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Four Thai Islands

For 24 days in March, we island hopped our way from Thailand to Malaysia, criss-crossing the mainland twice to go from the Gulf of Thailand over to the Andaman Sea and back over to the South China Sea.  There was a stretch of 12 straight days where we didn’t hit the mainland, not even to cross the border, moving between islands by ferries of various sizes and shapes.  We hit four islands during the Thailand portion: Ko Tao, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, and Ko Lipe.  We had been looking forward to lazy days, and for that, the Thai islands didn’t disappoint, which is why I am able to sum up our two weeks in one post.  We had next to zero cultural interactions, and there’s only so many ways to describe our beach bum lives.  We visited the islands during the high season and found ourselves surrounded by tourists.  Unfortunately, all too many of them were of the young, partying variety, the types to walk around shirtless or hanging out of a bikini hooting and hollering in a rather conservative (and in some of the islands, Muslim) society.  The tourism industry is all too eager to cater to these tourists, with shoddily constructed cheap construction tacked up haphazardly next to sewage and water pipes jutting out of the ground, tourist agencies and shops selling the same crap, and most annoyingly, pounding bass music at night.  I didn’t expect to be the only ones around, but finding decent accommodation in a quiet location became the bane of our existence.  Everything on the islands is more expensive than the mainland and food and accommodation is not nearly as good.  But we managed to find some good stuff, we just had to look a little harder.  Plus it’s hard to be cranky when the water’s warm and crystal clear, the sand is white and fine, and the sun is shining.  Here’s our take (and photos, of course) from the four islands we visited:

Ko Tao

Despite spending 5 nights on Ko Tao, I couldn’t tell you a thing about the island other than it’s great at churning out certified scuba divers at dirt cheap prices.  We went there with a one track mind and left after successfully getting our PADI Open Water scuba certification from Buddha View Divers for about $325 a person.  Other than that, we saw diddly squat.  While we could have made more of an effort to explore, we felt lazy after days spent doing homework for our class and mastering new skills out in the water.  So that’s all I have to say about that.  (Spoiler alert: we ended up getting our advanced diving certification through Turtle Bay Divers on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.  More on that later, but if I had to do it over again, I’d probably would have gotten my open water certification through Turtle Bay as well since it was actually cheaper similarly priced [Sean tells me I'm remembering wrong], classes are more intimate and less like a factory, and our instructor Harun was awesome.  Nevertheless, the diving schools on Ko Tao get the job done efficiently).

Ko Phi Phi

Ko Phi Phi: definitely winning the award from my least favorite Thai island.  You may remember Phi Phi as it was destroyed by the tsunami in 2004.  Seven years later, many of the signs of the tsunami are gone, save for new signs displaying the evacuation route.  I’m not sure if it was this bad pre-tsunami, but today, it has little charm and it’s crammed full of tourist agencies, trinket shops and clubs.  Most people that are there seem to be there to party.  In Phi Phi’s defense, we only were there for 2 days and didn’t get a chance to explore beyond the tourist-packed village close to the ferry pier.  It rained rather hard while we were there, pinning us in our room and cancelling the boat outing we had planned.  And it is a beautiful island, with two crescent shaped bays curving inwards to meet each other.  But overall it’s not my cup of tea.

 

Ko Lanta

Ko Lanta may be the least tropical of the islands we visited, but it probably was my favorite.  For starters, it’s bigger than some of the others (but easily circumnavigated in a scooter), meaning that it is less crowded and more spread out.  We stayed on Klong Khong Beach on the central western coast, but explored all over the island from the popular Klong Dao Beach in the northwest to the secluded beaches and national park down a dirt road at the southern tip to the less beachy but quaint east coast where the locals live.  As we went south in Thailand, the Thai Muslim culture became more predominant, and Muslims operate most of the guesthouses and restaurants on Lanta.  The longer we stayed, the more we discovered little hidden gems like Shanti Shanti’s homemade ice creams and sorbets (we tried lime and papaya, chili mango and cinnamon) or Bulan Lanta’s bargain homemade muesli.  Our favorite past time on Ko Lanta was sunset watching; there are great sunsets every night up and down Lanta’s long western coast.


 

Ko Lipe

When you’re daydreaming of escaping to the Thai islands at work, Ko Lipe might be the closest to the picture you have in your mind.  Only an hour and half to the Malaysian border by boat and in the middle of a marine reserve, it’s less developed and a little harder to get to than the more northern islands.  There’s no pier; the ferry picks up and drops off in the middle of the bay.  The water was the bluest and clearest of any of the Thai islands we visited and the sand the whitest and softest.  Unfortunately, some of those fabulous beaches can also be strewn with a little too much garbage for my liking.  Some people fear Ko Lipe is turning into a mini Ko Phi Phi.  Like Ko Phi Phi, motor traffic is prohibited on much of Ko Lipe, and any development that is occurring is shortsighted.  It’s also a tad more expensive than even Ko Phi Phi (although we managed to find a decent hut for under $20, albeit without a sink).  Hopefully, development won’t run amok, as it is a beautiful gem.

 


Happy Place, Thailand

Before we headed south all the way to the Thai islands, we stopped at a quiet little seaside town for a few days. The town is called Happy Place. No, that’s not it’s real name, it’s just what Daniel and Helena from the Backpack Foodie christened it after spending two peaceful weeks there in 2009. As he says on his blog, if you ask Daniel nicely, he might reveal the real name of Happy Place to you; he did for me. His descriptions of a small Thai town unblemished by tourism and blessed by fresh seafood reeled me in, and so we set off for a short detour to Happy Place.

Had I known then what I know now, I might have never left. In her broken but steadily growing vocabulary of English, Tchim, the owner of the Coco House, a small local cafe close to our hotel, told me, the islands – very crowded, very expensive. Here – not very crowded, not very expensive. Boy, was she ever right. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the Thai islands – they’re tropical paradise, how could we not – but not as much as we anticipated. More on that to come, but let’s just say traveling in high season makes it hard for the paradise part to shine through.

In Happy Place, on the other hand, nothing gets in the way of its simple pleasures: watching the green lights of the fishing boats bob on the horizon every evening; watching the same boats return in the morning light; eating the fruits of the fisherman’s labors at restaurants on the promenade; hiking up to a great view and dodging thieving monkeys; trying to track down the roving VW bus turned cafe; and listening to the sea lap at the sandy shore.

Happy Place is the type of place that is more likely to be frequented by Thai tourists than farangs. We weren’t the only foreign tourists there, but it wasn’t hard to find yourself surrounded only by locals. We stumbled upon a local fair and besides us, there were only Thai faces around. Sean got a hankering for some bugs and downed some along with a Chang beer much to the amusement of some bystanders. He described them as “earthy” and said they didn’t taste too bad. Blech. I opted for strawberries and doughnuts instead.  While we were at the fair, the Thais stared at us in polite curiosity, particularly Sean, as we took our turn playing the fair’s games; we politely stared back at them, trying to figure out why they were sitting in chairs connected by strings to monks up on the stage.

In his post about Happy Place, Daniel wrote that “[i]t’s, sadly, entirely possible that in a few years, we will barely recognize our favorite spot under the concrete of a beach resort” because “like many places before it in Thailand, the vanguard of foreign tourism has already begun its incursion.”  Almost two years later, it seems time hasn’t marched quite yet.  There’s no banana pancake cafes or booming bass and there’s only one 7-Eleven.  Tchim is still there, selling coffee at Coco House and eager to chat about the two farangs that befriended her in her early weeks of operation.  The Deemer family still cooks up delectable pad thai and som yam and their cat still scarfs down any of the delicious seafood that it can get its paws on.  In other words, Happy Place is still happy.


Bangkok, Redux.

Going back to Bangkok after Hanoi was like going to see an old friend. We found we loved Bangkok as much as we did the first time three months prior, save for the muggier weather.  We contemplated staying elsewhere but you just can’t beat the fabulous Roof View Place.  We wasted no time visiting old favorites.  We were happy to see our Pad Thai Lady again; we missed her so. And just when you thought a good thing couldn’t get better, a couple opened a coffee shop with chocolately cupcakes several doors away from the Pad Thai Lady.  There was another round of visits to the Peanut Butter and Banana Pancake Lady, the Mango and Sticky Rice Man, the Orange Juice Lady, the movies, the malls, and Ethos Vegetarian Restaurant. Sadly, there was no time for $6 massages, a decision I would come to regret when I realized massages on the islands are at least $8. Outrageous.

We also mixed it up a bit this time, with visits to the Jim Thompson House and a whirlwind ride in a river taxi down one of Bangkok’s side canals. The craziest thing we did was turn left outside Roof View Place instead of staying straight to walk to the bus; it was a whole new world. On your way to work or the grocery store today, take a new way home…you never know what you’ll see.

This isn't no ordinary OJ.

 

Thoroughly vetted as the best pad thai in Thailand.

And now with handy dessert.

This time, we did it right and went to the fancy movies at Siam Paragon.

Flying down the side canals in a water taxi is hands down one of the coolest experiences in Bangkok. You hop on before the boat comes to a full stop and whip down the murky brown water past residential homes displaying lush plants and laundry. The money collectors hanging on outside the boat duck at the underpasses and pull down the retractable roof just in time. It is WILD.

Jim Thompson is a former American CIA agent living in Bangkok who mysteriously disappeared in the 70s. His traditional teak Thai houses and extensive displays of Asian art are on display.

Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson's House

Don't forget to take a new path every once in a while...

...you never know what you'll discover.


No, we didn’t drown, just no chance to post…

Just a quick note to say hello. I had hoped to introduce you all to Cambodia today, but ran out of time. We’re in the midst of our scuba certification and between our practice dives and homework (yes, homework!) it doesn’t leave a lot of time for internet, especially since free wi-fi is rather scarce on our part of Koh Tao. We have 2 more days here, then a massive travel day ahead of us, so I’ll be back later this week with tales from Cambodia. Thanks for being patient and sticking with us!


The Slooooooooooow Boat to Luang Prabang

After leaving spending Christmas in Chiang Mai, we were determined to get to Laos to ring in 2011. So of course we took the slowest way possible. Over the course of three days, we traveled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos by a combination of bus and a slow boat (not to mention pick-up trucks, songtheaws, and a “ferry”). They call it the slow boat because it involves two very long days of cruising on the Mekong River, as opposed to the fast boat that makes the trip in a zippy six hours but requires motorcycle helmets and a potential death wish. Here’s how it all went down:

Day One: Ride what is a serious contender for our worst bus yet from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong on the border. The ride was at least seven hours and I spent all seven of those hours smooshed in between Sean on my left and a Thai boy on my right because why have four seats across when you can have five? I’m certain the Thai boy had to be upset with his dumb luck getting stuck next to the two ginormous Westerners but these seats weren’t even wide enough for five Thai people to sit comfortably. Of course there was obnoxiously loud music; it is Southeast Asia, after all.

Day Two: First leg of the slow boat. On the first leg, you alternate between, this sucks and this is awesome. They say it is easy to meet new people on the slow boat to Luang Prabang and it is true; misery loves company. Shortly after departing from the border, we met our German counterparts, Rod and Lizzy, who we ended up traveling with for the better part of two weeks.  Besides meeting new friends, the first leg is characterized by consumption of Beer Lao and daydreaming while gazing at the Mekong. The views are fantastic, but the seats are not. Unless you arrived at least three hours early to grab the “premium” seats (i.e., old car seats), you were stuck sitting on a “handcrafted” bench. I’m not sure what would be worse – extending the already long day by three whole hours or sitting on the benches, which are basically two narrow pieces of wood nailed to each other in a crude fashion. I really don’t know whose butt would fit on those things, but my first impression of the Lao people is that they are even smaller than the Thais so maybe it is possible that a Laotian butt would fit. If you are considering taking the slow boat, B.Y.O.C. is a must. Your butt will thank you.

Day Three: After spending the night in Pakbeng freezing in a room with a broken window, and being very confused as to why we could see our breath in the tropics, we board the slow boat for the second leg. Of course all of the “premium” seats were gone, so we snagged our own wooden bench and waited for the boat to depart. As with day one, the slow boat doesn’t leave anywhere near the time it is supposed to. Our first introduction to Laos: the land of hurry up and wait.

We sat there, getting more and more hemmed in by the never ending stream of backpackers boarding the boat, and wondering how in the hell they are going to fit all of those people. Just when you thought another person couldn’t possibly fit, someone else who slept in would straggle down the hill. I’m not sure exactly how many people filled the boat, but at one approximate count it was over 100. Here’s the thing; on the first boat leg, they split the group into two boats, but on the second leg, they put everyone on the same boat. By the time we pulled away from shore, we were down to one bench and a small space on the floor. Within the hour, Sean was sharing his bench with a local and I had to sit cross-legged in an increasingly shrinking floor space.

Remember how I wondered earlier how they could possibly fit any more people? I must have thought that at least twenty more times over the course of the day. You would think, after adding person after person after person, all of whom were toting luggage, cargo, rice sacks, and chickens, that I would learn that there’s always more room in Lao.

To sum it up, the second leg was characterized by discomfort, boredom, stir-craziness, horror at the guy on our boat who insisted on sticking his camera right in the locals’ faces as they boarded the boat, shivers, a headache from the previous day’s Beer Lao, and many thoughts of are-we-there-yet-for-the-love-of-all-that’s-holy-and-divine.

My Two Cents

If you wish to subject yourself to the three day journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, here’s some tips, for whatever they’re worth:

- Although everyone on both sides of the border will try to convince you otherwise, there’s no need to book any of the transport as part of a package. In December, the high season, we bought the bus tickets at the bus station (but we did have to wait for three hours before the bus left) and we bought the boat tickets straight from the boat operator (located on the left of the path leading down to the slow boats).

- I’m serious about bringing your own cushion, unless you are able to snag a premium seat (which requires getting there as much as three hours early, according to some girls who did just that). Don’t skimp and go without the cushion, even though they work out to be almost $4. They may be cheaper in the center of Chiang Khong of Huay Xuay, but we didn’t pass by these areas so we snagged them on the path leading down to the slow boat.

- Beer Lao gets progressively more expensive the closer you get to the boat, teaching us that perhaps communist countries aren’t quite so communist after all. Beer Lao is normally about 10,000 kip, but we paid 15,000 at a restaurant close to the dock. The beer is chilled on the boat, but it will cost you anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 from the boat operator depending on what they feel like charging.

- There’s no food for sale on the boat other than some chips and ramen noodles, so bring some snacks and water. Our guesthouse in Chiang Khong boxed up fried rice for us for the first leg and we bought some Nutella and baguette sandwiches from a stand in Pakbeng.

- In December, Laos can be chilly (see comment about shivers, above), and that goes double for cruising on the river. Dress in layers.

- Accommodation in Chiang Khong and Pakbeng leave a lot to be desired. The owner of Baan Rimtaling Guesthouse meets the bus with her pick up truck. It was late, so we ended up piling in the back with others from our bus. Our room, in the “Ghost” house portion of the property, had a lovely sagging bed and a shared bathroom past the woodpile outside, but at least it was only 200 baht ($6.67 USD). Since everyone empties off the slow boat at once, our plan was to have one of us book it up the hill to try to snag a decent room while the other grabbed our backpacks. But anxieties over horror stories we’d heard about rats in the rooms in Pakbeng and exhaustion caused us to pre-book a room with a guesthouse with decent reviews on Travelfish (Villa Salika) from a guy on the boat. As mentioned, the room came with a broken window, which was fabulous with the chilly weather, and also had a majorly leaking toilet to boot. At least no rats were spotted. Anyone associated with the guesthouse disappears after you check in so you’re pretty much out of luck if you have any problems. I wish I could say the room was cheap but we way overpaid by pre-booking (500 baht, about 17 USD). Since we got our room in advance, I’m not sure if the hunt for accommodation was as bad as people make it out to be online.

- Remember, your experience on the slow boat could vary depending on the number of travelers, whether it is rainy or dry season, and the particular boat you end up on. You can research the trip all you want, but it is the type of thing that comes down to a big fat depends.

- Would we take the slow boat again? I’m not sure. There’s really no good option. Three days of bus rides sounds just as unappealing if not more and of course flying is expensive, although I’d jump on that flight in a heartbeat if we weren’t on a budget. The three day, two night slow boat experience is just that, an experience, with lovely views to boot, although I think a guy on our boat said it best: the slow boat is one of those things that royally sucks while you’re doing it and only becomes legendary later.

You know the bus is crowded when you can't even get a proper photo showing just how crowded it was.

First view of Laos from across the border in Thailand. Isn't she a beaut?

Slow boats, all ready to go. We saw ones that were really pimped out, but of course both of the boats we ended up on were nothing of the sort. If someone could solve the mystery of how exactly one gets on premium transport in Southeast Asia, please let me know. Right now I'm convinced they're just for show to torture you.

Sean, with his game face on.

One of my 4,000 photos while cruising along the Mekong.

Sean chatting with Rod and Lizzy, leg one.

It is true that Beer Lao makes the boat ride better, until you have to pee in the tiny on-board bathroom.

All Mekong, all the time.

The other slow boat, leg one.

There may not be a fancy dock but at least the tourists can usually get off the boat without wading in the river or climbing sand hills, unlike the locals.

At some of the boat stops, it seemed like the whole village would come to greet the boat. These little Laotians could care less about the boat and just had fun tumbling down the sandy silted riverbank.

Leg two. There's a chicken in that carrying case.

More people? Sure, why not?

As soon as the boat dropped him off, this Lao guy commenced smoking his bong on the riverbank.

Love that magical golden glow, but why aren't we there yet?

Rice paddies on the riverbank ALMOST in Luang Prabang.

Our reward for three days of travel: we arrived just in time for sunset on the Mekong.


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