Ernie goes to Koh Samui (Apr 2019)

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Long Weekends

The Easter break is one of the prime travel periods of the year for Hong Kongers, the combination of Good FridayEaster Monday, and the Ching Ming Festival sometimes resulting in four or five-day weekends, or allowing for a solid ten days of holidays just by taking one or two days off in between. Ashley and I have definitely taken advantage over the years, taking Easter holidays in Nepal (just me), Yunnan, Kuching, Sri Lanka, Kyoto and Osaka, and Boracay. This year, a destination wedding was our excuse to get out of Hong Kong and set our sights on sunny Koh Samui – one of Thailand’s countless tropical paradises and home to sun-drenched beaches, tropical azure waters, and mystic jungle grottos and waterfalls.

You will find none of these in the paragraphs and photos laid out below. Traveling with a seven-and-a-half month-old baby is always a wildcard, and we really didn’t even attempt to go out and see much of the island. It’s not that it was impossible to do so, or that we tried and failed – we just decided that this trip would prioritise time spent together in the villa, and with the wedding and wedding-related activities taking up two half-days there wasn’t time for much else. We stayed at the Kanda Residences Samui, splitting a villa with three others, including our friend Sam, who had just recently wrapped up four years in Japan. We visited her twice in the last few years, snowboarding together in the Japanese Alps in 2017 and having an incredible omakase meal in Tokyo in 2015, but we’ve also traveled together in the last few years to Vancouver, Taipei, Seoul, and Shanghai.

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Villa Life

In addition to our family and Sam, we shared the villa with Josh and Tracy, a young couple in town for the wedding as well. We knew Josh a little bit through church and work connections back in Hong Kong, but it was our first time meeting Tracy. We really lucked out with her and our villa-mates, though, as everyone was more than willing to help out with and accommodate for Miles, showering him with lots of love. As young parents of a particular sort, we’re locked into our baby’s nap and sleep schedule, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for going out and exploring for large chunks of the day. Our expectation was that we’d probably spend most of our time at the villa by ourselves while the rest of them went out to check out Koh Samui’s many natural and manmade places of interest. Everyone seemed fine with just hanging out together at the villa, though, and that was something that we really appreciated.

The days were slow, but in a good way – breakfasts together at the resort restaurant down by the beach, reading on the couches and tanning by the pool in the mid-morning, taking a refreshing dip after Miles’ morning nap, and then either heading out for a quick bite or ordering in from a nearby restaurant for lunch. Our afternoons were taken up with wedding activities, but even half a day of lounging around felt blissful coming from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. The fact that our hometown was getting lashed by thunderstorms and flooding while we were away only gave us more motivation to sink into the golden minutes spent in the heat of the brilliant tropical sun – an extra lazy lap around the pool, another chapter read in a sci-fi/Western/fantasy mashup novel, a second and third mangosteen cracked open to feast upon the white flesh within.

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Bophut Night Market

On our second night, I headed out to the night market in the nearby Bophut area of the island. Tracy and Josh were already there, and I drove out with Sam and another wedding guest, Charlotte, while Ashley stayed behind to watch over Miles. We knew Charlotte from a few years back when she used to work in Hong Kong, before she returned to her hometown of London to become a teacher in 2015. A few months ago, however, we got word that she’d be moving back to this part of the world to start a teaching job at a school in Singapore, where she’ll be reuniting with her older brother Will, one of my fellow groomsmen at the wedding I attended in Singapore last month. Hong Kong is such a transitory community, and saying goodbye never gets easy. When people who move away to closer locales, like SingaporeTaiwan, or Malaysia, for example, it’s a somewhat easier pill to swallow. And when they move further away and then decide to come back, even if it’s not exactly to Hong Kong, I get a nice fuzzy feeling in my heart.

The market itself is what it says it is. There’s some good food, and I ate insects for the first time in my life, but mostly it’s long rows of souvenir stalls packed with sweaty, pink, sunburnt bodies. We didn’t do much research into Koh Samui beforehand, but the market seemed to be the place to be for a large segment of the tourist population, though maybe that’s exactly the thing to be avoided. In any case, it was fun to spend time with friends out at night, and some of the light and dark contrasts made for some interesting visuals. It’s only open on Friday nights too, so I guess it was some nice luck that my one free evening happened to coincide with the night market. We were out a bit later than expected, and by the time we got home Ashley had already brushed her teeth. A takeaway tray of tasty banana-Nutella pancake convinced her to brush them again, though.

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The Wedding

The second floor of the villa was suffering from a teensy bit of chaos the next afternoon, mere hours before the wedding ceremony start time. Miles’ post-lunch nap had bled into our preparation time a wee bit, and we took turns keeping an eye on him playing on our bed as we scrambled to wash up, iron wrinkled shirts, get dressed, and make sure we had everything we needed packed into his diaper bag and an extra backpack before the shuttle arrived to pick us up.

I had some additional self-induced stress from the fact that I’d been asked to be the celebrant at the wedding by Ellie and Clem, the bride and groom. This was a massive honour and I gladly took on the role, but I quickly learned it was more than just a matter of getting over my fear of public speaking. First off, there’s the script of the ceremony – the declaration of intent, the vows, the exchange of rings – and fine-tuning the wording so that both bride and groom were comfortable with the words that they’d be saying to each other. There’s also little connecting bits that need to be prepped beforehand so the ceremony doesn’t seem like it’s lurching from one segment to another. Clem and Ellie asked me to say a short message as well, which brought back some of my worst middle school fears around public speaking.

In addition to the speaking parts, there’s a lot of logistics involved that I hadn’t considered before taking on the role, including coordinating with the wedding planners and event staff on giving and receiving cues during various parts of the ceremony, working out the whole father-bride-groom handoff after the bridal party does their walk down the aisle, and making sure the ringbearer places the right ring on the right hand. I’d been so worried about speaking in public that it almost overshadowed the role I had in making sure the ceremony ran smoothly.

Whatever nerves or jitters I was feeling prior to the wedding were dissipated, however, when I saw Clem in front of the wedding arch with his groomsmen, the significance of the moment clear on his face. I first met Clem about ten years ago, when he visited Hong Kong for a few weeks not long after I moved there. I’d just befriended Will at the time, and I remember one day he told myself and some other friends that he’d been chatting with one of his childhood friends in London who was in a bit of a rut in life. I think it was literally the next day that Will then updated us that his friend was on a plane to Hong Kong – and that’s how we all met Clem in the summer of 2009. A couple years later, he moved to Hong Kong himself, having completed his teacher training and landing a job at a local primary school in Kowloon. Over the years we did some traveling together in the area – bringing in the new year in Shanghai in 2011, hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan in 2012, a guys trip to the beachside area of Kenting in Taiwan in 2014 – and I also had the privilege of having him as one of my groomsmen when I got married at the end of 2013.

So when he and Ellie approached me at the end of last year about being their celebrant, I was more than happy to be a part of their wedding. Their venue was a massive villa in the Samujana Villas complex nearby, and it was absolutely gorgeous: the shimmering green lawn edged by swaying palm trees, the deep blues of the Gulf of Thailand in the background, distant islands sitting like jewels on the ocean surface. The only wild card was the heat, which was considerable, but it was also Thailand in April, so not completely unexpected. From my vantage point the ceremony went off without a hitch, though Ashley would tell me later I forgot to inform the guests that they could be seated again after Ellie walked in, and it was really a blessing to lead Clem and Ellie through the vows and the exchanging of rings, and to witness the beautiful emotions washing over their faces throughout the afternoon. Still, it was with no small amount of relief when I finally declared them husband and wife at long last, and, my responsibilities now completed, I retreated back to the margins to be just another wedding guest again.

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Fairy Lights and Centipedes

The reception afterwards was a lovely dream underneath a canopy of fairy lights across the darkening velvet sky. The speeches were full of warmth and love and laughter (and some tears), the tables lively and brimming with good cheer, and the dance floor thumping with good vibes. Clem and Ellie went the extra mile for us, going out of their way to request a crib in one of the many rooms in the villa and hiring a nanny to watch over Miles so that Ashley and I could be a part of the evening festivities. We set up our baby camera as a backup so we could keep an eye on him throughout the night, but he was a total champ and slept through the whole thing.

It would have been a flawless evening but for one slightly traumatic accident near the end of the night: as Sam was walking off the dance floor, she apparently stepped on a giant centipede and was bitten on her foot as a result. Witnesses saw it scurry away into the darkness, the pain from its bite traveling up her leg at an alarming rate. Asian weddings have no shortage of doctors on the guest list, and those in attendance quickly recommended a trip to the closest hospital. As Ashley and I packed up our things and collected our sleeping baby, an ambulance came in through the backroads, signalling an end to the night for both Sam and us.

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The End

Considering we spent most of our time in either our villa or the villa where the wedding took place, it’s debatable whether or not we’ve actually “seen” Koh Samui – no beaches, no jungle treks, no water sports, and no sunbathing. That’s how it is sometimes, though, when a baby is added to the travel equation. We’ve gone abroad twice as a family since Miles came around, once to Phnom Penh in February and this trip to Thailand, and neither were for very long. When there’s limited time, and that time needs to fit in Miles’ schedule, sometimes we’re left with not much to show for it from a travel checklist point of view.

But there’s other aspects of travel that have revealed themselves to us, especially in Koh Samui. Parenthood has been a constant lesson in helplessness for me, both the baby’s and my own. Observe the countless baby paraphernalia lugged around by young parents in trendy diaper bags the world over, the accumulation of which is supposed to give us a sense of control and preparedness for the unpredictabilities of a baby’s daily life. Even then, we need all the help we can get. On the flight over, a stranger in our row wordlessly helped us hold our things while we moved Miles around. One of the waitstaff at the villa restaurant held him up in front of a giant fan to cool him down while we ate breakfast. I’ve already mentioned our villa mates and how helpful they were (and how loving they were towards Miles), and how Clem and Ellie arranged for a nanny service at their reception just for us. Ashley and I have prided ourselves in our independent travel mindset, eschewing tour groups and buses for road trips and self-guided itineraries. With Miles in the picture, we’ll need to figure out how to travel the way we want to in a different way. But for now, it truly takes a village.

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