Thursday, October 30, 2008

Amazing Thailand: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Krabi and surrounding area

A few words about Thailand

We think there are five main reasons western tourists come to Thailand; the scenery, the culture, the people, the affordability, and the food (but not necessarily in that order). All are spectacular, and Thailand remains one of the few places in the world with all of these attributes, combined with comprehensive transportation and lodging options for travelers in any budget, good medical care (if you need it), and political stability. Thailand is a traveler's paradise. On the one hand, this country does seem to be on the cutting edge of many things (more internet cafes and good public transportation, for example) and the richness of Thai beauty and culture is unsurpassed in our personal travel experience. On the other hand, (outside of Bangkok) it has the unhurried pace of a tropical paradise. To sum it up, we love Thailand.

In Thailand, two tourists can live like a modest King (and Queen) for under $50 USD per day (or $25pp) - including activities such as diving, snorkeling, cooking classes, trekking, VIP bus transportation, eating in restaurants, and staying in modest but clean hotels with en suite toilets. For a less extravagant tour, you can certainly live comfortably on much less. We've met other tourists happily spending a mere $10-$15 per day (and many of our days have been that low as well).

The economy is still on the mend from the crash in the Asian markets last year, and tourist dollars are welcome relief in many areas, as other industries struggle to regain balance during this difficult time. In general, we have been told that most average middle or working class employed Thai people make between 150 (minimum wage) and 500 Baht a day, although of course there are few upwards exceptions to this, and also, sadly, many (including educated and skilled) people not employed or employed and not even making the minimum. This seems quite low by western standards, but remember that the cost of living most places (especially outside of Bangkok) is much lower than Western Europe, Australia, or the US.

However, despite the current economic hardships, Thai people (in general) seem friendly and happy. Rightly named "the land of smiles", Sanuk (fun) is drawn out in many aspects of life. Life seems simpler, but honor, pride, respect, and loyalty seem to be important traits within each area we visit. Anger is seen as a weakness. Loss of self-control is looked down upon. Buddhism is the dominant religion, and many Thai males are expected to serve as a monk at some point in their lives (for as little as three months, or indefinitely), which brings honor to their families. (Women may also become nuns in the Buddhist religion, but we have heard it is not quite as highly regarded socially as monkhood.) Service as a nun or monk teaches self-discipline, kind heartedness, and spirituality. The Buddhist values are apparent in Thai society.

Even if you don't know a word of Thai, if you speak or understand a little English, Thailand is EASY. Thais employed in bus and train stations, travel agencies, guest houses and hotels all seem to know enough English to be able to help you. Hand gestures work when all else fails. Although, be aware that spelling becomes a most creative art with phonetic transliteration (The Thais use a different alphabet than westerners). Therefore, maps and guidebooks can be difficult to follow, as the name of a street, Wat (temple), or guesthouse will most likely be listed in any one of a number of phonetic combination. Even after over a month here, we cannot read even simple Thai signs. We are told there are over 50 letters in the Thai alphabet, and even though they look lovely when placed together, they still don't form words we can recognize. Even so, we manage to navigate ourselves to and around, with the kind help of patient Thais.

We are impressed with how many Thais speak English (how many Americans speak Thai?), but we still giggle at the typos in the English translated menus. Now, we don't hesitate to order "rarely fresh squid" and know that a woman can request "hard boy egg" without damaging her reputation. We can only imagine what horrible mistakes we make when we attempt the few Thai words we know.

We are sometimes shocked by the lack of safety standards in some forms of transportation, hotels and especially boats. For example, 1 life vest for every dozen or so passengers seems like a luxury, if it is even available, and we are yet to see a fire escape (or alarm!) on a multi-story guesthouse. Four people can and often do fit on a moped, on the highway, and without helmets. We are used to seeing monks on mopeds, sitting side-saddle on the back, and we are used to cows and water buffalo crossing highways at their leisure. A mere honk of the horn gives any driver license to pass in opposing traffic, and everyone (monks and water buffalo included) just move onto the shoulder!


To say the least, getting to Bangkok from Auckland was a journey in itself. We made a mistake calculating time zones, and what we thought was going to be a 3-hour layover in Australia was actually 7 hours. Since we didn't bother to get an Australian Visa, we could not leave Sydney's international terminal. Fortunately for us, the lady at United's "Red Carpet Room" (a lounge for business class passengers, or those with a paid membership)sympathized with us (after some begging and whining on our part) and said she was going on a break and she never saw us. Big score for the budget travelers! We never appreciated luxury so much.

We arrived in Bangkok around midnight on March 15th. We headed directly to the famous backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road. (We were told that this is not always easy to do. Many private taxi drivers will take naive and disoriented looking backpackers to a destination other than what they have requested, in order to gain commissions on overpriced and undesirable hotels). We wanted to avoid this, so splurged on the official airport taxi (a whopping 650Bhat) and had a trouble-free and very comfortable ride in an air-conditioned brand-new Mercedes. When we arrived on Khao San Road after midnight, the street was packed with partying international backpackers, food vendors, and souvenir hawkers. Note: Since then, we've taken many private taxis, and have not had this trouble. We have found the traffic in Bangkok to be a little frightening at times, but most of the Taxi drivers are friendly, usually a little bilingual (a little English if not several other languages) and responsive to fair and persistent bargaining. Fortunately for us, the third guesthouse we tried (The Nana) had a mean but sufficient room on the 5th floor (no lift) with A/C, a small balcony and private bathroom. We paid 600 Baht, or about $14 USD. This was the most expensive room we've stayed in in Thailand, and the least charming. (You can find dorm-style accommodations on Khao San road for about 100 Baht, but we did not bother, since we were not staying long.) Khao San Road is only about 2-3 blocks long, but packs a lot of action. It's lined with bars, restaurants, travel agencies, cheap guesthouses, tourist shops, massage parlors, and a host of street vendors specializing in bootleg cassette tapes and clothing items, and possibly illegal substances, even though the police station is located at the end of the road.

For our first day, we took a few tuk-tuks around town, fearing for our lives as the small, noisy vehicle maneuvered through heavy and fast traffic, getting sideways on corners, and nearly taking out a few food stalls. However, we found a more agreeable means of transportation on the canal - a long-tail boat (200 Baht for one hour). We spent hours just walking through the various open-air markets, a little overwhelmed, but very excited to be in Thailand!. Our good friend Alie met us the evening of the 16th, and after another day sightseeing (The very impressive Grand Palace) and one more night at the Nana, we all decided to head down to Koh Tao, an island in the scenic South.

Koh Tao

We caught an overnight VIP government bus from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal to Chumphon (10pm - 4am), where we waited in a travel agency for the ferry to Koh Tao (7:30am). By 11am the next day, we were all comfortably kicking back on the beach at Ban's Diving Resort. We ended up staying on Koh Tao 11 days at Ban's Diving Resort. Cara got her Open Water Certification (finally), Joe got his Advanced Open Water, and Alie was a diving maniac, logged 18 dives, got her Advanced OW and also Rescue diver. Joe logged 9 dives and Cara 6. We figured that was enough to get our fix, and supplemented our entertainment agenda with snorkeling, feeding multicolored frenzied fish bananas (and occasionally our own fingertips), and exploring the lush island by moped.

The coral and other sea life was plentiful and amazing, and Cara's Swedish Padi instructor, Ola, taught a method of "scuba nirvana " that really calmed her underwater. Those of you who know Cara might remember she is usually terrified of swimming in the ocean (some weird phobia she has). However, on Koh Tao, she fearlessly drifted through schools of barracuda, teased aggressive trigger fish, and even did a small cave swim-through. Cara missed night diving, but Joe and Alie can testify that it was amazing. When you shine a torch on the fish, they become clear targets for the barracuda which typically feed at night. It's kind of a death sentence for the fish, but the barracuda need to eat also! Alie went off on her own one evening to go snorkeling with feeding sharks, and has promised to to email us her impressions so we can post them!

We never wanted to leave Koh Tao, but were curious to see other parts of Thailand. We decided to take a night ferry to Surat Thani. Our hotel told us that the ferry was a comfortable overnight journey. We had in our minds that we might have private beds. When we arrived at the dock, we found that the vessel was the size of a large fishing boat, and the sleeping accommodation consisted of one crowded room with a foam pad that covered the floor. Some people who arrived early were able to stake out enough floorspace in order to stretch out and sleep, however, we weren't expecting the style of accommodation, arrived at the last minute, and found ourselves crammed into a small space barely big enough for our packs, let alone our bodies. Kind Joe slept outside on the deck to free up some leg space for his fiance. Who says chivalry is dead!

Krabi and surrounding area

We arrived in Krabi during our third week in Thailand. While most travelers pass through on their way to Phuket, Rai Lai, or other beach destinations, we decided to spend a night in the city, to see what it was like. Alie and Cara had a Thai massage in what turned out to be a brothel downtown, while Joe waited out a rainstorm on the balcony of our charming 4 dollar-a night guesthouse.

We went to the most amazing Wat, a monastery nestled in a valley between limestone cliffs. Individual temples were along the cliffs, set back in caves. It was well worth the exertion for the step back in time. It was not crowded at all, and the couple of dozen monks scurrying about outnumbered the tourists. However, the long tail monkeys outnumbered both the monks and the tourists. Little bald nuns shot the monkeys with slingshots to keep them away from the refreshment stands. There was another small hike, up about 1,500 stairs to the top of the limestone cliffs, to an area named "Buddha's Footprint". This hike will reward you with great views of the surrounding area, but we missed it, as it started raining and with the clouds we would not have been able to see anything, anyway.

We also took a long-tail boat to Rai Lay, a nearby beach peninsula inside a Thai National Park. The peninsula includes three main beach areas, each with privately run bungalows and restaurants. We stayed overnight on the least scenic, but also less expensive beach, East Rai Lay (turns to mud flats at low tide). We were still able to spend our time at the nearby and more upscale West Rai Lay beach, and the very expensive (western resort pricing), but most beautiful Hat Phra Nang. Besides sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, cruising the bay in long tail boats, the cliffs surrounding the beaches offer superb rock climbing opportunities. Joe and Alie tried their hand at climbing in a half-day class that just about knocked them flat, but was tons of fun. In addition, we all had fun with some moderate spelunking, since the limestone cliffs are riddled with caves. We missed the hike to a hidden lagoon, in between East Rai Lay and Hat Phra Nang, as we only stayed one evening.

Our bungalows on East Rai Lay (we stayed at The "Ya Ya"), were fun and funky in atmosphere and architecture. However, they were quite shabbily built and totally infested with critters.... Alie killed about seven huge cockroaches inside an hour, before she gave up and went to sleep, to the sounds of the Thai pop band playing late in the night at the bar next door. Joe and I had to abandon our porch due to the carpenter ants. However, the Ya ya does attract many backpackers and rock climbers due to its swiss-family-robinson look, lively bar scene, and excellent coffee (not to mention cheapest accommodation prices on the peninsula.)

Chiang Mai

I am very proud of our journey, as we managed to avoid travel agencies the whole way. After our first six hours (a local bus from Krabi back to Surrat Thani), we were stranded, it seemed like we'd have to book through a travel agency. All the agencies ("No, there is no public bus" "No, the public bus and train all booked". "No, there is no bus, and it is not comfortable" No, there is no train from Surrat Thani") We knew there was a bus station, with many buses, which were comfortable, and not booked. However, we still did not know how to get to the station! When we finally made it there, I felt as if I had accomplished some great feat. (If you are going to be spending 30 hours on a bus, you want a really good one. The tourist agencies are not well regulated, so while some I'm sure are very good, others often do not deliver what they have promised.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, the capital of the Chiang Mai province, in the North of Thailand. This is the most popular tourist center for arranging trekking tours, taking Thai cooking classes, massage classes, and yoga. Chiang Mai is also known for its large and quite impressive transvestite population and, sadly, an active Opium trade. Shopping in Chiang Mai is fantastic - the guidebooks claim it is better than Bangkok, and we agree. The North is known for rich crafts, many tailors, and the popular night bazaar is a lively and colorful place to spend many evenings. The nightlife is also rich (but not too cheap). Our favorite bar, near the Thae Phae gate was "The Public House". For a small bar, it was always lively, and hosted an open jam session nightly, and good drink specials. Joe got his fix drumming with the band several evenings in a row.

Before Alie left us to return to the states and graduate school, the three of us went on a fantastic three-day, two-night trek in the Pai province (Northwest of Chaing Mai). We booked through Panda Tours, and highly recommend them. We went on a "non-touristed" trek (all the agencies boast this), but were surprised that they delivered beyond our expectations. We hiked through the devastated remains of jungle area (due to the slash-and burn technique employed by the hill tribe farmers and opium growers), rode elephants through lush misty jungle, crossed many rivers on precarious bamboo "bridges", and spent 3 hours poling downstream on a bamboo raft. Our tour guide, Sung, sparked our active imaginations entertaining us in the evenings with colorful tales of "treks gone bad".

Joe and I spent nearly two weeks in Chaing Mai, and considered staying there even longer to take Thai classes, or possibly teach English. ...

Chiang Khong (The Thai/Lao border in Northern Thailand)

Most people cruise quickly through this small, border town on their way overland from the North of Thailand to the North of Laos. We arrived near the end of Songkran - the annual water festival that marks the Thai new year. We had hoped to get a same-day or next-day Lao visa, but were not able to, due to the holiday (Lao immigration was closed). We wound up making friends with several locals, and had more fun in Chiang Khong than any other single place in Thailand.

We were lucky not only to catch Songkran, but also the annual Giant Catfish fishing festival (being filmed by Discovery Channel while we were there!) Because of our new Thai friends, we were able to ride in the fishing boat parade on the VIP cruise boat with the "mayor" of Chiang Khong, and other important locals.

At closer examination, this town offers a lot for the tourist looking for a more 'untouristed' Northern Thailand experience, since most travelers only stay one or two nights, if any, and the main tourist pushes are to get you a visa or to put you up for a night. Everything else, you are pleasantly on your own!

We'd like to give a strong "plug" a couple of businesses we found immeasurably helpful during our stay, and hope you patronize them if doing the overland Northern Thailand to Laos Route:

Travel Agencies:

Ms. Apple at Traveler's corner is the best travel agent in town, helpful and kind (and honest) and way better and more personal than the larger and somewhat unpleasant "Anne Tour" that our guidebook recommended. Her English is excellent, which really helps. If we had used Miss Apple's services, we would have saved money, and obtained our visa earlier, and with less hassle. Traveler's Corner is stocked with up-to-date information on Laos, and you are welcome to peruse for free. She's got fair prices, a good library exchange, guidebooks for sale, bicycles for rent, as well as many other Laos-bound traveler's supplies (ear plugs for the speed boat, mosquito nets, etc.) She can also help recommend a guesthouse or home stay if you are feeling frustrated with the choices of guest houses. (There are quite a lot, new ones springing up all the time, and they vary in quality and price).

Food/Drinks & Nightlife:

Okay, there isn't much nightlife in Chiang Khong, but you can certainly create your own. We found a small, unnamed and out-of-the way store/restaurant that you MUST NOT MISS if you pass through. This is not a tourist shop, and the prices reflect true local prices (less than half of what you will be charged in town). We may be biased (and we are, because we really liked the proprietors), but can safely say their traditional food surpassed any of the more "convenient" restaurants downtown (although they may have a limited menu). One important note, they charge foreigners "local" prices not only for food, but also for beer (also about half what the restaurant in town charge). In addition, the owners (Mr. Bob and Ms. A) have a selection of good American movies that you can watch on the TV/VCR in the shop. Our last night in town, we rounded up a few other travelers from our guest house, headed down to Mr. Bob's and had the best and cheapest evening, underneath the blinking Christmas lights and surrounded by friendly locals.

To reach the store, walk approximately 300 meters from the Bus station (away from the harbor and travel agencies) on the main street (the store will be on your left). You will recognize it by the black and white African-looking striped decoration, and it is directly across from a petrol station. For a lively evening, grab a few other tourists from your guest house and go! If you need help finding it, ask Ms. Apple at Traveler's corner, or a young Tuk-Tuk driver named Mr. Lee. (Not all the tuk-tuk drivers will know what you are talking about, as the shop does not currently have a name, and it is not a common destination for tourists). If you are lucky enough to find the shop, tell Mr. Bob and Ms. A that Joe and Cara send their love!

Mr. Bob is an excellent and talented artist / painter, the former creative director of an advertising agency in Bangkok (before the economy turned sour). He's got some fantastic plans drawn up for a future guesthouse he wants to build on his hillside property. Don't be put off by the fact that yes, he's probably looking for investors, because he and his family are generous, kind, honest and warm whether you are a perspective investor or not. For example, they invited us to their family's Songkran dinner, introduced us to all their friends, and let us hang out with them constantly even after we told them we were not investors. They treated us like family throughout our stay, even driving us back to our guest house themselves one evening when the tuk-tuks wanted extortionist prices. When they thought we were to be leaving Laos, they waited for us by the immigration office for two hours, in order to wish us good-bye.

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