How an Island, an iPhone, and a Backwards Tattoo Changed My Life

The advertisement read: “Koh Phi Phi Island Tour: Visit Maya Bay (“The Beach”), Snorkel with Bioluminescent Phytoplankton, Cliff-Jump…”

Cliff-jumping?!

All that time spent entertaining the idea that one day I’d play Sylvester Stallone’s counterpart in the next installment of Rambo, cliff-jumping in Acapulco… well, this could be my opportunity.

I paid 800 baht and signed up for the trip.

Island Waters near Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

I blame Cocoa Loco for everything that happened next.

He was the pseudo-surfer, Thai-Aussie long-tail boat guide of the tour; Cocoa Loco being the name he’d given himself. He embodied certain characteristics I’d always wanted: he caught fish with his bare hands, or a spear, or whatever was laying around; freestyle dove with Olympic dexterity; knew what kind of tropical flora and fauna could also function as toilet paper. Carefree and possessing skills most people who spend their time on social media don’t, I think he believed that worrying was a concept for people who had too much time on their hands. He’d shriek an enthusiastic “Oh, shit!” in most scenarios, be it a beer spill, a paper cut or if someone fell overboard. And it always sounded like, “Oh, sheeeet!” which is exactly what you’d want to hear in all of those scenarios.

Cocoa Loco, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Nonetheless, people trusted Cocoa Loco.

Cocoa and us, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

In Cocoa We Trust.

So when we approach the cliff, and Cocoa recommends that if we cliff-dive, we do so off the shortest ledge, I ignore him.

Yeah right, I think to myself. You’re the one that calls yourself Cocoa Loco.

I convince myself I must only jump from higher.

Feeling adventurous, I jump from above an 18 meter ledge, which means you hit the water at something like 48 mph, which means  “adventurous” is synonymous with “stupid.”

Cliff jumping in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

“What the hell happened to your leg?” asked a couple of Irish guys the next day.

“What do you mean?” I respond.

Epic bruise from cliff-jumping in Thailand

Oh. That? The fully-developed result of going in shrimp-style?

“You must go in like pencil!” Cocoa explained to me later. “Not like shrimp!”

Noted.


The bruise lasts for a week, a colorful reminder that I’m not capable of standing in as Angelina Jolie’s stunt double, no matter how much I convince myself otherwise.

But more importantly, that initial “what do you mean?” reply would haunt me for the rest of the week.

“What do you mean?” became a constant during my time in Koh Phi Phi.

You see, it was the exact same response I gave later that night, when I met up with a couple of new British friends at a bar.

“So did you get that tattoo you talked about?” they asked.

“You bet!” I said, smiling wildly and widely as I pushed aside my t-shirt to reveal the bit of script I had gotten, just above a scar I have running down the side of my torso.

Bursts of laughter.

“It’s backwards!” They said.

“Wait, what?” I asked. “What do you mean?”


Flashback to that ridiculous island-hopping boat ride, where jutting limestone crags, cloaked in trees growing vertically, tower over the purest blue waters. But the blues that surround the Phang Nga Bay islands are indescribable. Because they’re not quite blue, nor green, nor emerald, nor aquamarine, or turquoise. They’re variations and gradations of all those shades, enveloping the most stunning geography I’d ever seen. Actually, the most stunning geography I’ve ever seen is the way that mild white cheddar cheese lies over dollops of sour cream and well-marinated cubed chicken in a Chipotle burrito. But this was the most stunning geography I’d seen that was naturally occurring.

It was the most beautiful place I’d ever been. Until now, I reserved using “the most beautiful place I’d ever been” for a calm divide between two mountain ridges in Glacier National Park, Montana.

Glacier National Park, Montana

The night Glacier stole my heart.

Glacier National Park, Montana

The day Glacier stole my heart.

I always put off visiting the Andaman Sea side of Thailand. I knew it would be too perfect. And it would require a significant amount of time, a larger budget, and the sort of mentality that, if I fell in love with it, I would need to be ready to stay.

Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi Ley, Thailand

Yes, I shall stay here.

And that kind of happened.

I dropped my camera in the bilge of the boat while falling in love with and photographing this place.

Then, I dropped my iPhone in the bilge of the boat while falling in love with and photographing this place.

Koh Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Then, I swim with bioluminescent phytoplankton. The water glitters with each movement, and underwater, you hear nothing and see only sparkles. Shout out to the numerous Chang’s that enhanced that experience.

But post-boat trip, upon returning to my guesthouse, like an idiot, I repeatedly attempt to turn my iPhone on, plug it in and out of an electrical socket, and basically destroy what little life could’ve been salvaged from the phone.

Exhausted, a bit drunk, and saddened by the loss of a piece of technology that is a computer in my back pocket and lifeblood to humanity and ultimately, makes us all socially inept, I go to sleep.

At 3am, I wake up. Oh shit. Or rather, “Oh sheeeet!”

I slept through what was supposed to be my last night out on the island with old and new friends. Without a means of communication, I head out onto the main drag, hoping to run into someone still out and salvage the time before my flight back to Bangkok the following morning. That doesn’t happen.

Instead, I buy a kebab, which is mostly garlic mayo and chilli sauce and a pinch of what I’m told is meat, and eat it curbside.

A long-haired, tattooed Harley Davidson-esque, non-English speaking older Thai man smiles at me and hands me a bottle of water.

I suppose I looked thirsty. I say thanks, and he saunters off.

I never end up happening upon the friends I had plans with. But I do meet a Canadian, discuss international banking fees at length with him, and then head home just before sunrise. When I awake, I remember the tragedy.

My iPhone is dead forever. It’s mostly my own fault, having tried to frantically resuscitate it last night. No phone shop on the island can fix it. This can only mean one thing.

I must cancel my flight, get the tattoo I’ve wanted for years, and remain on Koh Phi Phi indefinitely.

That I did. Sort of.


Somewhere in Arizona, 2012.

Somewhere in Arizona, 2012.

“Take It Easy” by The Eagles had been my favorite song for over a decade, which is nearly 1/3 of my life, and that’s a pretty long time.

From the title of it, to the lines reaffirming beliefs I’ve always held, I love this song.

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy…”

“Lighten up, while you still can. Don’t even try to understand. Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy. “

Those lines – that song – resonate with me. You see, I had roadtripped to that corner in Winslow, Arizona. This wasn’t some teenage Oasis “Wonderwall” episode with a song. This was (is) a big deal.

The flat-bed Ford and I, on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

The flat-bed Ford and I, on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

Take it easy isn’t a song, it’s a mantra. And “taking it easy” doesn’t mean living a life of simplehood, a life of no concern nor ambition. It means not letting your thoughts, and others’ thought’s, and your perceptions, and your perceptions of others’ perception’s, sabotage your thinking and your life.

When I learned that the Harley Davidson Thai man who donated his water to me was a tattoo artist, it was decided.

Thai Tattoo Artist

Yes, this man shall give me a tattoo, I decided.

So when I hear, “your tattoo is backwards,” I’m a little surprised.

Turns out graduating university Magma cum Laude does not teach you about mirrored images and reflections and even, say, common sense.


Harley Davidson Thai tattoo man placed the tattoo stencil on me, and I reviewed it in the mirror.

“Mai, mai, mai,” I said. I motioned to him to flip the stencil around. How’s this guy about to put a backwards tattoo on me, I thought. He didn’t even speak English. I’d have to keep my wits about me.

He corrected it.

“Chai!” I said. “Ok! Let’s do it.”

Using a needle strung onto a bamboo rod, a traditional Thai way of tattooing, he tapped the ink into my skin. It was painless, even enjoyable, because I couldn’t help but feel like the commitment I was making then was the most right decision ever.

Bamboo Stick, Traditional Thai Tattoo

That epic bamboo rod.

I took a look at the finished script in the mirror. The three words I wanted to remind myself daily were staring right back at me.

“Take it easy.”

It was perfect.


So when I learn that night that what one sees in the mirror is no accurate representation of anything ever, and certainly not what other people see when they look at you in real life, especially when it pertains to a tattoo, I laugh.  And I laugh now, when I tell the story.

I made an incredible mistake. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because it’s my motto; it’s for me to see and read and remind myself of, not for others. If I was to look in the mirror and see my tattoo backwards –  my own cursive handwriting, which to anyone else appears to be more like some kind of Arabic calligraphy, above a sciolosis scar where I’m missing a rib – this would have been a mistake. But I see it, I can read it, and I smile when I do.

Take It Easy by the Eagles Tattoo

Glorious, isn’t it?

Of course, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t – it would go against the meaning of those three words, right?


How’d it change my life? It changed every decision I made after that island trip. Because right now, I’m at work. But at this moment, work is on a beach in Vietnam, with a newly bought six-string guitar. I went from being a freelancer spending days in a shoebox Bangkok apartment wondering what the hell my purpose in life was, to someone living out of 1.5 backpacks traipsing across Southeast Asia for a living, leading adventure tours across the region. An island-hopping longboat tour guide showed me a lifestyle while a landscape made my jaw drop, and a tattoo reminds me of this everyday:

To worry is to ruin a moment. And hell, there are a ton of beautiful moments and landscapes and things to experience in this world, and if you start worrying, you’re going to miss most of it.

So take it easy.

Tim Scenna visits Thailand.

A man, quite obviously, taking it easy.

11 comments

  1. Michael · · Reply

    You are amazing! I love this. So well written!

    1. Thanks Michael. I certainly prefer “amazing” to “insane.” :)

  2. Sarah, even though I’ve heard this story from you already it was SO entertaining reading this account. You are a fantastic writer, keep it up!

    1. Thanks Scott! Although no other story I have rivals this one so…I better go get some more tattoos.

  3. […] “This one, heh,” you’re thinking. “Real smart. Already read about that tattoo.” […]

  4. Loved reading this Sarah – you’re so inspiring x

    1. Gracias, Anna! Can’t wait to see what you get into now that you’re writing full-time.

  5. […] are hardcovers (idiot), which is far too many when you’re trying to keep the total weight in your 1.5 backpacks under 20 kilos. But I note the bookshop on my map, and decide that I’m dehydrated and it’s […]

  6. […] Damn was that hard. I can’t say I succeeded. But I learned a lot, and it was an experience that changed my life. As you may already know, I tend to say most experiences already do. […]

  7. […] to Lindsay for deciding on the egg-yolked pizza at Bier Markt like four years ago), to the most flawless islands in […]

  8. Awesome. Amazing. Great post.

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