Friday, January 26, 2007

Waterfalls and Big Buddhas

This morning we hopped on a motorbike driven by Weela (much laughter over the similarity to Willie) and headed for a waterfall. My guide and translator Thim promised that I could go swimming so I brought my bathing suit. I figured the waterfall would be up Tumelo, the name I think (Thim's English is a bit weak) for the big hill to the north of Lamai Beach on Ko Samui. But Weela turned south and we were off on what became a round-the-island tour by motorbike. It was incredible. Once you leave the tourist hustle and bustle of Lamai, there are small towns and villages, uncrowded highways, acres of coconut palms, and tantilizing glimpses of the sea. I'd read about some of the falls in Lonely Planet's guide to Thailand's Islands & Beaches, and was happy to find our destination was Na Muang Falls in the center of the island and described as the most scenic. There were few visitors when we got there this morning and Thim, Weela and I walked up to the foot of the 30m falls. It's not much compared with some of the falls I've visited in the U.S., even at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, but there was something about them being in the heart of this island that I found delightful.

We walked over the rocks and through the stream to the pool at the base of the falls. Thim watched as I slipped into my suit and dove into the warm water. Weela stayed a respectful distance. Not far below, elephants were walking in the water with paying passengers on their backs. I decided not to take the highly touted "elephant trek."

After the refreshing swim, we headed out of the park. It was only when we turned right that I realized we were going to continue around the island which I believe is about 70 kilometers. I lathered on some sun screen over the slight burn I incurred yesterday, and we were off along the island's major highway. We passed the Samui Aquarium & Tiger Zoo, which seemed to be closed, and another place where monkeys were trained to perform, and drove by a number of buffalo fighting stadiums which, at midday, were not doing big business. It sounds too much like a trained animal show to me. Everywhere I saw new construction taking place, hotels and businesses taking advantage of the influx of tourist income. But outside of the most populated few places, Ko Samui still has a rural feel.

Halfway around the island we came to Na Thon, the main city. Many of the ferries from the mainland at Surat Thani arrive at several docks here and as we drove along the waterfront I saw dozens of backpackers walking into town. Na Thon seems quiet and a bit sleepy despite its location. From there we headed to the north shore, the road traveling close to the coast. I was surprised how small the waves were compared to those at Lamai and could see no reason for it. There were lots of restaurants along the coast road but few customers. We stopped for lunch at a small place open to the outdoors and Thim helped me order chicken with pineapple and rice. We drank Pepsis and she offered me tastes of her sticky rice and an unpronounceable dish (that sounded something like "papa do ron ron") with some very dangerous hot peppers to be carefully avoided (Jerry told me the hottest were tiny devils called "rat shit.") There were locals eating with us and a few foreigners. I would never see this or eat here if I were on my own, and I thanked my guide and driver profusely.

From the relatively undeveloped northwest corner, we traveled through the larger and quieter communities of Mae Nam, Bo Phut and finally Big Buddha, so named for the huge statue of the Buddha looming over the harbor where numerous fast and slow boats travel north to Ko Pha-Ngan (which could be seen in the distance) and Ko Tao. The large image at Wat Phra Yai was built in 1972 and I spotted it last Saturday as my plane from Bangkok flew low over the island toward the airport. We walked up the steps and walked around the platform ringing the temple bells as we went. Then we descended to a section of shops at the foot of the stairway and found a monk in residence. Thim is quite devote. We visited the temple at Lamai twice, and here was another opportunity to incur merit. This monk took his time. The ritual involved candles, incense, water, and chanting. When it came time for him to tie a yellow thread around my wrist, he made sure I was familiar with the five precepts. Yes, indeed. Thank you Carolyn.

We skirted the central area of Hat Chaweng, the most popular and most devloped area of the island. Weela made sure I got a photo of the wide sweep of bay from a scenic point high on a hill to the south. Finally we descended into Lamai Beach, five hours after our morning start. I was windblown and a bit wiped out from the sun, but very happy. It was an incredible journey and a priceless opportunity to see Ko Samui in a way most tourists miss.

In the next few days I hope to take a fast boat to Hat Rin on Ko Pha-Ngan to spend a few hours on another island. I think I will pass up the opportunity to stay up all night at the Full Moon Party on Feb. 3. That's a young man's game. But a sea voyage and a nice lunch in a new place would be delightful. I still haven't decided on taking an all day trek to Ang Thong National Marine Park, where "The Beach" was partly filmed," and I'm also considering a trip to Ko Tao on the other side of Ko Pha-Ngan where the snorkling is said to be out of this world.

My adventure in paradise continues...

No comments: