts and bungalows. It wasn't until our boat had rounded the headland that separated Sunrise beach from Hat Pattaya, that I began to notice the changes I feared. Gone were all the rustic little shacks that, three years before, predominated on this most lovely stretch of fine white sand, replaced instead by hulking and unlovely resorts.
The amount of change in just three short years was staggering. Then, the main path separating the two beaches had a few low key restaurants and a smattering of bungalow operations, a couple of retail outlets and a dive shop. Now the path, which then was just a sandy track and is now
a concrete road renamed "walking street", is jam packed with quadruple the number of businesses. It was hard to find any of the original purveyors of cheap backpacker chic, rattan and bamboo bungalows, but thankfully a few do still exist and, as this was low season, we were able to find one in the middle of the island for a reasonable rate. The other original track, linking Hat Pattaya with the tiny but beautiful Sunset beach, which three years before was a hard to follow track through thick vegetation is now almost as busy as walking street. The beaches are all thankfully exactly as we remember them, the clarity of the water is still excellent for Thailand and there still remains some live coral within swimming distance of the beach, everything else however is changed.
It is not for me to decide whether this change is for good or ill, after all, on our travels we have met so many people, especially those who are a bit older, who have been more than happy to point out how such and such place "was better in our day", or how so and so beach "has been ruined by commercialism", and
they always sounded just a little bit bitter and sad, a little too self congratulatory in their derision. We enjoyed our second short stay on Ko Lipe, it was an excellent place in which to unwind after the beautiful madness of India and, though admittedly sad at witnessing the changes that in truth are not really to our tastes, we were glad we came back and happy that we had been able, "back in the day", to enjoy Ko Lipe when it was still just on the cusp of overcommercialisation, not way beyond.
We had resolved, long before we arrived there, to break our self imposed embargo on alcohol as soon as we reached our first beach, by perfect chance we arrived on Ko Lipe on the night of the Loy Krathong festival, which honours water spirits and marks the end of the rainy season, and stepped straight into a large party. A long period of abstinence followed by some moderate to heavy libation caused some predictable and obvious results, sending both of us to bed long before the new year dawned. Before we stumbled home, a typical pair of lobster pink Europeans abroad, we witnessed the releasing of
hundreds of paper lanterns which floated in long dotted lines of gold into the heavens, the floating of little baskets of flowers and candles on the calm sea, enjoyed one or two delicious cocktails too many and ate a beautifully hot and spicy soup which Anny, with a drunks strange logic, blamed for her sudden bout of nausea. When not drunk or recovering from drunkenness, we hired kayaks to explore the pristine islands that surround Lipe, spending many happy hours on perfect white sand beaches backed by lush jungle which we had, every time, entirely to ourselves.
From Lipe we sailed to Ko Tarutao which is both the largest island in the group and the one which gives its name to the marine park of the same. Like Adang and Rawi, Tarutao is uninhabited, covered by thick tropical jungle, is a haven and a harbour for wildlife and has huge sweeps of wide, gently shelving, pale sand beaches. What is more, at this time of year the National Park accommodation is almost empty and we had the place mostly to ourselves. After bemoaning the prices on "commercial" Lipe we were a little surprised at having to pay 600 Baht
for a National Park bungalow on Tarutao. At least the money was going to a good cause and, unlike some of our experiences in India, this place was clearly very well looked after and run. The ground surrounding the accommodation, restaurant and shop was immaculate (as it was on Adang), and inland we found the jungle to be totally unspoilt, completely litter free. Unfortunately, as we arrived just after the monsoon, all the beaches had a great deal of flotsam and jetsam at their high water marks which looked more than a little unsightly, we really hope that this gets removed, as opposed to just waiting for the next high tide to wash it away.
Unlike Lipe the snorkeling off Tarutao, especially at this time of year, is not that good, so we had to find our nature fix on the land and in the air instead. In the air we were able to spot many old favourites such as Racquet Tailed Drongos, Brahminy kites and Hornbills, as well as some new ones such as Ospreys, Frigate Birds and the magnificent spectacle of Sea Eagles lazily soaring above us as we tanned ourselves on a deserted beach. On the
ground we were reacquainted with Monitor Lizards, made friends with the Crab Eating Macaques, which are much like the standard variety but have made up eyes and sport natty beards and loved the beauty of the Dusky Langur, which were again a little like the more common variety, only much more adorable. With more time and with the other two ranger stations on the island being open, we may have been able to see more, but as it was we had a perfectly relaxing stay on this most beautiful and well managed island which, unlike Lipe, we'd be more than happy to visit again.
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