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Andaman Baptism

“This pier is so much longer than it looked from the shore,” my friend WeiLe sighed as we treaded along the floating plastic blocks extending past the mangrove swamp of Railay Beach’s eastern flank. “I feel like we’ve been walking for an hour.”

The speedboat in the distance seemed to be getting further away rather than closer, like some sort of sea mirage. Its silhouette nearly disappeared within the horizon, which was itself melting and smeared by the heat of the morning light.

Just then, another craft appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and pulled up just beside where we were walking. An older Thai man (who I assume had been nearby the entire time) also suddenly made himself known to us. “Go to Phi Phi,” he pointed at it. “There, there!”

WeiLe, myself and the dozen or so travelers behind us proceeded to board the vessel with urgency, which was surprising considering how lackadaisically the staff back at shore had checked all of us in. Within what felt like only a minute or two, we were packed tightly inside, and speeding first toward the searing sun and then southward, into the open sea.

Our Thailand island hopping journey was about to begin in earnest. Which made me feel more excited—more anxious—than you might expect, given the extent of my previous travels in the Kingdom.


You see, with one or two exceptions, I’ve never actually island-hopped in Thailand as such. I’ve visited nearly all the Kingdom’s notable islands (including all but one of my stops on this trip) but haven’t ever strung them together contiguously, at least not within the Andaman Sea.

The “exceptions” are weak ones: Forays into the Trat archipelago (which is less an archipelago, and more one mother island and her children) in 2010 and 2015; and my 2022 trip to Koh Tao, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui, which was simply not extensive enough to be eclectic, though it did prove revelatory for other reasons.

“I just came down here for the weekend,” I laughed to WeiLe when I explained the circumstances of my previous visit to Koh Phi Phi, back in 2017, which I’d paired with two nights in Railay. “It was easy, although to be fair it was after high season so it didn’t feel quite as manic as it does now.”

“Manic” is probably an understatement, actually. From the moment we paid the 50-baht per person fee to the troll-like attendant who guarded the exit at Tonsai Pier, to our stroll through the crowded town center on our way up to the island’s famous viewpoint (which is now three viewpoints, and is no longer free), Phi Phi felt as crowded at turns as Silom or Sukhumvit in Bangkok, but somehow with even less available real estate per person.

I ended up making it to Viewpoint 2 (which used to be the only one, prior to the construction of the superfluous Viewpoints 1 and 3—which are alternately too low and too high—I guess during the pandemic) several minutes before WeiLe.

In hindsight, I should’ve taken a seat—I had exerted myself to the point of dizziness; there was no railing at the top, only a sheer drop. But instead, I got to taking the photos I had missed nearly a decade earlier, when I’d come so early that the sun hadn’t been high enough to illuminate the waters of Phi Phi’s two bays in their sapphire-and-jade hues, instead painting them a disappointing grey-gold.

WeiLe, for his part, had been smart enough to see Viewpoint 1 for what it was, and had sat down there (it’s all you can do; there is no view to speak enough) in order to recharge before continuing his ascent. He didn’t look tired at all when he got to Viewpoint 2; he didn’t speak as if he felt tired, either.

As had been the case in Railay during the previous period, our two days in Phi Phi (well, my two days in Phi Phi—I can’t speak about how they affected WeiLe) were about following an old roadmap with a new-and-improved sense of direction: Splurging on a private long-tail to visit Pileh Lagoon and Maya Bay; giving myself space to unwind with a dip in the pool of a resort I never would’ve paid to stay at seven years earlier.

Back then, to be sure, I’d boarded a boat from Tonsai back to Khlong Jilad Pier in Krabi Town, where I stayed for a night before high-tailing it back to Bangkok. This time, however, I was bound (with WeiLe) for a place neither of us had ever been.


It may shock you to hear that I had never set foot on Koh Lanta until two Fridays ago; it has an almost legendary status among backpackers (who these days are largely former backpackers) of my age, to say nothing of virtually every other travel blogger I came up with.

The thing, I never made it there when was I was a backpacker or a new blogger; it never seemed to fit into any of my other island excursions in Thailand, given that they were virtually all short and standalone, rather than pearls strung together like this one.

It’s appropriate, then, that my arrival in Lanta was when this trip really began to feel like island “hopping” rather than exploring, lounging or any other gerund phrase you might imagine.

(It’s perhaps also appropriate that I got scammed by a songthaew driver at Saladan Pier. Your hotel is far away, she’d insisted, as she pressed me to part with 500 baht to enter the covered bed of her pick-up truck. This price is very fair!)

This—my feeling, not the scam—makes sense logically, especially looking backward: Lanta was the third of five stops, the mid-point of the trip. But it also proved to be the emotional center of the trip, for a whole host of reasons.

Firstly, because while Lanta remains popular among the backpacker crowd, it’s large enough that it simply doesn’t feel crowded at all. Or even like Thailand at all, at least not according to WeiLe.

“I almost feel like I’m back in Malaysia,” WeiLe laughed upon arriving via motorbike to my resort (which was a few kilometers up Lanta’s main road from his, in the backpacker-heavy area between Long Beach and Khlong Kong Beach. He cited not only the conspicuously Muslim staff and aesthetic of the property, but how understated both the sand and sea were by Thai standards.

It was true: While the Phi Phi islands in the distance did add an unmistakable Thainess to the bigger picture, the finer details of the beach were indistinct from countless others on the planet, and not just in Malaysia. We could’ve been anywhere. We could’ve been everywhere.

It was only when we headed off by motorbike that we started to see what I assumed, at the time, was the uniqueness of Lanta: Wilder, more forlorn shores like Kantiang Bay and Bamboo Beach the first afternoon; Chinese-style shophouses and a bizarre lobster statue in Lanta Old Town the second morning.

A “unique” hospitality as well. “I apologize,” the owner of Fresh Restaurant non-apologized after the server brought me out a fried-chicken-with-scallions dish that could not have been further from the duck Penang curry I’d ordered. “We are out of lychees today.”

But in fact, it was back on the could-be-anywhere beach with bottles of Chang in our hands and a friendly German couple we’d just met who’d decided to chat away the afternoon with us that we realized the truth, which I assumed my colleagues and fellow elder millennials have known for over a decade.

Lanta is a canvas, not a painting. It’s special not because of what you find while exploring it, but what you find in yourself.


If Lanta is a canvas awaiting your oils and watercolors, Koh Mook is a polaroid impatient to be admired. Or at least accepted.

“Have you noticed how people here are a little…grumpy?” WeiLe asked on our second of three days, which by that point already seemed like it—the number of days, this is—had been a miscalculation.

Mook was the island (at least among those I stopped at on this trip) I had visited most distantly in the past: In 2012, when I lived in Thailand the first time, and flew my sister over for what was (and still is) her first trip far overseas.

We’d actually started on adjacent Koh Kradan, but it was far too spartan for a girl like Stephanie in those days; she’d discovered the five-star Koh Mook Sivalai Resort and, well, the rest was history.

But actually, because of this quirk in my story, I had no history to reference: We’d spent virtually our entire time on the island either within our sea-view bungalow or on the narrow spit of sand the resort sits on, and hadn’t explored anywhere else at all.

“They’re definitely quite grumpy,” I concurred, the two of us—WeiLe and me now, I mean—sitting in silence on a patio waiting for dinners we’d ordered what felt like an eternity earlier, from a woman who seemed at least as aloof as the staff at my not-a-resort (and, according to WeiLe, at his hostel) had been.

I wanted to attribute it to the proliferation of tourism on the island and most people likely not being onboard with it, though I again couldn’t accurately draw that conclusion, given the limitations of my previous experience.

Residents notwithstanding, to be sure, Mook was enjoyable from a purely touristic perspective—mostly. Sure, my aforementioned not-a-resort was situated on a stinky swamp, rather than an actual beach. Worse, at low tide, the fetid mud beneath the mangrove became fully exposed for hours on end, making the whole scene much more unpleasant that it might otherwise have seemed.

But it was down the road from the island’s best one (Charlie Beach, sometimes also called Garnet Beach), where WeiLe and I caught sunset on our first night as enough marijuana smoke swirled around us that at least I got a contact high.

The next day, after a morning excursion over to Kradan (which, I proudly proclaimed to my sister, now had even more upscale hotels than Koh Mook itself—the swimming-pool like main beach still felt just as secluded and fabulous, though), we attempted to access the famous Emerald Cave.

Unfortunately, the gangster-like park ranger who extorted 200-baht a piece out of us didn’t tell us that the entrance to the cave was clogged with jellyfish; neither of us wanted to take the risk of being stung by one to see what awaited us within.

“He wasn’t grumpy,” I laughed, as my margherita pizza (which, to be fair, looked extremely legit, arrived), brought out by a smiling young woman no less. “Just a crook.”

WeiLe’s chicken burger arrived moments later (the same girl delivered it, with the same smile). He concurred, and addressed the elephant as it left the room. “Maybe we pre-judged them?”

Looking back, of course, I can definitely say that the people we met on Koh Mook were the least friendly (or maybe just the least fake) we met during our Thailand island hopping adventure.

Indeed, what struck me as the sun began to set around us was that WeiLe suddenly seemed like my kid brother during summer vacation than a friend on the other side of the world I only see once every year or so.

We’d traveled together in the past of course—in Vietnam and China; in his native Malaysia; and in both Bangkok and Taipei when I was living there—but never this long. Or, frankly, this peacefully.

“I don’t know if it’s because you’re old now,” WeiLe (who is six months shy of 33; I just turned 39) chided me, “or because we’re in a chill place. But it’s so much easier to be around you than it used to be!”


Speaking of being old, it was way back in the 90s that Vanessa Williams implored all of us to save the best for last. I took her advice on this trip, albeit unwittingly.

“I literally don’t remember it being this amazing,” I insisted to WeiLe, jaw agape, as we made our way along postcard-perfect Sunrise Beach toward the so-called North Point, which according to some Thais is the country’s answer to the Maldives on account of how it barely protrudes from the ocean.

I went on to explain to him how I’d come in early 2015 with Dora (another longtime travel friend of mine) on a whirlwind trip around the Kingdom (her first) and had actually felt disappointed, both by the beaches and by the island itself.

“If you think this is amazing,” WeiLe (who had last been to Lipe just months earlier) said, as he sank into the waters that were so clear they make the ones that lap at Koh Kradan look like the Chao Phraya at it snakes through central Bangkok. “Just wait until we head over there tomorrow.”

He was pointing at Koh Adang, where a multi-peaked mountain towered above a virgin beach shaded by pines.

Looking down toward North Point from Adang’s viewpoint the next morning, I tended to agree with him, if only because of how awesome it was to be able to see Lipe from a bird’s eye perspective.

“You see how amazing it looks framed by this sago palm?” I asked WeiLe, who was snapping photos at least as enthusiastically as I was, while most normal people simply chilled and took in the moment.

Well, quasi-normal. One of them, a soy-faced German, pointed out that I was “wearing the wrong kind of shoes,” whatever that means. He didn’t like when I pointed out that I made it to the summit 10 minutes before he did, in spite of me climbing in flip-flops and him in expensive (not to mention hideous) hiking boots.

Not that this person was on either of our minds by the time we got down to what I still think of simply as Pine Beach. Actually, the only thing on my mind was how strangely cold I felt in spite of being in directly sunlight and searing heat.

I almost feel feverish, I thought even after I’d gotten out of the water. I was trying to embody “The Birth of Venus” as I set up a self-portrait—walking out of the sea onto another Maldivian-looking strip of sand nearby, a sort of Andaman baptism. Ultimately, I brushed it off as exhaustion from the hike.

By the time I went to sleep, to be sure, my temperature was so out-of-whack that I had to sit under a hot shower for 30 minutes just be able to feel warm enough to get back in bed. Prior to having fallen properly ill, I’d thankfully been able to have both a drink and a proverbial last supper with WeiLe, who would be heading to Langkawi via ferry the next morning right as I returned to the Thai mainland by speedboat.

I was also thankful that among the many hallucinations said fever induced, none saw me fixating on my impending separation from my dear friend, who by this point seemed an even more steadfast part of my “real life” than he had in Lanta or even in Mook.

I was deeply sad at the thought, actually, all the way up to the point I got sick had just been so busy that I hadn’t had the energy to dwell on it.

The same proved true as we sat on Lipe’s south-facing Pattaya Beach the next morning, and I realized I would need to be onboard my boat within the subsequent 10 minutes, i.e. at the same time WeiLe needed to begin his international check-in. There would be no time for tears or even really acknowledgement, just a brief and un-ceremonious goodbye.

A seconds-long hug, of course, could not honor nearly two weeks of camaraderie and basically conjoined exploration, but we had to settle for it in this case.


A couple of days after the trip ended, I video-chatted with WeiLe. It was the first time we’d seen each other in real-time since then, which didn’t seem strange until the call connected. Suddenly, my dear friend—my ride-or-die for 12 days on the road, on the beach and on the high seas—was mere pixels and frequency.

But I was heartened by how blissful both of us still felt, in spite of how sad it was all the moment we’d just lived through were now memories.

Walking together down formerly solitary memory lanes in Railay and Phi Phi; forging an entirely new one in Lanta. Commiserating over the grumpiness of locals and the ubiquity of jellyfish on Koh Mook, and becoming so enamored with Lipe (me, anyway) that I made myself sick. (Mercifully, sick enough not to break down in tears when it was all over.)

“I wish everyone could feel like this,” WeiLe summed it up perfectly, though he said out loud that he doubted he was saying right. “Everything was perfect. Not ‘perfect’ perfect, but perfectly human.”

I wanted to add something, not to one-up or correct him, but to try and signal the profundity of my agreement in a constructive, additive way. Instead I just listened and smiled, in the subtle way Botticelli’s Venus does.


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