My 6 Cardinal Rules for Living in the Tropics and Having to Coexist with Bugs

I started this post while I was living on Koh Tao last year. Today I dug it out of my computer and finished it. I left the intro alone even though I no longer live on Koh Tao.

I don’t like spiders. I know they are the good guys for the most part, but they are creepy. In my defense, I do have a somewhat legitimate reason to be wary of them, my house growing up was filled with spiders that used to bite me in my sleep. I guess it’s not just the bed bugs you’ve got to worry about. So this morning, when I was tying the bikini string around my neck and noticed a spider crawling on my top, I naturally freaked. I let out a pitiful squeal, hit my chest and sent the spider flying to the ground. I used to be a spider killer, but Dave has taught me otherwise, so in his honor I gently swept it outside to live with its spider friends in the outside world on Koh Tao in Thailand, where it belongs.

This entire scenario could have been avoided had I not broken Rule #1 of my six cardinal rules for living in the tropics and having to coexist with creepy crawlers. Read more

Koh Tao Underwater Festival 2010

A couple weeks ago we had the annual Underwater Festival on Koh Tao to raise money for Save Koh Tao and to increase awareness of the issues facing the island. Here are a few pictures from the festival.

Caroline painting signs to inform girls to cover up when they leave the beach and to keep their tops on while they are on the beach. The Thai kids can't go swimming at their own beaches because there are too many topless women. We also made a No Speedos sign because foreigners and Thai people both are uncomfortable with the speedo especially when it is encountered off the beach in a restaurant or a shop.
My volunteers and I made this poster out of cigarette butts found in less than an hour on the beach. Smoking litter has become a huge pet peeve of mine.
Another cigarette butt litter poster we made.
A manta ray swimming through the trees. All of the giant decorations around the festival were made from paper and bamboo. The Thai and Burmese are incredibly creative.
The giant manta ray and turtle lit up at night.
The giant turtle made from bamboo and paper that I helped paint.
This is the making of a giant fish that went above the festival stage and sprayed water out of it's mouth onto the crowd.
Bamboo and paper boats floating amongst the trees and jelly fish swimming in the sky.
The jelly fish were made from straws, cratepaper, and the plastic food covers that you use to keep the flies off food. I was a little disappointed with the use of so many straws because it's not super eco-friendly, but it is very creative and cool looking.
The bar which was made from bamboo and white fabric.
These fish lined the bamboo and dried grass tunnel leading in and out of the festival. The fish are made from plastic water bottles.
Shrimp! Another giant sea creaure.
Caroline and the finished say no to speedo's sign.
My friend Lyn and me in the shopping area.
A giant sea horse.
There was a Mr and Miss Koh Tao competition. The competitors had to make outfits using recycled materials. This guy made a warrior out of beer boxes. I thought he should have won.
The only ladyboy in the entire competition. Her dress was entirely made out of paper. It was pretty incredible.
A man with swim trunks, a snorkel, and mask made from cardboard and a girl with a dress made from water bottle labels and waterbottles under the skirt to make it stick out.
Another warrior. His outfit was made from cardboard and bottle caps. He won one of the titles.
This guy also won one of the titles.
The competitors on stage. The girl in yellow was wearing an outfit made from organic corn husks. It was beautiful, as was she, so she won two of the titles.
The competitors on stage.
Cute little sea turtles!!!! These guys were released into the sea at the festival.

Shark Bay

There is a place on Koh Tao unofficially named Shark Bay because you are pretty much guaranteed to see sharks if you snorkel or dive there. About a month ago I went snorkeling there for the first time without knowing that it was called Shark Bay and that there were sharks in the water. I was there to see one of the underwater projects the marine conservation branch was doing. The water visibility was so poor that I really couldn’t see much and gave up and tanned on the beach instead. At the time I had no idea I had just been snorkeling in shark infested waters.

I went back the second time with the intention to see sharks with an Italian friend, who I sometimes had trouble understanding. When I asked him how big the sharks were he held up his hands showing about two or three feet long and mumbled something I didn’t understand. What I understood from his answer was that they weren’t that big, so I was completely comfortable with snorkeling around and looking for them. The water visibility was even worse the second time around and I couldn’t even see a foot in front of myself, so we retreated to the beach again.

The third time I went snorkeling in Shark Bay I brought one of my volunteers along. This time the visibility was perfect, but unfortunately the snorkel my volunteer was using was leaking and she decided to go back to the beach and wait for my return so she could use my snorkel. I wanted to see these mini sharks my Italian friend had talked about, so I continued along on my own.

I was swimming around looking at the little fish and then I saw a shark about five feet long swim under me. I was shocked. These were supposed to be toy size sharks, not Danielle size sharks. After I saw the first one I started to make a U-turn back to the beach and then saw about ten more. I stopped when I found a huge rock with sea anemones and clown fish which I found soothing so I was able to calm down a bit. I didn’t want the sharks to know how nervous I was so I thought it was important to try to slow down my heartbeat. Once I regained some composure, I continued back in the direction of the beach, but it seemed like no matter which way I tried to swim there was another shark. I was too nervous and distracted to keep track of how many I saw, but I must have seen at least twenty in total.

I probably would have been more relaxed if I had been with someone else. I really didn’t like being alone with a lot of sharks that are my size. I also would have felt more comfortable if I had worn my fins. I felt vulnerable and almost naked without them. It seemed like fins would have made me look bigger and given me something to fight back with if need be.

When I returned to the dive shop, I found out the sharks have never attacked anyone on the island and that they were probably sleeping when I saw them. They swim in a big circle while they are sleeping, so I must have swam right into their ring. They are called black tip reef sharks and I didn’t get any pictures the first time I saw them, so I went back a fourth and fifth time with other people to photograph them. Here are a few of the pictures I took in Shark Bay.

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Destination Details: Koh Tao, Thailand

Many people stop by Koh Tao, Thailand on their way to or from its neighboring island, Koh Phangnan, where the infamous full moon parties take place. Koh Tao is not just a beautiful island to soak up the rays on, it happens to be one of the most popular destinations in the world to learn how to scuba dive, luring 400,000 people to the island every year.

Getting There: You can get to Koh Tao from the mainland, Koh Phangnan, or Koh Samui by one of the three ferryboat companies. Joint bus and boat tickets are available and can be booked through Lomprayah if you are coming from Bangkok. If you are already in the south of Thailand, then you can get to the island by ferry from Chumpon.

Where to stay: Once you arrive it can be a little overwhelming at the pier with many taxi drivers ready to acquire as many passengers as they possibly can snag, so it’s best to choose what part of the island you would like to stay in before you arrive. Sairee is the northernmost village and is the busiest. If you want to party, this is the best place for you. Mae Haad is the port town and is also quite happening. I prefer to stay in the southernmost village called Chalok Baan Kao, which is smaller and more low key.

Each village has a great beach, but if you want to stay somewhere more secluded than one of the villages, I recommend getting a taxi boat to Sai Nuan Beach and staying in the Sai Thong Resort. It’s only accessible by foot on a jungle path or by boat, so this is not a great place for you if you are going to want to stay up until the wee hours in a bar.

Getting around: I go everywhere on the island by foot because I’m too much of a spaz to drive a motorcycle. Most people rent motorcycles while they are here because they are cheap, easy, and when you get to your destination you are not drenched in sweat. If you decide to rent a motorbike, take pictures of it before you drive out of the shop. I’ve heard too many stories of people being charged insane amounts for the tiniest bit of damage. If there is a scratch on your bike before you rent it, then make sure to document its existence. One way to avoid this problem is to rent the oldest and most beaten up motorbike in the shop because they won’t care as much about it and won’t be able to notice scratches as easily.

If you don’t want to rent a motorcycle, bicycles are for rent as well or you could do the unheard of and just hoof it. Like I said before, this is a small island, you can get everywhere you want with your own two feet and although you may be a bit sweaty afterwards, you won’t feel as guilty about indulging in ice cream sundaes and lounging on the beach all day. Taxi cars and taxi boats are also available, as you will find out the minute you step off the ferry.

Things to Do: Most people come here to dive and it can be difficult to choose a dive school since there are 43 different ones all over the island. If you are interested in diving with a school that is environmentally conscious and regularly participates in underwater clean-ups, then New Heaven, Big Bubble, Ban’s, Asia Divers, Crystal, and Big Blue are all good choices.

One of the best things I’ve done in my two months here was grabbing a few drinks at The Queens. Every night, The Queens has a cabaret show with pre and post-op lady boys lip synching their hearts out to tunes from all different parts of the world. It’s a performance that cannot be missed and is apparently for any age as there were kids no older than ten in the audience.

If that’s not your cup of tea, or maybe I should say bucket or Redbull and vodka, then go bowling. The alley is outdoors and is not automated. It’s a ridiculous experience. At the end of the alley there is a guy who waits next to the pins to roll your ball back and reset the pins. Even if you aren’t a great bowler, it’s worth going just to see the bowling process unfold, plus they don’t make you wear stinky bowling shoes.

Sometimes you just need to get away from the hustle and bustle of the villages, and the best way to do that is to take a hike! There is an incredible viewpoint called John-Suwan Rock that allows you to see Chalok Bay and Thian Og Bay (AKA Shark Bay) at the same time. This path starts by the Freedom Beach resort and is so off the beaten trail that in some parts you can’t quite tell if you are still on the hiking trail. It’s a quick hike and the view is picture perfect.

Giving Back while on vacation: Sometimes when you are traveling it can feel as if you are always taking from the travel karma bucket without a chance to ever really give anything back. You may find yourself relying on the kindness of locals and other travelers for all sorts of different reasons. If you feel like that’s the case, then stop by the New Heaven Dive School and find out what conservation projects you can help out with in and out of the water.

New Heaven also offers a Marine Conservation Course where you can learn about the reefs you are diving in and can help with restoration projects. The course can be anywhere from three days to a month or longer if you are interested in combining it with your university studies. If you don’t have time to take the course, then ask when the next Save Koh Tao beach and underwater clean-up is happening.

Koh Tao is a relaxed bit of paradise and if you are in the area then you should definitely stop by! The only thing I ask of you is to make environmentally conscious decisions while you are here. Don’t leave your cigarette butts on the beach for the fish and turtles to eventually eat and use as little plastic as you possibly can. The only way to keep Koh Tao beautiful is if the people who come here are aware and make good decisions. Enjoy Koh Tao and happy travels!

This post was originally written for www.diwyy.com and can be found on their site at http://www.diwyy.com/new-blog/destination-details-koh-tao-thailand/ .

My Pet Praying Mantis for the Day

I was in the process of removing my laundry from my clothesline the other day and found a praying mantis chilling on my shirt. She was beautiful so I took a few pictures and figured she would eventually leave, but she stayed there ALL day. When I left to go to dinner, she had moved to the ties on the bikini I had hanging up and she was making a nest. Unfortunately, I had to remove the nest the next day when it had hardened. If the hatching process was a quick one I would have left it there, but I wasn’t prepared to surrender my bikini to the praying mantis babies for a couple of months. I believe the ants got into the nest. Circle of life, right?

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The little lady shaking her tail while laying her eggs on my swimsuit.

How to Make Coconut Oil

The other day I learned how to make virgin coconut oil from one of the locals on the island. It’s a pretty neat process and it may get you all jazzed up to do it on your own at home like one of my volunteers suggested, but if coconuts aren’t grown close to you, then it’s not a very sustainable product for you to try and make. In that case, this is just an informative post for those of us who have no clue how to go about extracting the oil from a coconut.

Step 1
Step 1: First you need to get the coconuts down from the tree. Monkeys are trained to do this here on Koh Tao. They are tied to a string and sent up the tree to pull off ripe coconuts.
Step 2
Step 2: Remove the husk of the coconut. This is done by jamming the coconut onto a dull spear sticking out of the ground. Once the husk is lodged onto it, push until the husk breaks off. Rotate the coconut and repeat until the husk is entirely removed. The husks can be put in the ground to help with water absorption.
Step 3
Step 3: Cut the coconut in two with a machete!
Step 4
Step 4: Remove the fleshy white part of the coconut by shredding it. The discarded shells can be made into handicrafts and sold or can be turned into activated charcoal.
Step 5
Step 5: Weigh 1 kilo of shredded coconut in a large bowl.
Step 6
Step 6: Add one liter of water to the bowl of shredded coconut.
Step 7
Step 7: Mix the coconut and water and squeeze the bits of coconut with your hands.
Step 8
Step 8: Remove all solids from the coconut milk you have just made and compost them.
Step 9
Step 9: Pour the liquid into a clear pitcher and seal with plastic wrap for 30-35 hours.
Step 10
Step 10: The small clear middle layer is the coconut oil! After 35 hours (or 40 in our case) the oil, solids, and milk separate. The oil can then be removed and used in your hair, on your skin, to cook or you can even drink a little bit every day to help with a range of things from weight management to your immune system!

The Future of Koh Tao

It’s 5:50 on a Wednesday morning and I have been awoken by a “Dance for Peace” party up the road. As I laid in bed staring into the darkness, I began contemplating why I travel. I travel for adventure, excitement, food, new cultures, and to see beautiful or interesting places. I typically don’t stay too long in tourist destinations or hang out with groups of other foreigners. Meeting other foreigners along the way is definitely part of the experience, but I don’t want to see foreigners all the time. I want to see how the country I’m in really operates and moves, not the way the locals cater towards our different and sometimes absurd needs. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a travel purist. I’m sure none of this surprises any of you who know me though.

I’m not sure how this cacophony of idiotic European techno beats, loads of alcohol, and foreigners up the hill is supposed to help promote or further peace of any kind, but I’m pretty sure none of the proceeds go to a charity. I thought it would have been more of a hippie party by the title, but I should have known better. Where there are Europeans vacationing there will always be obnoxious techno music. Not that I have anything against Europeans of course, I just don’t agree with the techno “music” they find so amusing. The so called music barely changes for hours, it just fades, pauses, or kickbacks into a faster or slightly slower beat. That’s the music. I really don’t get it.

Since the music is this crap instead of reggae or something a little more peaceful, I’m thinking the only reason the party theme is peace is because they are either doing a lot of drugs up there or it was a way for people to justify attending a rave while in tropical paradise. It’s probably a combination of both.

All this venting is leading to a point, I promise. When I am traveling abroad I don’t get plastered. Part of it is because I’m a five foot tall girl and I would prefer having all of my faculties working so I don’t get taken advantage of. The other reason is because people usually lose money, passports, valuables, etc. when they are being stupid. And I think we all know that people are not exactly smart when they are drunk. So I prefer to stay sober when I am traveling around the world.

The other reason I have for not going out and getting hammered all the time or even just a few times, is because that’s not why I travel. I don’t travel to a faraway land because I want to party with a bunch of other foreigners. I really don’t want to spend money on events like the one going on up the road because money talks. If Thai people think that we would rather spend money on a party than going for a hike or snorkeling then they will build lots of bars and have zero incentive to keep forests or coral around the island healthy.

It’s really sad. I am sitting here listening to the crickets, song birds, and roosters competing with the music up the road and it seems like a frightening sign as to what the future has in store for this island. We all know who wins in the end. At this point I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a pessimist. But I wouldn’t be here trying to help with land conservation if I weren’t an optimist as well.

I’m just a realist. I know the fate of Koh Tao is set already. The only thing I can do is help slow down the destruction and try to protect as much of the island as possible. Koh Tao is on its way to becoming another hellish Koh Samui and although people like me will stop coming, there will still be thousands of morons who just want to party and get a tan while recovering from their hangover who would be happy to take my place. These people are not travelers. These people treat Thailand like their own personal Disneyland which is why so many people say Thailand is already ruined. I know that you the reader can’t do too much about this while you are sitting in your home reading this, this is just my strongly worded letter to the universe. Thanks for listening!

Thailand: Round 2

I’m back in Thailand again; only this time I don’t have an excruciatingly boring job in an equally as boring city. I’m doing Thailand right this time. Beaches, stunning views, and getting paid to help protect it all. Does it get much better than that?

Tourism in Thailand is an interesting animal. Anyone who has recently visited this wonderful country hopefully noticed that while an increase in tourism increases local incomes and makes the life of a traveler a bit easier since the road is already paved for you, it also comes at a cost.

While living in Khon Kaen last year, I got to live in a part of Thailand that has remained fairly untouched by tourism and learned an incredible amount about Thai culture. Unfortunately, most of my favorite things about Thai culture disappear upon arriving in popular tourist destinations. In Khon Kaen I never met an angry Thai person, but where there are tourists there is money to be made, which inevitably brings greed. We all know that money can’t buy happiness and greed seems to breed anger and resentment in some Thai folks, which goes against the general joyful Thai attitude that I love so much.

Another example of the deterioration of Thai culture in touristy places can be seen in the food. Thai food is truly exquisite. I have yet to meet someone who can disagree with that statement. When it comes to food, Thailand knows what it’s doing. Yet in tourist destinations they alter their cuisine to what they think the farang (foreigner) wants, which is not nearly as yummy and really disappointing for the hungry farang.

I could continue complaining about the changes tourism creates in Thai culture, but that is not what brought me to Thailand. This time I will be working with an organization called Save Koh Tao. I am the project coordinator for the land conservation projects that the organization arranges to help prevent and reverse the environmental degradation on the island of Koh Tao that has come with the ever-growing number of tourists.

Cultural deterioration in popular tourist locations is sad, but in this day and age it can be argued that we all are suffering from that and eventually globalization will cause some kind of global homogenization of cultures. I’m not sure what can be done about this. I studied how to help the trees, birds, fish, etc. and in my opinion, those creatures which cannot help themselves need our help more right now. If we don’t protect our environment, then cultural homogenization doesn’t matter because we won’t have a very enjoyable planet to live on in the first place.

This blog entry is getting a little more philosophical than I expected. Where I originally intended on taking this topic was to the grand possibilities that come with my new job. If the permanent residents and visitors of Koh Tao don’t start treating the island with more respect then it won’t remain a beautiful island for much longer.

Many people come here just to scuba dive, snorkel, and enjoy the beaches. If these are destroyed or polluted not only will the world lose a wonderful example of nature at her best, but also the tourists will stop coming and Thai people will lose quite a bit of money.

This is probably obvious to most of you, but you would be incredibly surprised by how many tourists and business owners don’t seem to care. I have a massive task ahead of me and I’m very excited to finally put my degree to good use. I have the opportunity to do some really great things for this island and I can’t wait to see where it leads me. There is a lot to be done here which is a great distraction from the fact that I miss my wonderful family, boyfriend and friends, all of which are constantly in my thoughts. Pictures of my new home will be coming soon. Stay tuned!