Category Archives: Thailand

Thailand Roundup

What I Did: A handful of nights in Bangkok here and there and over a month in Koh Tao

a Koh Tao street

Overall: Koh Tao is a diver’s paradise and the perfect place to learn. You’ll be overwhelmed with options for where to do your open water, don’t feel pressured to sign up beforehand or on the ferry, where touts will hand out brochures and encourage you to sign up on the spot. Make time to see other beaches than Sairee. Once you do, Sairee will look like a beach on Long Island!

I feel a bit funny writing a round up of Thailand when I had such a limited view of the country. But I loved it immensely and it stole my heart, so I guess I’m somewhat qualified to give my take. I know a lot of traveler’s move quickly through Thailand, evidenced by the many people coming in and out of Koh Tao in just a few days, but I really enjoyed taking a longer, slower look at a place. Its hard to capture my feelings for Thailand in a few words, but suffice it to say it changed my life!

my favorite mode of transit

Getting around: Buses in Thailand were very comfortable. While obviously not up to Western standards, there was a toilet (not a flushing one), air conditioning, and movies playing. Prices were reasonable. I recommend the overnight bus to Koh Tao, it’s the only way to make the length of the trip seem like a breeze. In Bangkok it seems on foot or public transit is the most reliable, cabs are a pain and traffic is unreal.

a pancake stand and its delicious output

Food: Again, not exactly a foodie here. That being said, Thai food really grew on me. At the beginning of my stay in Koh Tao I ate at a lot of the mainstream tourist restaurants that served western food and such, but when my stay was extended my budget was stretched and it forced me to join Mark at his favorite roadside haunts, and I’m grateful! One tip: stick to chicken. I stubbornly ordered beef quite a few times before realizing its not a good idea in a country without cows. Another: eat banana nutella pancakes every single day. For 35 baht it is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted and the first thing I ate arriving back from Cambodia.

People: Thais are notoriously friendly and they lived up to their reputation. I theorized that perhaps this was a result of Thailand having never been colonized by Western countries, the only Southeast Asian country to make that claim. Some say I overanalyze. The other people in Thailand are the ubiquitous backpackers and their nearby relatives the hippie expats. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness and friendships forged by near strangers. This was my first true taste of the traveling community, and I loved it!

Good to know: The massages really are $5. The King’s image is everywhere and is reflective of his place in the hearts and minds of the Thais. Small cuts will get infected. There is more to Bangkok than Khao San Road. It is possible to survive in Thailand despite having never eaten Thai food in your life. Go.

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Back to the Land of Smiles

This is the point in the story where I was meant to be writing a post describing the life changing experience I had over the past five weeks in two so different Southeast Asian countries. Instead, you can expect that post in three more weeks when I get one more country under my belt! That’s right, I haven’t had enough and I’m headed back in for more. After a rushed goodbye at the Bangkok airport I headed back into Thailand for my third 13 hour trip to or from Koh Tao, where I’ve spent nine days diving, exploring, and blissing out before Mark and I head out on an extended visa run to Malaysia. Though I had never expected to set foot there on this trip, we quickly sketched out a rough plan for our too short 12 day trip. We’re going to start in the metropolis capital of Kuala Lumpur, where Mark will renew his Thai visa, then head to the Cameron Highlands for some hiking and other adventures, and round out the trip with more diving and beach bumming on the Perhentian islands.

Reunited at Lotus Bar

the lovely Louise

flatmates

As for this second stint in Koh Tao, I’m caught between having nothing to say and being able to fill a book. The lack of bloggable material comes from each day running together like a perfect island movie montage, a blur of days spent diving and discovering new beaches and nights spent swinging in hammocks and making too many new friends drinking far too many buckets. Nine days goes by so quickly and before you know it we’re leaving and making plans for my last night on the island before our ferry departs at 9pm. Of course it wouldn’t be a day in the life of Mark and Alex if something didn’t go comically wrong, and as we’re strolling down the main drag that day around 2pm, I casually glance at one of the tour agency’s time tables and my stomach drops as I realize our boat leaves in two hours! I’ve made the journey three times at this point and Mark countless more and so I don’t know how it didn’t occur to us that the we could not depart at 9pm and arrive at 4am for a 12 hour journey. I blame heat stroke. In any case, I had two hours to pack up my life for the past 5 weeks and to say goodbye to the friends I had made, nothing could have ever been enough but the quick hug hanging off the side of the motorbike really didn’t cut it. In any case, we were soon on a ferry headed away from the place that I had grown to love so dearly, and the sadness was eased only by great adventure ahead of us. I love Koh Tao and I know that I will be back, but this, this was my saddest goodbye.

my favorite rock.

24 Hours in Bangkok

Wat Pho

So while I waxed nostalgic about having an unconventional travel partner in my previous post, now I’m going to get down to the nitty gritty of things. In the days leading up to my Dad’s flight I picked a guesthouse as our meeting spot for our late arrivals in Bangkok. A sad goodbye to Justine, a confusing cab ride and a smooth check in to my room later I was in my room. Alone. Having spent the past three weeks in the constant company of either Justine, Mark, or another cast member I was at a total loss of how to amuse myself.

Finally I went out to the desk to try to enquire if my directions had worked and my Dad was there. There was a serious language barrier and I was about to get frustrated when I heard a familiar voice coming from the upstairs of the courtyard outside. I ran past the flustered caretaker to the elite private room and bathroom area upstairs. Some people really know how to live. We spent the next hour sitting on the porch talking about home, and everything I had missed since I was away. I can’t describe how surreal it was, sitting on those deck chairs on a hot, muggy night in Bangkok talking to my Dad about my sister’s graduation in Albany, New York.

The next morning we woke up early, enjoyed our complimentary breakfast, and headed out on our whirlwind tour of Bangkok. We only stayed for one night, but the Sam Sen Sam Boutique House is highly recommended. My room was a bit steep (considering what rooms go for down the street) at 700 baht ($20USD) but it was incomparably clean and the shared bathroom was immaculate. Moving on…

Best overall shot I have -I'm a details girl!

First up was the Grand Palace. This is the mother of all Bangkok tourist attractions. It might as well be an exit requirement, along with buckets on Khao San and getting ripped off by a driver. No one comes without seeing this. And I can see why. Yes, its flooded with tourists but its big enough that you can find a route to walk around where you don’t feel like part of the herd. Also, men must be in pants and women pants or long skirts. I’m glad I knew as those who didn’t had to wear some horrible rental sarongs. Now there’s two words that just do not belong together.

I've been really into reflections, apparently

Unfortunately Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, was closed for ceremonies while we were there but on the upside there were tons of important looking monks being escorted in by guards for said ceremonies, so that was exciting. I think a celebrity monk sighting trumps an emerald Buddha any day, especially considering its actually made of jade.

Some regular old monks

We then headed to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha. Its over 150 ft long and contained in a room not much larger, which gives it huge impact but makes it very difficult to photograph! Next I brought my Dad by the backpacker haven Khao San road for lunch and hippie watching before we darted back to the hotel, grabbed our luggage, and haggled with a cab to take us on the meter to the airport.

Reclining buddha

All in all we had less than 24 hours in Bangkok before our overpriced flight to Siem Reap departed. Flying was stupidly priced considering comparable flight distances to other locations, and travelfish.org does a great job of explaining it:

“Price no problem? Bangkok Airways is the way to go — in fact it is the only way to go. In one of the more dubious chapters of open skies agreements this airline has long been the only airline flying the Bangkok to Siem Reap route, and not surprisingly, for the distance flown it remains one of the most expensive flights around. Rumour long has it that the road from Poipet to Siem Reap was kept in it’s particularly crappy condition in order to steer people onto the planes — who would have thought! Yes, it is an absolute rip-off. The flight takes about 45 minutes each way.”

So I popped in my iPod and celebrated the occasion by listening to such such hits as “Glamorous” by Fergie and “Luxurious” by Gwen Stefani while eating my in-flight meal. Yes, for a 45 minute flight. Anyway, before you could watch a full episode of Lost, we landed in Cambodia.

Saying Goodbye to Koh Tao

The time had come: my Dad was soon arriving in Bangkok so we could start our journey to Cambodia. While I thought when my time at the clinic was up I might head to Koh Phangan, or maybe up to northern Thailand, I ended up staying in Koh Tao until the night before I was due in Bangkok! It was a potent mix of things that kept me there.  Namely, the island and the people- and one certain person in particular.

Koh Tao is a curious place. It’s an island in Thailand that to most casual visitors is not really very Thai. There’s one dingy wat, the workers are mainly Burmese, and only about half the restaurants feature Thai cuisine.  But there’s something else about it. It’s a little microcosm for backpackers, divers, and other people doing an excellent job putting off real life, and it has a way of sucking people in and making you feel like you could make a life there. Granted, I’m no travel Olympian (yet!) but I can say I’ve never been another place like it. Writing this, my heart aches for Koh Tao.

And there’s one other teensy detail.

Our first photo together - classy

I love telling people about how I met Mark at a beach bar on a small island off the coast of Thailand. He thought I was an airheaded American, another silly girl trying to see the world via a well trodden path of backpacker hotspots in cheap foreign countries labeled as exotic. I thought he was, well, I didn’t think much as I couldn’t understand a word of what he said through his thick Scottish accent. I was thrilled to check of the “foreign love affair” on my list of to-dos. It was my third night in Asia.

You have to remember reading this now that I’m blogging this at a later date (See Oopsies post), giving me the great gift of perspective. While I almost wish I had kept up writing as I was traveling, I know that I never would have been bold enough to write about Mark anyway. At the time I was still telling myself he was a summer fling that I may or may not friend on facebook upon return to my real life. Even if it had been, I still believe I would look back on my three weeks with Mark with incredible happiness and nostalgia. From the night we met we were magnets, going swimming in the bay where he worked, staying up all night in talking in the hammock on his porch, driving around the island on his little motorbike. All in all acting out the opening montage to a bad lifetime movie romance novel adaptation.

Around the end of my second week in Koh Tao, the night of the Clinic Fundraiser, Mark asked me to come back after Cambodia. There were some hurdles standing in our way, including a messy personal situation on his end, and a return ticket and a job at home on my end. But a week later as we said goodbye at the ferry terminal, I didn’t shed a single tear. My parents and the airline may not have known it yet, but there was no way I was returning to JFK on July 10th. I was smitten, with an island, and a boy, and an adventure ahead of me.

The Little Mermaid Part II

Hin Wong Bay- Home of View Rock resort

Once I was in the water, my sea sickness dissipated, along with my nerves. As we swam around the coral reefs, I felt like I was in The Life Aquatic, a whole little world I had never seen up close underwater. On that first dive I saw two eels and a little blue spotted ray, and I would go on to see pufferfish, scribble fish and more. Even more than the creatures, though, I was impressed by the coral. When I looked around it seemed like huge mountains pushed up all around me, creating an eerie and beautiful landscape. I often found myself staring a little too long at baby fish or pieces of soft coral blowing about, only to look up and kick like a madwoman to get back to our own little school of people-fish.

View Rock Resort- Where we dove

View Rock Resort- Where we dove

My favorite part of my entire underwater experience were the schools of big gray fish that hung out under the pier. There seemed to be hundreds, thousands of them, and there wasn’t really ever one fish. They moved as a unit, and swimming through them was like parting the sea. I’ve never felt anything like it.

Fancy longtail dive boat

Overall, I couldn’t be happier that I decided to get certified. I learned something new, I expanded my opportunities for future travel, and I conquered one of my biggest fears. Now all thats left is spiders and empty parking garages at nighttime. I think I can live with those two.

instructor Mark and me

*Note to future travelers: Choosing to learn to dive at View Rock was an unusual choice. Most tourists go with a larger dive school on the more populous west side of the island. I’m so glad I strayed from the norm on this one. I got to dive off a longtail, rather than a large boat, do my confined water dives in a bay, rather than a pool, and do my book work on a pavilion overlooking the sea, rather than a classroom. Not to mention I learned in a group of three, a small number compared to what most people learn with on Koh Tao, and paid the bargain price of 8,000 baht, about $240USD. And I lost out on nothing! Your only “roadblock” is literally a roadblock: a bumpy unpaved pickup truck ride to the other side of the island (included in your course) and then walking down what I would estimate is 2.4 million steps down to the dive shop. Well worth it!

The Little Mermaid Part I

My open water class and instructor

Scuba diving was not something I always dreamed of doing. In fact, it was something I would have been content to avoid for all the rest of my days, had I not ended up on Koh Tao. I’ve seen Jaws. I’ve seen Open Water. In fact, open water has long been my greatest fear. Which makes it so ironic that I ended up willingly handing over my hard earned money for a course known as Open Water Diver, the certification by dive center PADI that will allow me to dive down to 30 meters anywhere in the world.

No wonder the fish swim away from us

The open water course consists of a combination of classroom learning, four confined water dives, and four open water dives. The emphasis is really on safety and learning by repetition so I spent a fair amount of time tapping my foot, wanting to get out and swim around with the fish. As far as classrooms go, however, you can’t get much more idyllic. I took my course at a small dive school on the far side of the island in Hin Wong Bay, a beautiful place where we did our classroom learning on open air pavilions over the cliffs and our confined water dives in the shallow bay. Throughout the required skills, which included practicing emergency ascents and removing the breathing regulator, I really only had trouble with removing my mask. I must be more reliant on my sight than I expected, because as soon as I pulled my mask back to let it fill with water, I completely panicked and felt like I couldn’t breathe, and water was going in my nose, and I was in general dying. I tried to calm myself down before I attempted to put it back on and clear it, but still when I finally reopened my eyes my instructor, Neil, was looking at me with grave concern. I had a little pity party and underwater pout for myself while my two fellow water babies had their go at it, and later on after I calmed down I was able to redo the whole thing with ease.

Being choked by my wetsuit

As we took the longtail out for the first open water boat dive, I was a little seasick so they put me in the water first. When I say that, I literally mean they “put me” in the water… held onto my air tank over the edge of the boat and dropped me in backwards. In that moment right before I dropped backwards into the abyss, I had the same sensation I always do at the top of a roller coaster before it drops… “What in the world have I gotten myself into?!”

Let's go!

To be continued…

Koh Nang Yuan: A Vacation from Vacation

Justine and I decided to reward our hard work with a day trip to Koh Nang Yuan, a miniscule island blip on the northwest side of Koh Tao. Be warned, its a private island with one resort that takes advantage of its monopoly on the island. Still, there are ways to do it on the cheap. Read on for the (un)Official Guide to Daytripping in Koh Nang Yuan:

1. Hire a longtail to take you to the island. Refuse to pay for a return fare in advance as you have no way to ensure the drivers return, making the driver very angry. Annoy the only other unfriendly looking passenger by asking him to facilitate a photoshoot.

2. Make sure the unfriendly looking passenger actually turns out to be a dive instructor at the islands one resort and waives you in as “students,” saving you the 100 baht island entrance fee.

3. Rent snorkels and elbow the Japanese tourists out of the way to get in first. Last no more than ten minutes before your realize there are bigger and better things out there for you, such as…

4. Laying on the narrow strip of sand like beached whales.

5. Become restless and tempted by the section of the island labeled “restricted.” Decide this does not apply to you and clamor around the rickety pathways until hunger take over.

6. Take one  look at the island’s only restaurant’s overpriced menu and decide on ice cream for lunch. Pretend this is for monetary reasons.

7.  Drag your sun burnt and tired body up to the island’s viewpoint. Its worth it.