Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok

John prepares to head out into the main walkway with his second gun of the day.

John prepares to head out into the main walkway with his second gun of the day.

One of the best parts of extending our trip by a couple weeks was the fact that we got to spend our last weekend in Bangkok during the Thai New Year. To celebrate Songkran, as it is called in Thai, the entire country participates in a massive water festival. This tradition of throwing water on people originated with catching water that had been poured over Buddhas for cleansing and then pouring the water on people’s shoulders as a blessing. It has evolved far beyond this today, of course. But given that New Years is at the end of the dry season and Thailand is hot as Hades then, the timing sure couldn’t be better.

We spent all day Saturday souvenir shopping at the outdoor Chatachuk Market. Not knowing what to expect, we prepared by putting our electronics, passports and money in Ziplocks and wondered if we were being overly cautious. Ha! Little did we know we would not be dry for the entire next two days. Of course, we bought water guns at the market and that was a clear sign to everyone around us that we were fair game.

Not only did we engage in quite a few water gun fights, but various people dumped buckets of water on us, over and over! Even when we were in a tuk tuk on the way back to our hotel, we got completely soaked by revelers with full buckets. And so we were indoctrinated into the incredibly fun ritual of celebrating New Years, Thai style.

These kids are hiding out in a closed-for-the-day clothing stall and are firing straight at John!

These kids are hiding out in a closed-for-the-day clothing stall and are firing straight at John!


Getting ready.

Getting ready. Clothes are still mostly dry.

This poor kid!

John really gets into “celebrating New Years” … who knows what this poor kid was thinking?!

In the fray

In the fray. Completely soaked at this point.

We didn't take this one, but it captures the "bucket effect" - which was how we got completely soaked both days.

We didn’t take this photo, but it captures the “bucket effect” – which ensured that we got completely soaked both days.

Paradise Found: Sleeping on a Boat in Maya Bay

On the small ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It was either sit on the hull and get windblown and wet, or suffer the thick diesel smell below ...

On the small ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It was either sit on the hull and get windblown and wet, or endure the thick diesel smell below …

We had a lot of mixed feelings about going to the touristy Ko Phi Phi islands, which are reputed to be party central. However, they are supposed to be among the most beautiful islands in the world and we wanted to have a glimpse while we were so close. The main island (Ko Phi Phi Don) is so popular that hotel prices are quite high, so we decided to take a chance on an overnight boat trip to the nearby Ko Phi Phi Leh, (a national park where The Beach was filmed). There are no hotels on this island so it is full of day trippers between sunrise and sunset. The ‘Sleep Aboard‘ trip is the only authorized group that can be on Maya Beach after sunset, so you end up having the place to yourself (aside from a few park employees that camp inland from the beach). This meant that we would only have about 6 hours to spend on the main island of Ko Phi Phi Don before our boat left, but that turned out to be just right for us.

View of the center strip of land connecting two beaches on Phi Phi Don (yes, it is pronounced 'pee pee'). It was sweltering hot and we were carrying our packs around for the overnight boat trip. John and I had a difference of opinion over whether or not to take the 1/2 hour, uphill hike to the viewpoint in the noontime heat with our bags. We compromised and John had a beer (or two) and watched the bags while I did the hike. It was a tough hike in the heat, and I don't think I would've made it to the top with my bag, so I was relieved that John didn't want to do it in the end. It all worked out and the hike was well worth it for the views.

View of the strip of land connecting two beaches in the center of Phi Phi Don (yes, it is pronounced ‘pee pee’). The heat was sweltering and we were carrying full day packs around for the overnight boat trip. John and I had a difference of opinion over whether or not to take the 1/2 hour, uphill hike to the viewpoint in the noontime heat with our bags. We compromised and John had a beer (or two) and watched the bags while I did the hike. It was a tough hike in the heat, and I don’t think I would’ve made it to the top with my bag, so I was relieved that John didn’t want to do it in the end. It all worked out and the hike was well worth it for the views.


View from the Ko Phi Phi Don viewpoint over to Ko Phi Phi Leh (where The Beach was filmed).

View from the Ko Phi Phi Don viewpoint over to Ko Phi Phi Leh (where The Beach was filmed, on the other side of the island).

After I climbed to the Phi Phi viewpoint and John had a few beers, he decided to try his luck at a local barber for his second haircut on the trip. This stylist ended up giving him a great haircut and goatee trim, all with little-to-no communication between them.

After I climbed to the Phi Phi viewpoint and John had a few beers, he decided to try his luck at a local barber for his second haircut on the trip. This stylist ended up giving him a great haircut and goatee trim, all with little-to-no communication between them.

file160
Choosing to breeze in and out of Phi Phi Don and spend the night on a boat in Maya Bay was a great decision. Sleeping under the stars in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been was one of my favorite nights on the trip.

We had quite a full day of activities, which included: ferrying over to Phi Phi from Ko Lanta, hiking and walking around Phi Phi Don, afternoon snorkeling off of the boat on the way to Maya Bay, watching the day trippers and other boats trickle away after the sunset, and eating a full Thai dinner and drinking a couple ‘buckets’ of the local Sangsom rum and coke while getting to know our fellow passengers on Maya Beach. All of this was followed by midnight snorkeling among the bioluminescent fish in the bay. We had so much fun and it was so beautiful that it seemed surreal.

We stayed up really late hanging out with some great folks from all over, including England, Ireland, France, Argentina, Belgium, and surprisingly, only one other American. Even after such a packed day, I was so full of adrenaline and awe at everything around us that I could barely sleep. Not only was sleeping under the stars pretty incredible, lightning in the distance made for such a beautiful sky that I didn’t want to close my eyes and miss a moment of it. I hope I never forget how I felt lying under the brilliant sky that night.

John and I were especially struck by how much better this overnight boat trip was than the one we took to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. The Ha Long Bay boat was much nicer, with private cabins and fancy-looking (but not tasting) 5 course meals. The Maya Bay boat was pretty basic, with a tiny bathroom, and buffet style food. A foam mat and pillow, wherever you threw them down, counted as your accommodation for the night. The difference was actually pretty stark (and the Ha Long Bay price almost double), but the Maya Bay folks did something right because it was by far the better trip. I thought the forced ambiance of luxury on the Ha Long bay trip was stifling, whereas the casual, no frills atmosphere that the folks running the Maya Bay trip created was conducive to connecting with folks and having an adventure. We’d highly recommend the Maya Bay boat trip for anyone going to Ko Phi Phi.

View of The Beach while there are still hundreds of tourists on it ...

View of The Beach as the sun sets, while there are still hundreds of tourists on it …

And after everyone left and just our boat was left. It was such a different (better and bigger feeling) place when it was empty.

And after everyone left and only our boat remained. So much nicer when it was empty.

Hanging out at sunset.

Hanging out at sunset.

file210

Waking up on the boat, with The Beach in the background

Waking up on the boat, with The Beach in the background


Feeling good even after very little sleep under amazing stars and lightning in the distance.

Feeling good even after very little sleep.


Watching the sun rise

Watching the sun rise over the bay


John taking one last swim and getting surrounded by thousands of tiny black fish.

John was surrounded by thousands of tiny black (harmless) fish while taking one last swim in Maya Bay.


Our awesome crew

Posing with the rest of our group


file158

Climbing, Hiking, Sweating, and Swimming in Thailand

Karsts at Railay Beach

Karsts at Railay Beach

After our amazing two weeks at Otres Beach, Cambodia, we were almost reluctant to have to go back on the road again. But with two short flights and one bus ride of about the same length, we made it all the way to the southwestern coast of Thailand in one day. And here we began our final 6 weeks of beach hopping in Thailand.
Enjoying a sunset on Railay Beach

Enjoying a sunset on Railay Beach


We spent one night on a beach called Ao Nang, which we really didn’t like that much. Next we took a boat over to a place called Railay, which is basically a peninsula cut off from the mainland by large limestone karsts. It isn’t an island, but you can only get in and out by boat. We’d heard about Railay from several friends who’d been. The thing to do there is rock climbing, so I was keen to go climbing and do a little hiking. You needn’t be a climber to enjoy Railay (or its neighbor Tonsai), as they are breathtakingly beautiful and worth the trip to get there.
Railay Beach. This is where you come in and out, and you have to carry all luggage through the water to small long boats that take you around to the mainland.

Railay Beach. This is where you come in and out, and you have to carry all luggage through the water to longtail boats that take you around to the mainland.


View from the top Phra Nang Beach hike, where you can see both Railey East and West beaches.

View from the top Phra Nang Beach hike, where you can see both Railey East and West beaches and the karsts in the background that block the area from the mainland. Even though we did this hike early in the morning to try to avoid the heat, it was extremely intense and sweaty. For much of the hike, there were ropes that you had to use to haul yourself up the rocks. It was one of the most fun hikes either of us has ever done.


At this point on our trip, it was mid-March and the temperature was getting hot. One of our main goals each day was drinking enough water and swimming after any physical activity. The weather was really starting to slow us down. Luckily, we were at the beach so the pace was slow and swimming was easy to find.

Phra Nang beach on Railay, where we happened upon after a very intense hike. We jumped right in for a swim.

Phra Nang beach on Railay. We happened upon this almost-too-good-to-be-true beach after the very intense hike to the viewpoint. We jumped right in for a swim.


We took an "intro to rock climbing" class since this was John's first time climbing outside. Maybe should've expected in such a rock climbing mecca, it was not geared toward beginners. I found it to be really tough and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how well John did. We did four climbs, and I'd say they were around 5.8/5.9s. Not beginner's routes.

We took an “intro to rock climbing” class on Railay, since this was John’s first time climbing outside. We found the routes to be simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. We had a great time and were rewarded with amazing views of the ocean from the top of the highest climb.


DSC05049DSC05053

Tonsai Beach, next door to Railay where the more 'hardcore' climbers now go to escape the tourists on Railay.

Tonsai Beach, next door to Railay, is where the more ‘hardcore’ climbers now go to escape the tourists on Railay. We just did some hiking and exploring around the gigantic rock formations coming up out of the beach. Once high tide came in you couldn’t walk between Tonsai and Railay on the beach; we just made it back before the path became submerged under water.


Monkey on a wire in Tonsai.

Monkey on a wire in Tonsai.


Another fun monkey pic on Tonsai.

Another fun monkey pic on Tonsai.

On the ferry to Ko Lanta.

On the ferry to Ko Lanta.

After leaving Railay, we headed even further south to an island called Ko Lanta. We weren’t sure how long we’d stay here but before we knew it we’d been there seven days.

All in all, we loved our week on Ko Lanta. I did pick up a mild case of dysentery there, but we weren’t moving around so it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. And really, the heat was far worse in my memory — Lanta was the southern most point that we’d been on our trip and at the end of March it was getting HOT. Most afternoons, the beach and the pool at our resort were too hot to swim in (I know, it was tough). Plus, the price of our rustic bungalow on Ko Lanta (and around much of the western coast) was almost double the prices we were finding back on Ko Pha Ngan (in the Gulf of Thailand, where we went our second week). So we decided to head up to see the famous Ko Phi Phi islands while we were nearby (more on that in the next post), and then make our way back to the Gulf for our final few weeks.

View down the beach on Ko Lanta

View down the beach on Ko Lanta

Another shot of Ko Lanta

Another shot of Ko Lanta

Sunset on Ko Lanta (the beach was rocky after the tide went out. So while it was pretty in its own way, it wasn't great for swimming.

Sunset on Ko Lanta. The beach was rocky after the tide went out, so swimming was best during high tide.

On Ko Lanta, we spent a lot of time in the bar that was connected to our bungalow/resort.

On Ko Lanta, we spent a lot of time in the bar that was connected to our bungalow/resort. John and I hope to have a structure like this with mats and hammocks in our backyard one day.

From Ko Lanta, we did a 'four islands' day tour that included swimming through a pitch black cave (Emerald Cave) following a guide holding a flashlight to the center of an island where you swim out into a stunning beach w/ green water. The opening of the cave is in the center of the photo where there is a group of people in life jackets coming out. John is hanging out in the water on the right.

From Ko Lanta, we did a ‘four islands’ day tour that included swimming through a pitch black cave (Emerald Cave) following a guide holding a flashlight to the center of an island where you swim out into a stunning beach w/ green water. The opening of the cave is in the center of the photo where there is a group of people in life jackets coming out. John is hanging out in the water on the right.

Swimming on scenic Ko Ngai during the four islands tour.

Swimming on scenic Ko Ngai during the four islands tour.


In spite of seeing one amazingly beautiful island after another, the best part of the four islands tour was spending the day with this really fun couple from Serbia. We had a great time hanging out and will look them up if we're ever in Belgrade.

Although we saw one amazingly beautiful island after another, the best part of the four islands tour was spending the day with this really fun couple from Serbia. We will look them up if we’re ever in Belgrade.

Slow Boating Down the Mekong in Laos

After heading northeast on a 6 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, we were at the Laos border. This ride went through some really beautiful scenery with lots of mountains and karsts. At the border checkpoint, there are several options for moving on through Laos once you cross the river (no entry by road that we saw). Following the Mekong River east through the country takes you to Luang Prabang, where most people head from the border. You could go north first and do the Gibbon Experience, which we’ve heard great things about, but it is popular so was fully booked for the whole time we would be near there. So on to Luang Prabang for us. We’d read some horror stories about the two-day public slow boat, which included overcrowded boats of near to 100 people with no food/drink, and sometimes nowhere to sit the whole time. We really wanted to avoid that scenario.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Sunrise on the Mekong River (from Thailand). Also our first glimpse of Laos across the river.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

Speed boat on the Mekong River.

You could also take a speedboat that got you there in 6 hours, but we’d read some unpleasant stories about that AND the guidebook strongly recommended not taking this option because it was so dangerous. We saw a few of these boats on our trip and most of the passengers were wearing motorcycle helmets, either because of the noise or the high risk of hitting a rock and flying out of the boat (or both). Either way, no thanks.

And, there is a public bus option that I think takes like 20 hours or so on very poor roads. In the end, we got a great recommendation from a friend (thanks Em!) for a private slow boat with food, drinks, and cushions (something public boats don’t have), as well as a guide to help you cross the border and show you through a couple villages along the way. This option was a bit of a splurge for our budget, but booking ‘The Nagi of Mekong’ turned out to be so, so worth it.

View from our boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

View from our taxi boat as we approach Laos from Thailand. The Mekong is murky.

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration "office"

And the view of the entry point from the Laos immigration “office”

We crossed the river that is the Thailand-Laos border, went through a very hectic Lao immigration, and then glided along the Mekong River for about 8 hours each day and stopped over night half way in a tiny village called Pak Beng.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really  glad we didn't have to do it on our own.

John filling out Laos visa paperwork. Even with a guide to help us through, it was a very chaotic and stressful experience. Really glad we didn’t have to do it on our own.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

On the Laos side of the Thailand/Laos border.

What a fantastic introduction to Laos! This trip along the Mekong River was so peaceful, relaxing, and gorgeous, that we just laid back and soaked it all in. Best of all, we had two days to get to know the other 18 or so folks on board and had a great time hanging out. I could see where this leisurely pace of getting to Luang Prabang could be too slow for people who were on a tighter time frame or didn’t have the good fortune to hit it off with their fellow passengers. But, it was really great for us.

Lori, across from our new friend, John, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in S Korea.

Lori, across from our new friend, Jon, who is Californian but has been teaching English for 12 years in South Korea.

John and John enjoying some beers. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before John headed south.

Jon and John enjoying some BeerLao. The three of us were the only Americans and we happened to also get along great. It was funny to learn that several of the other passengers assumed we were traveling together because we were having such a good time. We also hung out a couple times in Luang Prabang before Jon headed south.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Getting off the boat at the midway point in Pak Beng, Laos.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn't catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Pak Beng. All slow boats are actually required to stop here overnight for some reason I didn’t catch, but I think it had something to do with it being the only stopping point between Thailand and Luang Prabang and it is dangerous to be on the water after dark.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the [smartly] group shied away from this cultural experience so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

Our guide told us that it is customary for a Lao host to offer any guests a welcome shot of Lao Lao (homemade rice whisky) upon entering their home. Further, most bars and restaurants give guests free shots. So, while our boat crew was having dinner in Pak Beng, the guide passed around a bottle of Lao Lao and most of us partook. A few in the group declined this cultural experience, so John offered to drink the extra shots. I love the look the woman to his left is giving him.

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang

I would later wonder if sharing the same shot glass with 20 people had anything to do with the massive head cold I came down with in Luang Prabang.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

Pak Beng at sunrise on day two of the slow boat journey.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

On the second morning, it was REALLY cold and windy.

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos (which is where much of the population lives). I'm sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it ...

Peeking in on a school in one of the hill tribe villages in rural Laos. Much of the population lives in rural areas. I’m sure having tourists stop by and snap pictures of them is not disruptive at all. In our defense, the guides were encouraging us to take photos, and everyone else was doing it …

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying to wave at us.

A little girl from a hill tribe village stopped crying for a moment to wave at us.

 

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Laos hill tribe woman making Lao Lao (moonshine or rice whiskey)

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

Lao man on the side of the Mekong River

 

View along the Mekong River in Laos

View along the Mekong River as we neared Luang Prabang. We only occasionally saw any sign of humans for the entire two day trip.

White Water Rafting in Chiang Mai

Seeing this elephant through the window of our taxi was as close to one as we got in Chiang Mai.

Seeing this elephant through the window of our taxi was as close to one as we got in Chiang Mai.

While we were in Chiang Mai, we also went white water rafting and had a great time. The 2 hour drive up to the top of the river took us through the beautiful mountainside where we got to see the elephants at the elephant camps and some glimpses of life in the local hill tribes.

An added perk to the day was that our tour company forgot to pick us up with the group, so we ended up riding comfortably for two hours in the back seat of a taxi (instead of in a crowded minibus), and got a generous discount on the rafting trip, and a free CD of their professional photos! This was a big boon for us given the rafting excursion was putting us over our budget that day!

The river was pretty low given it is the dry season, so the rapids were only class 3 (out of 5). This was good since it seemed pretty intense to us! I was slightly nervous as we headed up to the river and wondered if the trip would feel safe, how good the guides would be, etc. I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the company we used – Siam River Tours. There was a safety tutorial beforehand, and everything seemed very organized at the launch point. Our guide spoke really great English, so it helped that we could quickly understand and respond to his commands. There were also quite a few extra guides going down in “safety kayaks” in case anyone fell out, and at every rapid there were even extra guides on the bank watching and waiting with ropes, just in case. Apparently it is common for people to fall out every now and then, and there are rocks everywhere, so better to get out of the water as quickly as possible. So, even though the rapids seemed fairly big and the rocks all around us were even bigger, I felt very good about the trip. And, no one fell out in the rapids, so that was good.

Waiting at the top of the river.
Waiting at the top of the river.
I started out sitting behind John, but at the very beginning, our guide made me switch with the other woman in our group. John and I decided it must have been because we were such strong rowers that one of us needed to be on either side! Or ... it could've been the opposite.

I started out sitting behind John, but at the very beginning, our guide made me switch with the other woman in our group. John and I decided it must have been because we were such strong rowers that one of us needed to be on either side! Or … it could’ve been the opposite.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Preparing to go over some rapidsPreparing to go over some rapids

In the rapids!

In the rapids!

Another one in the rapids

Another one in the rapids

Our boat high-fiving after going through some rapids.

Our boat high-fiving after going through some rapids.

At the very end, another guide tricked us all into leaning far right and then he tipped us. They caught this photo with both of John's feet in the air while he was under water. My left leg is still on the boat and I'm in the water behind John. Fun day.

At the very end, another guide tricked us all into leaning far right and then he flipped our raft. They caught this great shot with both of John’s feet in the air while his head was completely under water. My left leg is still on the boat and I’m in the water behind John. Fun day.

We ended up spending more than a week in Chiang Mai and loved it. It took us a few days to get into the town, but once we did we could see why so many people rave about it. Because our 30 day entry visas were going to expire while we were there, we even spent half a day in the immigration office getting extensions. It was a bit of a hectic morning with many different forms to fill out, lines to stand in, and officials at windows to approach, but it all went well in the end and was one of the many, many times on this trip where we were both really happy to have a traveling partner to help with the logistics.

Overall, we stayed longer than we meant to in Thailand, but I think it worked out for the best. By the end of our first five weeks on the trip we were excited for our second country. Next up was getting ourselves to the Thai-Laos border and slow boating it along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.

Wats Up Chiang Mai?!

VIP Overnight Bus to Chiang Mai

VIP Overnight Bus to Chiang Mai

Having done nearly 3 weeks of relaxing on gorgeous Thai beaches, I felt like the ‘real’ adventure on our trip began as we headed to Chiang Mai. We loved the beaches, of course, and the cultural differences were very much there, it just didn’t feel like there was as much culture. Further, our lackluster trip up the gulf coast through Chumpon and Hua Hin made us even more excited to get to Chiang Mai, which everyone whose been seems to love.

On the overnight bus to Chiang Mai.

On the overnight bus to Chiang Mai.

I was also very excited to take our first overnight bus as we headed north from Bangkok. It was better than I expected in terms of comfort and roominess. And other than it being fairly bumpy, we figured that we both slept for around 5-6 hours of the 10 hour trip. Thank goodness we could check into our hotel on arriving at 7 am and crash until noon.

Chiang Mai is known for its abundance of temples, or Wats, and there are over 300 Wats in and around the city. We went to 3 in a row on our first afternoon and might have overdone it because we didn’t care to explore another Wat until about a week later. I feel like we barely scraped the surface in terms of exploring the Wats in Chiang Mai, but here is a selection of photos from our visits. More in the next posts about Chiang Mai’s markets and other activities.

Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City. Originally constructed in the 14th Century.

Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City. Originally constructed in the 14th Century.


Close up of elephant on the side of Wat Chedi Luang

Close up of elephant on the side of Wat Chedi Luang

In front of a newer temple in the Wat Chedi Luang complex

In front of a newer temple in the Wat Chedi Luang complex

Sitting Buddha in front of Wat Chedi Luang

Sitting Buddha in front of Wat Chedi Luang

Inside of one of the smaller temples at Wat Chedi Luang.

Inside of one of the smaller temples at Wat Chedi Luang.

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. This is supposedly the most important temple complex inside Chiang Mai.

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. This is supposedly the most important temple complex inside Chiang Mai.

Walking through the paths in Wat Phra Singh complex. It was very peaceful and beautiful.

Walking through the paths in Wat Phra Singh complex. It was very peaceful and beautiful.

One of the many signs posted in the walkways in Wat Phra Singh

One of the many signs posted in the walkways in Wat Phra Singh

Altar of offerings in front of Wat Phra Singh

Altar of offerings in front of Wat Phra Singh

Large gong in the Wat Phra Singh complex

Large gong in the Wat Phra Singh complex

Buddhas come in all shapes and sizes.

Buddhas come in all shapes and sizes.

Example of the Lanna architecture which is very common in Chiang Mai

Example of the Lanna architecture which is very common in Chiang Mai


At the end of our week there, we did trek outside of town to Wat Doi Suthep, which is atop a mountain overlooking the city. It was worth the trip and probably my favorite temple I’ve visited thus far in SE Asia.

These dragons were at the base of the 309 steps leading up to the temple.

These dragons were at the base of the 309 steps leading up to the temple.

Looking down the stairs at Doi Suthep

Looking down the stairs at Doi Suthep

Near the bottom of the steps after climbing Doi Suthep.

Near the bottom of the steps after climbing Doi Suthep.

Top of Wat Doi Suthep

Top of Wat Doi Suthep


One of the many very sparkly Buddha images at Doi Suthep

One of the many very sparkly Buddha images at Doi Suthep

Young monks at Doi Suthep performing their evening ritual and prayer of walking around the Wat three times. Sunset was a beautiful time to visit.

Young monks at Doi Suthep performing their evening ritual and prayer of walking around the Wat three times. Sunset was a beautiful time to visit.

White elephant shrine at Doi Suthep. Legend has it a white elephant carried a significant religious relic to this mountain and died there, so religious rulers took it as a sign and had a temple built on the mountain.

White elephant shrine at Doi Suthep. Legend has it a white elephant carried a significant religious relic to this mountain and died there, so religious rulers took it as a sign and had a temple built on the mountain.

Shoes outside of Wat Doi Suthep. To enter a Wat, everyone must remove their shoes, wear pants or long shorts, and women must cover their shoulders.

Shoes outside of Wat Doi Suthep. To enter a Wat, everyone must remove their shoes, wear pants or long shorts, and women must cover their shoulders.


Another of the many statues at Doi Suthep

Another of the many statues at Doi Suthep

In addition to having so many larger-than-life-sized temples, most restaurants and guesthouses we stayed at in Thailand had an altar set up in a corner with a mini-Wat and daily offerings and flowers placed on it. Here is an example behind John.

In addition to having so many larger-than-life-sized temples, most restaurants and guesthouses we stayed at in Thailand had an altar set up in a corner with a mini-Wat and daily offerings and flowers placed on it. Here is an example behind John.

Skipping up the Eastern gulf coast

Koh Tao -> Chumpon -> Hua Hin -> Bangkok; ferry -> bus -> train -> mini-van; over a week we leisurely made our way up the East coast of the Gulf of Thailand, skipping like a rock over water. A night in Chumpon and a screwed up reservation worked in our advantage, as we not only got a better room but a better hotel. There’s not much to Chumpon, a working town that for tourists is mainly a transfer point from the islands to the mainland, the next day we quickly moved on. A quiet train ride in a surprisingly small train – only two cars in total – took us from Chumpon to Hua Hin and gave us beautiful views of a bucolic Thai country side. Pineapple and coconut farms, coast line and hillocks rising out of flat lush coastal flood plains.

Our car in a little tour car train traveling from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Our car in a little tour car train traveling from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Thai country side streams past as we make our way by train from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Thai country side streams past as we make our way by train from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

With a few whistle blasts to announce our arrival to all the people randomly crossing the tracks (which was happening quite frequently), we pulled into the preserved 1940s station house in Hua Hin. Hua Hin is the original Thai beach vacation spot – the Thai royal family started coming here in the 1920s. Just a few hours car ride from Bangkok, it is the Hamptons for the metropolitan Bangkok Thais. Although it reminded me a bit of Miami, sometimes Atlantic City.

Lori from Chopstick Mountain with a view of Hua Hin in the background. Very windy, Hua Hin is also becoming known as a kite boarding center.

Lori from Chopstick Mountain with a view of Hua Hin in the background. Very windy, Hua Hin is also becoming known as a kite boarding center.

We had an odd accommodation. Actually, we had an odd room in a fairly straight forward accommodation. The Donkeys Rest is a suite of rooms above four store fronts owned by a British bloke with the last name Ogier, who also happened to look a lot like Shrek. A bit far from but within walking distance to the beach, we had chosen it for it’s cheap cost and access to a pool. (When you don’t want to regularly shell out a ton of money on excursions or beach front, a few extra dollars a night for a pool is a good compromise.) The four store fronts were hotel bar and reception, massage parlor (not that kind), a convenience store, and our room. Yup, we were staying in a cleared out store. A sofa, coffee table, TV, refrigerator, and king sized bed, all dwarfed inside a white-tiled, glass-enclosed, cavernous space that at one time had probably housed racks of surrongs, bikinis, t-shirts that read “Same Same”, and sunglasses. And that’s not even counting the separate back room and bathroom.

The beach along most of Hua Hin was tiny but like the Hamptons, people go there on the weekends for the scene, to see and be seen, rather than lazy days on the beach and quiet nights. We explored the natural sites, paying $.20 a ride to the jump aboard roving sungathews that followed a regular circuit along the coast highway. We climbed “chopstick” mountain to the south and roamed the frenetic, bustling night market in the center of town, crowded on a Friday night with both tourists and Bangkok’s young hoypoloy. What would become SOP for our night market excursions throughout the trip, Lori shopped, I sampled food stalls and drank cold cans of Chang. Restaurants moved their kitchens outside and lined the streets with large fire breathing grills, each overflowing with fresh caught fish, steaks, squid, and some of the biggest lobsters I have ever seen. Old ladies sold pork meatballs on skewers and grilled corn. A guy on the corner pulled set after set of BBQ short ribs out of a barrel. I ate there twice. On the same night.

Hua Hin night market

I have to admit, we also stopped at Starbucks and explored an actual mall. We considered it preparation for our return to Bangkok.

After a few short days in Hua Hin and with three and a half months of loosely planned trips to northern Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, and Cambodia in our future, we decided it was best to head back through Bangkok for New Year’s Eve, reassess, research, and maybe buy a guide book or two.

With our last full day in Hua Hin drawing to a close, I headed off to the bus station south of town to buy tickets. From there I was sent to the bus station north of town to buy tickets. The bus station North of town no longer existed and most people I asked insisted that I go to the bus station south of town. Fun game. Turning to the two equally crappy maps I had, I discovered hints about a satellite bus station in town, so I went off looking for that. After a few circuits of the center of town and with the help of a few unhelpful locals (and two beers), I finally bought tickets for the bus. Which the next day turned out to be tickets for a private mini-bus and not the bus – which I kind of suspected but at the time but with heat exhaustion setting in, I could no longer care about the distinction. In the end, as the t-shirts here read, Same Same, and the mini-bus got us into Bangkok just fine.

Our hotel in Bangkok turned out to be a bit out of town at the Bang Na stop on the BTS. But this was ok as it was very nice, cheap, had a beautiful view of the Bangkok skyline, and the walk from the BTS station was not as scary as the reviews made it sound. The view was nice enough that we decided to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks from there (after we video chatted with our friends Alex and Camille about their upcoming trip to South East Asia). Since this was more a reconnaissance mission than a trip to Bangkok, we hit the malls looking for English language bookstores and planned our route north. And had another adventure finding the bus station – they’re usually in neither convenient nor nice parts of town. Just like home.

As we made another run into town for books and other supplies, I splurged and had a Guinness and a burger.  $6 for the Guinness, nearly 5x the cost of a local beer.

As we made another run into town for books and other supplies, I splurged and had a Guinness and a burger. $6 for the Guinness, nearly 5x the cost of a local beer.

Christmas on Koh Tao

In addition to the spectacular resort where we stayed on Koh Tao (see previous post), our short time there was special for other reasons. We met a fun German couple on our ride in (as mentioned in the last post we bonded over the scary songathew ride) and they ended up being our neighbors on the resort. Lucky for us, we also ended up spending Christmas day with them. Steffi and Marco, we had a great time hanging out with you!

New friends, Steffie and Marco

New friends, Steffie and Marco

Since there wasn’t a beach at our windy clifftop resort, and the water was too high to find the snorkeling spot, Steffi, Marco, John, and I set out to find a beach on another part of the island on Christmas day. We found a beach that was by far the best one we’d seen yet. It was called Freedom Beach, on the southeast side of the island. We hung out for the whole afternoon and just had an amazing day.

Freedom Beach, Ko Tao

Freedom Beach, Ko Tao

Christmas on the beach

Christmas on the beach

Steffi and Marco, beach

Steffi and Marco, beach


Drinking my newly discovered favorite drink; the coconut shake.

Drinking my newly discovered favorite drink; the coconut shake.

We were both able to skype briefly with some of our family on Christmas Eve, so that was really nice, and also left our Christmas day completely open. We hadn’t planned anything at all for Christmas, but we did sort of wonder if we’d regret not doing something to make it feel special, like at least exchanging small gifts with each other. In the end, we didn’t try to make any specific plans for the day, and we didn’t do any gifts, either. I have to say, it was really, really nice to completely avoid the consumer culture and stressfulness of gift-giving on Christmas.

John, contemplating a different kind of Christmas

John, contemplating a different kind of Christmas


And another wild ride in the pick-up truck; heading back from the beach to the resort.

And another wild ride in the pick-up truck; heading back from the beach to the resort.


Given the amazing afternoon we had, we were very happy with our Christmas. If nothing else had happened, we would’ve been totally satisfied with the day. But then, we had dinner back at our resort and moved over to a large table overlooking the cliffs to have some drinks. We had picked up a bottle of Jim Beam in town and decided to offer to share it with folks. One by one, most of the guests at the hotel joined us at our table and we ended having the most fun night on our trip so far. A couple from South Africa, Alistair and Shar, had just gotten engaged the previous night – so in addition to it being Christmas, there was lots to celebrate! Congrats again!
Christmas Christmas night with new friends. What was left of the bourbon is in the plastic water bottle, center of the table.

Christmas night with new friends. What was left of the bourbon is in the plastic water bottle, center of the table.

Laughing with Steffie, Shar and the dogs

Laughing with Steffie, Shar and the dogs

The manager of our resort, Tony, even hung out with all of us and played some Thai music on his guitar.

The manager of our resort, Tony, even hung out with all of us and played some Thai music on his guitar.

We had a great Christmas on Koh Tao and were so happy we ended up stopping there. In full disclosure, I feel I have to at least mention that the boat ride back to the mainland was one of the worst in my life. It was such rough going that John got the first case of motion sickness he’d ever had. And for me, with many years of experience on this front, I got the most sea sick I’ve ever been. Me and about half of the boat, from the sound of it. So, not too fun of a ride, but once it was over I just had to laugh because it was so bad. And we were fine once we got our land legs back. We landed at the port town of Chumpon, where we would stay one night. Next up was making our way north and figuring out where to spend New Years’ Eve.

Our Playground on Koh Tao

Ko Tao was the smallest of the three Gulf Islands we visited.

Ko Tao was the smallest of the three Gulf Islands we visited.

The final island on our three stop tour of the Gulf of Thailand was Koh Tao. It is known as a scuba diving haven and is smaller than the other two we visited. It is also a little harder to get to, and supposedly the most laid back and least developed. Unfortunately we were visiting during peak season and had a hard time finding a hotel. We settled on one that seemed like it might be interesting; it was pretty rustic (bamboo bungalows, outdoor bathroom, no hot water or AC) and we were ready to try to rough it a bit. Further, the place was on the cliffs, so it didn’t have a beach, and we figured that was what made it affordable for us. We had no idea what we were in for when we arrived at Moondance Magic Resort, but just riding there from the ferry stop was an adventure.

Ko Tao Songathew for the locals

Ko Tao Songathew for the locals

It was our scariest ‘songathew’ ride yet (riding on a bench in the back of a pick-up truck). Though luckily there were only four of us plus all our luggage, as compared to how tight the ride can be for a non-tourist.

The ride into the resort was like a roller coaster. Only it felt less safe. The ruts in the dirt road were so deep, and the 4-wheel drive truck having such a hard time climbing in and out of them, that we would slowly creep up a hill and then slam down to the bottom, with everything in the bed of the truck following suit. The bench in the back of the truck bed that we sat on would slam into the cab, or the tailgate, alternatively, in a way that would easily have taken off a finger, if it was positioned in the wrong spot. We learned very quickly not to put any body parts at either end of the bench. So, it was a pretty intense experience just getting to our place and we definitely bonded with our fellow passengers (and soon-to-be neighbors and fast friends), Steffie and Marco, on that first ride.

Drive to Moondance Magic Hotel on Ko Tao

Drive to Moondance Magic Hotel on Ko Tao

Once there, we were a little rattled, not to mention exhausted. But we starting walking around and immediately forgot about the crazy ride because we were stunned by how amazing and beautiful the place was. We felt like kids in a candy store while we explored our room and the resorts’ grounds. The bamboo bungalows were definitely rustic, but they were so cool it made up for the lack of hot water/AC. Luckily for us it was quite windy the whole time we were there, so we didn’t miss the AC. Though that same cool weather made the cold showers a bit more refreshing than we needed them to be.

Lori looking out the side window; the concrete wall in the background is the bathroom wall.

Lori looking out the side window; the concrete wall in the background is the bathroom wall.

The outdoor bathroom had a bed of rocks for a floor, and the sink was a large slab of beautiful wood with a faucet and an actual drain in it. there was a modern toilet in the center of the space, as well as a shower connected to the ~5 foot concrete wall that enclosed the whole area. And, if anyone was coming down the hill at just the right angle while you were using the facilities, they may have seen more than either of you wanted.

The only wildlife we found in our bungalow was an abundance of mosquitoes, while our neighbors saw a very large gecko in their bathroom (not the cute little tiny ones). They also spotted a crab in the shower area and a rat that came back and ate their snacks when they were away. They also heard other noisy animals crawling around either under their bed or under the bungalow, so we considered ourselves lucky on that front.

The whole place was sitting high up on a cliff on the edge of the sea, and it was so artistic and interesting. Almost everything was made out of stone or weathered wood. Just fantastic. Hopefully the photos will give some idea of what it was like.

View from the front porch. The entire bungalow was made of bamboo.

View from the front porch. The entire bungalow was made of bamboo.


Hammock on our front porch.

Hammock on our front porch.

Really cool chaise lounge carved out of wood.

Really cool chaise lounge carved out of wood.

Another view from the terrace/restaurant area on Moondance Magic, Ko Tao.

Another view from the terrace/restaurant area on Moondance Magic, Ko Tao.

Here we are sitting at the table where we spent Christmas night,

Here we are sitting at the table where we spent Christmas night.


More of the interesting design.

More of the interesting design.

There were several of these skulls hung around the resort.

There were several of these skulls hung around the resort.

In addition to this really neat area at the top of the cliff, there was a series of zig-zagging steps, ropes, and ladders leading down the cliff to a large platform right over the ocean. Apparently when the water was lower and the wind less fierce, you could climb around the rocks to the cove next door and do some snorkeling. High water and wind prevented us from snorkeling, but we did climb down to the bottom a few times and felt like we were in the Swiss Family Robinson. It was like a playground for adults.

We did leave the resort a few times and also spent Christmas on Koh Tao. More on that in the next post.

View from the platform at the bottom

View from the platform at the bottom

View over the edge of the platform

View over the edge of the platform

On the way down to the bottom

On the way down to the bottom

At the bottom of the cliff

At the bottom of the cliff

Climbing around

Climbing around

Always a good idea to boulder on wet rocks in flip flops!

Always a good idea to boulder on wet rocks in flip flops!

Hanging out on the platform with new friends

Hanging out on the platform with new friends

Riding Scooters on Koh Pha Gnan

Stalls selling bottles of gasoline dot the roads around Koh Pha Gnan (the ‘P’ is silent, the ‘G’ might be). There are no gas stations and there are thousands of motor scooters. Every roadside hut and lean-to either rents scooters or sells pale yellow gasoline in repurposed liquor bottles. Imagine the abundance of Starbucks in your average US city. Then double that and imagine the coffee is flammable.

John and scooter

John and scooter

The ratio of bikes to tourists is at least 2:1 but the ratio of helmets to riders is more like 1:4. Those without helmets look cooler than those with but the people who look the most ridiculous are those with one side of their body covered in cheap gauze and road rash. During our few days on the islands, we had seen enough of these sad creatures to realize that accidents were more a question of when, not if, so we opted for the helmets. I went a step further and attached a GoPro to mine, so with helmet and camera I looked like the Urkel of the Koh Pha Gnan scooter crowd.

We rented scooters twice on Koh Pha Gnan, fairly cheap at 200 baht a day (about $6). The island is made up of steep hills and ridgelines, so every stretch of road is a series of sharp, high parabolas, with beautiful vistas of sea and beach on one side, and quick, rocky drops into lush tropical jungle on the other.

Lori and scooter

Lori and scooter

View of fisherman's village and cove below

View of fisherman’s village and cove below

On our first day we headed north up the west side of the island and across the top until the road came to an end. Koh Pha Gnan is circled by a ring road but it doesn’t make it all the way around and some parts of the island are only accessible by 4×4, foot, or, for the even more remote, water taxi. A beautiful ride during the hot part of the day, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant perched at the top of one of the steeper hills. Dark mahogany wood and shade, it provided a much-needed escape from the sun and a great view of the small fisherman’s village below.

Overlooking fisherman's village, Ko PhaGnan

Overlooking fisherman’s village, Ko PhaGnan

A quick consultation with the map – thankfully not in Russian – and we were off to the islet Ko Ma, a small outcropping of rock, trees and an abandoned set of bungalows, attached to land by a 3 meter wide, 100 meter long stretch of sandbar. Beautiful but the damage done by too many tourists was easy to see, with plastic water bottles and other detritus almost everywhere we looked. With the wind gusting stronger and storm clouds moving in, we finished our waters, tossed the plastic bottles on the ground, and headed for our bikes.

John with Ko Ma in background

John with Ko Ma in background

We made the main road before the storm clouds caught us. To borrow a phrase from a great American poet, the cement road would be “slippery when wet” but the rutted dirt road from the beach with it’s seventy-degree slope would have been impassable just a few minutes into the storm. Attempts were made to stay conservative in the rain but you can only let so many 11 year-olds riding three to a scooter pass you, so with the water soaking deeper into our clothes and day bags, we sped back to our hotel with the hope for some late afternoon beach time.

Our second day out took us to Haad Rin beach, of the infamous Full Moon Parties. Incredibly, the roads were steeper and the peaks higher. Which made it all the more fun. We made Haad Rin in about two hours, with an hour and fifteen minute shopping trip in the middle. The beach itself was impressive, the widest we had seen in Thailand – necessary to accommodate the regular crowd of partiers that number near ten thousand every full moon. A week earlier, on Koh Samui, a 45 minute ferry ride away, we had been able to hear the bass of the last party, from early evening to late morning. It had rained like a bastard that night and during breakfast I raised a glass of coffee towards the horizon in respect to the partiers’ stamina. But we only stayed at Haad Rin long enough for a few sips of water and a quick duck into a few of the clothing stores. Then a quick check of our breaks, yup still quite spongy, and back on the bikes to race back home and catch a late afternoon swim and sunset watching. John KoPhagnan

We thoroughly enjoyed our time our Koh Pha Gnan and would think fondly back to it during our time inland as we explored the north. But now it was onto Koh Tao, an even more remote island and a slip further back in time, to a more undiscovered Thailand.
_DSC0042

A bit off shore we found a small set of rocks to take a break from kayaking.

A bit off shore we found a small set of rocks to take a break from kayaking.