That beach…

Fishing boats from ferry to Koh Phagnan

Fishing boats from ferry to Koh Phagnan

I was pretty proud of myself, having talked the taxi driver down from 200 baht a person to 50 baht. Koh Pha Gnan is smaller than Koh Samui and I was fairly sure our hotel wasn’t far from town. I felt differently once I realized that he was a motorcycle taxi. Although me, him, and my 15 kilo pack on the back of his little bike would make for an amusing picture, it would also make for a painful death – or at least a long recovery. Discretion being the better part of living to see another day, we waved him off and walked down the long cement pier in search of safer transportation.

“Safer” is a relative term and in Thailand the baseline for measurement is much lower than back at home. In the parking lot at the start of the pier we would be introduced to the song-a-thew. A converted pick-up truck, with a roof, open-to-the-air sides, and an open back doorway, these would become our regular means of transport in Thailand. (And sometimes they are just pick-ups with two wooden benches, “secured” in-place with a bit of weathered twine. But more about that in Koh Tao).

After figuring out where we were going, with few words, a Thai man directed us into the back of one of the many song-a-thews lining the parking lot. Two other passengers scooted down a bit and, pushing up our luggage before us, we climbed into the back for an undefined wait.

DSC02723Our fellow travellers looked even less sure than us and asked if we thought this would actually get us to our hotels. Knowing there were no other options – no other sane options – we feigned confidence, and assured them that it would all work out. At this point we were all ordered out of the truck, split-up, mixed-up, and put into different pick-up trucks. Our luggage was quickly thrown up on the roof, as there were 4 fairly large Brits already in the back with an even larger baby carriage. No baby though. I assumed it was on the roof with our unsecured luggage.

A shutter, a kick and we were off. Two turns left and we were already out of the small, dusty town, driving through tropical island jungle, following a cement road up into the hills of Koh Pha Gnan. Air streamed through the sides of our songathew, as we caught glimpses of beach and ocean, washed out roads, hidden resorts, and ubiquitous road side stands selling gasoline in repurposed liquor bottles at 40 baht a liter.

15 minutes later we were on the side of the road with our bags in hand … well, on backs, looking down a shaded, rutted, sandy road with signs assuring us that Blue Ocean Garden Resort – our home for the next few days – laid not far beyond.

DSC02778Two stray dogs and a small, burning pile of trash later, we came on to our resort. And this was the Thai beach we had been looking for. A long, shallow, crescent of fine, almost white sand stretched north from our resort for almost 500 meters, dotted with overhung palm trees and few people. Protected by a reef not far off shore, the water was calm, turquoise, and beckoning us to take a dip.

Chao Phao beach at sunset, Koh Phagnan

On the West facing side of the island, Blue Ocean Garden sits at the southern end of Chao Phao beach, snug up against a steep forested hill, the front of which marked the end of the beach with a stone cliff that ran into the water (and sheltered a hidden bar). Reception and the bungalows formed an enclosing horseshoe, with the beach and the Gulf of Thailand at the opening and in the center a well-kept, gently sloping lawn. We were staying in a small room, part of a row of 5 at the top of resort. The cheapest option, it came with bed, air con, bath and not much else. But who could care, did I tell you about the beach?

It was dad's birthday while we were in Koh Phagnan. Since I couldn't be there, I sent him  this pic instead

It was dad’s birthday while we were in Koh Phagnan. Since I couldn’t be there, I sent him this pic instead

Amy, a young Thai woman, self-consciously walked us through check-in, explaining it was her first time checking-in guests. We waited patiently as she ticked off the points, happy to watch her transition to management and thinking only of changing into swimsuits.

Food and drink on room, check.

Wi-fi password, check.

Beach towels at reception, check.

Toilet paper goes in bin next to toilet, check.

Wait, what? Whatever, let’s just get through this so we can go swimming.

Which we did shortly thereafter, in time to catch a beautiful sunset which we followed with an equally tasty dinner at the Italian restaurant that was part of the resort. Gnochi, vodka tonics, tiramisu, lemoncello – an expensive meal, an indulgence we would avoid for the rest of the stay, often opting for the cheaper but just as delicious Thai food from the Belgian Beer Bar next door.

Lori with Singha, Koh Phagnan

The next morning we extended our stay by 5 days.

Sunset Chao Phao beach, Koh Phagnan

Sunset Chao Phao beach, Koh Phagnan

Hidden bar at the south end of the Chao Phao beach on Koh Phagnan. Follow the rickety walkway and you come to a small inlet with a nine foot wall of speakers and raised deck over the water.

Hidden bar at the south end of the Chao Phao beach on Koh Phagnan. Follow the rickety walkway and you come to a small inlet with a nine foot wall of speakers and raised deck over the water.

Sky at sunset, Chao Phao beach, Koh Phangnan

Island Hopping – 1st Stop: Ko Samui, Gulf of Thailand

Day 1: Getting to Ko Samui
After spending more than 6 hours trying to figure out whether to go to Ko Samui or one of the other many Thai islands, how to get there, and where to stay, we finally settled on flying to the mainland port town of Surat Thani and then catching a ferry to Ko Samui. After taking a very quick taxi ride to Bangkok’s old airport, Don Muaeng, we had an uneventful and short flight down to Surat Thani. Once off the plane we gathered our bags and were shepherded to some buses out front. It wasn’t totally clear what was going on, but they knew we were going to Ko Samui thanks to the helpful stickers they put on us at the airport, so we just bought the ticket they pointed us to and followed the crowds to the bus.

While on the bus, a nice man walked around and made small talk and also tried to sell us a minibus ride to our hotel in Ko Samui. Given our earlier adventures in Bangkok, we were quite leery. But we noticed other folks on the bus buying this service (not the best way to make decisions, but this was better than no information), and at 150 baht (about $4.50) a person, this minibus ride sounded like a deal (and he assured us it was). An hour an a half later, the bus arrived at the ferry. Based on the research we’d done, we thought this would be a quick bus ride across town. So, of course were a bit concerned the whole time that we had missed something else as well. But eventually we made it onboard the ferry and it was a really great ride (especially because I didn’t get motion sickness at all). We got our first view of the ocean and some great views of lovely mountainous islands along the way.

Our first glimpse of the ocean

Our first glimpse of the ocean

The minibus taxi worked out great and we met a nice English speaking Swede and his Thai wife. They really knew the island from having vacationed there many times and generously gave us a lot of great tips, including which areas to visit, how to not get hit crossing the road (always look right first, then look left), and how to get gas if you run out on a minibike (buy a refill at any of the numerous stands selling it in liquor bottles along the roads). We were feeling excited, but by the time we arrived at our hotel, it was after dark, the mosquitoes were out in full force, and we were beat. I can’t overstate how many mosquitoes were swarming us while we checked in, and I hate to admit it but we hadn’t remembered to research whether or not Samui had malaria and therefore hadn’t taken any of our medications yet. This added to my anxiety quite a bit given that I was being eaten alive, and at this point the taxi->flight->bus->ferry->minibus day of travel had really worn on us and was not leaving me in the best frame of mind to deal with, well, much of anything. Because it was after dark, the dimly lit resort seemed really dark and spooky as we walked to our room, and were immediately feeling like it might not be all that safe. Then, when we opened the door to our room, the dank smell of sewage hit us pretty hard. I won’t lie, we were both quietly freaking out. We had had a hard time finding a room we liked with a pool within our budget, but we were already not sure about this one. We decided to find the beach, take a walk, get dinner, and think about it all after a hopefully-good-night’s sleep.

Day 2:

Sunrise on Ko Samui

Sunrise on Ko Samui

The next morning, it seemed like we woke up in a completely different place. First of all the sewage-y smell was gone, so that helped. Plus, it is always a good idea to see a place during the day for the first time. We decided to make this a goal of all of our travel days, to the extent possible. After looking around our beautiful and lush resort, we walked the short walk through all of the cabins and beautiful flora and fauna to the beach to catch the sunrise (getting the low budget rooms usually means being the furthest from the beach or pool, but we’re ok with that). It was pretty amazing, and we laughed at ourselves about how distressed we felt the night before.
Sunrise on Ko Samui

Sunrise on Ko Samui

Pool and view at Lawana, Ko Samui

Pool and view at Lawana, Ko Samui

This is the beach front at Lawana Resort where we stayed in Ko Samui, Thailand.

This is the beach front at Lawana Resort where we stayed in Ko Samui, Thailand. Taken with the GoPro.

The pool was great; the beach we were on was pretty narrow. Not to complain, but it felt a bit crowded. So we spent most of our time camped out at the pool, enjoying the view, and doing lots of reading. It was the perfect post-Bangkok beginning to our trip.

Day 3:
We had a really fantastic excursion by taking one of the hotel’s kayaks out and happening upon a sandbar connecting to a small patch of beach seeming to float out in the water. The curved sandbar made a nice little cove of perfectly clear turquoise water for us to swim in and feel like we were on our own slice of paradise. We didn’t bring a camera on the kayak that day, but I think we’ll always remember that place and time for how perfect it seemed to us.

Yellow Curry with Chicken and Potatoes

Yellow Curry with Chicken and Potatoes

For lunch, I ordered my first curry dish at a little hole-in-the-wall place that had English on the menu, but clearly didn’t cater to tourists. I asked the woman, “is it spicy?” She shook her head no and said it was not spicy. Well … it turns out it was the spiciest thing I’d ever eaten on purpose, and it was amazing. I think I had a bit of a conversion experience during that meal as I understood the addiction of spicy food for the first time. My mouth was burning, my lips were on fire, my nose was running, and my eyes were watering, and I couldn’t stop eating it! We went back to that restaurant for dinner the next night and both ordered the exact same dish. Oddly enough, even though John has been asking for his food to be spicy at every meal, we think that first curry dish was probably the spiciest we’ve encountered thus far on the trip. I wouldn’t let John take photos of my first spicy food experience. Suffice it to say there were lots and lots of tissues used during those two meals …
John eating Yellow Curry on Ko Samui

John eating Yellow Curry on Ko Samui

Day 4:
Rainy Day on Ko Samui The weather was a bit spotty on Samui. There were a few heavy showers at night, but we never lost power or were forced to go out in them, so we enjoyed it. Midway through the week, we spent the entire day under the awning of the open air restaurant watching the rain come down pretty hard. It never stopped, and it was really nice to have an excuse to do absolutely nothing but read, nap, and eat all day.

Day 5:
We also rented motorbikes for a day, though a couple hours ended up being enough. We unfortunately ended up taking them out at the hottest possible time of day, while the traffic was terrible. Further, the roads were full of potholes, making the whole experience like an obstacles course. In addition to dodging cars, other motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and potholes, we also managed to get pretty lost. So that was fun. The guy who rented them to us gave us a map which we pulled out to use when we asked for help from locals, but seeing as how the map was in Russian and English, with not a lick of Thai, it ended up confusing people more than orienting them. That was another lesson learned – make sure to have a decent map, preferably with Thai on it in case you end up off the beaten track like we did. We finally figured it out and made it back to our hotel without having a wreck or running out of gas, so we were quite pleased. We didn’t get back on a motorbike on Samui, but were glad to have tried it out and looked forward to riding them again in a less busy place.

We had a nice 5 nights on Ko Samui, but we were hearing that Ko Pha Ngan was a better island because it was prettier, more laid back, and was like Samui used to be 10-15 years ago. I also think having a view of it just off in the distance made us want to see it even more. So we followed our curiosity and decided to visit it on our way back to the mainland.

John in the water; Ko Pha Ngan in the distance.

John in the water; Ko Pha Ngan in the distance.

No Pain, No Gain: My 1st Thai Massage

After a long and stressful day of not-so-successfully negotiating various forms of transportation in Bangkok, I decided it was time for my first Thai massage. I wanted to ease my way into this experience, so I requested (and pointed on the menu so we were looking at the same thing) a 30-minute ‘head and shoulder only’ massage. Midway through, when this little, but very strong, Thai man was standing on my rear and walking with his full weight up and down the entire length of my legs, I kind of realized I’d been had (or maybe just misunderstood), again.

You can read more about Thai massage here, but I would describe it as extremely intense – the pressure is very firm, bordering on painful, and targeted deep into each muscle. It is done on top of clothing with no oils, not like the more relaxing Swedish massage. For an example of how hard these massages can be, we later ran into an Irish woman vacationing in Ko Samui whose legs were covered in dark black and blue bruises. She had gotten really sick from drinking ice on her first day and was hospitalized for a few days, so I thought maybe the bruises had something to do with that …. but no, they were from a Thai massage she got the week before! Luckily I had not seen this before trying it myself.

This isn't me, or even a Thai masseuse, but it provides a nice visual of a Thai massage

This isn’t me, or even a Thai masseuse, but it provides a nice visual of a Thai massage

I felt like my muscles really needed some work after the previous week, so instead of saying anything when it started to get uncomfortable, I decided to just see what the Thais thought of as a normal massage and go with it. It seemed to get more and more intense as it went along, but I did notice how relaxed my muscles got once he really worked things out by jabbing them with his elbows and feet. The whole time, I had a strong sense of trepidation over wondering what would come next, which did make it hard to just relax and enjoy it.

So after an hour of what could be described as a very extreme physical experience approaching the unbearable but never quite reaching it, the massage was over. I definitely would not recommend this for anyone with any injuries or otherwise sensitive areas. Of course, at the end I was charged for a 60 minute full body massage, which I hadn’t asked for, but definitely got. At $8, I figured it was just another ‘Bangkok lesson,’ and I floated away feeling amazingly relaxed and refreshed, and oddly enough, already looking forward to my next Thai massage.

Massage Hut on Lawana Pool Deck, Ko Samui. Such places seem to be everywhere in Thailand.

Massage Hut on Lawana Pool Deck, Ko Samui.

Update: Since this first experience, I’ve had a few more Thai massages outside of Bangkok. Each one was better than the one before it. The prices range from about $6 – $9 an hour, and it seems like there are more massage places than restaurants.

Four Nights in Bangkok…

Bangkok, city on the move.

Most of the time. Occasionally there are traffic issues, usually from about 4:00am in the morning until 5:30am the next day. At other times, it is slow but steady.

So how do the Thais get around? By any means necessary and often the most unsafe available. In order of decreasing safety, here are your options:

BTS & MRT: the BTS “Sky Train” is an elevated light rail, the MRT an underground light rail. Both clean, cheap, and reliable. As a tourist, don’t expect there to be stops near the places you’ll want to go.

BTS Sky Train stop at Mo Chit

BTS Sky Train stop at Mo Chit

Metered cab: these worked out fine for us from and to the airports. Just make sure they turn the meter on before they start driving. If not, your mileage may vary.

Warning sticker in Bangkok taxi. No knives, guns, or...Pilates?

Warning sticker in Bangkok taxi. No knives, guns, or…Pilates?

Tuk-tuk: riding lawn mower body with supped up engine, back bench for passengers, and a colorful roof. Did you know it was safe to take these on a highway? No? Me neither but they do and it’s a surprisingly smooth ride. Although I think the passing of cars was just showing off.

Tuk-Tuk Bangkok

Khlong boat: skinny, long, needle-like boats with Mack truck engines strapped on the back. You can get a ride on one of these for about $1. Thanks to a helpful tuk-tuk driver who took us to a pier in the middle of nowhere, we opted to pay $20. Never let the driver suggest where you should go. The drive will be cheap, the destination something different.

Khlong Boats Bangkok

Khlong Boat Trip

View of the houses along the canal during Khlong boat trip, Bangkok

Motorcycle taxi: this is pretty much what it sounds like, a death wish. On the plus side, if the traffic is really bad they have no problem driving on the sidewalk. This also makes walking on the sidewalk adventurous.

_DSC1013For our first few nights in country, we choose a quiet business hotel, Oakwood Suites. A small studio with kitchenette and rooftop pool. At the very high end of our budget range, we felt a few nights of assured sleep was a priority to overcome the 12 hour time shift. Located in the expat neighborhood of Sukhumvit and at the crossroads of MRT and BTS lines, this was the perfect setup to see a bit of Bangkok, while also getting the rest we needed. (It would be over a week before both of us stopped waking up at 3am, no matter what time we went to sleep or how much beer I mixed with Ambien.)

marketlightsjohnOn our first full day we took the BTS to the Chatuchak weekend market, a 27 acre maze of over 2,000 covered stalls, with vendors selling clothes, furniture, lights, silverware, fake fruit…anything you could imagine and more being sold to the 200,000 shoppers who come here on any given weekend. Impressive and easy to get lost in; which is part of the reason to go. It was well worth the price of admission (free) and if we’re back in Bangkok the weekend before we leave, this is most likely where your trinket will come from.

Chatuchak Market Inside

Chatuchak Market

Oakwood Rooftop Pool

Oakwood Rooftop Pool

Other than that we took a couple of tuk-tuk rides, a river boat cruise, ate street food at a night market, got scammed once (see khlong boat above), maybe twice, toured a wat (temple), did laundry and spent a lot of time in the rooftop pool as we rested and planned our next stop, Koh Samui and island hopping in the Gulf of Thialand.

Smaller Buddha at Wat Pho

Smaller Buddha at Wat Pho

Night market food stalls along Sukhumvit Soi 38

Night market food stalls along Sukhumvit Soi 38

Set of Buddhas at Wat Pho, Lori.

Set of Buddhas at Wat Pho, Lori.

Bangkok is a big city and we were happy to see a little portion of it but I don’t think we would ever have enough time to get to know it.

Going through Thai Immigration, Twice

Our arrival in Bangkok was uneventful except for a minor mishap concerning our Thai visas. Our immigration agent stamped our passports for a 30 day Thai visa, indicating that we could stay in the country until Jan 8, 2012. We didn’t notice that the year was off until we were walking out of the airport and realized that it should’ve been 2013. We were standing there with our packs getting heavier by the minute, exhausted from our 48 hour trip, not able to speak a word of Thai, and very unsure of what to do. We thought that anyone questioning this would surely see what had happened since it showed that we entered Thailand on December 8th, 2012, but still, having a snafu over our visa at the border wasn’t appealing. So we turned around and headed back into the airport.

What followed was a series of events that we could only liken to a scene from Amazing Race, made all the more exciting because we didn’t actually fully understand what was happening. We talked to a woman at the information desk next to the exit who made a quick phone call and directed us to go to the 4th floor in the center (no more specificity than that). Once back on the 4th floor we wandered around and asked some airline attendants behind a desk near what we thought was the center. They only asked us if someone had already called someone, and after we confirmed, one of them flagged down an immigration official, who listened to us, seemed to understand and quickly grabbed our passports and motioned for us to follow him. And the chase began. Our passports in hand, he was literally running back through the airport. It seemed like he was trying to help us, and a couple times he did turn to see we were still with him, but things only got stranger when he handed us off to a series of very fast moving immigration officials who each escorted us for a few minutes and then handed us off to the next one. We ran back past many official-looking people and even ran through a private office where John’s pack got caught on, and almost brought down a room divider.

Thai Visa Stamp

Thai Visa Stamp

It was a pretty intense scene as none of this was happening with any spoken language – we’d only shown our visas to the first person and we could only hope that they understood the issue and were passing it along to each consecutive person in our path. No small issue was the fact that all of these men were also handing our passports off to each other. In the end we were taken all the way back through the airport to the front door in front of the immigration lines. Several officials went in search of the woman who stamped us in, she changed the year on her stamp, corrected our visa stamps, and we were good to go. If that isn’t helpful and efficient service, I don’t know what is!

Riding off into the sunset, JFK -> BKK

leavingNYSeen through the windows of Gate 10, Terminal 1, of JFK airport, the sunset was beautiful. A bright orange ball, igniting the sky over Jamaica Bay. The USA bidding us a fond farewell and seeming to say, forget me not. A sight we could remember as we flew West over the Pacific, locked in a can for 15 hrs with 440 other poor souls and no seat-back entertainment. You get what you pay for – and with at least four months of travel ahead of us, we had decided to pay for very little.

Of course the sun sets at 4:30pm and we were scheduled to depart at 3:30pm. But the woman at the desk assured us there would be no problem with our connection in Shanghai. A least I think that’s what she said, her English being marginally better than my Chinese. With a lay over of more than two hours at Pu Dong airport before our connecting flight to Bangkok, we weren’t too worried. Some time later we boarded, saying goodbye and good luck to the US and each other, as we marched down separate aisles to seats that were relatively close to each other. You try doing online check-in through China Eastern’s website. I could not find it, but like I said, my Chinese is a bit rusty.

Lori took this photo of the [quite good] Chinese airplane food and we have nothing better to put here.

Lori took this photo of the [quite good] Chinese airplane food and we have nothing better to put here.

The flight was uneventful – absolutely nothing of interest happened for 15 hours. We landed at 9:40pm local time, about the same time our flight for Bangkok was taxiing into take-off position. The helpful flight attendants pointed up the ramp and said, “Yes, yes. Go, go.” and we bemusedly entered an empty Shanghia airport, eyes searching hopefully for a China Eastern rep with a sign reading “Bangkok.”

With no such person appearing, we followed everyone else towards customs so as not to be left completely alone in what could be one of the larger airports I’ve been in. With no other options and never having planned to officially enter China, we fumbled our way through customs with 14 other confused Americans and one helpful Australian.

Eventually an airline rep, with few words and many gestures, put us all on a bus for a 30 minute mystery ride through a deserted industrial zone, the only vehicle on an eight lane highway, visibility limited to a few hundred feet on each side of us thanks to the night and the smog. Supposedly we were headed to a hotel and not a reeducation camp, but charades is neither an efficient nor complete form of communication.

Arriving at what could only have been a modern hotel hotel just a few weeks shy of it’s grand opening, we snatched up the first room key on offer and high-tailed it to the elevator. Leaving behind our rag-tag group of laid-over fellow travelers, just as screams of, “Share a room! I don’t know any of these people!”, began.

The room was fine and we especially appreciated the floor-to-ceiling, four-foot wide window looking from the room into the bathroom. We pulled the shade down, showered, and collapsed into bed.

The next morning we were put on a bus for another 30 minute ride to the airport, with more visibility but not much more to see. We boarded the 8:30 am flight to Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, with little fan fair or trouble.

Waiting for a shuttle bus in the Shanghai airport after being dropped off at the wrong terminal for our flight

Waiting for a shuttle bus in the Shanghai airport after being dropped off at the wrong terminal

Although it was a confused evening, we would be getting into BKK just after noon, a little rested and our internal clocks on local time. An accidental but better alternative to arriving at 3am after 24hrs of straight traveling. Not an inappropriate way to start a trip that was sure to have it’s fair share of delays, bemusement, and mimed communication. If you want to learn how swim, sometimes it’s best to just jump in the deep end of the pool.