The Great Escape: Months 66 + 67 + 68 Roundup
Time to dive back into roundups! Since I’m working my way through my black hole of content from September of 2016 to April of 2017, that means we’ve got roundups to catch up on as well. This post covers the end of 2016 into 2017. Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? And to answer the inevitable questions, I pull these together from detailed notes, old blog posts and photos, my calendar, and my daily spending tracking software.
What do you know — I think this is my first ever three month roundup. A full annual quarter! But with well over half of it taking place on Koh Tao, it just made sense to lump it all together.
This roundup follows the kick off of the holiday season in New York, the wrap up of my time in the US, my annual fall return back to Thailand for more holidays, family and friend visits, and settling back into my Southeast Asia life.
While there were a lot of wonderful moments, I must admit that upon reflection this was a period of much angst for me. I was in a lingering post-election funk that took months to kick, I had discord with various family and friends that I internalized very deeply, the weather tested all of us on Koh Tao, my apartment hunt was unsatisfying, and all of the above led me to a lot of questioning myself about my lifestyle and what exactly I wanted to be when I grew up.
Where I’ve Been
• Five nights in Albany, USA
• One night in New York, USA
• Three nights in Montego Bay, Jamaica
• Four nights in New York, USA
• Six nights in Albany, USA
• One night in overnight transit
• One night in Bangkok, Thailand
• Two nights in Lopburi, Thailand
• Four nights in Bangkok, Thailand
• One night in overnight transit
• Thirteen nights on Koh Tao, Thailand
• Two nights on Koh Samui, Thailand
• Ten nights on Koh Tao, Thailand
• One night in overnight transit
• Three nights in Bangkok, Thailand
• Thirty-six nights on Koh Tao, Thailand
• A seed planted. Post-election, I essentially crawled home to my childhood home in shock. It was a really dark time but we were all mourning together, and one night my mom invited a huge group of female friends and activists over to write postcards of congratulations to newly elected progressive women, a spot of hope on the horizon. That night was the seed that grew into Capital Women, a grassroots Political Action Committee that my mom just women an Activating Democracy Award from the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society this May. I just burst with pride looking back and seeing that while most of us were still sitting around licking our wounds, my mom was finding some way to channel grief into positive action that is now used to support progressive candidates, register voters, organize peaceful protests and beyond.
• Caribbean sun and smiles. Getting to my 35th country! We had thought it would be a victory trip, but it ended up being a healing one. What a privilege it was to be literally the first to stay in one of the first overwater bungalows in Jamaica. It’s likely to be one of the most luxurious and, let’s be real, high price-tag accommodations I’ll ever stay in, so I tried very hard to have a few moments of sitting quietly and soaking in what a cool experience it was to have built a life where moments like that were possible, and to be able to invite people like my sister along.
• Special exceptions. Olivia and I made a pact to leave our villa as little as possible over our short long weekend trip, but made three exceptions: spa, scuba diving, and sucking down drinks at Margaritaville. All were incredible decisions. Spa? Self-explanatory. Scuba diving? It was a surprisingly positive experience, despite the rumors. Margaritaville? Yo, there’s a slide that goes straight into the ocean! Plus, we arrived there via booze cruise. Oh, and there are a bunch of trampolines right in the water, too. I really don’t feel I need to say any more.
• Back in the Big Apple. While I was eager to get back to Albany for Thanksgiving, packing, and some final family time, I stuck around NYC for a few days to attend a fundraiser by my friend Luke for a children’s orphanage in Guatemala, have a yoga-and-brunch session with my wonderful high school crew, and throw a bitching engagement party with my sister for our dear friend Ashlee. It was an action packed goodbye to the city that never sleeps.
• Thanksgiving in Albany. Puzzles. Parade watching. Crafting. Baking up every dang thing on Pinterest. I absolutely loved spending my favorite holiday (okay, I say that about all of them) at home again.
• Thailand time. Have you guys seen the movie The Beach, where Leonardo DiCaprio is roaming around Khao San Road at night, totally enamored with the wild exoticism of Bangkok for the first time? That’s the movie that first brought me to Thailand — seriously — and while the country has long since become deliciously familiar, I still love staying on 24-hour Khao San Road when I land late at night off an international flight and get that off-the-plane rush, walking around wild-eyed and jet-lagged, coursing with energy. After all these years, it still gives me butterflies.
• Flower frolicking. My annual return to Thailand was later than usual, due to the election, and so I arrived just in time for the annual sunflower bloom in Lopburi (and sadly, just missed the annual Monkey Festival by a few days!) I always wanted to return to this sweet little Central Thailand town when the flowers were in bloom, and luckily my friend Becca was game for the adventure.
• Being in Bangkok. Okay for real though, this was one of my most memorable Bangkok trips! When Becca and I got back to Bangkok, we were joined by my BFF Amy and her sister Hari, and we just had the. best. trip. We stayed in a gorgeous hotel by my favorite park where we went power walking and looking for water dragons, we went to a 4D movie theater, we finally checked the Museum of Contemporary Art off my list, we went on a hilarious night out, and we ate at not one but three Mexican restaurants in one trip! I really feel like we just nailed it.
• Khao San chaos. As much fun as I was having, I was super eager to get back to Koh Tao, so when our ferries got cancelled due to weather, I was bummed. (Amy, who had been stranded on a tropical island with crazy terrible weather for weeks, was less gutted.) So we moved from our fancy hotel over to Khao San, and made the most of being “stranded” — we caught up with my dear, dear friend Wes, who just arrived for a conference, we got cheap massages, we discovered Ethos, a cute local vegetarian restaurant, and just enjoyed soaking up our last city vibes for a while.
• Getting back to my life. Which on Koh Tao, means lots of quiet time alone on my bed, couch, or curled at my desk writing, punctuated by hikes, beach breaks, and hilarious nights out with my friends. From Shannon’s over-the-top pub crawl birthday to the big Banyan raffle to our extravagant pot-luck girl’s night at my friend Gemma’s to the big Banyan flooding fundraiser to hedonistic, no-reason-at-all group nights out… we managed a few of them.
• Spa time in Koh Samui. When my sister landed in Bangkok, she texted me she’d had a terrible flight and was super rattled. “Anything I can do?” I texted back. “Meet me at the airport with Diet Coke and wine,” she joked. Well, I did just that, and the giggles kicked off a great weekend of all-inclusive spa treatments (SERIOUSLY), private pools, and laid-back sister time. We literally didn’t leave the resort once, and it was glorious.
• Getting behind the wheel. It’s funny, Koh Tao has a reputation for being one of the most difficult places to drive a motorbike — and I believe that! Yet still, while I’ve been driving on that island for years, I’ve been hesitant to rent bikes elsewhere in Thailand. This quarter, I got way over that, renting a bike and driving both through the heart of urban Lopburi alongside fourteen-wheelers, and around the maze-like island of Koh Samui with no hands free for Google Maps. I felt victoriously comfortable doing both, and was seriously proud of myself for expanding my comfort zone. (Though I DID think my day was going to take a turn when I got pulled over in a routine traffic stop in Lopburi, fairly confident that I was not legal to be driving that bike with my New York driver’s license — which I’m such a scatterbrain, I was lucky to have on me in the first place. The officer stared at it for a long time while I held my breath and waited to hear what my fine would be, before handing it back with a smile and a sing-songy compliment: “veee-ry beau-ti-ful!” Ha.)
• Christmas in paradise. Not that I need an excuse to do so, but having my sister on the island for Christmas was just an extra incentive to go all out! Sneaking into resorts and peeling down waterslides, watching sunsets with a cocktail in hand, adventures to my favorite viewpoints, nights at Banyan (God, do I miss Banyan), an incredible Christmas Eve house party full of cheer at Ian’s, a plastic tree full of presents, Christmas Yoga at Ocean Sound, poolside drinks with santa hats on, another gorgeous NYE on the sand… dang were we lucky.
• Santa’s coming! Gosh, gift giving on Koh Tao is so special! There’s something so brutally hard about brainstorming them and acquiring them and even wrapping them on our tiny island with barely a store, it makes giving and receiving so special and cherished in a way that it just can’t be in the land of Amazon Prime.
• Back to Bangkok. I already confessed that Olivia had to kind of guilt me up to Bangkok — I was more than happy to just cool my heels on Koh Tao for a while. But once I was up there, I was in the spirit! While lots about the trip didn’t go right — our spa day fair was a notable one, oops — highlights of this particular trip included checking out the Enigma theater, a fancy lunch at Organika and a swank dinner at Above Eleven, plus a spot of shopping — for Wonderfruit! The joy I felt when I found those fruit headpieces will go down in the books. There’s nothing I love more than acquiring costumes for a festival.
• A very wet wedding. When my online friend Steph of Joy and Journey announced she was getting married on Koh Tao, I was over the moon for her! When her wedding week fell in the middle of the worst, unseasonal storms and subsequent flooding my landlord said she had seen in twenty years, my heart was breaking for her. But, amazingly, she made the best of it! Ian and I were honored to be invited for the festivities and I am so inspired by Steph and her family’s positive attitude in the face of a washed-out wedding, and look back on the whole thing as a night that Ian and I were reckless and silly and had a wildly fun adventure.
• Watching the Women’s March from afar. I was in a general post-election depression for months after returning to Koh Tao, and watching the beautiful women’s march photos and sentiments pour in from around the world really lifted my spirits in such a beautiful way. I wish I could have been in New York, marching alongside my mom and sister.
• Hosting in my home-away-from-home. In this quarter, I had a blast hosting not just my college friend Becca, who true to Koh Tao tradition, changed her departure ticket at least twice and doubled the planned length of her trip as she couldn’t stand to leave, but also showing around my college friend Steve, and even my childhood family friend Sara, who came in the midst of our flooding disaster and thus spent her trip getting stranded on another island and then helping me with beach cleans upon arrival.
• Blowing bubbles! After the long bought of terrible weather, I was packing up to leave for Pattaya, Penang and Bali, and realized I hadn’t been diving once since I got back to Thailand. For shame! My friend Andie dragged me out on the boat with her and reminded me that the best fun dives are ones with friends.
Lowlights + Lessons
• Jamaican me unstylish. Okay, this is more of a funny one. As I hastily packed to leave for Jamaica, I realized I had no sunglasses. I guess I’d lost or broken them all (normally, I stock up on a ton when I’m in Thailand). No problem, I thought. I have to go to New York City for the night to catch my flight anyway. So I arrive in NYC and am scouring my usual places except they are all looking at my like I’m nuts for needing sunglasses in November! So I had to borrow this one pair from my sister that looked terrible on me, and it annoys me every time I see a picture of me wearing them, ha! Between that and leaving all my wetsuits in Thailand, I was not feeling my most styling on that trip at all. Lesson learned: plan ahead — at least ahead enough for an emergency Amazon Prime delivery.
• Jamaican me crazy. Staying in the overwater bungalows in Montego Bay was such an incredible opportunity, and the team that arranged our stay was so wonderful, I hate to complain about anything about it, but yo — those babies were still under construction through media previews. All those photos of us lounging around like queens? We were — but we were also gritting our teeth after the maddening sound of hammers and drills firing up at 7am and lingering for a full twelve hours. I am actually extremely auditory sensitive and spend a lot of my days in silence — I don’t know how people can write with music on! — and even after years of living in New York City and then Southeast Asia (land of perpetual construction) I haven’t found a way to make total peace with the sound of it in close range.
• Missing Christmas. I’ve done many holiday seasons in Thailand now and have grown to love them. That said, it was really hard to do Thanksgiving at home and not do Christmas. Seeing everyone get into the swing of holidays and then have to leave was so hard, especially after four years of doing them abroad.
• Fitness fail. I’ve been wanting to try out the ubiquitous Bangkok yoga studio Absolute You for years. When we got stranded by the weather, Amy, Becca and I decided to try out the Pinklao location. We looked at the schedule online, noted a time and place, and showed up. Except we arrived to a closed down mall with no indication of how to get to the studio. After scouring the website and finally getting someone to answer the phone, we spent twenty minutes trying to navigate before someone finally came down and showed us how to get to the studio — too late to enter the class. Okay fine, but they didn’t offer us an apology, acknowledge that this is something that could be addressed on the website or offer us a free class — just an icy stare. We wasted an hour and cab fare and left with high blood pressure from frustration! It bothered me more than it should, and honestly little cultural difference issues like this are when I started to realize it was time for me to move on from Thailand. When you can no longer shrug off the day to day frustrations like this, I think that’s when it’s time to maybe not go home, but go somewhere.
• Weather woes. Well, dang if this wasn’t the worst weather I saw in my nine years of traveling Thailand. After initially being cancelled, my ferry to Koh Tao was the roughest I’ve ever taken — I actually considered moving out onto the deck, strategizing through my fog of motion sickness that it would be the safest place to be if the boat capsized. Becca, who was supposed to go onward to Koh Phangan, bolted off the ferry the second we got to land (and never made it to Koh Phangan after all, ha!). And it wasn’t just that day. My friends were all in a weather funk by the time I arrived, and even my perma-joy over getting back to the island was tested eventually by the relentless rain and storms we endured. I should pause to note that storms are absolutely a bigger bummer when you live in a place where food and other items arrive by boats that can be cancelled due to waves, and your only mode of transit is an open motorbike exposed to the rain, and absolutely every option for entertainment other than watching TV in your home (which, granted, I’m a huge fan of) is outdoors — and sometimes the storms are so bad you lose power and then you’re really screwed. As someone who — like most expats, I presume — moved to Thailand to escape the relentless gray of Upstate New York winters, I was definitely getting pretty sick of the relentless gray of an unseasonal Koh Tao monsoon. By the time the crazy flooding happened in January, we were already ready to snap. I had nightmares for weeks about rising flood waters.
crazy flooding on Koh Tao
• Post-election nastiness. Yup, even in Thailand. What a divisive time, even on the literal other side of the world. And even outside the occasional barstool friction, I continued to be in a general post-election funk that took months to shake.
• Christmas Day drama. I can’t write too much about it here (but it will be in the book I hypothetically am coming around to the idea of thinking about writing someday — ha) but we had some shocking family news reach out from across the planet at slap us in the face on Christmas Day, adding another brick to the wall I’ve built up around that holiday after years of “child of divorce” anxiety surrounding me. On a lighter “lessons” note, you can’t bake Christmas cakes with buttercream icing in the tropics. Nope.
• Apartment hunting in the age of Airbnb. I say this as someone who loves and uses Airbnb, but ugh. The rental market on Koh Tao is a tiny one — duh, it’s a small ass island — and ever since Airbnb turned property owners onto the lucrative market of short-term stays, it’s been harder and harder to find decent apartments for long-term rentals. Some of the neighborhoods that used to be nothing but well-off local families and expats are now converted to almost 50% Airbnb villa rentals! Sure, you can still find cheap, one room cement studios with a hot plate and a bucket flush toilet no problem. And if you’re a gazillionare and can afford Airbnb prices long-term, you’re still set. But that middle range of people like me who are looking for a pretty comfortable setup — in my case, in order to work from home — you’re in for a serious search. I eventually settled on a place much smaller and more basic than I’d been looking for, but it was below the budget I’d been willing to spend (a price range I quickly learned didn’t much exist on Koh Tao any more), and I did eventually over the years turn it into a very cosy, much-loved home. Still, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find what I was looking for once I finally had the budget to afford it. In all my years back and forth to Thailand, it was the hardest time I’ve ever had securing an apartment or a bike (and I guess I was traumatized by the whole thing — I held on to both for nearly two years!)
• Expat issues. This annual return to Koh Tao was a hard one for a lot of reasons. I’d been away for a while, much longer than usual due to my extended stay in the US for the election. I felt the effects of years of being torn back and forth between two places, being gone for so long and coming back to shifted dynamics. It’s kind of the price of admission for living in such a transient community and making the choices I’ve made to travel so often, and to spend so much time divided between two halves of the world. But considering everything else that was going on to make my world feel off-kilter, I didn’t handle it as gracefully as I could have — I felt out of place in my friend group in a way I hadn’t before and haven’t since, and it made me pretty miserable.
Friends visiting from near and far (okay, mostly just far)
• Tuk tuk adventures in Bangkok. Okay, when does the end of a night out clubbing in Bangkok not end up in the LOL category? When Becca confessed upon our exit from a trashy club on Soi 11 that she hadn’t ridden in a tuk tuk, she barely got the sentence out before Amy chased a chart-pumping party one down the street. And thus began the tuk-tuk-dance-party, having-the-driver-stop-at-McDonald’s-en-route-to-our-hotel-room-after-party-and-tipping-him-in-cheeseburgers, throw-french-fries-around-our-Hangover-style-suite-in-celebration routine that we, for better or for worse, know so well.
Christmas on Koh Tao
Best and Worst Beds of the Month
Worst: Nothing tragic, just a mediocre Bangkok stay — and some borderline miserable overnight buses out of the city.
Best and Worst Meals of the Month
Best: Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s table.
Worst: Generally trying to scrounge together meals during the flooding, when boats stopped running and 7-11 shelves were wiped clean, restaurants were out of supplies, and none of us had a single canned good to get us through. The whole experience definitely made me realize how vulnerable we were out there — at least I stocked up on candles as a result!
Needless to say, losing my laptop and iPhone in the midst of the season when I normally chill out on travel and buckle down back to work was not ideal.
That said, I did have some wins — I was named one of Forbes’6 Female Travel Photographers You Need To Follow On Instagram In 2017 , I wrote a post about the near-and-dear-to-my-heart National Parks, and I took a great online course in working with brands.
Overall I worked on catching up on content from my summer trips, got paid a cancellation fee for a trip I didn’t go on (first time that’s ever happened!) and did a video project for New York Lotto — totally out of my comfort zone, which is always a good time.
Health and Fitness Update
For the new year, I made a hilariously ambitious challenge to run a certain number of miles — I didn’t even come close, and frankly, I don’t think I’ve run since. I think I’ve once and perhaps for all determined it’s just not the workout for me.
Luckily, I kept busy with other workouts: muay thai boxing, yoga, and Kayla Itsine’s BBG program at the gym, which I was very into at the time. Plus my usual island activity passions of hiking, paddleboarding, and diving.
What Was Next
Let’s get these roundups all caught up now, shall we?
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.
- ^ a really dark time (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ overwater bungalows in Jamaica (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ despite the rumors (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ stuck around NYC (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ The Beach (amzn.to)
- ^ game for the adventure (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ we just nailed it (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ back to my life (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ all-inclusive spa treatments (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ do I miss Banyan (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ guilt me up to Bangkok (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ for Wonderfruit (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ found those fruit headpieces (images.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ costumes for a festival (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Steph of Joy and Journey (joyandjourney.com)
- ^ crazy flooding happened in January (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Hangover-style-suite- (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ description of a cheeseburger (images.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ I think that says it all, no? (images.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Overwater bungalows (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ private pool villa (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ 6 Female Travel Photographers (www.forbes.com)
- ^ I wrote a post (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Wonderfuit Festival (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ to Penang (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Roundup Posts (www.alexinwanderland.com)