I quietly donned my warmest clothes and stepped out onto the balcony. It was 5 a.m.. The black sky was softening, but it was still very cold and rain fell on my outstretched hand. No matter; I had already resolved to go. More than a decade ago, an image in a travel magazine had captivated me: a mysterious church poised at the edge of an alpine meadow and dwarfed by foreboding peaks rising perpendicular behind it. That was the Georgia I longed to see, and dumb luck had deposited me a short hike away!
“DAD, CAN WE GO wine-tasting again?” Logan asked, his eyes wide with anticipation. I knew what he was really asking.
“Oh, don’t worry. There will be a lot of wine-tasting,” I replied.
PASTOR HERMI MET us at Culion port. He was tall, tan and wore wraparound sunglasses. He looked more like a beach volleyball player than a man of the cloth and tour guide, but he was passionate about unearthing and sharing Culion’s surprisingly rich history. We piled into a motorized trike and zipped uphill towards the old Spanish fort. The beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception had been built on and amongst the defensive walls. Inside, two women were dusting the pews and arranging flowers for a wedding later that day. Exiting through a side door, we climbed up to a battlement with a commanding view over the island-studded sea.
CORON ISLAND was a fortress of jagged, Jurassic limestone. From a distance, it looked impregnable. As our bangka motored closer, however, emerald coves and concealed passages hoved into view. We are karst connoisseurs – having climbed, sailed and spelunked these fantastical formations from China’s Yangshuo and Vietnam’s Ha Long to Thailand’s Phang Nga. Coron Island exceeded them all: bigger, sharper, clearer, cleaner – and more threatened.
The entrance shaft sloped downward at a terrifying angle. I descended in a crouch, unsettled by a combination of vertigo and claustrophobia. Ahead, our four boys were chattering nervously as they half-walked, half-slid into the heart of the pyramid. They knew enough about ancient Egypt, Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider to know that this was a Really Big Adventure, something that few six and nine year-olds would get the chance to do.
“WE’RE GOING TO ANAMBAS, Anama-nama-nambas!” the boys sang in the backseat of the taxi. The melody was from Pitbulls’ “I Know You Want Me.” Read more
The hardest thing about the hike to Wae Rebo was getting to the trailhead.
For seven punishing hours, we had rattled up, down and around hulking mountains over shattered roads. In many places, the skin of asphalt had sloughed off years ago, exposing a roadbed of rounded river rocks that shook the car violently. Our average speed was 25 kph, which included an hour of crawling forward at 5 kph, the car rocking like storm-tossed ship. Chunks of cement had torn loose from little bridges during the rainy season, forcing Stefan to negotiate nests of rebar. Rarely was the road much wider than our car; someone had to risk drop-offs or ditches for two vehicles to pass.
“Big one coming!” the guide shouted.
Seconds later, a scaly monster came speed-waddling down the trail. We all assumed that he would go straight for the deer carcass. Instead, he veered uphill, toward us. The guide had advised us not to run if a dragon approached. Yeah, right! We all panicked, bashing into each other and tripping over brush as we fled. Nori was behind me, but the boys had scattered into the forest, screaming. 1,2,3…4! Thank God, no children eaten.
I’ll never forget standing on the 57th floor of the newly-built Marina Bay Sands, chatting with Sir Ranulph Fiennes while looking across the ship-choked waters of the Singapore Straits. It was a very clear day, so I pointed to the land on the horizon.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is unknown and unpronounceable outside of Thailand. But it couldn’t be one of Thailand’s “Hidden Gem” provinces – not because it isn’t worthy, but because so many people go there without realizing it. Confused?