Thailand travelogue!

30,000 kilometers later…

Victoria Harbour at night

Hong Kong, talk about a culture shock after rural Thailand 24 hours before. Between the plane running a bit late, customs taking a while and having to take the train to Hong Kong island (thankfully a painless airport express) it was just after eleven before I found my hotel. I’d had some sort of brainfart while booking and spent a lot more than I’d planned but the hotel was certainly nice if VERY compact due to real estate prices. It was a 32 storey (minus the “4” floors Chinese folks find so terrifying so more like 27ish with some other mysterious missing floors) building with a footprint not much bigger than my parents’ back yard. In that small space there were 5 hotel rooms and 2 tiny elevator shafts per floor. Despite the compactness my room was really well laid out and didn’t feel suffocating and somewhat gloriously I’d ended up on the top floor facing the harbour.

Since I hadn’t eaten anything in forever I grabbed a quick shower and went in search of food but sadly the neighbourhood I’d ended up in didn’t have much to offer at almost midnight on a Wednesday night. The desk clerk admitted I might have to resort to McDonalds. In the end I got a coke from a 7-11 and found a Dim Sum place about to close up but with a couple steamed pork buns still hot.

The next morning I got up reasonably early wanting to make the most of my day but still spen a few minutes enjoying my the view out my window (after opening my power blind from bedside control!) seeing the ferries scurry about and watching a small group do tai chi on the public park 30 stories below. Somewhat hilariously my shower sprayed with such a powerful fine mist that there was a warning posted to only use it with the air fan on full and both the bathroom and shower door closed lest it set off the sensitive smoke alarm and force evacuation of the hotel. As I had no desire to walk down all those stairs in my undies I obeyed.

One of my cousins and his family live in Hong Kong so I’d asked them for advice on how to spend a quick stay sightseeing (though they’d fled before I arrived in terror so we didn’t get to meet for a meal.) I started off exploring the neighbourhood round my hotel as I slowly made my way to ‘Central’ but as it was apparently a holiday more than a few things were closed. Central however was a lot more lively and I really enjoyed finding the bits of colonial architecture still standing in the midst of the more modern towers.

Their suggestion (and pretty much everyone else’s too) was to check out Victoria peak so I braved the holiday crowds and hopped on the Victoria Peak tram which has been running since the 1880s. It’s an occasionally wildly steep ride and the views are fantastic. I have to admit that the crazy long queue was exceptionally well managed for most of its length. I started on the other side of the street in a long (b/c holiday I’m guessing) queue for tickets. After making my way through that lineup (probably 30m) there was a gap to the other side of the street where the expensive tour people got to mostly skip it. At that point some of the marshals handed out plastic cards with which you could rejoin the queue on the other side. Sure enough some tiny old woman pretending? to be yakking on her cell phone (and her adult daughter) tried to squeeze in with my group in the rush but as they didn’t have the card (and a bunch of us pointed her out) she got the boot.

On the other side things were much more poorly managed but I eventually got on a tram through an area lined with historical displays which would have been quite interesting had I been able to browse them and not just get to read whichever one I was penned in next to each time the crowd crush for each tram moved forward. It was like waiting to get into an exam in University Center in an exam with lots of international students, the same elbows first mentality. Once at the top I did a 3km-ish circuit of one of the walking paths and enjoyed the sights. Not only do you get a fantastic view of the harbour and nearby islands in all directions, you’re looking down on the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island as well and it gives you quite the perspective on just how much city is crammed into such a tiny area.

Looking across to Kowloon from the peak

Once I’d gotten down from the peak I took a walk through nearby Hong Kong park which was quite pretty and which features and free to tour aviary filled with various birds. There are also a number of busy public areas and a large pond filled with fish and turtles.

Aviary

Turtle Friend

By this point my legs were aching a bit as Hong Kong is quite the hilly/stair-filled place and even all my thailand power walking hadn’t prepped me for much up and down. Frustratingly my timing wasn’t great and my planned lunch stop fell through as they had closed for the afternoon, walking away from that place I randomly stumbled into another shop from an article on the “best xiao long bao in Hong Kong” and gave in to my craving for dumplings.

Xiao Long Bao are soup dumplings. Thin shelled steamed pork dumplings that when cooked properly have a mouthful of soupyness ready to squirt out all over the unwary eater’s shirt. They are phenomenal when done well and these were definitely good along with a bowl of spicy noodles. Happy and recharged I walked the rest of the way to the dock for the famous Star Ferry to hop across the harbour and experience a bit of Kowloon (the peninsula across from HK island.) Along the way I ran into a bunch of groups of young women clustered on the walkways, at one point there was a giant swarm of them practicing what can only be describe as catwalk model/strip club prancing or music video dancing in tottering heels to loud stereos blasting Bruno Mars and Beyonce. It was rather bizarre as one a) tried to avoid them and b) tried to avoid laughing as the occasional young woman trying very hard to be sexy instead fell over and was ridiculed by the others as they all giggled. 

Soup dumpings, amazing

If nothing else the trip was worth it for the view. Though you can take the subway across the water these days the ferry gives a pretty great panorama of all the tall buildings crowding Victoria Harbour, the mountains in the distance and the seemingly unending parade of boat traffic all around.

Wandering around Kowloon itself was definitely another side of the Hong Kong seen in movies and tv. Kowloon’s population density is something around 40,000 people per square kilometer and it really shows. Lots of narrow alleys packed with with shops and restaurants and people. In various places street markets fill almost every inch of available space and shopping appears to be where it’s at almost everywhere. Honestly if I wasn’t already running a pretty damned full bag I’d have been taking part more myself, maybe next trip. In the end I only bought a couple teeny things including a new luggage tag for my bag as mine had disappeared in a bus cargo hold somewhere in Thailand.

Kowloon Streets

Night was starting to fall when I finally gave in to my aching feet and hopped the subway back to the harbour, though I sadly found out the subway station was not particularly close to said harbour. Still, the ferry ride was worth it again, this time with the view being a closeup of the sparkling light displays on the various buildings that I’d seen from a distance (and up high) the night before in my room.

I grabbed a leisurely and delicious dinner once back on the Hong Kong side, planning my cheque to leave me with more or less just enough to hop on the airport train/buy a bottle of water for my flight. I don’t know if it’s a Hong Kong thing but as I waited (a while) for my food to come the hostess stopped by my table with a small bowl full of seasoned peanuts and seaweed bits. I had a few but they honestly were a bit too salty and bitter for me to enjoy too much so I put them aside after a couple pinches. Imagine my surprise when the bill comes and they’re the equivalent of like $5CAD, there went my grand financial plan. I asked the hostess wtf and she said “but you ate them.” What’s worse is they were taken away while I was asking what was up with the extra charge on the bill so I couldn’t even finish them out of spite. The meal was otherwise fantastic, I was just really hoping to not have to take out any extra money before heading back as I knew I’d probably get double dinged on the exchange charges.

When I got back to the hotel it wasn’t super late but to be safe I wanted to leave for the airport around 6am (wise choice) and my (notoriously terrible) feet were aching. I wasn’t surprised when via some quick online calcs I figured out I’d walked about 15 hilly km that day. Sadly the trip was definitely at a close now, the only thing left was the annoying part and as I fell asleep watching the Champions League replays in Cantonese I tried not to worry about the long flight to come.

I definitely didn’t get to see as much of Hong Kong as I would have liked but I saw enough to whet my appetite to return and I suppose that’s all you can ask for with a one and a bit day visit.

Getting back to the airport was just as painless as my arrival with a quick subway ride leading to the airport train. Unfortunately for me I’d booked to go through Toronto as any vancouver flight around this date had had a premium on it of at least $400 iirc.) The result being of course that the flight time I’d saved from the BKK->HK flight was now just being spent crossing a section of Canada I’d just to have to cover again in reverse. This time however I’d booked a window seat, something I’d never do on a domestic flight due to space issues but knowing it would be relatively painless on the wide body airbus and at least give me a wall to lean against and sleep if I got another captain elbows.

Thankfully that didn’t happen but instead ended up with a flight full of people connecting from India, seemingly half of whom had either checked in last minute or perhaps missed/been bumped from another flight and were thus desperately trying to swap seats with people once on board to sit together. I had to very apologetically tell a girl that no I wasn’t going to swap so she could sit with her sister as it would have led to me sitting in the middle of a three seat cluster and there was no way I was doing a 15.5 hour flight in that position. Perhaps as karmic balance (though I think I made the right choice for everyone’s comfort involved) my entertainment system audio broke 3 hours into the flight… but at least I managed to snatch a few hours of sleep.

The map was working eventually though, so I got to unhappily watch the plane pass over Flin Flon then down midway across lake Winnipeg as it dodged some weather and couldn’t help but wish for some minor issue that would require stopping at Winnipeg and unloading for the night. Instead we went on to the nightmare that is Pearson international and what I supposed would be a fairly leisurely 2 hour layover turned into a near sprint for the gate.

Now, let me start off by saying I understand that Toronto is my port of entry into Canada and I need to clear customs, but Pearson is absolutely the worst place I’ve found to do that in all of Canada if you’re then shipping onward to somewhere else. First up was immigration which has a long lineup in one of the cattle tunnels down to the main section and absolutely no one telling you that that’s only one smaller area for pre checks to relieve the main area. Another passenger actually told me we could bypass it. Once at the main area we got in a line that though it moved fairly smoothly had every other passenger in it (Canada being literally the only country I’ve been to on my wider international journeys that doesn’t always have a “Local Citizens Only” speed line.) They had odd new robo passport checkers that moved up and down to shoot the camera at your face. All in all that part wasn’t great but could have been worse, still ate up about 30m of my layover in speed walking/line up time.

Next up was baggage claim where I had to claim my big bag, theoretically have customs look at it but in reality walk right by, then give it back to Air Canada. The baggage claim hall appears to have been unrenovated since the 80s, is dank and smelly and full of often unintelligible baggage claim announcements. It is not an exaggeration to say that the english baggage announcements were better in Bangkok and HK. Literally every flight that arrived in the thirty minutes I waited there had its carousel changed, often multiple times. Our flight had one carousel announced, the notice showed up on the tv screen on another carousel, then the announcements said a third one, followed by swapping back to the first. The tv screen had not changed by the time I got my bag. The bags themselves came in one batch of five, then a full fifteen minute wait before we saw another bag during which everyone on a connection was progressively getting closer and closer to climbing in the back.

Bag finally retrieved I walked by my customs “inspection” and brought my bag into a tiny room where a helpful West Jet person asked me if I was on their airline. I said no (sadly) and she directed me to the conveyor belt on my left where I walked right past two people playing on their phones and chatting, briefly making eye contact. Said woman made no comment at all as I placed my bag on the conveyor until it reached the end when she hit a loud “STOP THE LINE” alarm and started yelling at me “ARE YOU ON AIR CANADA” to which I replied yes and proceeded to get a lecture about having to show my baggage claim tag blah blah blah. I bit my tongue as I needed to change terminals and get the hell out of there but man… you knew damned well I was. Once my bag disappeared she with zero grace agreed with me that the particular unmarked door I needed was the one behind me and went back to her candy crush. It’s also worth noting that on West Jet you often don’t even need to do this process, though they have other problems at Pearson usually being stuck at extreme far gates with no functional slipways.

The worst part of the pearson experience in this is that unlike many other airports they don’t have a way for you to stay behind security as you change terminals, nor a particularly expedited way for you to get back through when you’re on a connection. So it was on the train, over to the departures area, through to back area, arrive at a tiny security desk with only two lanes open (despite at least 5 large international flights arriving in the previous hour) and a huge lineup of people and ~25m until my flight began boarding for Winnipeg. In the end I made it thanks to a group of Regina HS students returning from Europe knowing their flight had been delayed and letting me jump ahead of the fifteen of them (thanks fellow prairie folks, I promise not to bash Regina for a whole month.)

The scary part of the this was? I got the good experience! The young woman named Jenna I was sitting next to on the flight (middle seat, thanks for respecting my “seat preference” when you wouldn’t let me check in from China Air Canada) had been on the same HK flight returning from Indonesia. Roughly 10 different airline employees had told her different things about whether her bag was checked through or not and then a “rude employee just after customs” (boy I wonder who that was) had refused to help her get back or even contact anyone for help when she informed her that she needed her bag. All she said was you’ll have to go talk to your airline for an escort (good luck finding someone from Cathay an hour after their last flight for the day has arrived.) In the end she was left with no idea where her bag was or if she’d ever see it again but absolutely needed to be on the flight back to Winnipeg and was sobbing as she got seated. That sort of crap isn’t fun at the best of times but she was on an even longer day than me having had a 5 hour flight from somewhere in indonesia followed by a 5 hour layover in HKIA. We chatted for a while until she finally accepted that there was nothing she could do now and tried to sleep while I caught the end of the movie I’d been watching on the first flight when my tv broke.

A few hours later the snowy familiar sights of home were outside the window and I came down the arrivals escalator to see my mother blankly staring past me and not recognizing me as I went over to the baggage claim (hoping my own bag had made it.) Eventually my Dad showed up as well and he at least recognized his son ;p just before my slightly filthy backpack emerged. Some hugs and a warm coat later we headed out to the car to meet up with a dog that seemed to have missed me given she climed out the back into my arms, went and grabbed a delicious pizza then came home for a chat followed by one heck of a long sleep.

Distance:
All together I travelled countless kilometers by foot and bicycle, ~2000km by bus/minibus, ~1500km by various forms of train and another 250km by ferry on this trip. Add on 12,722km between YWG and Bangkok each wayplus a detour to Toronto (and the noticeable and appreciated detour the intercontinental flights took around North Korean airspace) and that’s the better part of 30,000km. Something tells me the big red backpack still has a few more trips in her though… but will it be back to Thailand next?

 

Some trip details for those who asked.

Finances:
I know there’s been a bit of a running theme in this blog about me cheaping out on things. Honestly there are a few parts of solo travel that are amazing and there are a few parts that suck. The cost of things is one of the latter. This was an exceptionally cheap trip overall but there are still instances where you really wish you had someone to share the cost.

Accommodations:
If you discard Hong Kong as an outlier my most expensive hotel of the whole trip was I believe $55ish Canadian the average was probably 30-35 and that was with me always having a private room and almost always springing for the extra baht for air con. Even my time share apartment generously obtained from my dad was I think only around 80 or 90 a night if booking privately, though you were then charged utilities. I generally stayed at guest houses or bungalows with good ratings on trip advisor or booking.com or that were recommended by people I met and other than the one place in Lanta was never really disappointed. Overall they ranged from fine but spartan to amazingly luxurious and with one exception had ensuite bathrooms.

I’d say were I travelling with a partner or a friend sharing twin beds I probably would have bumped this up by $10 a night in certain places but it definitely wasn’t necessary and I certainly never felt and urge or need to seek out one of the big us or euro chains for a luxury night (especially as in Thailand these hotels are often very remote from the fun stuff.) That said if you’re willing to do dorm stays (even if you want to stay to smaller four bed dorms) many places in Thailand have some very fun looking hostels. After having felt a bit old on the last trip five years ago and valuing sleep a bit more this time around (and given Thailand’s ridiculously low prices) I decided to stick to private rooms.

Eating/Drinking:
My most expensive splurgy meal including a beer was around $18, my average meal was definitely under $5. I often spent as much in a day on bottled water as I did on food. The downside of travelling solo here is that there are times you really want to try more things on a menu and you’d love to just do some family style dining. Occasionally I’d splurge on a bigger meal but as I only had a kitchenette the only place leftovers usually weren’t useful. If there was someplace I knew I wanted to try and eat a bunch I’d often skip lunch or just have something tiny and just chow down for dinner.

Booze wise local beer is cheap, terrible Thai whiskey/rotgut is cheapish, most other things are expensive by comparison. A lot of places you’d pay near the low end of Canada prices for a mixed drink/cocktail, again not terrible in the grand scheme of things but probably 2-3x what you spent on dinner. Given the heat I often just had a cold Thai beer or have a mango smoothie or the like.

Transport:
Here is often where I skimped even though relatively speaking it wasn’t expensive. Had I had a bit less time I likely would have flown around a bit more as you can hop domestic air for often under $100 between some destinations. Were I doing the same itinerary again I likely would have flown to Phuket from BKK and perhaps back from Samui after Koh Tao. As it was I definitely wanted the experience of the train journeys though I’d only really recommend the night train to Chiang Mai of the ones I took, the other is probably better done at least partially by day.

Buses:

Whenever possible I’d say do your research and always spend the extra money on the higher end buses and particularly on the good brands/government ones where applicable. Always buy your ticket at the bus station as the touts are generally more money.

Taxis,Tuk Tuks and Red Trucks:
These vary so incredibly widely by city that one can’t really give blanket advice. Tuktuks are cute but terrible in Bangkok as they charge you massive amounts that aren’t worth it unless you’re a group of 4 and the roofs are so short that anyone tall-ish can’t see out anyway. Add on the smog/scooter exhaust and it’s not super pleasant anyway, even before you factor in the fact that they’re usually trying to take you to some business from which they’ll get a commission. Taxis are cheap in Bangkok and should always be on meter, just use them, you’ll get a chance to tuk tuk elsewhere in Thailand for the experience. Taxis etc are also the one “tourism” industry in Thailand that often doesn’t have a lot of english spoken so if possible have the address of your hotel in Thai or at least know how to clearly pronounce it properly in Thai.

Taxi wise in general in thailand they’ll often try to bilk you for big money if you’re just getting off a bus/train, carrying a backpack and if you’re solo (also no doubt worse if you’re female.) It’s usually better to take a short walk away from the hotel/station/tourist attraction and flag down a cab on the move rather than take one of those just sitting there waiting for someone to scam as honest cabbies in Thailand make their living through volume and will be on the move.

Where possible in smaller towns it’s often worth trying to use the Rot-dam/Sorng-Taa-Ew local system (the pickup truck pseudo buses/charterable buses) as they’re often under a buck to go really long distances or get to less touristy areas (say if you want to go to a mall to stock up on sunscreen and other sundries at non tourist prices.) As chronicled in the blog there are a few places where you’re just at the mercy of what they feel like charging you.

Excursions:

Lots of excursions offer deals if you book more than one person, sadly not helpful when you’re solo. Shop around though, some places offer better deals online, some hotels have discounts (though some of the in hotel places also gouge you for a commission or in some northern towns even require you to book at least one tour through them to be able to stay the night) it’s definitely worth comparing yourself and knowing at least the ballpark of what the cost should be.

 

What to bring:
Don’t bring backups of anything really, it’s pretty rare to go too long without seeing some kind of shop that will sell backups of anything really critical. Clothing wise I’d definitely skew towards more shirts/less other things. The heat will often have you returning from a day’s activities and wanting to throw on a fresh shirt before going out to dinner. I had a couple items in my bag that never got worn though at least I learned my lesson from last time and didn’t have jeans weighing down my bag. Pretty much everywhere in Thailand has laundry services done by the Kilo so try to bring stuff that is friendly to wash together and you’ll be set. Touristy shirts are available pretty much everywhere if you get stuck for around $5-10 if you get really stuck.

Unless you’re really planning to go to a super high end place in Bangkok it’s probably not worth bringing anything super fancy clothes wise, I went with one collared shirt and my khakis for that. Really the only thing worth worrying about clothes wise is the occasional restriction at temples, particularly for women about covering skin. Usually they will have things you can rent but wearing pants at some temples may be required and midriff baring tops aren’t acceptable. I saw many women at the temples in bangkok just using one of the gorgeous silk scarves you can buy many places in town as a shoulder covering and that seemed to be acceptable though a lightweight rain jacket stowed in the purse/backpack was a frequent choice as well.

It’s worth having one sweater (ideally a light weight zip up imo) with you either for temples or for your time on the frequently meat locker set AC temps on public transport.

I travelled with my stupidly expensive sandles because of my frequently mentioned terrible feet but for those who can function in flip flops you can buy them pretty much everywhere there cheaply and can be ignored if space is tight. Absolutely bring a well broken in but still supportive pair of shoes, consider throwing in some gel insoles as you’ll be walking a bunch. According to people I talked to replacing a pair of sneakers if you have big western feet can be a difficult prospect outside Bangkok.

Other things to buy and bring with you:
-Sunscreen/bug spray are both necessities (I avoided Dengue hurray!) and are significantly more expensive in Thailand for western brands. I forgot my sunscreen and had to drop $20 on some coppertone then had to buy a further slightly cheaper bottle in week 3 thanks to the volume I was going through.

-first aid/advil other small things. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of small tourist pharmacies or 7-11 for these things, definitely worth having a small first aid kit with you. Mine’s about the size of a deck of cards and served me well having bandages/gauze, some antibiotic ointment and immodium/advil/decongestent. I also brought a tensor bandage given my explosion prone ankles but thankfully never needed it.

-If you’re going to snorkel or dive a lot and don’t have your own mask either resign yourself to renting or buy one at home. Masks of any quality had a significant mark up most places I looked. Was definitely worth the bag space to me, ymmv.

Cell Phone:

Bring an unlocked smartphone with you (all Canadian carriers are now required to unlock your phone) if your brand new smartphone is too pricey for you to want to risk it go pick up a cheap last gen pay as you go phone somewhere, you can usually find something on sale for under $150. Once you’re in thailand cheap tourist SIMs are everywhere and there are counters in the airport where you literally just give them the phone and they’ll set it up right in front of you and hand it back (keep your original sim safe if it’s your prime phone and you want to be able to slot it back in after.) LTE coverage is astonishingly good most places in Thailand (even mid ferry ride shockingly) and I got coverage for my full month for about $25cad. Being able to use GPS or look up a hotel booking while on a ferry was a lifesaver at times though I wish I’d brought a phone with a better battery.

I think that’s about it for off the top of my head, mostly just putting things in here I’ve talked to people thinking of travelling to Thailand about since returning.

Thanks everyone who read along for the trip, I wasn’t originally going to do a travel blog this time but there was definitely enough people asking that I guess more people read it than I imagined last time. I know things were a bit more matter of fact this time but that was down to fewer hours on a greyhound and my laptop battery only lasting about 40m without power so not often being able to write in a bus or train station and instead just taking longhand notes. As for the trip itself feel free to reach out if you have questions either in general or because you’re planning to visit this gorgeous and delicious country.

Cheers, and see you next time?

The Death Railway and the Canadian Fish Buffet

 
I’d decided to finish off my Thailand trip with a visit to the Kanchanaburi area. The region is probably best known to westerners as where the death railway made famous (though not particularly accurately) in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Starting from Sukhothai it was a brutal bus ride, especially since I was trying to immediately hop from Bangkok out to Kanchanburi. What was supposedly a first class (though not “VIP”) bus was very much not. We zig zagged a bunch in the first two hours out of Sukhothai picking up all kinds of random folks until the bus was full. What was frustrating about it was that often these pickup points were within a 10 minute walk of the bus station we’d subsequently visit (or had just stopped at) but what with the u-turns and traffic it involved for the bus it was adding 15 minutes to our trip. It makes one wonder why they even have the stations. As a result by the time I’d been told we’d be at the Bangkok station we were already 2 hours behind and then were delayed a further hour by an absolute typhoon type rain and some sunday night traffic. When I finally did get into town it was to find there was a traffic jam around the Bangkok northern bus station so the final approach took forever then getting a cab to the other bus station took even longer. By the time I was on my way out of Bangkok again it was after dark on probably the rattiest bus of the trip.

Arriving into Kanchanburi fairly late I had a fairly good idea of where my guesthouse was and started making the walk. My guidebook and one of the websites I’d read had warned that feral dogs were a bit of a problem and sure enough there were more than a few as I made my way through the town and especially down the back lane that led to the place. In truth though the most aggressive dog I ran into was a noisy brat barking at me through a gate as I passed his house.

I checked in quickly then ran off to get some food as I hadn’t had time for a meal in Bangkok and was more or less running on a bag of lay’s I’d snagged on the bus trip. Kanchanaburi is very stretched out along the river and isn’t very convenient for walking. Even the more tourist centric area is a 4km stretch between the highway and the famous bridge.

I decided to head to the other big draw of the area a gorgeous waterfall/hiking area called Erawan National Park. It’s a series of tiered waterfalls/associated trails where you can swim at the various levels. Thank goodness too as it was a ridiculously hot day again with the humidex spiking it to something like “feels like 45C.” I followed some advice I’d seen to take the first bus out there and to climb higher early and make your way back down. The trail was reasonably well groomed and was a mix of steep stairways and gentler bits. The local parks service did a pretty great job keeping things clean as well with food/drink banned above the second level and with a deposit required to bring a water bottle with you (they drew a number on your bottle and to get your cash back you had to show it again.) It certainly worked as I saw basically zero garbage.

Each level was a different kind of gorgeous and I eventually found a pool at tier five that I couldn’t resist. I’d forgotten completely about being warned that these waters were also home to something else. I’m sure most of you have heard of the thai foot spas that involve you placing your feet into an aquarium filled with fish that nibble and exfoliate you as they nibble bits of dead skin off you. Well this is their natural habitat and I nearly fell over startled as the first one nibbled me.

This is before I got in and they were all over me at this density, so weird

I sat there for a while letting them nibble my feet but eventually the heat made the cool water too inviting and I hopped in to the deeper water. The water was crystal clear and you could clearly see the nibbly fried swarming on their pale Canadian fish buffet. There were some bigger fish swimming about as well, all clearly used to human intruders as they came very close. The falls themselves were not tall as they dropped down about 18 inches at each step in the tier I was in but still felt nice on my tired shoulders. I ended up hanging around in that pool almost an hour as I had it to myself. Occasionally the nibbles on my arms/legs would get to be a bit too much so I’d go for a more active swim, but they’d always eventually come back.

Level 5

As I started back down it was definitely much more busy. A chinese tour bus or two had obviously shown up and they were hilariously all wearing bright orange lifejackets as they climbed the trails (there were plenty of pools you could safely wade in if you were unable to swim, particularly at the bottom tiers.) I stopped at tier four where there was a natural waterslide down a rock and went down it a couple times. The water here was a particularly gorgeous shade of blue and there was more of a crowd hanging around. In the end it was thunder that made me start heading down for real. After the rainstorm I’d seen the day before I had zero desire to be stuck waiting for the last bus of the day with a large number of drowned rats hoping there was space.

The rock slide: This guy took so damned long to finally slide

Correct decision… about 45 minutes later mid bus ride back a rain so intense that it came in through closed windows hit the bus. We all tried to focus on being glad we were in the rain and less on the fact that the bus had no wipers and the driver was occasionally clearing off his view with a t-shirt. Oddly enough I ran into one of the couples from my Chiang Mai cooking class on that bus. Happily we got back without incident and there was a brief window in the storm where I got back for a shower and sat writing a blog post while the storm raged again for an hour and a half.

The next morning I got up early and hopped a tuk tuk to the bridge on the railway. To be safe I wanted to be back in Bangkok that night and not at the mercy of a rural bus on whether I made my flight or not. The center two spans of the bridge are post-war (built by the japanese as war reparations apparently) the originals having been destroyed by an allied bombing raid towards the end of the war. The pylons and the end sections are original to the wartime bridge. At one point during the war there was a wooden bridge as well.

The Bridge (real one) on the River Kwai (the two squarer sections are post war replacements for the sections bombed out by the allies)

The railway was built to link Thailand and Japanese-controlled Burma to support the army’s planned invasion of India (which ended up not going very well.) In the process of building the line through ridiculously rough terrain, disease ridden conditions and terrible rations particularly as the japanese war effort lost more and more ground roughly 100,000 people lost their lives. Many were allied POWs brits/aussies/dutch captured during the fall of Hong Kong/Singapore and other colonial outposts and various Allied crew survivors of various ships/lost air crews. Less talked about are the tens of thousands of malays, burmese etc… etc… convinced to come work on the railway through misleading contracts or just flat out kidnapped/pressganged by the empire.

I took a long walk over the bridge and looked out over the fairly placid water that I imagine is much more quickly moving and rather intense come the rainy season when the monsoon rains are filling the mountains. There are other sites visited by some of the tours (such as hellfire pass) but unfortunately my time was running out. The nearby museum is notoriously terrible. It calls itself the world war 2 museum but is apparently a random and small collection of thai history, a tiny ww2 section and a large random collection of objects the owner finds interesting and a collection of paintings of Miss Thailand winners for some reason.

On the other hand there is a pretty great small museum overlooking the main cemetery that shows more about the entire story. Oddly for a British museum while it focuses on the allied troops there is significant discussion of the Asian losses as well. To be fair a part of the lack of info is just an actual lack of info. Most of the Asian grave sites are unknown, the Japanese kept few records of them at all etc… The allied experience is collected from a combination of official japanese records, records kept by the pows approved by the Japanese and records kept secretly by the POWs and hidden, often buried in the graves of prisoners who had succumbed to injuries, famine or disease. After the war the british fairly quickly ripped up a section of the track as they didn’t want various Burmese rebel groups to supply themselves using it. More of it was covered by the floodplain of a dam built later on but the section from Kanchanaburi to the next and last town on the line is still ride-able though sadly not at convenient times of day during my visit.

The cemetery next to the railway museum is immaculately kept by the commonwealth war graves commission staff. The Dutch/Australian/British (and several Canadians) are mostly here or another local cemetery, the smaller amount of American bodies were repatriated.

The main cemetary for the POW dead. Immaculately kept by the local staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

It was in a resulting somber mood that I rode back to Bangkok a couple hours later, checked into the old standby and started packing my bag a bit more thoroughly to head out for Hong Kong the next evening. Interestingly when I grabbed my last dinner later that night I went to the same very good restaurant near the hotel as I’d gone to at the start of the trip and after another good meal the owner said “You were here a month ago yes? At that table?” which I confirmed with a laugh. She asked me how I’d liked thailand, what I’d seen, would I be back…

After thinking about that I couldn’t help but think about some of the things I’m going to miss about Thailand.
-Amazing cheap food
-Incredibly friendly people
-The beautiful varied countryside
-Fresh pineapple and golden mango
-The weather
-Elephants
-Beaches
-Cheap smoothies everywhere
-New places and the freedom to choose where I was going next on the fly

Some things I won’t miss about the trip:
-Horribly aggressive touts
-Being yelled at in Thai loudly either by the above or by massage parlour ladies or various others
-Always being sweaty because I’m not built for +38
-Chinese tour groups (less because of their ubiquity and more because they appear to be filled with people who always talk with volume set at 10, screaming across places that should be dedicated to quiet contemplation)
-The rudeness of the large groups of Russian tourists
-The truly ridiculous number of thai people that clearly suffer from having broken legs badly set as children, it’s really distressing
-Firm guest house beds, things were definitely better overall than last big trip’s mostly hostel experience but still.

Still lost in these thoughts the next morning I ran into yet another thing that confused me. For the umpteenth time this trip there were mothers with small children hanging out in the restaurant. I don’t really get bringing small children in general on a trip like that… I mean from here to mexico or whatever when you’re just chilling on a beach most of the time and want to get away why not, but a trip that takes multiple long flights from almost anywhere and is generally about moving around exploring? I mean to each their own but this pair of moms stuck out because of their particularly young kids, both at most 9 months old I would guess. I mean if nothing else if I was travelling with children that young I’d probably want to do so on a budget where I wasn’t having to stay at my guesthouse. I mean it’s fine for a few nights but not really for dealing with an infant.

As I was puzzling that out I got some breakfast theatre in the form of a British couple who appeared to be the model for the Queen of the Harpies couple from the couples retreat episode of the Simpsons. They got into a barely restrained screaming match at one point over something to do with their backyard and a neighbour and after she eventually him a “Useless festering pile of boring shit” the man took off for about half an hour while she sat there eating pancakes. They got back into it when he returned but it was time for me to begin my journey to the airport via the airport train this time (mostly because it worked out to be a bit cheaper as a solo traveller and I didn’t want to take out more money since it would have been a $6-8 transaction fee to take out the extra $20 for a cab.)

With that it was farewell to Thailand. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that I’ll be back before too much time passes.

Into the ruins

Sawasdee Sukhothai Resort

Sukhothai sounded like an interesting place to visit. It’s an ancient thai capital of which many ruins remain in a park you can cycle through. Add on the fact that it’s conveniently about halfway back from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and I was sold.

The bus trip was mostly eventful from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai, definitely less pretty than the train ride had been but pleasant enough by long distance bus travel standards. Arriving in (old)Sukhothai (New Sukhothai is about 15km and is a modern town) I was dropped off right at the historical park gate and of course I was immediately set on by a tout who tried to get me on a tuk tuk for the equivalent of $15CAD to my hotel all of 2km away. I said hell no of course, but I should probably have sought out another tuk tuk farther away as the next couple hours were just awful.

I’d booked the small resort recommended by the spanish couple from my elephant adventure. Unfortunately for me my travel phone has been acting up and not connecting properly (though it seems better now) so I wasn’t able to GPS my way there. Complicating matters as I walked with my heavily loaded bag was the current temp was somewhere around 38. The local tourism folks have placed maps on signs in various places showing the location of various ruins… however they’ve neglected to place “you are here” markers on them which makes them less than useful. Eventually I reached a corner with a number of signs pointing to hotels but sadly mine wasn’t among them so I kept walking, slowly getting worried that I was going to walk all the way to New Sukhothai. I eventually reached another corner with a hotel sign and knowing my hotel was on this side I decided walk down to see if I could see anything… zip, except for a very nice ruined spire off on its own. BUT, upon returning to the road I was able to find a different kind of sign showing hotels including the one I’d just passed which told me I’d gone way too far for mine.

I asked at a local hostel but unfortunately no one spoke English so I gave in and walked back to the original corner I’d thought seemed like a likely destination. There, on a sign completely invisible from the main road (and only facing the direction I was now coming, nothing towards the bus stop) was a sign with an arrow pointing to my hotel. Unfortunately it also said 750m. By the time I finally reached the check in desk I was an absolute puddle and the check in lady took one look at me and handed me some iced tea. I haaaate iced tea but happily downed this one and a subsequent glass instantly. I’m not going to lie, I was predisposed to hate the place with the mood I was in but it was gorgeous, especially for the price.

I quickly got settled in a sparkling clean bungalow with a porch w/ rocking chair. Showered off and threw on my swimsuit to dive into the gloriously large pool for a resort with only 13 rooms. Between the main pool and the partially seperate cold jacuzzi I think I was in there a solid hour and honestly it was only thunder rolling in that made me get out for a bit of a nap.

Finally feeling refreshed I followed the check in woman’s advice, rented a bike from the resort and rode down to the night market on the fringes of the historical site. Bit of an adventure of course as just like elsewhere in Thailand lane keeping is iffy at best, people see the sidewalk (on the rare occasion there is one) as an excellent place to plonk their car/motorbike/table/garbage etc. Thankfully the hotel’s bikes included a flashy taillight (quite good) and a generator headlamp (always aiming well off to my left but better than nothing.) Sukhothai in general was the least western visited place I think for the whole trip and the night market in particular only had a couple other non-thai tourist faces around. I enjoyed the boisterous stage show for a bit then grabbed some Sukhothai pork noodles (tasty but a bit too sweet for me for a ‘dinner’) as well as some chicken satay and a bowl of soup. All together (and with some fresh squeezed OJ) it cost me a whole $6.

The night food market w/ dancing

Old Sukhothai (and new from what I heard) is definitely not a party spot otherwise. After a quick spin around town to confirm not much was happening I headed back to the hotel to write a blog post and watch a movie. Since I wanted to be up reasonably early to bike around the ruins before the worst of the heat hit that seemed prudent anyway.

For the first time in thailand my hotel included breakfast. It wasn’t anything special (they weren’t big on keeping things that should be hot hot) but it was bizarrely satisfying to be able to make myself a piece of toast, grab a bowl of golden mango and have some little mini pancakes with syrup and just relax in the morning. Of course not for too long as the ruins beckoned…

hotel breakfast area

There’s a small extra charge for bringing a bike into the historical park but it’s definitely worth it as many of them are quite far apart. Somewhat bizarrely they charge seperately for the large central area and the smaller surrounding areas outside the main park. There were definitely more westerners around at this point, particularly the giant russian family that felt the need to constantly walk around stretched out across the entire path. After my third time encountering them I just stopped and made them go around me.

There were also a swarm of students from a Thai university in a business and communications course. I got stopped by them a number of times asking for “interviews” and after it became apparent it would be an ongoing thing I agreed but used a different name and accent every time. I hope they all watch the videos together in class one day and get very confused by my dopplegangers.

I did a full tour of the ruins during the day, then after another swim and some dinner returned again as I happened to be there on a day they lit up everything after dark with a combination of floodlights and flame bowls. Very few people were there for the nighttime visit and everything felt more ancient as a result.

With that it was time to get back to the environs of Bangkok for the flight home though I have one more side trip planned for my last couple days to get my WWII history on.

 

 

Chiang Mai & Heffelumps

A cool grey mist hung over a jungle covered valley as I looked out the window for the first time after dawn broke. I couldn’t help but think “this is more like it” as I watched the scenery roll by. I’d purposely booked the later night train to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north as it didn’t get in til just after noon and I was told I’d get some solid scenery time. That was certainly the truth.

That morning had started lazily at the old home base with a leisurely wakeup, nothing to pack as I hadn’t bothered unpacking and a slow breakfast. Rather than leave the bag at the hotel this time I hopped a cab (after dodging another scammer trying to not use his meter and charge me 5x) to the train station and left my bag in their left luggage. Large signs and verbal warnings reminded you to not have any food in your bag as they made no guarantees a rat wouldn’t knaw its way in… good to know. I didn’t really have anything planned and just did some further bangkok exploration in a direction I hadn’t gone before… sat in a park and read for a while… and gave in to a serious craving I’d had for fries (and a desperate need for some A/C on a muggy +36 day) and went to McDonalds. One giant fries, a ‘samurai pork’ burger and a pinapple pie made for my shame meal and somewhat handily given the train plans they also gave me two random kellogs cereal bars as some sort of promo. I set off for 7/11 to finish stocking up for the train and equipped with a roll of oreos and some juice/water I hopped the metro back to the train station to make sure I wasn’t late.

The train itself was objectively worse that the last one. A site had lied to me and told me I’d be getting the fancy new second class a/c car but in fact it an even older one than last time with only squatty potties. On the plus side I’d booked well ahead and had a lower berth (bigger bed and the window) and the beds were set up when we got aboard due to the 10pm start time. I got comfy, pulled my curtain shut to cocoon myself and watched the city go by until I finally gave in to the heat of the day and let myself nod off, only waking when we stopped and took on the person in berth on top of me and again at one point in the middle of the night where the train staff felt the need to have a 3am shouting match. At that point I dozily remembered the sleep headphones I’d bought for this purpose and it wasn’t until the sky started lightening outside the window that I woke again.

It was an interesting experience and definitely more what I was hoping for from my thai train travels. We rolled through a variety of narrow passes and tunnels, stopped at villages of various sizes and saw our car’s porter put on and take off his uniform so many times (he only wore it at stations where a supervisor might be I’m guessing?) In between lay many a jungle covered valley or rice laden cultivation area. There were definitely a lot of views that looked like establishing long shots in a vietnam war movie and I somehow kept expecting Fortunate Son to start blaring over my headphones.

My upstairs neighbour eventually woke but disappeared off to join her husband farther back where I guess someone had gotten off and left a spare pair of joined seats. Unfortunately she left her crap all over the bunk at the time so it was an hour before the porter tracked her down so he could swap my area back to chairs (much comfier for windowgazing.) One poor sod nearby on an upper bunk had rip van winkle of a frenchman below him who didn’t get out of bed until around 11. I myself kept meaning to go grab something at the restaurant car but never got around to it before we pulled into chiang mai just after 1.

I have a general rule about never hopping in the first cab or listening to the first people to talk to you after getting off a bus or train. In this case though, the travel info desk (clearly a taxi company) was offering free reasonable looking maps, and when I asked for one I was quoted a not terrible price to get to my guest house (though more than I should have paid.) In the end I’m fairly glad I got someone who at least knew where the place was though as the old city in Chiang Mai is definitely a warren of wildly diverging back lanes all of which have a guest house/hotel/hostel in pretty much every building.

The history of the city is an interesting one as it’s served as varying level of capital for Northern Thailand and empires based here, was an important stop on various Chinese trade routes back in the overland days and is also where most of the Teakwood came from before logging it was banned. The resulting mishmash of architecture is really neat. The old city itself is still surrounded by a moat and a few sections of wall as well as four gates. Temples are everywhere, even by Thai standards and are impressive even after seeing so many this trip.

Sri-Pat Guesthouse Lobby

My friend Kym reminded me that part of the benefit of doing this is remembering where you stayed/what you did if you like it (and also so your friends can benefit.) So in that spirit let me talk about the Sri Pat guesthouse in the old city which definitely had the feeling of a structure half converted from a onetime Teak baron’s home. For less than $50CAD I was given a spacious king sized bed room, ensuite bathroom and small balcony. Incredibly friendly staff who managed to get me a 15% discount off my cooking class. Decent location too as while it was in the old city it was also close to the street to walk down to the night markets and some of the restaurants I wanted to try. It also has a small pool in what can be a very very hot place. Heartily recommended if you’re in Chiang Mai, which you should be as it’s an amazing city.

My main concern about coming to Chiang Mai was the heat as well as warnings that the smoke can be awful in March from a combination of wind currents and the mountains/valleys funneling agriculture burning into the city. Thankfully while hazy it was never a thick blanket during my visit. Even better, while definitely hot (36 one day 37 another) it was a bit less humid than the worst I’d seen so felt a bit more bearable. After checking in, grabbing a post-train shower I headed out to explore the old city/find some food… which turned into a bit of a disaster at first. I’d read a couple places that the best place to get the local specialty of Khao Soi (curry over egg noodles and chicken topped with crunchy noodles/pickled radish) was the city’s “halal street.” Unfortunately I missed the part where all those places closed by 5pm and I arrived at 5:30. My backup plan was thankfully open and I devoured a big plate of burmese noodle stew and tomato salad. I ended up at a weird mexican (apparently super popular in Thailand atm?) bar to end the night listening to a pretty talented guitarist.

A friend of my mother’s had recommended the Zabb-e-lee cooking school she’d attended about a month ago and after looking into it I decided to book it as well and ended up in the morning class. Slightly bigger class this time but definitely manageable for the instructor Kis and her assistant. We had a few brits, an american, a german/spanish couple now living in south africa and a few south koreans. I was the last one picked up in my van which promptly did a big elaborate circle through some lanes then stopped at the food market one lane down from my guest house that I’d looked around the night before. As she introduced all the ingredients I tried and failed to not be a know it all but I can’t not answer a question I know the answer to when the instructor is looking at me. After giving folks a chance to look through things on their own for ten minutes we bundled back into the van and headed to the school.

4 curry pastes

The biggest appeal about this school was that you could choose your own menu to make (you should do this one too Kym.) When were at the market Kis made a note of who wanted to do what and bought the appropriate things. I ended up making Khao Soi before I’d actually had it in town and it was phenomenal (all the other dishes were too but that was the star.) Much like the first school everyone had their own wok station and prep board and she gave everyone individual attention. I apparently made the best Tom Kha Gai so yay me :p Because everyone had differing curry desires we actually ended up pounding 4 different pastes which was interesting seeing how similar they really are except for a couple key ingredients. If I was comparing the two schools I’d say the Bangkok one had slightly better instruction in terms of start to finish cooking but both were fantastic and being able to do the Chiang Mai specialty was fantastic.

Khao Soi, oh boy!

I gave in to the lure of the swimming pool, a beer and a book as I digested an awful lot of food for pre-1pm. The pool was nothing special but refreshing and I hopped in and out a couple times while reading. I knew it was time to do some exploring that afternoon though as I had a notion that after the next day’s activity there’d likely be a nap in the offing. So that’s what I did. I wandered the streets of the old city checking out the various temples and pseudo colonial architecture, scouting out some souvenirs and soaking up the vibe of Chiang Mai. I ended up at a shop that sold handmaid paper and local art and picked up a print that I really liked that I hope manages to get home reasonably whole but it’s always a crapshoot.

Via a long circuitous route I ended up down at the various giant night markets by the river. This one is definitely a more tourist focused one that the others I have described this trip with most of the space dedicated to stall after stall of the same souvenir-y stuff, but deep in the back is a giant food court full of great options at ridiculous prices and I ended up getting a giant thing of pad thai (since I hadn’t had it in ages at this point) and a drink for under $2.50. Circling around the stalls I managed to pick up a few things to bring home that I liked the look of and haggled as much as I could stomach. It was a reasonably early night though as I had a date with some pachyderms come morning.

Ethical elephant encounters are thankfully a growing trend in Thailand though there are also a number that purport to be sanctuaries but really aren’t, or at least not in an entirely altruistic fashion. Sadly the one that is supposedly best of all was thoroughly booked even when I looked the week before so I chose another that both my book and the interwebs said was good. I was relieved when we were picked up in a van, though these ubiquitous tourist conveyances aren’t what I’d call super safe, it definitely beat a 1.5 hour trip in a pickup truck bench in traffic fumes. And that was before we did the snaky road up the mountain into the boonies north of the city. Talking with someone back at the hotel later I heard that a few people had been sick on their elephant trip as a result.

Ping

I had chosen to do the full day excursion and was joined by a German woman, a Spanish couple living in London and a young Swede. The day started with a discussion about the background of the elephants (some rescued from circuses, some former logging camp working ones,) the differences between african/asian elephants and a discussion of traditional herbal remedies they use to attempt to keep them healthy. Once we’d done the education session our guide “call me Woody” loaded us up with shoulder bags full of teeny bananas and took us off to meet our new friends.

We first met a mom and her three year old calf as they came back into the compound from a walk in the hills with their handler. The english wasn’t the best but I gathered the handler in this case was one of the traditional hill tribes that had made their livings from working with elephants and who have been very hard hit by the industrialization of the more remote areas. His particular elephant had died of old age but he wanted to keep working with them so he came here. Our new elephant friends knew damned well what was in our shoulder bags though and if we went too long without offering some those powerful trunks were snaking their way into the bags looking to help themselves. Academically you know from watching nature shows just how deft they are with their trunks but it’s still somewhat shocking to see them snaking around with them or getting in a tug of war with them.

Eventually we met the rest of the herd and spread some more bananas around. Their was one very large female, one smaller older female and the younger mom along with the two little ones. We fed them and patted them, made them up some balls of food to hide their medication (the vet was there that morning) and watched a few of them play in the watering hole before we went for our own lunch. Lunch was extra interesting getting to talk a bit more with my fellow visitors. I am always in awe of what amazing english swedes speak and Ariel was no exception, in fact everyone else there assumed she was a yank. We all talked about where we’d been and where we were going. She’d been gone four months but like me was winding down towards the end of her trip. The spanish couple were in their first week of three but weren’t sure where they were going next other than diving at some point so I tossed some recommendations their way and in return they recommended the lovely resort I’m currently writing this in at my next stop Sukhothai. Lunch itself was appropriately enough deep fried bananas along with fried rice and an odd apple salad. We were all a little confused why they’d asked if we were vegetarian given there was no meat.

Phase two of elephant party was the slightly more worrying part as we followed our guide down to the elephant mud bath. They gave us some other tops to throw on which was appreciated though I’m pretty sure basketball mesh sleeveless is a look in my top 3 should not wears. While ostensibly we were coating the elephants with mud the various handlers delighted in throwing mud at us as well. Here’s hoping there wasn’t anything too energetic bacteria wise in there as I ended up pretty covered. I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t our twenty year old cute swede (Emily) though as the handlers had obviously taken a shine to her and were absolutely plastering her with mud and at one point even energetically threw her into the deep end. Absolute favourite moment was the three year old struggling to pick up the hose pipe with her trunk, finally succeeding and looking absolutely joyful as she poured water into her mouth with it until mom took it away. Eventually everyone got tired and the elephants were climbing out to go rub themselves in the sand, then on to the watering hole to wash up (both people and elephants.)

We were all very thankful they had proper showers to at least get the first layer off though I knew my very first act upon getting back to the guest house was going to be harnessing that water pressure to scour everything off completely and finally feel like all the grit was out of my hair. Emily was apparently in a hostel with terrible showers and was resigned to staying in there for 2 hours once back. Once everyone was dressed we said our goodbyes to our new friends both human and pachyderm and hopped back in the minivan along with some extra guests that were finishing up their overnight stay program. Everyone in the back of the minivan was out by the time we’d gotten down the first hill and I only stirred when the last hard turn onto the highway banged my head against the window.

I’m thankful I went and it was an amazing experience to meet those wonderful animals. There is definitely a sense at this place that they are treated well though they could definitely use more space to expand. Talking with the overnight folks we got a decent picture that while they are penned in a smaller area at night (for their safety lest they get out of protected area) they stay in whatever family groups they are comfortable with. While it’s not perfect it’s a better life for these former work elephants (and their handlers) than begging on the streets or being forced to cart logs or tourists through the hills.

The shower was glorious (and long) but I had one more souvenir I wanted to buy and another bowl of Khao Soi to acquire so I took one last trip out into the streets of Chiang Mai that evening. I’d taken a look online and though I’d again missed the daytime only places there was one reasonably close by curry shop that ranked in the top 3 of a few different “best khao soi in CM” lists. It was indeed a tasty place and popular with the locals, it wasn’t until I mentioned it later while having a beer with a brit that spent his winters here that I found out apparently Bourdain had visited it on one of his shows.

Sadly that marked the end of my time in Chiang Mai as I have a couple more things I want to fit in and I’m down to my last few days over here. I would definitely dedicate more time to the city next time as despite being a biggish city it felt very down to earth and friendly. That and there are so many other sights around town and day trips that I’d like to see.

 

Lanta-Ko Tau: In which our protagonist dives again…

koh tao – Chalok Baan Kao I believe, my resort somewhere up behind the hill in the middle.

In turning north after Lanta I still wanted to dive again before heading to Chang Mai and Koh Tau in the Gulf of Thailand has a rep as a very good diving area. Multiple friends had been there previously and pronounced the diving both good and cheap so after ferrying back to Krabi I snagged a combined bus/ferry trip over to the island. This was probably the most pleasant bus trip thus far with a cushy bus and a driver that drove quickly but not like an extra in Death Race. The ferry was quite busy but reasonably comfortable legroom wise though far from fast.

The three big gulf islands served by these boats are the large Ko Samui that has resorts from the mega-5star to humble hostels, Ko Phangan which is the center of ‘full moon party’ madness and Ko Tau which is one of the top dive cert centers in the world. On my trip we got to and left Samui without much issue but as we arrived at Phangan the pier was just a solid line of people waiting to get on the boat and onward to Tau or on to Chumphon on the east coast of the peninsula (all the boats seem to go back and forth between Chumphon and Surat Thani. I managed to keep an aisle seat for legroom but the boat was otherwise pretty packed.

Arriving in Ko Tau itself is a bit of a madhouse as there isn’t much of a proper pier area once you get off the boat. I’d only booked my guesthouse on the boat over so I didn’t have much hope of a pickup but after a long walk I managed to find it and sink into a chair. I wasn’t super impressed by the hotel though it was at least clean and air conditioned (registration was at another hotel up the road and there was zero mention of this on my reservation or even on a sign at the location, I was just lucky that a staff member saw me wandering around on their CCTV and took pity on me.) Still, after a glorious shower and a bottle of water I was ready to explore a little and headed out to see what I could see before sunset.

Sairee Beach looking north… Koh Tao is absolutely gorgeous

As with the other islands Koh Tau (Turtle Island) is a collection of beaches separated by lush rolling jungle hills. I was at the top of one of the southern hills and randomly chose to head down into the southern bay. Where most other places in Thailand you’re looking at a massage shop every 3rd business here it’s dive shops. Just on the ten minute walk down to the water I counted at least 12 different dive businesses. It turns out a few of these were smaller outposts of the main ones in the larger town called Sairee beach where most of them depart from but it was still a ludicrous number. In the end I sat down at a gorgeous beachfront restaurant/guesthouse and ordered a matsuman curry/beer and enjoyed the red rays of the sunset flickering over the bay. The curry was probably my fave matsuman of the trip so far, super tamarind-y with tons of flavour.

Sairee Cottage pool with a dive class in progress

I’d emailed a company with a good rep about catching their weekly trip out to a sea mount with a chance of whale sharks but as it was kind of late I ended up going to bed not tons later without getting a response (not that I really expected one given the hours.) The next morning when I woke and checked my email I was told to come down and sign up at their headquarters because there were still a few spots left. This unfortunately gave me yet another sign that I should have sprung for a hotel in Sairee Beach but I loaded up and hiked up and over the hill again, past the ferry town and into the long stretch of beach town that was Sairee.

Turns out one in three shops in my closer beach was child’s play… Sairee is more or less 90% dive shop or dive shop/resort catering to dive shop’s client, at least on the beach side. Up on the main road there’s a fairly impressive array of restaurants catering to a variety of crowds. Most common were the backpacker haunts more focused on beer and cheap pizza than anything but there was a surprisingly great japanese joint and a chinese duck noodle house that was apparently great but seemed to be closed any time I was in the neighbourhood and hungry. On this visit I registered for the (expensive) long trip out to Sail Rock and then went for a swim on one of the small sections of swimming protected shore (lots of the beach being used for the long tail’s the dive companies use to transfer out to their bigger boats.) Somewhat to my disgust I would have to be there for the trip at about 5:45 and they didn’t offer me an at hotel pickup so when I finally did go back I was timing the walk to see when I would have to leave if I couldn’t order a taxi for that time though the thought of walking that more or less zero sidewalk road in the dark was somewhat terrifying. In the end the ladies at my front desk told me they could get me a taxi for 5:15 to be safe and that it would be the equivalent of $8, that seemed steep but I wasn’t really in a position to argue and was mostly thankful to be getting there easily. That settled I decided to grab a shower before dinner and emerged to hear thunder rolling… looking outside there was one hell of a tropical downburst underway and I was thankful it hadn’t hit 30 minutes earlier with me climbing the pass and forced to dodge amateur motorcyclists. Unfortunately it meant I was very hungry without much recourse as I didn’t really want to break out my raincoat given I didn’t think it would last too long. In the end it didn’t, but it was a hungry Tristan who set out 2 hours later.

Courtyard rapidly flooding (note one of the other rooms gets a patio mosquito net that i didn’t 🙁 )

One side benefit of walking that road repeatedly is that I noticed that the pizza joint a literally 1m walk from my front door always seemed to be busy with both locals and tourist types of various ilks. Checking it out a bit later I noticed 3 pies for sale by the slice all of which looked delicious (decent crust, actual pizza topping looking toppings) and visible in behind were a couple legit looking pizza ovens and an italian dude (presumably the Lorenzo of “Pizza di Lorenzo) getting some dough ready. I put aside ‘never pizza in asia’ and tried a giant slice of the spicy salami pizza. Wonder of wonders… crispy crust, spicy salami, rich flavourful sauce and just the right amount of decent mozzarella. A pretty perfect dinner for the night before diving.

Next morning came pretty damned early and wasn’t helped by the taxi driver showing up 15 minutes early as I was trying to get my contacts into very tired eyes. He seemed to think I was checking out as he kept asking for my key. Not sure how he though I was leaving the island in a swimsuit and a small wetbag with my dive mask, sunscreen and a water bottle but no matter. He still got me there by 10 after 5 so it was another half hour of sitting by the water having the security guard shine his flashlight in my eyes every few minutes until the staff started rolling in. Once things started rolling we were geared up and ready to go pretty quick, though again they were surprised that I wasn’t going to use a wetsuit in 30C water.

Heading to sail rock, still fairly protected

Diving out of the beach was a different experience. Because their dive boat can’t get into shore safely (there are no piers on that section of the beach and due to a limited number in the port town I’m guessing docking fees are expensive) they use a long tail to run things out. That means to board we’re hiking out bags out into the water and hopping over the sides of the thing awkwardly. On this particular morning that included 4 people working on their dive master course, two people working on their advanced open water course, a bunch of fun divers, 6 or 7 staff or interns and the remaining boat crew. Add to that 60 odd aluminum tanks, gear for all of us and some other provisions and the freeboard for the boat was not… excessive. We somehow got everyone on without tipping though and then off again out at the aging dive boat.

My body may not have appreciated the early start but the diver in me did. The aim in the schedule was to be first out at the rock (any dive site around Koh Tao is a busy site) and get our first dive in before anyone else showed up. Unfortunately what had been a slow drizzle as we got on the boat turned into something a bit more as we rounded the point and went face on into the wind. This was not a fast boat to begin with and it was facing an intense headwind, I honestly wondered if we’d have to turn back… doubly so when the divemaster came up and said the captain had asked people to try to distribute themselves more evenly on the top deck. We’d all been noticing a fairly noticeable roll to port and people scurried to comply. Even once we were a bit more stable it was a pretty sizable swell and we had a long trip straight through it out to the rock making a few people a bit green around the gills. For those of us who don’t get sea sick there was a delicious breakfast including the ubiquitous giant vat of hardboiled eggs that seems to show up at every event provided meal.

The rock really is just a rock, a small sea mount out in the middle between Ko Tao and Ko Phangan on this particular morning it was more or less out of site of all land. Definitely a new experience for me, even when certifying out of site of land on the Great Barrier reef there’s just so much reef around that it feels more landlike. Here looking out into the blue really felt like looking out into a true void. My mask decided to be stupid (I think the guy washing it at the last shop buggered the straps) but eventually I got it fixed and we went down. I was diving with a guy named Cole from Monterrey in California and our guide was a woman named Kyri originally from Hull (the UK one) who’d been in Ko Tao off and on for a couple years. Cole was here with a couple of friends (I never did find out why they weren’t diving together, perhaps Cole was Adventure Diver as well and that’s why we were paired since we could go deeper, not that we ever went particularly low.) Younger than me by a few years, all three of them were boat captains having met at maritime college. It was strange given my mental image of any kind of boat captain definitely trends towards the Captain Haddock/McAllister age but kind of interesting talking to them and seething with jealously about how they rent a catamaran every Christmas in the virgin islands because they can legally captain anything with their certificates.

The first dive was fantastic despite some pretty low visibility. The Sail Rock dive area is a great pelagic site and was just swarming with trevally and barracuda with smaller numbers of angelfish and other things hovering around closer to the rock. Of course the grand hope was for a whale shark but unfortunately with vis so low it was unlikely we’d notice even if one was relatively close. It was still a very cool, very different dive but as we began to make our way up to the safety stop we began to hear (and occasionally see) other boats arriving. Still the timing worked out well as we began our surface interval (basically a safety time above water to let your body relax and be ready for more diving) just as they were all swimming in to do their first dive. That was the other positive of getting there first as due to it being an open water mount the mooring buoy was mounted to the rock not the (VERY DEEP) sea floor so later arrivals either had to hover around or moor to our boat which gave us the best placement/least distance to travel in the heavy swells.

I’ve mentioned it to anyone I’ve encouraged to try diving but jesus… you get what you pay for. Never go with the cheapest group. As a few of us rehydrated with some pineapple and gatorad-ish drink we watched one of the scariest things. A group in a small speedboat had arrived and just the boat was scary… our journey in the big boat had not been pleasant, this boat was of the size you’d see on a whiteshell lake and would have been bouncing around like crazy.

The true horror began when they dumped off two larger groups and two instructors/divemasters. I’m not sure whether the people in one of the groups were open water certification students or discover scuba people but neither should have been there. Even slightly sheltered by the rock the swells were large and occasionally coming from random directions and it was the same subsurface. In the end one of the staff people took extra people who were competently swimming and this one instructor was left with three people: one guy who was slowly getting the hang of it, and a totally helpless japanese couple. Before long the guide had the woman in more or less a rescue headlock and was swimming her towards the rock, her mask was off and she had her eyes tightly shut and looked terrified. While he was doing this he was screaming at the husband to swim towards him (because screaming always works for panicked people.) Said husband then started swimmming the wrong way, eventually got turned around but didn’t seem to have his bcd fully inflated and was making no headway as he was paralel with my spot on the bench for at least 10 minutes. He also had his reg in most of the time and even on the surface probably chewed through at least half his air. None of that should have mattered though because any dive leader worth his salt should have had those two back on the boat eons before that happened or, let’s be honest, should never have had them out there period unless they really really lied about their experience level. Yet he actually took them down. Yikes. Don’t get me wrong, I love diving, I think it’s very safe for what you get out of it… but it’s safest when you are calm, cool and relaxed.

The chimney on a day with much better visibility/sunlight (not my pic obviously)

Dive two was simultaneously very cool and super frustrating. We were paired with a third russian guy for this one who’d spent dive one getting his deep water AOW task done. Now Cole was a super experienced diver, definitely had better air management than me but I was at least somewhere in his ballpark. Cole was also swimming around with a goPro on an underwater selfie stick and was very good at using it. New guy also had a goPro and was the underwater equivalent of those people at a tourist site who blunder around, into and in front of everyone only looking at the camera screen. He also nearly got out guide to back out of our promised trip down the chimney (a 15 odd meter vertical cave that was fantastic to float down watching all the creatures peeking out at you.) I managed to get through that but for the entire rest of the dive he’d suddenly come swimming (using his hands constantly which is a diving no-no) up from below me and do his best to smack me in the face with his tank. Multiple times he snared my air and did his best to pull it out… or he’d turn from some random direction right in front of me without looking and I’d smack into him. He was definitely a nervous diver and obviously wanted to be touching distance from someone at all times but also spent all his time staring at his camera screen. Meanwhile Cole, Kyri and I had been doing a good loose supporting formation on the first dive. Staying close together when trying to see the same thing but loosening out far enough that were weren’t in each other’s way while still having sightlines and being a few hard kicks from grabbing someone’s fin if need be. The other factor which you’ve probably spotted if you’re a diver is that with russian guy bouncing all over the place and being awkward he was churning through air.

Now Kyri was already running a pretty conservative dive profile. She wanted us to turn around and start making our way back a bit earlier than normal, I wasn’t against that initially, with the swells the way they were having a bit of spare gas if need be wouldn’t hurt, but for that second dive I had double the usual tank pressure left and I’m sure Cole had gotten nowhere near halfway through. This didn’t get any better for the third dive even at a shallower depth and overall I got nearly an hour less time underwater over those three dives than I had in Lanta. I was happy we’d still managed to finish the dive by swimming into an absolutely enormous school of trevally (I am going to try and find an image online of this as we didn’t have a photographer with us this dive and it was amazing.) After dive two I shared a look with Cole and secretly hoped that our guide had noticed the russian’s struggles and would reassign him to another group but sadly I think the only appropriate pairing with space had explicitly paid for a private dive so we were stuck. Still, another dive boat curry lunch (could get used to that) helped cheer me up a bit as we cast off from Sail Rock and headed to another dive site for our third and final dive.

Final dive was at a shallower dive just off the coast of Koh Tao. Getting there was… hairy. We got a command from the captain to overload the starboard side as the roll to the port was starting to hang an awful long time when the swells came from two directions at once. Our boat captain passengers started talking about how high the boat’s center of gravity was and complied. Thankfully the worst of it was past by the time we got about halfway back and with the sun coming out people spread out a bit to enjoy it. The dive site itself was called shark rock due to it’s shape, not due to a particularly high shark siting level. Happily we did see one juvenile black tip a few times once we were down though. Overall the site was quite pretty with a variety of coral, nudibranches and a very pretty bluespotted ribbontail ray. While in sight of us one of the other divers managed to anger a territorial triggerfish who slammed into his mask repeatedly then went after someone else right in the back of the head. There were also tons of anenomes with accompanying fish but no proper nemo clownfish sadly.

Sadly our big blundering russian bear kept up his tricks and we were the first ones back on the boat again though I’d done my best to avoid him by immediately stopping and swimming to the other side of Kyri anytime he came close to me. At one point he managed to loop his air hose around my hand as I swam in a straight line and I finally gave him a “back the fuck off” gesture that kept him away from me for a solid 5 minutes. :p Don’t get me wrong, both dives were still great I would have just prefered this (likely my last dive of the trip) to be more carefree. Once we were back on the boat we very happily discovered that this group provides a post-dive beer for the trip back to the dock and we all had a cheers together to an excellent day. (Though I discovered later that the reason the staff were up enjoying the beer is that the boat doesn’t have freshwater tanks at all, I guess because it doesn’t dock. This sucked for not being able to rinse off after each dive and get the salt off, but it also meant that all the equipment got taken ashore for washing, which meant we the customers washed most of it with them not doing any of the logbook stuff until that was done. Let me be clear that I’m not against this in the abstract heh but the level of service between Lanta and here was just VERY different for a very similar price. Still, from watching them on the boat then later watching an instructor working in the pool while I did my log book entries I would unequivocally recommend them as a dive school. Eavesdropping on the divemaster students made it clear that getting a job with this particular company would be seen as a prize to all of them. Gear wash, log book and post game drink complete I started the long walk back to the hotel for a shower still kinda miffed at the lack of a shuttle but thinking “well maybe they don’t have a truck for that.” Then what do I see about halfway back? A taxi equipped truck with their logo heading back empty from the direction of my hotel… grumble grumble grumble.

After a hell of a long desalting shower I debated what to do for dinner. Energy levels were… not high and the next morning was going to be reasonably early to grab the Catamaran out and start the speed trip back to Bangkok to reposition up north. Turns out staying awake wasn’t a problem though as just as I got out of the shower a loud booming racket started somewhere nearby. Turns out saturday night in Koh Tao (or at least that particular saturday night) was some sort of combination night food market/talent competition. While this was great for finding some good quick grub, for some reason they’d set the volume to GWAR and as my hotel room was about 100m max away when I gave in to my fatigue and tried to sleep even noise cancelling headphones weren’t cutting it. It was 2 am before they stopped for the night followed by half an hour of people revving their moped/motorcycle engines to max as they peeled out. I was a bit of a grumpy bear getting ready to check out the next morning.

Night Market/Koh Tao Idol or whatnot

So there are three main boats that serve the islands. One high speed catamaran, one slower boat with a decent rep, one boat with a rep for having their heads up their butts. I’d taken the latter on the way over and had no problems but they were definitely not kings o’ customer service. For the way off the island I’d chosen the catamaran really only due to the fact that the start time was early but not too early, the fact that it was faster across the water portion was really only a side benefit.

The day started with a quick wake up and pack, checking out and finding out there was a shuttle run to the pier was a bonus, finding out they soaked you 300BAHT not so much (my trip to the dive school with special charter at 5am was only 200 and that was easily twice as far.) Kinda skeevy. Checking in at the catamaran desk made you wonder why they had a rep for better CS with one woman checking in a lineup of hundreds of people. Getting on the damned boat was even worse.

First off, one wasn’t really filled with confidence that they’d made sure they had seats for everyone. Secondly, despite the fact that the catamaran’s passengers are probably 90% western the seating was clearly configured to be tight for locals. To make matters worse all the seats are permanently reclined. I could only fit in a seat by wedging my knees into the cracks and when the staff member tried to make me move to the middle of a row of six seats I had to say not a chance. Even managing to get one leg into the aisle I was in agony most of the trip. Some poor guy around my dad’s height had to beg someone to move out of a front row seat or he was just going to give up and sit on the floor. The best thing you could say about it was that it was at least fast compared to the other boat.

Unfortunately for me I’d changed my plans out of early morning grumpy/lazyness and decided to just pay the extra money and hop on the ferry company’s bus as well all the way to Bangkok, where I’d originally planned to hop a train once off the boat as they left relatively often. Mistake! The company (no doubt to encourage you to spend money at their businesses at the dock) makes everyone check in again then adds a 30m wait before they even start loading busses after the boat completely unloads. Legroom was again an issue with the counter person assigning the front row bar seat to me and another person of 6’ish height for no good reason. Once the bus finally left we were treated to some terrrrible three point turning and lanekeeping.

Two hours into the bus journey we pulled over at what was a super entertaining rest stop. It had a pseudo starbucks coffee shop, two sit down restaurants, a giant food court with at least 15 stalls and an enormous market selling everything from dried fruits to ice cream. We stayed there for about half an hour but I only bought some peanuts and a drink as I wasn’t really hungry. If I’d only known. Chumpon to Bangkok is a pretty long way, roughly 550km including the transfer distances. After that stop at about the two hour mark, we did not stop again over the following seven hours. Our driver was terrible, dangerous, overly fast at times and unnecessarily slow at others. Woe betide you if you stayed in the speed lane a moment longer than was necessary because by god he was going to take his 100 passenger bus and tailgate you… even if you were a double length fuel truck. Once we were closer to Bangkok he seemed to think he was some sort of driving hero by diving into the service road the moment the highway speed slowed down at all… which was super for the first length, then he’d inevitably get caught in on/off ramp tailbacks while the momentary slowdown on the highway cleared and we’d add 10 minutes of unnecessary time to our journey… then repeat the whole process fifteen minutes later. Then at one point we had to pull aside for what I’m guessing was a royal motorcade coming back from Hua Hin. The entire last hour and a half into the city was him jerking the bus around so much that we could smell baking clutch and the top half of the two level bus just swayed. I couldn’t help but think dreamily of even a third class train seat… stable… constant motion… multiple only sorta stinky bathrooms… a restaurant car.

In the end about the only positive was that the offload point was a corner I knew well about a 5 minute walk from my trusty cheap guest house. I’d originally planned to just grab something near the train station for ease of luggage storage but I couldn’t resist a cheap known quantity. Unfortunately that meant literally pushing our way through touts who were standing three deep right at the bus door. Assholes. A much needed shower and a plate of noodles to recharge later I went for a walk in the cooling bangkok night to work out the kinks in my back before turning in, really ready to get up north to the supposedly more laid back Chiang Mai.

 

 

Life is much better, down where it’s wetter!

Longtail Boats out on the bay

Leaving Krabi was a relatively leisurely experience. Already knowing where the ferry dock was (a 5 minute walk away even with my pack) helped, as did the fact that the boat didn’t leave til 11:30. The boat itself was thankfully not overpacked and before long we were heading down the river/inlet out onto the sea. As we headed out we passed several other docks and a number of brightly painted fishing boats both in the water and several that had foundered and been abandoned. The wrecks seemed repairable so maybe they were relatively recent but I was rather puzzled. Once out on the bay we could see Phuket in the distance as well as the party haven of the Phi Phi islands before turning south for Koh Lanta via brief stops offshore at Ko Pu and Ko Jum.

Life Jackets all ready, colour me not so sure :p

The ferry arrives at the north end of Koh Lanta Yai, the slightly bigger and much more populated of the two islands. The arrival is on dock in a series of them, rickety in the extreme and as you get off it’s full of aggressive taxi touts trying to grab you for a ride. The town surrounding the dock was lively looking but I’d pre-booked my lodgings and they were about halfway down the island so I got on a sketchy motorcycle sidecar taxi and was on my way. We of course promptly got lost with the driver at first refusing to look at my phone to see the name of the resort and taking me 10 minutes in the wrong direction until I finally convinced him. In the end that didn’t help much as he’d never heard of my place and we ended up just driving to the right beach and in the end I’m the one that spotted the sign.

The island hides it’s exceptional beauty well at first as the road that links the varying beach villages is rough, seemingly half constructed with no work proceeding while I was there and often covered in junk. Ugly cinder block and concrete shophouses are interspersed with bars and restaurants/snackhouses in clusters along the road. The occasional hostel or small hotel sticking out, usually of the ‘built cheaply then never maintained’ variety. The jungle interior occasionally snakes down to the road area before withdrawing again and it’s unusual to not see at least a few cattle or goats grazing beside the road in spots. It’s not until you start exploring the side roads down towards the beach. It appears as though nearly all the lots along the beach are long narrow strips and many/most of these contain varying levels of beach bungalow style resorts. Most of these are visible only as a small sign on the road and the sign is usually no hint as to whether you’re looking at a 50 room resort with a pool and amenities or a 5 dorm hostel. It’s definitely not a place where you can easily come, grab a cab and tell the cabbie to pull in at some place you think looks nice.

The entrance to my hotel lies behind this bar, this photo mostly taken so I could find my way back that first day

Looking for a contrast from Patong I’d booked a room on a beach purported to have a laid back hippie vibe and more or less found it as advertised. My digs were… acceptable, not quite the quality I’d been lead to believe but not terrible for the equivalent of $20 for a private room. A simple bungalow with bed/fan and ensuite washroom. Reviews had mentioned the beachfront restaurant/bar being particularly good (and greek?) but based on my visit that had completely changed in the past while. The shower was also terrible with near zero water pressure (and only cold water) so that my hair felt more or less perpetually salty til I was off the island. That said the room was clean, there was a mosquito net over the bed, a hammock on my porch and the beach was just steps away. The one thing I definitely missed was a mini fridge to keep water cold because man was it hot while I was here.

Hammocktime

And what a lovely beach, I arrived at low tide with the sun sparkling on the tidal pools so I wasn’t able to just run out and swim but instead went for a walk along it. Seemingly every hotel/bungalow complex had their own beachside restaurant or bar ranging from the simple thatched hut and table of mine to elaborate log bars and poolside tables of the fancier places. Even the largest resort on this stretch of beach was a relatively simple place
however and nowhere was food expensive at all. The clientele was definitely a bit older with a healthy mix of backpacker types, aging hippies and older couples travelling on a budget as well a fair number of young european families.

I ended up spending that first night farther down the beach at a place where the tidal pools were a bit less pronounced went for a long swim until sunset then grabbed a giant bowl of noodles and a beer as things finally cooled a bit. Sleeping unfortunately wasn’t particularly pleasant as I fought to keep the mosquito net somewhat over me as the fan struggled to keep me cool.

I spent most of the next day walking up and down the island on the beach side of things, going for the occasional swim and stopping and reading here and there. I also broke out the snorkel and mask now that tide was in and floated over all the boulders and pools I’d walked across the previous evening. Watching all the fish feeding and the sea cucumbers hoovering up things I made sure everything was adjusted properly as I hadn’t worn the darn thing in two years and would be needing it. I’d reached out to a couple of the local dive shops and knew I’d be staying an extra night in order to do a full day dive trip the next day so was mostly about relaxing before an early night. If I end up here again I will almost certainly spring for a place with a/c as it would have been nice to retreat to the cool for a brief nap at the absolute heat of the day.

Nightlife wise the big party of the night appears to bounce around the island (there are six or seven beach hubs down the coast) with my particular spot being the most laid back. In the end I pretty happily pulled up a lounging cushion and table at a restaurant a few down from my digs and listened to a cover band playing very well but with questionable command of the lyrics. In the end I spent a couple incredibly relaxing hours there through the sunset and watching the waves turn to blackness as I ate a delicious burmese curry and drank some fruity drinks. Once everything was dark numerous bright green lights appeared out to sea almost giving things an alien aura. I thought at first they were dive boats doing night dives but as more and more of them lit up it was obvious there were too many. Apparently they are actually squid boats using the lights under the water to lure in their catch. As enjoyable as the evening was though I went off to bed more or less as soon as I thought it would be cool enough to sleep as my morning was going to be early.

At 7 the next morning I was up, dressed, semi-rested and waiting on the road to be picked up for my dive boat departure… only to have the driver be 15 minutes late. I was glad I’d agreed to walk out to the main road or he may never have found me. Thankfully the rest of the operation was at a higher standard.

It was a reasonable hike out to our dive site for the day and once we were on the boat and moving the crew served a pretty great breakfast. A bunch of fresh fruit and veggies, some bread, cooked chicken and crispy bacon and some other fixings. Making myself a quick sandwich and grabbing some pineapple and mango I settled in for the trip. The dive crew was the usual mix of random expats you see at all these places (I’ll admit I wish I’d spent a couple years in my twenties doing the same somewhere warm) with a Canadian, several Frenchmen, a Brit and a Swede along with two local thai dive leaders. The passengers were a mixed bag as well with two older German ladies who were just along to snorkel, a swedish family out for their second day in a row with two older children who dove and a toddler that the parents took turns sitting with during the dive. Several other solo travellers were aboard as well with a young swiss woman out for a fun dive, two other women finishing off their open water certs and a couple scandinavian men doing advanced OW and Rescue courses.

Dive Boat!

There is literally no better place in the world than a dive boat. I was discussing this with a friend the other day on facebook (oddly also in Thailand and basically doing the same itinerary a week ahead of me.) Hop on a dive boat almost anywhere in the world and you’ll find a multinational crew and multinational passengers having an absolute blast and more or less fighting through any language barrier to share our love of the sea.

A little background here. I did my PADI (diving) certificate course in Australia on the great barrier reef and did a bunch of extra dives there as well. Since returning from that trip I’ve gone diving pretty much every chance I get somewhere warm (West Hawk doesn’t really appeal) and have loved it every time except my last time out… I had a really bad experience in Puerto Vallarta and it’s entirely my fault because I’m an idiot who forgot he’d had pneumonia not long before and probably shouldn’t be diving anywhere deep at all due to lung pressure issues. I ended up feeling absolutely gross afterwards and rightfully punished myself mentally for ages. While I realized that that was a one time thing, between some sinus/ear issues right before I left, the really bad experience pressing on my mind and the fact that it had been two years since I’d even attempted diving I wanted a quick refresh. In the end with the company I chose it was only an extra few bucks to get a one on one instructor. He took me through some basic skills before and at the start of the first dive, my confidence was back more or less instantly and we were off on a proper dive after about five minutes. He thankfully was from chicago and agreed with me that I didn’t need a wetsuit, the booker and original fitter guy had insisted I try them on because “I would want one” despite the fact that I knew the water temp was around 30 degrees celsius.

The site itself was a beautiful collection of 6 (or as my guy Sean put it 5 and a bit since one of them was a tiny pinnacle) islands a couple hours from the dock. Our first dive dropped us down onto the sand between some rock and coral outcroppings and we quickly did the exercises we’d planned and once all was confirmed to be well we swam off into the blue. Well, not quite… but we did get much deeper and followed the edge of the island into the bay drop off and admired all kinds of fish, lobsters and sea snakes. Upon surfacing my guide immediately said something along the lines of “well your breath control is fantastic for someone who hasn’t dived in that long, we’ll go harder next time.” I agreed, I’d had more or less zero trouble keeping neutral buoyancy and he’d helped me get weighted well even without the lift from a wetsuit.

Dive two was definitely a more energetic one with us dropping down near one of the smaller islands circling it completely and then going off miles from the boat when we saw some baby black tip reef sharks. That left us with a long 15 minute swim back to the ladder so I was a happy hungry boy when I found out that lunch on this boat wasn’t the usual cooler full of ham and cheese sandwiches but a big tub of rice and three kinds of delicious thai curry.

Lagoon

That was of course our longer break with a shorter third dive planned for an absolutely gorgeous lagoon area. Frustratingly it filled up with cheap speedboats loaded with an army of package tour snorklers who managed to get multiple pieces of plastic into the ocean in their first 5 minutes there. Our crew managed to collect it but you definitely see the difference in respect levels between the crews. Thankfully those snorkel tours are very much in and out as they whisk you to five different places on a cramped speedboat so by the time we were surfacing they were mostly gone. This was the dive site where the same crew had seen a whale shark several days before (one of my absolute must see at some point things) but sadly and not surprisingly there was no repeat appearance. It was still a great dive however with fish galore including a stonefish trying very hard not to be seen, some beautiful coral and nudibranches and a very bashful turtle.

Back above water I was beyond pooped but very very happy and a gorgeous gentle ride in had me ready for a very lazy night. After saying goodbye to everyone and snagging my ride back I ended up hitting the 7/11 for a coke (lest I fall asleep instantly) and stumbled back to my bungalow, trying with futility to get some semblance of spray into my hair from the terrible shower nozzle and in the end augmenting it with water bottles full of water from the sink to at least rinse the suds out. I managed to force myself out for dinner and ended up listening to the same band at a different restaurant though they had a slightly different set list. That probably isn’t a good thing though as I don’t think their beach boys to metallica to claptop sequences were much of a hit with the crowd, though at least they didn’t play the James Blunt this time.

I left Koh Lanta the next morning sadly deciding to end my southern journey here as there is still much I want to explore in the northern part of the country and I’m running out of time. I would definitely include Lanta on my itinerary again if I return to the Thailand as it’s a gorgeous place and I feel like I barely scraped the surface both on land and in the sea.

Krabi? No I’m feeling fine.

Ao Phang Nga area

It was tempting to take a boat from Phuket when I departed but in the end I decided to cheap out a bit and take the just as quick inland route as it gave me more flexibility of departure and was much cheaper (in the end I did about 80% of the boat route anyway when coming back.) Getting back to the bus station was the same level of extortionate taxi time but at least this time the man mostly knew where he was going. An hour or so later I was on an a/c bus for Krabi Town.

One of the things you notice hurtling through the countryside on one of these buses (aside from the deathwishes of people driving various motorcycle based contraptions) is the massive variety of dwelling. It’s rare (in this portion of the country at least) to go long without seeing some form of abode, but you’ll pass an ancient looking miniscule house obviously still in use… then immediately there will be a large almost western looking house on a perfectly manicured lawn… followed by a row of shophouses then a plantation of some sort. In some cases these clusters coincide with what you might call a town, others they appear to just be randomly at some point along a highway.

The obsession with gates and walls is a very different thing culturally from home as well. Pretty much every government building is surrounded by a (usually spotless) pale wall with a large concrete gilded sign advertising that it’s something like “Regional Court for Young Persons.” My guess would be that the government has gone on a building spree of late given the number of these similar structures around. The gate thing is definitely mystifying at times though. From talking to a chatty lady on the bus who wanted to practice her english I gather that it’s a combination of things. Gates are the first thing your guests see so they have a connotation of status as well as symbolism to many buddhists. I’ve got to say though, I saw a ridiculous number of schools (both in Bangkok and rural thailand) with elaborate beautiful gates that look like they cost more than had been spent in the previous two decades on the maintenance of the school buildings behind them.

The road to Krabi passed back through the costal flats and around Phang Nga bay then south along the coast between the various limestone karst mounts that seem to be looming gorgeously everywhere here in this part of the peninsula. Krabi Town (to distinguish it from its eponymous province) is a small city on an inlet that serves as a transport gateway to a good chunk of the lower andaman coast. Visually it’s not super exciting and the bus terminal is annoyingly far away from the town proper. Thankfully I knew I could hop a Sorng-taa-ou (pickup truck pseudo bus/taxi) rather than pay a cab though the bus driver clearly got a payoff as he made us get off at a taxi/travel stand 250m from the bus station. The others and I nearly immediately spotted a pickup though and so got into town for about 80 cents vs the $10 the cabbie wanted. A short (somewhat terrifying due to a very sketchy looking railing) ride later and I was in the center of Krabi heading for a cheap guest house and eager for a bite as I hadn’t had time to grab more than a bag of (delicious spicy basil) lay’s for the trip.

The guest house was more or less as advertised, around $20 for a single room with a giant (if not particularly soft) bed and shared toilets/shower (a reasonable and spotless tiled room with multiple stalls of each shared with 5 other rooms.) The wifi was strong (and free, something that continues to be a welcome change from the last big trip) and there was food downstairs if you wanted and a pseudo 7/11 on the next corner. More than good enough for a one night stop.

In the short section on Krabi my guidebook more or less said “you have to go eat at the night market” and boy was it right, especially given it was a 3 minute walk from the guest house. Essentially a large farmer’s market food court except every vendor is serving delicious thai specialties at ridiculous prices. Almost nothing over 3-4 bucks a dish for a single serving. It was ludicrous trying to pick a place and in the end it was more or less at random. I grabbed a giant fruit shake, ordered some Tom Kha Gai and arandom curry I hadn’t tried yet and was shown to one of the variety of tables on the riverfront. The book was right, this was clearly the place to eat. There were probably 100ish tables and the tourists were outnumbered by locals to fill most of them. Facing the row of carts were a nearly constant stream of Sorng-taa-ou, taxi, delivery and tuk tuk drivers all stopping for a brief dinner before continuing their shifts.

Krabi Night Market

I have no idea how they kept track of who was sitting where and who owed what but I didn’t have to pre-pay. Eventually a different woman from that cart/kitchen came and found me in the warren of tables and deposited my first dish before eventually returning with the second. Incidentally that’s definitely one thing you have to get used to at the more local places here… courses some more or less randomly and never all at once. The more western places may try and have things arrive semi simultaneously but it’s rare elsewhere. If you want your spring rolls first best order them and wait to order the rest for a few minutes as well. The food was amazing and the atmosphere even better. It had finally cooled down a bit and the breeze off the inlet/river at my back was carrying the smells from other tables over to me. Every single dish I saw carried by looked better than the last and if I hadn’t been so completely stuffed I would have ordered another one. The one mystery to me was how one paid as I wasn’t really in eyeline of the cart but also didn’t see anyone wandering up to carts to pay (though I did later find out that’s acceptable too.) Eventually though the woman who had sat me down brought another person over in my direction and I flagged her down and got everything settled.

Krabi Night Market Juice Man

At that point I decided to go for a walk along the riverfront, found the dock from which I’d be leaving the next morning then walked a bit farther up in the other direction and grabbed a beer at a quiet bar and just enjoyed the change in scenery. On the way back to the guesthouse I passed the night market again and decided I’d walked off enough of dinner to indulge in what they called a banana pancake with nutella (or roti depending on the cart) which was more of a crispy pan fried crepe with sliced banana topped with a bit of nutella and chopped into bite size pieces. That finished me off for the night and after a long shower I fell asleep reading in bed not long after.

 

 

Relaxation Achieved: Fun and Food in Patong, Phuket

In 2004 at Christmas I was visiting my aunt and uncle in California with my parents and grandmother. We spent a good chunk of boxing day watching the horrifying videos of the tsunami coming in at various places in this region of the Indian Ocean. Now, having been here (this beach being one of the hard hit places in Thailand) it’s even easier to imagine how scary it must have been. Rewatching one video obviously taken not terribly far from my hotel you can just see that relentless rising tide slamming everything and everyone out of its way into the front line of buildings. You can see how many people believe the death toll would have been much worse even a few hours later here as the christmas revellers woke from their hangovers and headed to the beach. Now of course Thailand has its fancy new warning system and whatnot but it’s still sobering to think about as you walk down past the “Tsunami Evac Zone” signs to the beachfront.

Today Patong is an odd place. It’s massively developed by thai standards (more or less the entire bay is filled beachfront to hills) but to us Canadians more used to the Mexico and the Carribean it seems less so. For starters there are few hotels directly on the beach and indeed few businesses directly on the beach. The latter is apparently because of another thai government crackdown that comes and goes but it’s certainly nice to be able to find shady spots at the top of a beach not covered in some hotel’s deck chairs. The actual beachfront in Patong town proper is more akin to a European resort area or say the area along the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta (though that is pretty Spain itself.) A few small hotels and guest houses, not many over 3 stories high mixed with souvenir shops and restaurants and all seperated from the beach area by a busy road. There is a thin strip of land mostly devoid of businesses between the road and beach some of which looks as though it is remnants of pre tsunami decorations (paths that are worn away/dead end for example.) The larger hotels tend to be a couple streets back from the seaside and none are particularly huge. There are a few taller towers in the town center area but none seem particularly new. Fancier hotel with older guests wise the new trend seems to be building out on the cliffs north of town where there is a smaller beach and a cab into town proper is definitely needed for most non-resort nightlife.

The beach is wide and sandy with a mix of swimming areas and (illegal but clearly tolerated) jetski landings. It’s not uncommon to see one or two large cruise ships offshore, rarely close enough to see the livery but I’m guessing Star Cruises or the like based on the groups I saw ashore. The water is ridiculously bathwater warm and shallow for ages… another reason the tsunami must have come out of nowhere for people as I don’t think I saw a cresting wave that didn’t come from a boat wake the entire time I was on the beach. I imagine that’s different in monsoon season of course but the Andaman has been endlessly gentle during my stay.

The town itself is… I don’t want to say sleazy but, yeah kinda sleazy. The core of the town has a very “downtown vegas before they cleaned it up” vibe. The previously mentioned fancy shopping center seems to serve as a sort of central cluster then most of the streets leading away from there are lined with bars and restaurants, all the sidewalks jammed with sweaty tourists and line after like of tuk-tuk and taxi arriving with people staying at the other beaches coming in to party. Bangla Road is the epicenter of the more intense nightlife (go-go bars, prostitution and frat boy bars abound) and is at least quasi pedestrian only but most of the surrounding streets have late night bars/restaurants and other diversions as well. Russians are everywhere, particularly of the musclebound gangster image cultivating type and indeed other than some backpacker aged folk from NA/Australia most of the tourists are european in general during my visit. After one visit for curiousity’s sake I mostly stayed a bit further from this area at night as there’s only so many times I really need a drunken russian woman stumbling into me and spilling her drink or some random tout badgering me about “you want ticket to fuck show? cheap price!” I did stumble into a couple different places a bit further out from that area that had a band playing and grabbed a drink or two at those several times. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that all of Phuket is like this. It’s a subsection of this one beachtown and most of other towns have very different vibes (even the other portions of Patong do) but be aware this is why a subset of people come to Patong specifically. Or this may be totally your scene and sound great, I’m definitely here more for the sights and sounds of the country and not the party scene though.

My nighttime photo didn’t turn out but this gives you the general idea of the scene.

One super frustrating thing I will rant about though is the abundance of massage parlors. I have literally no idea how they all exist in Patong or indeed in any of the tourist zones where every fourth business seems to be a massage parlor of either super legitimate or sleazy variety (or of course the ultra sleazy variety that are pointedly missing the “no happy ending/no sex signs that most of the middleground ones seem to have.) I mean more power to them if they are making a living and I know good thai massage is supposed to be phenomenal (maybe I will partake before I leave.) BUT, the annoying versions of these will have 4 or 5 women out front, often dressed in some garish outfit who will super aggressively bother you about a massage. Whatever, I can ignore touts, but the gross part to me is the last one in the line will always try and reach out to gently caress my arm as I pass by as a last ditch attempt and ugh… I do not like being randomly touched by strangers and I particularly don’t like it when I’m feeling hot and sweaty and gross and just want to get back to the hotel to clean up. I get that I’m a guy in his 30s travelling along so probably a prime target for you but ugh, back off.

As mentioned in the last post though this was always intended to be my destress portion of the trip. Most of you are aware that due to some bullshit with my employer I had my holidays cancelled on me last year so this is my first real holiday in two years. (I did snag a week at the lake with my parents last summer then proceeded to get a ridiculous summer cold/flu for most of it so it doesn’t really count.) So yeah… my day usually consisted of sleeping in until I felt like waking up, going for a brief swim in the hotel pool, having a shower eating a croissant then heading down to the beach for most of the day then watching the sunset before grabbing a ridiculously cheap dinner somewhere, maybe hitting the bar for a bit then walking back to the hotel for another shower and another great night in that massive king sized bed. Rejuvenating is an understatement.

Most days I ended up in the same cluster of odd fruit trees (I have no idea what the cluster pod fruits were though one landed very close to me one day and I started sitting a bit further away) for a bit of shade at the top of the beach. Daytime temps were hovering around 32-35 most days without a cloud in the sky. This appeared to be where many of the locals sat be they Thai or (more commonly) the somewhat tragic collection of ancient euro expats and their muuuuuuuuch younger thai girlfriends/wives (and some boyfriends.) Sitting amongst them one couldn’t help but wonder about inevitable forthcoming estate battles with family’s back home. Mostly I peoplewatched and swam, read from my eBook and thought about what I should have for dinner.

I’ve already covered food to some extent in this travelogue but you must understand that I LOVE thai food. The cheapness of thai meals here (even in this most touristy of touristy locations in Thailand) is astounding. Lunch is mostly a quick noodle, curry or soup from a roadside stand or mini kitchen. Chicken Pad Thai is of course a tourist food but also generally delicious and ludicrously cheap for decent portions. Pad See Ew or Khao Soi or various other things are usually not much more expensive. Or if it’s so ludicrously hot that I can’t face anything warm I might just get a papaya or mango salad, usually nice and spicy and super refreshing. Rarely are these meals more than $3-4cad all in.

Dinner I’ve been splurging a little bit more as there are some nice places here, but usually just to try more dishes rather than spending massively more in general. Not far from the hotel in an absolutely terrible spot right by the main road in and out of town is a really gorgeous little restaurant that really deserves a quieter beachfront spot (but then it would be double the price.) Here I ordered an appetizer of thai sausage and cashew shrimp wrapped in spring roll dough then deep fried, a som tam with papaya, a noodle dish I can’t remember and a small bowl of tom kha gai. Add on a pineapple smoothie and a bottle of water and I dropped a whole $15 on this meal (though since I had a kitchenette I took home the leftovers and actually got a lunch out of it too.) Honestly it’s necessary to splurge once in a while. One of the main downfalls of being a solo traveler is not getting to sample what your travelling companion is eating when dining out.

The Sausage, Cashew and Shrimp appetizer thing

Overall my time in Patong has been relaxing, but I’m definitely ready to move on and see some of the other sights in this ridiculously welcoming country. I’ve decided to transfer to Koh Lanta to the south in hopes of easing back in to some diving/finding a mellower beach vibe then I’ll have to make a decision about either heading back north in preparation for heading to Chang Mai or whether I want to do any further island hopping in the south.

 

 

Bangkok to Phuket… lazytimes beckon.

Wow, seems like ages since I’ve written one of these (I’ve merely been posting things I’ve previously written the past while.) Part of that is lack of noteworthy things to say, part is that this section of the vacation was always planned to be the lazytown frolics portion…

That said herein lies the first miscalculation of my trip. I’d read a couple places to just fly from Bangkok to Phuket or take the direct bus, but I wanted to make sure I took at least one train in Thailand and the sleeper train+bus combo seemed like a good plan even though it took a bit longer. Oops.

pool at New Siam II

I got a late lie in at my guest house in Bangkok before getting up, packing and checking out. (And as I write this I realize I was never charged for my last, extra night) Storage of my bag was free so I set off for one last spin around old bangkok and a quick curry before heading to the train station a slightly paranoid amount early. Just as well I did as with my first trip away from the Khao San area by taxi I got hit with multiple folks trying to scam me by booking without their meter. (They were asking me for 200Baht, about 8 bucks, when I knew even with crazy traffic it wouldn’t be more than 100, in the end if was 72 I think) Still, I didn’t mind being there early. I love train stations, particularly foreign ones. The grand old central stations built when the train was the hub of transport for everyone are always a blast and Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong was no exception. I’d actually already been here almost every day of the trip already as it was the western end of the subway and the easiest point to get to for a cab back to home base.

Hua Lamphong is a cavernous building, especially by Bangkok standards and has something like 12 lines running into it. Certainly not at the crazy level of some places but pretty hectic in a city like this where many of them are commuter trains. I need to take a moment here to complain about what seems to be an asian thing in general so far. Complete lack of public clocks in transport hubs. I mean, one can sort of tell what time it is based on the departed trains disappearing off the board but I ran into the same thing in Hong Kong international during my layover. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but right before I left I realized my watch was dead so clock checking means getting out my not particularly hefty batteried travel phone or keeping my bedside clock in my pocket.

In any case, train stations. I enjoy the romance of them. Seeing people whisking off to various places, people watching and trying to determine who’s off to do what. All the romance some people bizarrely associate with airports is actually here (for starters very few people board a train stressed from security or shoving to the front of the line because they have six pieces of carryon for some reason.) People still get to walk with their loved ones right to boarding and wave as the horn sounds and the carriage pulls out of the station. I guess in my ideal world trains and ocean liners would still be the norm.

Hua Lamphong

Unfortunately for me the romance ended when I boarded and I was sitting opposite a young buddhist monk. I know in general one is not supposed to sit next to them on public transport but this was a second class sleeper car and this was my one assigned seat so awkward times ensued as he asked the porter if he could sit elsewhere and I’m guessing was told the train was full. Also frustratingly the train left about 15 minutes late and stopped several times on the way out of the city so that by the time we were even near the suburbs it was completely dark outside. Still while I could see I was kind of shocked by some of the sights rolling through the city. In all the places I’ve ridden a train in my travels (be it commuter or intercity) I’ve never seen so many people consistently living so close to the tracks. For most of the stretch out of Bangkok were so close to shop houses and shacks that I literally could have reached out and grabbed clothing hanging out window sills. I had a horrifying vision of what would happen with even a minor derailment along those sections and was thankful the train seemed to be travelling at a sane pace. In that sense it was almost a relief when darkness arrived.

So much for scenery, but I had no idea as at all of 7:30 the porter started coming through the car slamming the bunks into place. I guess in some ways it wasn’t bad as I was able to stretch out my longer western legs without bothering anyone. Unfortunately I also ended up slotted into the wrong bunk… I’m still not sure if my Monk friend had been swapped seats with one of the American mother daughter combo across the way (monks have stringent no touching women policies apparently) or she’d somehow conned him into giving up his bottom bunk for her but he ended up in my top bunk. This wouldn’t be a huge issue as I was just across the way but had I not set my alarm I easily could have missed my stop as the Porter was just waking people by bed number not actually calling out stations.

The bed itself was surprisingly not terrible and spacious enough for a six foot and a bit person. My father would definitely have needed the lower bunk though. Even a small window for the upper berth would have been nice though, but at least I’d snagged an A/C bunk. Apparently the newer trains are better but as this is a less tourist used one they use the older second class cars. One of the potties was even a squatty, the first one I’d seen so far in Thailand. Understandably as it was only 8 by the time all the beds were down people were far from quiet, but I threw on my new sleep headphones and managed to get to sleep after writing and reading for a while knowing I had to be up to be off the train by 6. The most frustrating thing about sleep in the end turned out to be the cabin lights not being dimmed at all and the upper berth curtain not quite covering the top of the hole. (If you’re on a sleeper car in Thailand being a sleep mask!)

in the cocoon (seriously dim the lights at least a little geez)

I woke at five to be safe and was up and rough washed soon thereafter, knowing that depending of if we’d made up the delays I’d be looking at anything from 5:40-6:30? for arrival at Surat Thani. People started waking more and more not long after (not helped by a food hawker coming through and screaming 3 times before six.) Not so shockingly it turned out to be 6:30 off the train for me, my bus further on was then another half hour late so it was more like 8am as we set out for Phuket arriving about 11:30 at Phuket Town bus terminal. In future I’d probably just fly or at least take the straight bus, though I did find out there was a sleeper departing a couple hours later that might have gotten an hour or two of daylight sightseeing before arriving.

Before this trip I didn’t know much about Phuket other than that it was an island on the Andaman Coast of thailand and it had been pummelled by the boxing day tsunami of 2004. Turns out it’s a really huge island and since it’s just across a tiny bridge it’s not even really treated as such by the locals anymore (none of them call it Ko Phuket for instance.) My reason for going to Phuket was that my father had kindly found an exchange for some of their timeshare points to give me four free nights at a condo in Patong Beach on the west coast of the island. I now knew that Phuket was big enough that it was strewn with multiple towns/beach resorts of which Patong was the biggest and uh… let’s go with showiest for a word here.

Unfortunately from the bus station I immediately ran into the curse of Phuket, cab drivers. Non-negotiable rates, unmetered and more than a little skeevy. Apparently they were even worse before the last military takeover as the authorities have now clamped down on them a bit… I don’t really see it. In the end I gritted my teeth, payed the guy enough for a Bangkok airport transfer and proceeded to watch him stumble his way to the condo/hotel complex. Truth be told, I can’t really blame him for that. The complex was fairly new and up a road that didn’t look as if it had anything but decrepit old gyms and run down houses then zigzagged through what were essentially back lanes and tuk tuk parking lots. My cabbie tried very hard to drop me off at an abandoned hotel (one that looked like it had been abandoned years before at 90% built, or perhaps most reno’d after the tsunami when money ran out.) In the end I spotted a distinctive wall from the picture rising up the hill and prodded him onward.

The resort (not really, but it’s part apartment building, part condo, part hotel so let’s just call it that) was quite gorgeous if really out of place. A beautiful gym and small but pretty infinity pool overlooked another abandoned construction site and a vacant lot where the neighbourhood kids seemed to hang out. It also had somewhat gloriously a cold jacuzzi end just the thing for sore muscles when you wouldn’t want a hot one given temps under 30c were rare as heck. My room was gorgeous as well, small but useful kitchenette, giant king size bed, balcony (overlooking someone’s jungle-ish garden so not much of a view) and bathroom with glorious waterfall shower that got used basically the moment the door was closed (followed by a swim, followed by another shower.)

They also had a shuttlebus into town that was nowhere near big enough for the number of people that often wanted to use it, including me that first night. Despite the glowing recommendation above there were definitely some issues with this place, some of which I think may just be growing pains but I really couldn’t believe (especially after the winding path in) that they didn’t have some form of rough town map with the location of the hotel on it. In the end I took a cartoony tourist map, blotted on where I thought the hotel was (the front desk clerk being no help) and took a photo of the intersection when I reached the bottom of the hill. Eventually I found the mall that the shuttle bus went to, manage to snag a new camera card reader and hit the grocery store for some breakfast fixings/drinks/snacks. Massively overpaid for some old english cheddar and some croissants because as much as I like thai food I had been jonesing for some cheese.

Phuket Traffic, up and to the left is hotel

Getting back was as awkward as expected especially as night had fallen and the party vibe of the place was getting going. Sidewalks were crowded and the traffic was absolutely mental. Even at 8 it was around 33 and massively humid out so I was sweaty and starving. I found a small quiet place on the way back, had a giant bowl of curry soup and dumplings w/ a beer for the grand total of $5, so great. By the time I stumbled back up the dark lane past the muay thai gym and whatnot it was latish and all I had the energy for was another shower followed by some wacky television and a piece of cheese. Properly exploring Patong would have to wait for tomorrow.

Astroboy! (@ the mall)

A show with everything but Yul Brynner

Odeon Circle Gate to Chinatown

According to a book I was reading the old way of greeting people upon meeting them out was thai for “have you had rice yet?” Really appropriate given Thai folks are a snacking and grazing people. Everywhere you look in Bangkok there are people eating noodles, grabbing something on a stick from a cart or chowing down on a bag of fresh mango chunks. Needless to say I’ve been diving into this culture headlong but as a longtime devotee of Thai cuisine I wanted to take at least one cooking class while I was here as well and this, my last (for now at least) full day in Bangkok was the day.

View from Golden Mount temple

What a beast of a day too. Heavy humid skies, hazy with smog just radiated heat in punishing waves. I didn’t want to waste the day just waiting around for my evening cooking class to start though so I set out with an extra shirt and water bottle to check out the golden mount. It’s a buddhist shrine built into a hill formed out of a collapsed construction project from centuries ago. The appeal was mostly in the view from the top though part of me really wished I’d chosen a cooler day.

Golden Mount

Part of the problem with being a tourist here is that the old town is more or less completely cut off from the modern transit systems. The two skytrain lines completely ignore old Bangkok and most of the west side of the river and the metro covers much of the same area though does at least sort of reach chinatown at the main train station. Unfortunately that leaves you either cabbing it in the old town or trying to make sense of the bus schedule which requires some sort of rosetta stone. Thankfully cabs are cheap and good as long as you can communicate where you want to go.

The “cheap ass backpacker” in me still refuses to use a cab even when it makes sense though… like say when it’s +35 and smoggy and you have issues with heat stroke? Idiot. In the end I ended up wandering about 5 or 6kms through the heat randomly sightseeing and waiting for an appropriate time to head over to the cooking class. I’d been warned to watch out for the rush hour traffic even though it was sunday and sure enough (though I wasn’t stuck in a cab) I could see the streets were as full of traffic as ever… despite 90% of the businesses I was passing being closed in the downtown area.

In the end I sat down in the subway station with a cool drink and was pretty quickly shivering since Thai public transport pretty much always has the AC turned up to near sub zero temps. Still probably should have hopped a cab at some point earlier.

Truth be told though, in the end I’d have had to walk the last bit either way. The directions were entirely set up to walk there from the nearest BTS station and involved a bunch of “turn left at X, follow alley Y” type maneuvres. It turned out to be situated in a narrow house on the narrowest of lots in a weird residential area surrounded on all sides by high rises. It was also clearly run by a cat lady as all the decorations were cat themed, cats roamed the grounds outside and could be heard meowing as we worked (and I suspect got the leftovers.) Even the lockers provided for our stuff had keys attached to big stuffed cats.

Unfortunately getting a slot in an evening class meant that I missed the “trip to the market” portion of the cooking class (though we also got a discount to make up for it) but our instructor Joo laid out all the ingredients and talked about flavours well enough to make up for it in my mind. My group consisted of yours truly, a spanish couple named Andreas and Kathie and another couple one from France one from Macao named Romeo and Vanessa. We started out in a small classroom with some material to read while the others arrived but once ready we were whisked into a seperate room where all of the ingredients for the night were laid out beautifully.

As most of you know I’ve done my share of thai cooking but it was amazing to get to see all these ingredients fresh. For less than the price of a good thai meal back home we got to make/eat a five course meal with the freshest ingredients. On this day the menu was:

-Tom Yam Soup w/ Shrimp
-Pat Thai w/ Shrimp
-Som Tam (Spicy Papaya and Carrot salad)
-Massaman/Matsuman Curry w/ rice (A personal fave and one I make already but now I learned how to make the paste from scratch)
-Mango Sticky Rice

Everything was phenomenal. We each either helped with prep (making the coconut cream/milk and curry paste communally) or prepped our own items for a recipe on our personal cutting boards. Once the mise en place was all set we’d head out onto the balcony to a row of woks and make our personal serving. As each course was finished Joo would send us into the eating room and we’d all devour every bite before moving on to the next step. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Romeo, Vanessa and I being the younger folks (and those who spoke English better) definitely hit it off and I wish I’d been staying closer to them so we could have gotten a drink but they were leaving the next day and so was I so I said goodbye and hopped a cab…

Have you ever had a scary cab ride? One of those “this guy is a maniac, I’m glad the seatbelt works” moments? Maybe in Mexico? Cuba?

I got Steve McQueen from Bullitt, or Jean Reno in Ronin. Bangkok is a pretty much entirely flat city but this guy got air a couple times including all four wheels in the air off the bump of a canal bridge. At one point I saw a sign flashing 30 urgently for his attention and checked his speedo to see it firmly at 80. Every cabbie in Bangkok seems to feel lanes are only a suggestion but this guy would dive into all four lanes on a street at times to get around the tiniest obstruction (yes, including both oncoming lanes.) Since I hadn’t just robbed a bank it seemed somewhat excessive.

But hey, it was a cheap ride!

 

Up Next: Phuket…