Learning to Swim

Southern Thailand and Islands (Ko Lanta, Ko Kradan, Ko Muk, Ko Ngai, Ko Rok)
November 6 – 18

Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. – Gustave Flaubert

Oliver is a good kid. When he laughs, his eyes are like Ryan’s, twisting up into happy crescents. His nose crinkles in his sunburned face as did my sister’s during the long, humid New England summers of our childhood, and his hair has long since grown back into the fine, sandy fringe that he wore around San Clemente. We frequently find him following German families on holiday around the beaches; for all intents and purposes resembling one of their own; the last little duckling at the end of a squawking, scattered brood.

Today he is adrift in the Andaman Sea. In the center of a cluster of islands not far from Trang town in Southern Thailand and nearer still to the border of Eastern Malaysia, we have found the garden isle of Koh Kradan. The reef-studded waters surrounding the island alternate between four different shades, one of which is a limpid mineral blue that matches Ollie’s irises when he’s been in the salt water for the better part of the day. The Hat Chao Mai National Park begins at the shoreline with centuries-old long needled pines and stretches the length of the island. Swallows flit between the spare bamboo huts tucked here there along the beach and remind me of home and the mission in San Juan Capistrano where the birds’ springtime migration has been celebrated for hundreds of years. All through the night, fruit bats with three-foot wingspans chatter and squeal in the trees.

Twenty yards from where Oliver chases after minnows in waist-deep water, a corl reef plays host to angelfish, giant clams, damselfish, wrasse, parrotfish, squirrelfish, moray eel and juvenile barracuda. Each day in the late afternoon, lavender-blue cumulus clouds roll south towards us, the atmosphere becomes charged, a light rain falls and a distant thunder is heard. In an hour, the “storm” moves on and is replaced with a rainbow that spans the length of the channel between Kradan and its neighboring island, Ko Muk.

Ryan and I can scarcely believe that Oliver is the same little boy we left home with eleven weeks ago. He fearlessly bounds into the sea at any opportunity, furiously paddling, kicking and inhaling mouthfuls of water at a time. Though he hasn’t yet gotten his hands around that mysterious business of maintaining buoyancy and still positions himself far too vertically to actually float, he has learned to love the sea. Understandably so, as the waters of the Andaman are like a temperate bath and far more gentle than the surf we left in California.

Earlier, we motored to Morakot (Emerald) Cave on Muk Island, where an intricate network of sea tunnels lead deep into the karst and finally end at an enclosed lagoon. A perfect microcosm, the lagoon opens to the sky above and therefore supports all manner of life. Lush greenery growing up the sides of the rock gives shelter to snakes, fishing eagles and the odd macaque, while a sliver of white-sand beach recalls Robinson Crusoe. Despite being a popular stop for tours, the journey calls for a daunting 250 foot swim through the pitch dark and is not for the faint of heart.

But Ollie still managed it. Wearing a lifejacket upside down like an enormous diaper, he was able to keep his head out of the water while kicking and paddling. Eyes wide and shining like stars, he soundlessly swam into the darkness with Ryan and I solidly clutching a strap here, an arm there. Echoes and shrieks carried out over the water and the low ceiling as the swimmers ahead of us bumped up against each other, and the noises gave me a start. But as the first glimmer of light pointed the way to the lagoon, I looked over at Ollie’s face, and there was a grin from ear to ear!

But anyone who knows our family also knows that Oliver has tested the limits of his abilities long since before he could walk. It comes as no surprise to us that he should want to leap from a boat deck into the open sea, snorkel and mask in hand. Nor are we jilted when he grasps a stick the length of his little body and sets off into the forest in search of cobras.

What does tend to catch me off guard is the passage of time while we are out in the world. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist influence throughout the region, or our utter lack of timepieces and calendars. Whatever the cause, here and there I am taken aback by the total transience of this experience and of Oliver’s own growth. Amidst piles of sand, he babbles his ABCs and provides an accurate count of the number of long tail boats on the horizon each morning. Unabashedly he introduces himself to every friendly face, gives an account of the highlights of his day (“eat ice cream for breakfast”), and concludes with a big round-the-neck hug. His legs are now nearly half as long as my own and his face has begun to sharpen and take on greater depth compared to the round chubbiness of his infancy.

But in another instant, our gregarious, outspoken little boy retreats back into the netherworld of the two-year old, and Ryan and I run and duck for cover. Certain days are far tougher on the spirits than others, but in those moments, it helps to think again that all things pass. Indeed, all things, if not accepted and treasured for the moments in time that they occupy, are lost.


  1. Hey Emily! Havn't spoken to you in soo long but I love ready your travelstories. Must be so amazing to share it with your boys! Enjoy it while it lasts and hope you won't have any (big)troubles along the way! x, Claartje

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