When it comes to travel in Asia, there are plenty of options. The most popular destination, however, seems to be Thailand. It's beautiful, it's inexpensive, and the people are friendly. Let's face it, when a country sees 11 million visitors a year, it's because they have something good to offer. This is primarily why I chose Thailand to make my first visit to the other side of the globe. The unbelievable $600 flight also had something to do with it. Fortunately, it lived up to its reputation. The islands were magical, the highlands were lush, and the cities were lively. On the other hand, Thailand also came with some disappointment - I just have to be honest, here. If you are looking for a little bit of a challenge in your travels, this isn't really the place. Sure, you can always walk in the other direction from Thailand's beaten path, but you will never be too far away from decades worth of commercial development and package tourism. In this little corner of Southeast Asia, everything is for sale, and they know you are coming. However, if you can get over the fact that there's a 7-11 on just about every corner, and blind yourself from the endless barrage of tourist agencies, you can still enjoy all that is pure and wonderful about this amazing country - and, let us not forget the food. The following entries chronicle my brief time spent in Thailand, and present what I hope will be useful information for other travelers. (map: www.shunya.net)
OCTOBER 8 & 9 :: FLYING
It took roughly 24 hours to get from Atlanta to Bangkok, traveling through Minneapolis and Tokyo. Some may say that I really got screwed with my multi-destination flight, but the only ones who lost out on this deal were the good people at Northwest Airlines. My ticket only cost me a rediculous $620, roundtrip. That's pretty much unheard of when it comes to flying to the opposite end of the planet. The longest leg of this journey is from Minneapolis to Tokyo, clocking in at about 12 hours. My advise: grab an aisle seat and spend your waking hours walking around. Tokyo to Bangkok took us seven hours, but it wasn't so bad when you put it up against the previous flight. I finally arrived in Bangkok at 11:50pm on October 9th... I left on October 8th in the morning. (photo: http://lenta.ru)
Joining me in Bangkok were two co-workers, traveling seperately, who wound up on my flight when the fare was jointly discovered on Northwest's website. We decided to spend that first and second night in the same hotel in Bangkok before going our separate ways. This, in retrospect, was a bad idea because we stayed at Majestic Suites in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok. The hotel was very nice, and that was the problem - it set the bar quite high for my future accomodations. However, Rich and Graham (left) had stayed at the hotel several times before on previous visits, and were correct in that it was clean and reasonable. Not only that, but I have to admit that it was pleasant to show up in a country at night after all that travel and have a decent bed waiting for you. A bite to eat at Food Land and a beer was about as much fun as I was able to muster on the 9th before turning in.
OCTOBER 10 :: BANGKOK
he next morning, after hopping online and purchasing a flight to Phuket for the next day, I set out to do some exploring. The first thing I noticed was the strange proximity of the rich and the poor. Just walking down the street from my hotel to the skytrain, I could see giant high-rise buildings towering above what appeared to be a ramshakled village. According to one traveler, these may actually be temporary laborers' quarters - not permanant homes. Either way, it's still pretty bad. I suppose it's not that uncommon to see combined wealth and poverty in large cities, but I couldn't help but wonder what it does to the psyche of the people. Does it breed a feeling of empowerment for those looking down from their windows upon the metal roofs and boarded walls below? And does it belittle the inhabitants of these shacks, looking up to condos in the sky?
Sukhumvit, seemingly the epicenter for Bangkok's sex tourism industry, does, however, offer something for the individual not looking for a good time, but, rather, just a good time. What it offers is a fantastic staging point for travel throughout the city, allowing easy access to both the subway and skytrain. Bangkok has terrible traffic, and unobstructed transportation is key. On my way over to the major tourist points of interest, I rode the skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop along the Chao Phraya River, where I then picked up a water taxi. This is the quickest, cheapest, and most scenic way to get around town.
Deboarding the water taxi at the N8 stop, I was able to walk, quickly, to Wat Pho in order to view the famous Reclining Buddha. It's big. From there, it's just a short walk over to the Grand Palace, which encompasses the holiest and most impressive temple in the country, Wat Phra Kaeo. To visit my final tourist stop for the day, before taking some time to just stroll around the back streets of the city, I ventured a little further away to Wat Rajnadda's massive amulet market - amulets are sacred neclaces, often depicting a miniature Buddha.
Later that evening, I, along with Graham, Rich (in red), and Doug, a family friend who happened to be in Bangkok at the same time as me, hung out at Gulliver's Traveler's Tavern with the desk receptionists from our hotel. Though I had to be up early the next morning for a flight out of the big, bad city, Rich and Graham gave me and Doug the grand after-hours tour of the town.
OCTOBER 11 :: KO LANTA
One of the nice things about being a short-timer, traveling for only three weeks, is that you can justify paying for more expensive (but faster) modes of transportation. On this morning, I took an 8am Asia Air flight to Phuket for about $30. Once I arrived on this popular island off the Andaman coast, I grabbed a mini-bus to Phuket Town where I spent a couple hours enjoying the last day of Ngan Kin Jeh, the annual vegetarian festival. While the food at Wat Jui Tui made the hurried travel worth the effort, I would miss the evening's ritualistic acts of self-mortification as I had already made the decision to continue on to Ko Lanta.
A bus from Phuket Town to Krabi, and a mini-van from Krabi to Ko Lanta's Hat Khlong Dao, would turn out to be my biggest mistake of the trip. Prior research had inspired me to spend up to six days on this long, lazy island, basking in the sun and enjoying the late-night fish barbecues on the beach. However, this was the off season, and I quickly learned that I was one of just a handful of travelers on the island. While it was nice to have the entire stretch of sand to myself, I was bored stupid. From the beach outside my accomodations at Lanta Villa, I could see Ko Phi Phi out in the distant waters, teasing me through the ghostly haze. Later, I would learn from multiple backpackers that Phi Phi was the place to be. I had gambled on the chance of having something special on Ko Lanta, but found it less than exciting, at this time, for the solo traveler. However, for the happy couple looking for peace and quiet... welcome to paradise.
OCTOBER 12 :: KO LANTA
Attitude is key. I decided that I would only spend one more night on Ko Lanta, and would make the most out of my final day. The next order of business, then, was to rent a motorbike from Lanta Villa and see what else this island had to offer. After half an hour of figuring our how to actually ride the damn thing, I set off on the main road, traveling down along the island's eastern coast. On the way back, I ran out of gas. I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that I was reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A little girl approached me as I was pushing my motorbike up a hill, and offered to bring me a liter of fuel for 30 Baht. I handed her a 100 Baht bill and she ran off back to her home, leading me to believe that insult had just been added to inury. Several moments later, she came back down to the road, clad in her Muslim head-cover. Appropriately dressed to venture off into public, she sped off on her own motorbike as I sat with her family in their home. The kids were sprawled out on the floor watching a DVD while the mother fixed a torn fishing net for the father. The little girl soon returned with a plastic baggie filled with a pink-ish gasoline. She handed me my change and emptied the bag into my fuel tank. I tipped her for her generosity.
One of my problems when I'm on the road is taking far too many photographs of sunsets. I'm addicted, and Ko Lanta was like crack cocaine. After my great day of traveling the road on my motorbike, feeling like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, this gorgeous, changing sky was a perfect way to cap my short stay on the island.
There wasn't much nightlife on Ko Lanta while I was there, but I was fortunate enough to be able to hang out with the owners of The Laughing Leprechaun. A young, Irish guy and his lady run this small, but friendly tavern, and actually live there with their dog, Guinness. They had opened during the previous year, however things turned sour for business when the tsunami hit. The night I showed up in their bar was the first night they opened for the season.
OCTOBER 13 :: KO SAMUI
Needing something that resembled nightlife, and hoping for the company of other travelers, I left Ko Lanta for guaranteed action on Ko Samui. Traveling by mini-vans to Surat Thani, I then boarded a ferry boat for the hour and a half ride over to the big island in the Gulf of Thailand. The sailing was pleasant, and the views were spectacular.
Like I said, I can't stop taking photos of sunsets. It's a disease. I mean, seriously, look at this sky. With a luke-warm Chang Beer in my hand, I stood at the stern of the ferry and enjoyed every passing moment. Eventually, I started talking with a young, British couple on their four-month-long honeymoon. Having not planned for accomodation for the night, they decided to follow me to Charlie's Huts on Chaweng Beach. After my slow start in Ko Lanta, it finally felt like I was actually traveling. Though I wish I had started things out on Ko Phi Phi or Krabi, I was feeling too good to let my bad decision bother me. My goodness, just look at that sky.
Charlie's Huts is one of those places that gets recommended often on the BootsnAll message boards. I went for the basic room... this is what I got. It wasn't the lack of a flush toilet that bothered me (notice the hand bucket on the floor), it was whatever was growing on the walls of the bathroom. I can only wonder who LW was, and what horrible disease ultimately led to his or her demise.
OCTOBER 14 :: KO SAMUI
There's a reason why Charlie's Huts is so highly regarded online by travelers - it's a beautiful, beachside property with tidy little huts. Of course, my hut (#24) wasn't worth a damn, but that was really my own fault. I was actually advised by somebody on the boards to go ahead and get the slightly upgraded room because there's nothing slight about the difference in quality. So, my first item of business on the 14th was going from the 350 Baht room to the 500 Baht room. Let me just say that, while C-11 wasn't anything ultra special, as far as I was concerned it was friggin' Xanadu.
I decided to spend my first day on Samui doing absolutely nothing. With a perfect, white-sand beach just a few hundred feet from my hut, it was easy to wander over to the water's edge whenever I felt inspired to continue the process of turning myself into a bronze god. As you will find in all of Thailand, the beach outside Charlie's Huts is swarming with stray dogs like this guy. They're friendly, for certain, and their modus operandi seems not to be too different from that of the tourists. All these pups are really interested in is a nice, shady spot on the beach, and whatever leftovers you might be willing to part with.
The big sport in Thailand is Thai boxing. When I arrived in Samui, I was inundated with advertising for this evening's event and convinced that this was going to be a great experience. When 9pm rolled around, I walked over to Chaweng Stadium to get in on the action. That's when something struck me. The ticket prices were outrageous, starting at about 800 Baht. It occured to me that this was not a price afordable to everyday Thais. Something didn't seem quite right. I hung around the stadium for a while, and noticed two other things. The first thing was that the stadium happened to be located in the same general area as Samui's go go bars - tourist central. I also noticed that all the announcements coming from within the stadium were in English only. If this was an authentic display of Thai boxing, wouldn't they offer both English and Thai? I concluded that this was just a scam to rake in tourist dollars, and left it alone. I would find my suspicion to be correct, as everyday on Samui brought the exact same advertising in the form of newly printed posters and recorded messages blasting from the loudspeakers on a constant barrage of trucks and boats: "Tonight! Tonight! Best match! Best match! World Champion! World Champion! Nine o'clock! Nine o'clock! Tonight! Tonight!" I would later learn that, even in Bangkok, where authentic fights can be seen on certain nights of the week, the tourists still pay a much higher ticket price from a separate foreigners' window. Thai's are able to purchase a discounted ticket because of a sports subsidy provided by the goverment.
So, instead of watching Thai boxing, I ventured off to Soi Green Mango, a large, outdoor party plaza, where I threw back a bunch of Singha beers with some crazy British girls (by the way, to save money, purchase your drinks at the 7-11 next door). On the way home I decided to eat some street meat. This was a very, very bad idea. Immediately after biting into my beef on a stick, I could tell that I was going to be sick. Street food is very popular for travelers in Thailand, but I would be gun shy for the remainder of my trip.
OCTOBER 15 :: KO SAMUI
The next morning, feeling the effects of Singha Beer and bad street meat, I spent the bulk of my morning inside my hut clutching my stomach. It should be noted that none of the photos presented on this day are actually from the 15th - quite simply, I was in no mood for playing with my camera. Though I did manage some beach time and something that resembled a normal day, there isn't too much more to tell. Forget about bird flu... worry about the street meat.
Since I have nothing better to show from this day of horror, I thought it might be nice to share a photograph of my new bathroom. Compare this glorious kingdom of heaven with the craphouse I had before, and you can clearly understand why paying the extra 150 Baht is worth it.
My body was sore all day long, so I figured it might be worthwhile to get my first Thai massage. Somebody from the BootsnAll travel boards suggested that I try a place called Classic, commenting on the ginger tea served to you on their cozy veranda after your hour of muscular bliss. Well, that person could not have been more correct. When on Cheweng Beach, make sure you head over to Classic. This photo, taken a couple days later when I was feeling a little better, shows, not only the tea-time veranda, but also the fisherman's pants they give you to wear during your massage. I found these pants so comfortable that I ended up buying several pairs for myself and several more as gifts.
OCTOBER 16 :: KO SAMUI
The fact that I was still feeling rather sickly didn't really matter much due to the fact that it was pissing rain all day. A group of us, consisting of three Aussie girls, a British girl, two Canadian guys, another American, and me, made the best out of the bad weather by hanging out under the patio at Charlie's Huts playing some moronic card game called Spoons... which, in the absence of spoons, becamse Straws. October sort of marks the tail end of Thailand's rainy season, but this would be the only day during my entire trip where it just never stopped raining. On a few other days, storm clouds might roll in around four or five o'clock, rain for an hour or two, and then blow away. It was actually quite nice as it seemed to cool things down a bit. Overall, though, I would rate my vacation weather as spectacular.
Me and one of the Aussie girls... Tropical Murphy's became our regular hangout, which is kind of sad when you consider that we had all traveled to Asia from somewhere far away, only to be sitting around in an Irish bar. However, we never spent the entire evening there, and it was a great place to watch a little English Premier League soccer before finding other entertainment for the night. This also worked out particularly well for me because, with my food poisoning and the rainy weather, I wasn't overly keen on venturing too far away from my hut.
OCTOBER 17 :: KO SAMUI
Feeling much better, but still not 100 percent, I decided I was healthy enough to rent motorbikes with the other American kid - a harmless redneck from South Carolina. We stopped, first, at a rather non-descript temple off the side of the road past Lamai Beach. Walking down toward the water from the Wat, we stumbled upon this little girl and her cat. She was just hanging out in this outdoor workshop among hundreds of monuments and statues being poured into casts, and happily allowed me to take her photograph.
Our next destination was the Wang Sao Thong Waterfalls. Hiking in and about was mildly difficult at times, but overall it was a pleasant stroll through the jungle with a few natural points of interest. Hanging out on the beach all day, it was easy to forget that we were only spending our time on the very outskirts of this lush, tropical island. There was so much more to experience on Samui for the traveler who takes it upon himself to explore the areas outside Chaweng and Lamai Beach. Of course, I had my excuse... the dreaded street meat.
On the return trip to Chaweng, we pulled over at another non-descript temple. Really, it's like visitng cathedrals and art galleries in Europe. After a while, the temples all start to look the same. However, at this particular Wat, we met a rather talkative Monk who encouraged us to hang out with him for a bit. In the end, he gave us bracelets and suggested that we take a few photographs. The (ahem) donation box is just outside the left edge of the photograph.
Our last little visit on this motorbike journey was at a coastal land formation known simply as The Rocks. Locally famous for the two stone formations resembling male and female genitalia, most visitors walk away from The Rocks with a fancy postcard depicting this overwhelming proof that God has a warped sense of humor. I didn't need to buy a postcard because I have the brain of an eight-year-old and am quite capable of creating my own amusement. Very mature.
Later that evening, feeling much better after another meal at the popular Ninja Crepes restuarant, I walked down the main strip looking for some nightlife. Just when you can't stomach any more Soi Green Mango (one night will do, thanks), you can always walk across the street and have a drink with Divas in Concert! Your best bet, however, is to venture over to Ark Bar, where Samui's most fun and relaxing nightlife takes place along the beach. Ark Bar is found among a gaggle of restaurants, resorts, and bars that provide comfortable mats and axe pillows on the sand for visitors to enjoy while they chill out next to the water. It was here that I ended up meeting some great travelers, played some pool late into the night, and avoided the annoyance of Samui's sex tourism.
OCTOBER 18 :: KO PHA NGAN
As the night skies grow brighter with each passing date on the calendar, more and more travelers begin their migration to the Gulf of Thailand. The monthly Full Moon Party tradition on Ko Pha Ngan, just north of Ko Samui, has become one of the must-do events in Thailand, and on October 18th I was one of the thousands who descended on Hat Rin for the overnight festivities. It's good fun, but does this fancy sign not suggest that the Full Moon Party has sort of lost its original purity to the powers of mass-tourism?
Several of us from Charlie's Huts, including these two Swedish girls, purchased travel deals from Samui to Ko Pha Ngan. All over the island, one can find any number of packages offering transportation between the two islands. However, the best deal seemed to be the one being offered by our own guest house. The package from Charlie's Huts cost 400 Baht, and included mini-van transport to and from the pier on Samui, and the 45-minute slow boat to and from Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. It was surprisingly organized, as one had to actually choose a departing time - I chose the 8:30pm boat to Ko Pha Ngan instead of the 9:30 or 10:30. In the morning, we were free to come home on either the 4am, 5am, or 6am ferry.
When I first arrived on Ko Pha Ngan, things were very mellow. However, the bucket drinks were still flying off the shelves. The basic ingredients are ice, Coke or Sprite, a hip-flask bottle of Sangsom or Mekong, and a small can of a Red Bull-like product. Everything gets poured onto the ice, stirred around, and punctured with a handful of straws for sharing. From my experience, the best tasting bucket is one that uses Sprite and Sangsom. Others tend to taste like cough syrup.
Some individuals claim that if you don't use drugs it's difficult to have a good time at the Full Moon Party. However, I found this to be quite an exageration. Plenty of us were just drinking our buckets and hanging out, free from drugs, having a terrific experience. So, if you prefer to remain drug-free, or even alcohol-free, fear not, for you can still enjoy the madness. That being said, let yourself go and dive into a bucket or four.
I really wish that I had spent more time on Ko Pha Ngan. While it seems to be suffering from a similar explosion of tourism that has plagued Ko Samui, it manages to present a unique and endearing charm. On this night, late in the evening, the clouds parted just long enough for the celebrated full moon to reveal itself. I wonder how many people actually noticed.
By three in the morning, I was pretty much spent. The casual group atmosphere that I enjoyed during the early stages of the night had dissolved into a more haphazard collection of individuals spaced out in their own little worlds. Hundreds, literally hundreds, of people were passed out on the sand from too many drugs, too much alcohol, or simply not enough sleep. I killed time waiting for the 5am ferry back to Samui by watching the talented fire-twirlers, and having a good laugh at the endless parade of BDMWD - Bad Decisions Made While Drunk. I've said it once, and I'll say it again - stupid humans.
OCTOBER 19 :: CHIANG MAI
Arriving back at Charlie's Huts from the Full Moon Party at around 6:30 in the morning, I felt it was best not to climb into bed and risk missing my 10:30am flight to Chiang Mai. Instead, I gave myself a brisk, oceanic slap in the face. Basically, at this hour, it was just me and the stray dogs out there. As a general rule, dogs are better than people, so this wasn't such a bad thing. After my peaceful swim, I packed up my things, had some breakfast at Ninja Crepes, and grabbed a cab over to the Samui airport.
This is definitely one of the most unique airports I have ever seen. Peppered with tropical huts, the entire facility is open to the air, sort of like it came right out of Gilligan's Islands. Bangkok Airways actually owns the airport, so they have a nice monopoly on flights in and out of the island, and everything generally goes through Thailand's capital. Therefore, fares tend to be a little more expensive than usual. My flight cost me nearly $150. What I should have done, in retrospect, was taken one flight to Bangkok, and then a less expensive flight to Chiang Mai through another airline. But, whatever... at least Bangkok Airways knows how to take care of you. Every flight, even the short ones, came with a meal, and the terminals in both the Samui and Bangkok airports offered free food and internet access. That being said, their planes are a little outdated. Anyway, flying from Samui to Bangkok to Sukhothai to Chiang Mai, my entire travel time only took about four hours.
Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, I could immediately feel a new sense of ease. The north is widely known to be slower, friendlier, and less expensive than Bangkok and the southern islands, and I was pleased that I had decided to alter my rough itinerary to spend some time here. The Tha Phae Gate district, centered between old town and new town, is arguably the best place to situate yourself for exploring the area, and home to countless guest houses, restuarants, bookshops, and bars. Based on several recommendations, I directed my airport taxi to Eagle House #2, and couldn't have been happier with my choice of lodging. Clean, friendly, and full of useful information, EH2 sits right in the heart of everything. Of course, a hot shower would have been nice as I hadn't had one since Ko Lanta. You get used to it.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area around Tha Phae Gate, eventually finding my way over to the famous night bazaar. It's a great place to waste away several hours, and only about a twenty minute walk from where I was staying. Later that night, after eating a rather unexciting meal at a restaurant called Kafe', I strolled over to an Aussie bar and mustered up enough energy to watch the Manchester United match before finally heading back to my room... the Full Moon Party had finally caught up with me.
OCTOBER 20 :: CHIANG MAI
The first morning in a new travel city always feels great. You've moved on from the stress of actually getting there, taken things out of your backpack, and managed to get some sleep. So, when that bright morning light hits your eyes, you know that the day is yours for exploring. In Chiang Mai, I didn't have anything in particular that I wanted to see, but I had an incredible urge to just walk around. My first stop, after visiting a tailor, was Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai's second most impressive temple.
No trip to the north would be complete without a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the region's holiest and most impressive shrine. Perched atop a commanding hill on the outskirts of the city, this really isn't a walk-able excursion. So, I hired a "red truck" to take me to the top. Red trucks are, well, red trucks that act as taxis. The beds are covered and lined with bench seats, capable of picking up multiple passengers for multiple destinations. I was told it would cost 60 Baht to get to the top, several kilometers up a long, winding road. I agreed, and the driver took me as far as the zoo (this is how it works). I was to pay my first driver 20 Baht, and the next red truck driver 40 Baht. What ended up happening was that I sat in the back of my second ride for 45 minutes, alone, waiting for more passengers to arrive. The driver told me that they would not leave until they had ten people in the back to justify the 40 Baht price. So, I sat... and sat... and sat. If I wanted to go to the top by myself I would have to pay 400 Baht. Perhaps it was just travelers' stress, but I sort of blew an O-ring. Without getting into detail, this photograph from the back of the red truck reveals the last smiling you would see from me for a while as I totally lost my cool with the driver, and acted like a big jerk. Sometimes, in life and in travel, things don't work out as planned - you just have to laugh it off. I didn't. However, I did manage to sort things out in my head as I walked back to my guest house.
Earlier in the evening, I ordered my best meal of the trip at a nearby restaurant called The Wall. Khao Soi, a soupy Burmese dish made with curry and coconut cream, noodles, and meat, is one of the most popular dishes in the north, and was made to perfection at this cozy little hangout on Thanon Ratchawithi. I explained to the Dutch owner how much I enjoyed the meal, and he brought out the chef so she could tell me more about the recipe. After dinner, I took a digestion stroll across the moat, stopping, first, at my tailor for a fitting, and then at Inter Bar to listen to the gravelly voiced owner sing and play guitar. Later, I walked back toward my end of town to the UN Irish Pub for trivia night. Upstairs, I met five Brits who let me join their team... we won a pitcher of beer for our third place performance.
The worst little salesman in Chiang Mai. Apparently, Captain ADD was under the impression that he could improve his sales by punching me in the crotch. Yeah... peace, kid.
OCTOBER 21 :: KAREN HILL-TRIBE VILLAGE
One of the most popular activities for travelers in the north is hill-tribe trekking through Thailand's lush jungles. Eagle House makes getting on board easy, as you can sign up for a single or multi-day package with Eagle House Trekking online or right at the front desk. I chose a two-day (one night) trip that began with a morning stop at a thriving market in Maemalai, where our guides gathered up fresh food for dinner. After about two hours of driving into the mountains, the first "activity" is riding an elephant. To be perfectly honest, this was sort of a touristy add-on that I could have done without. For starters, I'm fairly confident that the animals are treated rather inhumanely. In fact, I know they are... I saw the metal hook they use to dig into the elephant's ears to make it turn left or right. Sometimes they just whack it on the head, causing a hollow thok sound. It's horrible. But, besides that, you can't help but feel like a complete tourist jackass while being paraded around in a giant circle for an hour, stopping every ten minutes at a tree stand where some lady sells you bananas to feed Bobo. That being said, it's a great opportunity to get up close to these beautiful creatures. Here's me and the American couple from our three-person trekking group, starting out our adventure.
After the elephants and a fried rice lunch in town, we set off on our trek through the jungle. The trails are easy to follow and only sporadically difficult to foot, for this is the beaten path off the beaten path. The foliage was lush and green, and the distant hills were impressive in the sunlight. Everything was quite peaceful and calm, actually, until we stumbled upon our first snake. It turned out to be a harmless green snake, but it still managed to scare the hell out of me when it slithered before our feet. Ban, our fearless leader, messed with it for a while before setting free into the bushes.
Meet Ban and Somde. Ban, an English speaking Thai boxer who lived in Chiang Mai, was our guide and info man. Somde, his old friend from a neighboring village where he grew up, acted more like a sherpa, hauling in all of our food and supplies... which really wasn't much for such a short trip. Together, they were quite a pair. Constantly singing everywhere they went, Somde knew about three words to the chorus of popular English songs, but could mumble the rest rather well. "Welcome to the Hotel California! Mmmmppphphphph, mmmmhphphphphphpph!" At the midway point of our hike, we stopped for a swim at a waterfall... hence, the undies.
We reached the Karen hill-tribe village, high on the mountain, late in the afternoon. Ban and Somde immediately began cooking our dinner while there was still sunlight, and I took some time to explore the web of dirt roads. I have to admit that it was rather strange and voyeuristic to be wandering around as just another westerner, paying to watch these simple people. Their lives were real, but my forced presence in their world seemed to detract from the authenticity of the experience. It was sort of like I could hear their thoughts. They were thinking, "Hello, rich tourist. Welcome to our a village. Feel free to take photos of me hanging my clothes and feeding the chickens. Hey, maybe someday I can visit your community and watch you mow the lawn." So, yes, it's a little bizarre to have paid money to observe people like they were in a human museum exhibit, but, at the same time, it was great having that chance to see a completely different way of life while standing in the middle of it.
Takraw is sort of a fusion between soccer and volleyball, dating all the way back to the 15th century. Though it's recognized around the world, it's a game that is really only played in Asia. The rules are pretty basic. A hard, wicker ball is kicked (or headed) over a low net, as the player (three to a side) perform stunning, acrobatic moves to keep the ball in the air. We sat for a good half hour watching them play, mesmerized by the skill and creativity. We were also sort of stuck staring at this one guy's mangled leg... perhaps a takraw accident that never healed propperly.
This simple, bamboo hut was our lodging for the night, and the family with whom we were staying provided us with heavy sheets, sleeping bags, hard pillows, and mosquito nets. We were in bed at some horribly early hour, but when you are in the middle of nowhere there isn't much reason to stay up late. Besides, for the villagers, work starts at sunrise. Despite the lack of any cushioning, we managed to sleep rather comfortably into the early hours of the morning. Fortunately, the bird-flu chickens outside kept their cock-a-doodle-doos to a minimum throughout the night.
But, before sleep... after an amazing meal of curry tofu and sweet and sour veggies, we huddled around the campfire, kissing that mountain air we breathe. One of our hosts walked down into the main part of the village and grabbed us an old acoustic guitar so Ban and I could take turns playing songs for everybody. Somde was pleased that he could contribute the first two words from the chorus of Country Roads - which are "Country Roads..." - and we even attempted a little Bob Dylan with some flute accompaniment. Ban treated us to some traditional Thai songs that he learned growing up in his village.
There was no electricity where we were staying, so the only light at night came from our fire. After all the commercialism of Samui, and the chaos of Thailand's two major cities, it was nice to finally be able to see the stars at night. Sometimes we forget how many great things we can observe in the sky until we have a chance to really look up and see it.
OCTOBER 22 :: CHIANG MAI
After an early morning breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, we were back on the trail before the jungle weather became to warm. Of course, others had been up and going long before we could even rub the sleep from our eyes - rice is the obvious staple in these parts, and clearing the fields takes considerable time and effort. The woman on the left was actually one of our hosts from the village.
Thailand is often called the "Land of Smiles." Needless to say, they have much to smile about these days. Even the hill-tribe people are raking in the tourist dollars simply by existing. After leaving their village, our morning hike lasted a couple of hours, passing by thick brush and countless creepy crawlies. Amazingly, a stray dog that had followed us from the elephant camp the day before was still tagging along into the afternoon. At the end of the trail, we grabbed a ride in the back of a pickup truck down to the river, leaving the dog behind. I'm sure he enjoyed his new village.
Like the elephant ride, bamboo rafting was sort of an unnecessery add-on to the end of the trek. I appreciate that the creators of the program were just trying to give travelers their money's worth, but I would have been just as content to simply hike around with our guide in these beautiful mountains. It's not that I didn't enjoy the bamboo rafting (it was quite pleasant, actually), but I had to laugh at the framed phtotographs waiting for us at the end of the ride, sort of like we had just stepped off the Batman roller coaster at Six Flags. Thailand takes tourism to the Nth degree, but that's just capitalism, baby!
After arriving in Chiang Mai, I checked back into Eagle House #2, and then walked over to the tailor to pick up my order. A couple of days earlier, I was measured for two suits, two shirts, and two ties - all custom. These kind of shops are a dime a dozen in Thailand, but the key is to avoid places that advertise similar deals for $99 and 24 hours. That's just not a safe purchase. I ended up paying $225, and it took three days. The suits I chose were navy and brown, thinking that I could sort of mix and match the jackets and trousers to make four outfits. The shirts I ordered were made specially for cuff links because I figured I could always buy normal shirts at the mall. The ties came off the rack. In the end, I was more than satisfied with my purchase, comforted by the fact that this shop was packed with customers while all the others in the area appeared to be empty. I'm confident that the material and design are good quality, but only stitching and time will tell.
OCTOBER 23 :: PAI
It seems everywhere in the world there exists these little backpacker hangouts that, otherwise, would stand as just common, lonely villages. But, for whatever reason, these tiny communities become popular through word of mouth, and thrive with gentle tourism. Pai, pronounced bye, is one of these places. I decided to take the public bus from Chiang Mai, and was hoping to catch the one leaving at 8:30am. Unfortunately, that bus was full, and I ended up having to take the 10:30am. It's important to note that these buses tend to fill up quickly because of Pai's popularity with both travelers and locals, and the ticket line at window #46 can be long. So, it's best to show up at the Arcade Bus Station early. Things don't get much easier once you're shoved aboard the old, cramped tin can on wheels, as the 3.5 hour winding ride is famous for causing motion sickness. However, in the end, the pleasure is worth all the pain.
Recent flooding during Thailand's rainy season had wiped away many of the structures along the Pai River. I found skeletal remains of bridges and guest houses haunting the water's edge, reminding us of nature's potential fury. However, things had generally recovered by the time I arrived, and my only problem was finding a vacancy. Fortunately, this laid-back, new-agey town is small, and I didn't have to walk around for miles looking for a room. Somehow, I ended up at a nameless, German-owned guest house attached to the Pai Corner Restaurant. To my surprise, it turned out to be my favorite accomodation in Thailand - clean, cheap, artfully designed, and rigged with a piping hot in-suite shower. Finally!
OCTOBER 24 :: PAI
If Pai had a mob boss, it would be the fast talking Chinese guy who runs Aya Service, a centrally located business that rents motorbikes, secures travel visas, and operates shuttle service to and from Chiang Mai. Basically, he's the man with the plan... even if he is a jerk. I decided to rent one of his motorbikes for the day, and rode out to Wat Mae Yen. The temple is situated up on a hill on the other side of the river, and offers some of the best views of the area. Above the entrance to one of the shrines within the temple, I found this mural - a rather strange bit or artistry for such a peaceful and holy place.
My next stop on this grand tour of Pai was Tha Pai Hot Springs, six kilometers away from the temple. Nestled within a peaceful and well maintained park, the pools of water bubble up from the ground at 80 degrees celsius... that's 176 degrees fahrenheit. Needless to say, unless you're keen on cooking your internal organs, you can't just dive into the springs. However, the water does flow in streams to smaller pools that are slightly cooler. I didn't bother getting wet, choosing, instead, to stare at the rising steam.
Traveling from the eastern end of Pai to the further western stretches of town, I enjoyed smooth riding along the well-paved, scenic roads. Passing through several Lisu villages, where, coming and going, I was twice offered opium by the same toothless woman, I stopped at the Mor Paeng Waterfall for a little relaxation. Half an hour later, I was back on the road toward Pai's center, stopping, briefly, to have a peak at a nearby Chinese Refuge. There were other popular destinations in and around Pai, but at this point in the trip I wasn't overly interested in organized tours and activities.
OCTOBER 25 :: PAI
On my last day in Pai, I dedicated myself to practicing the fine art of chilling out. Those who know me can attest to the fact that despite my easy-going, jovial demeanor, I'm tortured by the inability to just sit around and do nothing. I make annoying lists and thrive on order - but I'm incredibly efficient. Sadly, the classical thinker in me actually planned to dissect the various properties of chilling out, to see if I could find patterns and logic in its practice... which is incredibly unchill. That's just how my brain works - it's hell. To my own credit, I ended up hanging out all morning with an Aussie couple, enjoying a long breakfast as we talked about travel. Later, I settled into a table upstairs at All About Coffee to read my book and drink some ginger tea. The key to chilling out, I've decided, is eradicating personal and professional ambition... or, rather, finding temporary justification of putting these things on hold.
I managed to pass the hours of the day by doing nothing, and I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. After the sun went down, I grabbed dinner at Mama Falafel, maker of the best pita in Pai! Later on, I cruised over to Walk In for the open mic night where I played the same songs I played the night before - Dead Flowers, Southern Cross, Knockin' on Heaven's Door, and Farmhouse. Walk In is probably one of the best late evening places to meet people in Pai, as it brings in all sorts of new talent, simply by virtue of the revolving door of backpackers that is Pai. This guy didn't even play music... but he could spin glass balls like nothing I'd ever seen.
A group of us from Walk In piled into the back of a pickup and drove over to the far end of town to a popular bar called Be Bop. Pulling up to this place feels like you are about to walk into a mean biker bar, except the countless motorcycles are actually mopeds and the groove inside is anything but mean. A perfect mix of Thai and Farang, everyone was treated to some great music until about one in the morning. The late night action was on the other side of the river at two hangouts called Bamboo Bar and Fubar. I ended up going back to my room at around 3am.
OCTOBER 26 :: NIGHT TRAIN TO BANGKOK (PAI, CHIANG MAI)
When I first arrived up north, I purchased an overnight train ticket from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for this day, the 26th, and had to be at the station by 5pm. Not wanting to risk a sold out or broken down public bus from Pai, I paid out for a slightly more expensive 10:30am mini-van ticket from Aya Service. When I arrived in Chiang Mai at two o'clock, I had a little over three hours to kill. Since I never did get to see Doi Suthep, I decided to bite the bullet and pay a red truck driver 300 Baht to take me to the top of the mountain, wait one hour, and drive me back to the train station. The ride up took about 40 minutes, but rewarded my patience with a spectacular (however, hazy) view of the city.
A visit to Doi Suthep epitomizes the extent of Thailand's tourism boom. Here lies one of the holiest sites in the entire country, a place believed to actually contain a bone from the Buddha, and you can't walk three feet without being offered cheap trinkets and other useless souvenirs. Just getting to the long staircase leading up to the temple, one must walk through a gauntlet of vendors, most of whom are selling large painting prints of Thai scenery. Once you push beyond this madness, and up the thousand steps to nowhere, you reach the temple - and it is quite impressive. Of course, this doesn't mean that the capitalism comes to an end... instant photo sales and a myriad of donation boxes are there to remind you that, yes, your money is still good here. Anyway, I walked around for an hour, found my driver, and cruised back to the train station with just enough time to grab dinner and a few snacks for the 12 hour ride to Bangkok.
Train service in Thailand is actually pretty good, but there are some things worth knowing. For starters, when you pay for air conditioning on Thai transportation they don't mess around. One of the smartest things a traveler can do, then, is steal the airline blanket from the flight in... it's human value ranks right up there with the ability to breathe. When purchasing an overnight train ticket, you have several class and amenity choices that dictate how much you are going to pay. I chose the popular second class air-con car, but was forced to take the slightly less expensive upper bunk. I wanted the lower, but these tend to sell out quickly (just like train tickets in general... plan ahead). The lower bunk is slightly larger, yes, but its value doesn't come from its size, but, rather, its ability to block out light. The florescent bulbs above the center walkway stay on for the duration of the trip, and the upper bunk curtain doesn't do a spectacular job of keeping your sleeping quarters dark. Here, again, you can utilize your airline blanket by either shoving it in the open spaces between the curtain and the ceiling or duct-taping it flush to the top of the train, letting it hang down. Fortunately, I had my blanket and eye-shades, so I managed to sleep just fine.
OCTOBER 27 :: KANCHANABURI
When my train arrived in Bangkok, I took a taxi over to the Southern Bus Terminal (Sai Tai Mai) to begin my two hour ride west to the provincial capital of Kanchanaburi. There are a couple random trains that make this run, but comfortable buses leave, quite conveniently, every fifteen minutes. My timing landed me on the first class #81-1 bus, offering both a movie and air conditioning set to arctic. After pulling into town I checked into the popular Jolly Frog Backpackers and walked over to the Thailand-Burma Railway Center. Several Death Railway museums are scattered around town, but there's hardly a reason to visit any but this one - it's Smithsonian good. Across the street from the museum rests the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak). Before going over for a look, I met an older British couple in the upstairs coffee shop at the museum. The woman told me the story of her cousin who served for the Royal Army in Singapore for two days before being taken prisoner by the Japanese, and shipped over to one of the POW camps to work on the Death Railway. He was an only child whose parents, after his death, became close to this woman - their niece. Today, she finally had the opportunity to pay her respects, and was the first member of her family to come to Kanchanaburi. In this grave lies her cousin, Gordon Hancock, who died in WWII at age 23.
Most people are only familiar with this region of Thailand because of the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here's the bridge. Of course, the film only focuses on one part of the Death Railway story, taking a few creative liberties even at that. So, it's worth it to spend a few moments giving this terrible chapter in world history its propper justice. I'm not sure how things are taught in other parts of the world, but I don't recall these events ever being discussed in my grade school history classes. Then again, I never really paid attention.
In December 1941, the Japanese empire was firmly planted in Southeast Asia and needed to create a supply route for their newly acquired territories. Seeing as how Allied forces still had some control in the Bay of Bengal, it would be difficult and dangerous to use the seas. Therefore, despite rough terrain, they intended to connect the Nong Pladuk terminal in Thailand and the Thanbuyazat terminal in Burma. This 415km stretch would become the Thailand-Burma Railway. Using 200,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied POWs, work began in June 1942. Fifteen months later, the railway was complete at the estimated cost of 16,000 POW and 100,000 Asian laborer lives. In many ways, death was almost a welcome friend - work and living conditions, teamed with Japanese brutality, made the prisoner camps hell on Earth. After the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, much of the track was torn apart. Today, a rebuild of the famous bridge over the River Kwai, and a short section of track, are all that physically remain from the Death Railway. I chose to walk about 40 minutes, each way, from town to see what has become of the bridge. For one thing, it looks nothing like the elaborate structure in the Oscar-winning film - which was actually shot in Sri Lanka. However, what's most obvious is the shameless commercialism that has blossomed from one side of the river to the other. It's sort of a turnoff. But, hey, you can't come to Kanchanaburi and not see the bridge... even though you don't see the bridge.
Don't mind if I do.
OCTOBER 28 :: BANGKOK
I didn't stay out too late the night before, only taking some time to explore the great night market and have a Thai massage. This morning, despite the fact that I never received my 5am wake up call from the security guard (who was sleeping on three chairs as I walked past him), I still managed to make it over to the station in time for the 6:07am train on the Death Railway. I know this sounds a little insane, considering that trains also depart at 10:50am and 4:30pm, but I had two reasons for being up and going at such an early hour. The first reason is simply because I wanted to get back to Bangkok with plenty of time to hang out and get things done (gifts, etc). The better reason for being on the early train is because I like the way things look and feel at dawn - it's a different kind of sky and a different quality of air, perfect for riding alone inside an old, wooden rail car with the windows down.
The ride lasted a scenic 2.5 hours, ending in a town called Nam Tok. Most travelers, those hoping to make their way back on one of the return trains (5:25am, 1:00pm, and 3:15pm), would wander around the area, visiting Hellfire Pass or some of the nearby caves and waterfalls. Others might even find their way over to Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Yannasampanno... otherwise known as the Tiger Temple. Believe me, I was tempted by the idea of being able to pet a tiger while hanging out with the monks, but time (along with several rumors that the tame animals are really just drugged out of their heads) convinced me to grab bus #8203 back into Kanchanaburi. An hour later, I was on a second bus to Bangkok. Moral of the story: there's only four things that are really worth doing in Kanchanaburi, and it doesn't take an expensive tour to do them. With a little planning and effort, one should be able to conquer the museum, cemetery, bridge, and railway in a 24-hour period... which is kind of cool for those pressed for time, but still wanting to see the WWII sights.
Having started the trip in the Sukhumvit part of Bangkok, I decided, this time, to lodge somewhere in the famous backpacker ghetto on Khao San Road. Though I planned to stay up all night to assure that I wouldn't sleep through my 6am flight home, I still checked into a room at the Siam Oriental Guest House. Basically, I just needed a place for my stuff and a shower. All sorted out, I did some last minute gift shopping, walked around the city for a while, and finally settled into a sidewalk cafe to watch the endless street parade of backpackers and merchants. The energy is great on Khao San Road, and, despite the fact that it's a giant vaccuum for money, it's probably the best place to start and finish a trip to Thailand. Unlike Sukhumvit, I found it very easy to meet other travelers, and actually spent the rest of the evening hanging out with some Dutch kid. We grabbed dinner and then matched each other, round for round, at the bars until they closed. After a disappointing order of Tom Yam Kung (Thailand's famous spicy soup), we worked our way over to a place called Center Khao San. Serving, at this hour, only non-descript rum and cokes, this is sort of the Khao San Road speak easy. I stayed here until about 3:30am, went back to my room for a shower, and then grabbed a taxi for the airport. My Thailand vacation had come to an upbeat and well-celebrated finish.
OCTOBER 29 :: FLY TO ATLANTA
"How many bags are you checking today, sir?" "Just one." "OK, and... um, sir, have you been drinking?" "Just a few." "Are you sure you're OK to fly?" "Oh yeah. I'm super-dooper!" I must've been stinking from my night on the town, but it's just as well - I hate flying. Needless to say, I managed to sleep well on all my flights back to Atlanta. When I arrived, the weather was much cooler than what I had been used to. It was now autumn. (photo: www.usatoday.com)
"The best things in life come from a change of plans, but in order to have a change in plans you have to have a plan in the first place."
- Jarrett Bellini, 21st Century Philosopher and All-Around Great Guy
ORIGINAL AND ACTUAL ITINERARIES
08 (FLY)........................ (FLY)
09 (FLY) Bangkok............ (FLY) Bangkok
10 Bangkok.................... Bangkok
11 Ko Lanta................... Ko Lanta
12 Ko Lanta................... Ko Lanta
13 Ko Lanta................... Ko Samui
14 Ko Lanta................... Ko Samui
15 Ko Lanta................... Ko Samui
16 Ko Lanta................... Ko Samui
17 Ko Samui................... Ko Samui
18 Ko Pha Ngan (FMP)...... Ko Pha Ngan (FMP)
19 Ko Samui................... Chiang Mai
20 Ko Samui................... Chiang Mai
21 Ko Samui................... Karen Hilltribe Village
22 Ko Samui................... Chiang Mai
23 Ko Samui................... Pai
24 Kanchanaburi............. Pai
25 Kanchanaburi............. Pai
26 Kanchanaburi............. (Overnight Train)
27 Bangkok.................... Kanchanaburi
28 Bangkok.................... Bangkok
29 (FLY) Atlanta............. (FLY) Atlanta
I always talk about doing it, but this time I actually managed to keep good notes on what I wore and used. Below, you will find the complete list of everything I brought with me on my trip. Contents in italics are things I could have done without... notes are in bold. I know this looks like a lot of stuff, but it's really not that bad. By the way, is this not completely anal-retentive?
01. Kelty Redcloud 5600 Backpack
02. REI Duck's Back (100 L) -- Rain Cover for Pack
03. (2) Personal Info Sheets (Main pack & Day Pack)
04. Self-Care Supplies (In Ziplock Bags in Top Compartment of Pack)
04a. Shampoo (Travel Bottle)
04a. Body wash (Travel Bottle)
04a. Toothbrush (with Holder)
04a. Small Toothpaste
04b. Off! Insect Repellent
04c. (2) Razors
04c. Travel Shaving Cream
04c. Toe Clippers
04c. Fingernail Clippers
04d. Small Hand Lotion
04d. Several Q-Tips
04e. (30) Daily Vitamins It was a nice idea.
04e. Various Pills for Aches and Colds
04f. (2) Tiny Gold Bond Bottles
04f. (2) Mini Purell Hand Sanitzer Bottles (Pocket Size)
04f. (3) Slightly Larger Purell Hand Sanitizer Bottles
04g. Small Quick-Dry Pack Towel
05. Money Belt
05a. $400 Cash
05a. Driver's Liscense
05a. Debit Card
05a. Credit Card
05a. Old College ID (You Never Know) Discounts? In Thailand? Right.
05a. Healthcare Card
05a. (2) MARTA Tokens (Atlanta Subway)
06. Jansport Day Pack
06a. Second Notebook
06a. "Feel This Book" (Terrible... will finish on plane and toss)
06a. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
06a. "The Rough Guide to: Thailand"
06a. Fake Wallet (Go ahead, steal it)
06a. Business Cards Not a bad idea, but...
06a. Work ID (Personal Reason... Not Necessary for Others)
06a. Digital Camera
06a. Extra Compact Flash Card
06a. (8) AA Batteries (for Camera) Needed four more.
06a. Old Beer Coozie Coozies are usually provided at the bars.
06a. Eye Shades for Sleeping
06a. Tiny LED Flashlight on an REI Caribeneer It broke.
06a. (2) Small Combo Locks (For Pack, After Flight)
06a. Rope-Style Lock for Pack
06a. Ugly Comfy Travel Socks (for the plane)*
06a. Headphone Splitter Nope.
07. Eagle Creek Cube: Red
07a. (5) Boxers*
07a. (2) Low Running Socks
07a. (1) Black Socks Rarely even wore shoes.
08. Eagle Creek Cube: Black
08a. Nylon Cargo Shorts
08a. Green Bathing Suit
08a. Blue Bathing Suit Only needed one swimming costume.
08a. AU Mesh Shorts
09. Eagle Creek Cube: Blue
09a. AC/DC T-Shirt
09a. Rapids T-Shirt
09a. Cerveza Imperial T-Shirt Saved for the Flight Home
09a. Hurley T-Shirt
10. Teva Flip Flops*
11. Old-as-Hell New Balance Runners
12. Eagle Creek Flat Fold
12a. Checkered Button-Down Shirt
12a. Brown Button-Down Shirt
12a. Long-Sleeve T-Shirt*
12a. Blue Jeans
12a. Cargo Pants*
15. Extra Ziplock Bags
16. Roll of TP
17. Rain Coat
18. Booze for the Plane (I Hate Flying)
* Worn On Flight