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?
“Why are all the hotels in Naha fully-booked?” Nori asked, scowling at the search results on Agoda.
“I don’t know. What dates are we going to be there again?” I replied.
“On the way in, September 30th through October 1st. Two nights. On the way out, Oct 7th. Just one night and then we fly out on the 8th.”
After checking all the boxes on a car rental form that I couldn’t read, we squeezed into an older blue van that had a slightly moldy pong. Ten years of wet swimming shorts draining into the seats, I surmised. Well, it was the cheapest rental we could find (at US$120/day!) and Japan just isn’t set up for a family of seven. So we take what we can get.
After four years in Bangkok, we had pretty much exhausted all the nearby weekend getaways. We had toured the aquarium in Suphanburi, fed farm animals in Nakhon Nayok, taken the train to Samut Songkhram, did a jungle hike in Khao Yai, hit the beaches in Hua Hin and Pattaya, cruised the rivers of Kanchanaburi and chilled out on Koh Samet.