Whereas most of our blogs are filled with stories of places we’ve been, things we’ve seen, stuff we’ve done, this is a story of slowing down, planting our feet (and our hearts) for a moment, and kicking back.
We never know what, or who we may find each time we move from one place to the next, and having had such a great time in Railay, moving on to Ko Lanta worried us slightly – what if we missed out on some more excitement on the beaches and rocks? As ever though, you inevitably have to keep moving forwards…
We left Railay quite early in the morning and by the time we reached Ko Lanta, Helena was dying for a pee. She jumped out of the mini-van and simply disappeared! The journey had involved a long-tail boat ride, two meandering mini-vans and two lumbering ferry crossings and had ended up with Helena in the ether chasing after a compassionate soul with a toilet, and me, with all of our luggage stood on the side of the road wondering which way she had gone. As she didn’t seem to be re-appearing from anywhere in the immediate surroundings, I decided that the only thing to do was to head to Chill Out House – our hostel for two nights – and hope she was either there already, or may turn up there.
A short but exhausting walk later down a dusty and bumpy ‘road’, laden with both of our heavy bags and our three smaller rucksacks, I came across Chill Out House and walked in through the wide, low slung, swinging bamboo gate that bore a hand-painted sign saying ‘Welcome’ with a sunrise background. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen my girlfriend have you?’ I asked the lady behind the desk (who I now know to be Marilyn). She looked slightly confused and replied with a question in kind, ‘Are all of those bags yours?!’
She offered to watch the bags while I went and searched for Hels. I found her wandering, but happily relieved, on the road and we went back to check in. Marilyn offered us a seat (it was actually a wooden swing) and we got chatting to Jessie, Marilyn’s daughter. It was about 25 minutes before we, and they(!), remembered/realised that we hadn’t actually checked in yet. So we went to the desk, were presented with our Chill Out House wrist bands (which we’re still both wearing) and Jessie gave us a tour.
The Chill Out House tour is an integral part of every person’s check in and each of the staff have their own style (watch out for Henry’s tour, it’ll be close to checking out time by the time you’ve reached your bed!). You are introduced to the place, the people, the ethos and welcomed into the family. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it was about Chill Out that felt so right, but we just knew straightaway we’d found somewhere a bit special.
So I guess I should give you guys a virtual tour of the house in words as best I can. Here goes …
Chill Out House is an organic, creative, evolving structure and space. It feels rooted to the earth and the sand under your feet downstairs enhances the feeling of connection to the island There are two common areas (creative named Common Area One and Common Area Two), a music station where all sorts of eclectic sounds are played out depending on who has plugged in their iPod, and a couple of chill out pads – softly furnished, low slung areas built solely for relaxing (and where I spent quite a lot of time trying to digest Cloud Atlas.) The little bar is the centre of the downstairs and serves cold beer, marvellous Mojitos, and the occasional shot of Black Cock if you’re feeling fiesty! There are two more floors, entirely constructed of wood – quite often driftwood that has been washed up on the beach – housing more chill out spaces, dorms and rooms. ‘The fire risk here is extreme’ explained Jessie as we climbed up into the treehouse-like structure on the way to our room which was named ‘sunset’, and decorated with shells tied onto thin strings hung from the edge of the ceiling where the room was open to the outside world. Throughout the house you find all sorts of mini arty touches; hand painted signs are dotted around and about, collages of shells decorate the bathrooms, recycled bottled tops are used artistically in lanterns and free spaces, driftwood sculptures provide structure and aesthetic interest in nooks and crannies. And it is constantly changing – while we were there, the staff were always working on one ‘project’ or another to fix, restore, replace, or add to the fabric of the environment.
Speaking of staff…I suppose this was one of the big things about Chill Out. I’ve already mentioned Marilyn and Jessie, but we quickly met Matt and Rosie, Henry (of extended tour fame), Erin, Mechi, Tommy, Gabi, Arm and Jayden. They were the real family at Chill Out and they made us feel so welcome. I can’t even really remember being introduced to these guys, but I do remember our first night there.
We’d seen a flyer for a reggae band called ‘South Paradise’ who were playing just around the corner at Gypsy Bar. You know I’m a sucker for live reggae so Hels and I were sat in the bar having a few drinks and just started chatting away to everyone. Before you know it, we’ve had more than a few beers and are fully in the party mood. We decamped to Gypsy Bar and had a great time watching the band. They weren’t as straight a reggae outfit as I was expecting though – they went from Ain’t No Sunshine straight into Don’t Look Back In Anger for example. Not that I’m complaining of course! Their rendition of Seven Nation Army at the end had the whole place jumping and they followed it up with No Woman No Cry, the singalong to which potentially made more noise than the band themselves!
Bands were a bit of a feature of our stay actually – we were fortunate to be in town at the same time as Job2Do – Thailand’s biggest reggae band. They were due to play at a bar called ‘Irie’ on the Monday night, so we got tickets and went along. The place was packed! Irie is an open air bar in parts, the bar is in one corner and the stage in another, both under a thatched roof. As any of you acoustically minded folk out there will know, playing in the open air is a nightmare for sound. It was the same here. In the open, the band sounded muffled and flat – I turned to Hels and said, ‘It’s no good, we have to go in!’ She gave me that look of ‘What’s that you say? You want to go front and centre on a dancefloor, surely not?!’ But she knew there was no other option so off we went, clawing our way through the crowd, but it was worth it – under the roof canopy it was a whole different sound and atmosphere. The entire place sang along to Doo Doo Doo Doo Ter Tum (Google it!) when they played it and we stayed there right until the end of their fifth encore which, to my delight, was Natural Mystic.
Afterwards, Hels and I indulged in a Ko Lanta institution – Mr Green, a late night restaurant just next to Irie. Unlike UK late night joints where you’d get kebabs, burgers and pizzas, Mr Green serves a whole menu of Thai food: curries, fried rice and vegetable dishes and of course pad thai. We happily tucked into some chicken fried rice with vegetables before wandering back towards Chill Out House.
On our way down the road, I had a genius idea, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ Night swimming always has a certain romantic feel to it so we wandered the two minutes down to Long Beach. I quickly de-robed, ran headlong into the sea and dived into the warm water. I have images in my head of it being graceful, like a dolphin perhaps, or a slightly hairy seal, but it was probably more like a drunk orangutan (orangutans actually can’t swim, as we have learned in Borneo). And then, the most amazing thing happened – I turned into a wizard! I had Dumbledore’s words (or was it Hagrid?) ringing in my ear ‘You’re a wizard, Harry!’ as I swooshed my hands around in the water, creating spells and light, leaving trails of green luminescence. ‘You HAVE to come and see this, I shouted to Hels. It is literally incredible!’ Just incase you think I have gone mad, I clearly hadn’t gained magical powers, I’d merely stumbled upon the bioluminescent phytoplankton. Spotting them is another favourite activity on Ko Lanta after dark, and one which we repeated a couple of nights later with Henry and Rosie but with the aid of snorkelling masks. These little creatures, who knows what they are, hang around in the shallow water and emit a green glow when stimulated by movement – beautiful, intoxicating, unforgettable.
So we stayed. We’d booked two nights originally but extended, and extended again to a week – the longest we’ve spent in a single location before or since. Our days were spent happily dozing, relaxing, chatting, eating Tom Yam and noodles at Mon’s across the road and the fabulous Pad Thai from the Pad Thai guy’s stall, playing Jenga – and mega Jenga, otherwise known as Jenga tower, drinking the occasional beer, running on the beach, reading books, playing with Jessie’s son Jayden, messing about with Blue, the dog, sun-bathing, singing, laughing, swimming, watching the sun set, getting up late and going to bed even later.
Another major past-time was browsing Arm’s portfolio of tattoos… At the back of the hostel, there is a small studio where Arm does tattoos in the traditional Bamboo technique. Chill Out Ink (www.chilloutink.com) is his business and his work is phenomenal. Almost everybody who was working at the hostel had had something done by him and so there was a living and breathing portfolio all around us. Erin had a pineapple on her side and a Sak Yant on her finger both done by Arm (amidst many other tattoos), Rosie had a beautiful Lotus flower on her arm, Henry had a wolf on his calf, a guy called Steve had an indescribably brilliant elephant on his calf and Matt…well, Matt got a circle (but that’s another story!) Add to that Helena’s discovery of Pinterest and you have a seriously heady and tempting mix of time, place and desire and it was no surprise when she said, ‘I’ve been thinking… I’m going to get another tattoo.’
After much deliberation, she settled on a combined image of a Buddhist Sak Yant symbol adorned with a half lotus flower. She gave it to Arm and he refined it into his own style and gave Hels a final design. It’s beautiful. She opted to have it on her ribs and so part of our final night was spent in the studio with Arm as he worked his magical art onto (into?!) Helena’s side. The result is a great tattoo and a lasting memory.
Talking of memories, that’s what this week was abounding with – small moments, little things that combine to create a living and lasting experience in our minds. We were only there for a short time, and the very nature of Chill Out House and travelling generally means that the experience and the place could never be the same even if we returned – most of the people in this blog have already moved on too – but it was one time when we felt really like a part of something and somewhere. Travelling, even when you’re with another person, can be mystifyingly unsettling experience – the excitement of having no roots and being able to wander anywhere is sometimes tempered by the distress of never feeling at home, like nobody knows who you are or anything about you. To find ourselves momentarily rooted in the sandy floors of the house, with people around who would greet you not only with a smile, but also your name, to have shared experiences, fun and laughter was something that we cherished.
So to the people of Chill Out House, Ko Lanta, and especially Matt and Rosie, thank you 🙂 x