Ko Lanta, Thailand

Friday, February 5, 2016

It has been about 10 days since my last post when I wrote about Railay. Since then we spent a week on Relax Beach, Thailand, taken a ferry and then a flight to Bangkok where we spent the night at the airport hotel in order to catch an early morning flight to Phnom Penh, where we spent the night prior to taking a four hour taxi ride from Phenom Penh to Sihanoukville on the coast where we have been for the last two nights. The last few days have been very busy compared to the relaxation of the previous few weeks.  

Our ferry ride out of Railay to Ko Lanta was interesting. We were told that we needed to be down on the beach at 9:00, when I knew from the schedule that is published the ferry left Ao Nang at 10:30 and is scheduled to arrive at Railay at 10:45. It was after 11:00 when the ferry finally arrived and we loaded up on long tails to go out to meet it as the beach is too shallow for the boat to come ashore. If I had to wait anywhere, you really can't ask for better scenery than Railay West.

The ferry was smaller than the ferries we had taken in Thailand before. As most ferries, it had seating both outside and inside. Shannon and I took seats inside which ended up being a good choice. The seas had waves that were a foot or two high, this was also a relatively fast boat and the spray was incredible. After a few minutes of being underway, we had people coming inside that were totally and utterly drenched. A younger man and woman came in and there wasn't a single part of their bodies that weren't wet. They pulled wet cell phones and passports from their pockets and just laughed. 

The ride to the pier at Ko Lanta took a little less than two hours. When we got their the small pier already had a couple of boats tied up and there was some rearranging and then we tied up next two another boat and after the chaos of getting our luggage out of tarp covered piles on the decks, had to come off of our ferry, move onto another ferry and then onto the pier. The pier and surrounding area is the normal chaos that you find in third world countries. The first want to collect a small tax of less than a dollar per person for trash removal. Once you get past that you have the taxi drivers. We hired a song-taow which is similar to a tuk tuk but it has sidecar sort of platform next to the moped. We were able to get all of our luggage and ourselves on and then off we went to our hotel.

On Lanta, we stayed at the Lazy Days Bungalows on Relax Beach.

Relax Beach

Relax Beach

It is the smallest of our hotels on this trip with just 8 bungalows. It is about mid way down Lanta’s 15 or so mile west coast. Pretty much the entire west coast of Lanta is beaches and there are hotels running pretty much the entire length. It isn’t as heavily developed with large resorts and for most of what we saw, the main road is actually always do the beach so you do have more of sense of being more private than what we experienced on both Ko Samui and Railay.

The bungalows are nice, made out of bamboo, elevated off the ground and with thatch roofs. We were in one farthest from the beach which means all of about 50’. The hotel is owned by a Swedish couple and we later found out, the whole island is almost like a Swedish colony. Our hotel actually had an incredible restaurant and unlike anywhere else we have been we ate all of our meals there. They serve western food and have a Swedish chief. I had several steaks (the beef is imported from Australia), several salads (which you never find, at least of this sot of quality is SE Asia) and the best hamburgers I have had outside of the US. 

The restaurant drew lots of Swedes. They had several large tables and every night there would be at least one if not two tables filled with 4 or 5 Swedish couples and their children. One night we talked to a couple and they were on Lanta for 2 months, staying at a Swedish resort. Lanta actually has 2 Swedish schools and they are able to have their children in school.

Relax Beach is rather small, less than ½ a mile curved between two points. Thee are several other similar sized hotels, bars and restaurants and we never saw the large numbers of people that we experienced else where. There were rocks a hundred yards or  so out on the beach and the tide was actually rather large compare with elsewhere at about 6’ or so. At low tide the rocks were exposed and we would have to do down the beach a little ways to swim.

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

But at high tide the water was just the right depth, being neck deep for about the point you went out to the rocks. The water was nice and clear and we had the best shell collecting that we have ever experienced. I think Shannon said when we left that she had 6 pounds. The only problem is that we ended up grabbing some that were occupied. One evening Shannon went through and pulled several out that had someone living in some and put them back in the ocean.

Shells on the beach

Shells on the beach

I have not really riden bicycles, mopeds or motorcycles at all in the last 25 years and had little experience with mopeds and motorcycles prior to that. Mopeds are the primary means of transportation in SE Asia and are available for rental everywhere. At the same time, you see bandaged travelers everywhere across SE Asia and the primary cause of these bandages is mopeds. A pretty sizeable number of travelers is killed every year in SE Asia while on mopeds. I have not rented a moped on any of my trips but did decide that Lanta would be a good place for me to rent one, they cost $6-7 a day and the traffic in Lanta isn’t that heavy compared with elsewhere.

It was quite the experience. I enter one from our hotel and to begin with I couldn’t start it. After having one of the women how worked the front desk show me what I was doing wrong (it had to be off the kickstand and upright) I almost crashed about 5 times in the first couple of minutes. The road right near the hotels was dirt and that was harder to maneuver than I expected. Then once I got on blacktop and turned on the main road I had to deal with traffic and the fact that they drive on the left in Thailand. I was able to make it safely to 7/11 and back to the hotel without crashing and decided that maybe this wasn’t the best place for me to try and do this and that was my last attempt on the moped. 

One day we went back to Saladan which is the main town where we arrived on the ferry. On the way back we ended up passing hundred of Thai children that looked like they were Boy/Girl Scouts walking along the side of the road in the direction of our beach. Little did we know what we would experience. Our hotel was a couple of hundred yards from the field that they were camping in. For the next two nights until abut midnight each night three was a very loud loudspeakers going with very bad singing, hearing the same song 4-5 times a night. We were also not that far from a mosque where we would hear the call to prayer that started at 5:30 in the morning, which got the rooster started. We also had a dog that barked several times a couple of different nights. Neither of us slept that well there. While the bungalows were cute, they were not at all quiet.

Just prior to leaving Lanta we did take a day trip to the Phi Phi (Pee Pee) islands. We were on a larger speedboat with about 20 other people and we left a beach just north of where we were staying on a 45 minute trip to Maya Beach on Ko Phi Phi Leh.

The lagoon at Maya Beach

The lagoon at Maya Beach

This island was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. The movie is based on a book of the same name that was published about the same time as my very first trip to Thailand. It is about a bunch of backpackers living on this hidden paradise and its collapse. The book and then the movie in 2000 has driven a lot of people to go to the beaches in Thailand. 

In the movie there is this lagoon that is total enclosed by these towering rock walls. In reality, part of this is open to the ocean, they enclosed it in the movie with digital enhancement. The island is a national park and a huge draw. Boats come from all over and coverage on the beach which is only a couple of hundred yards long. We arrived relatively early, around 10:00 am and there were already several hundred people there, but it gets even worse later when the boats from Phuket arrive.

Maya Beach

Maya Beach

We spent about half an hour there which was about the right amount of time. There are no hotels on the island but you can camp there and it would be a great place to be able to camp and to experience in the early morning and in the evening when all the day trippers aren't there. 

We then ended up going to Ko Phi Phi Don which is about 15 minutes away by boat. This is the larger of the two islands and is the one with all of the hotels. We first stopped for snorkeling. It wasn't bad, but doesn’t compare with what we experienced in Belize. We then went to Bamboo Island for lunch.

Bamboo Island

Bamboo Island

This is the lunch stop for all of the various day trips in the area and is a beautiful beach but again with tons of people. We then made another snorkeling stop and then went into Ton Sai which is the main town on Phi Phi Don.

We were there for about an hour, which was a nice amount of time to wander around. Phi Phi Don is one of the biggest destinations for the Thai beach experience, especially with the 20 somethings that want to party. 

The beach on Phi Phi Don

The beach on Phi Phi Don

Ton Sai is in a low area that is maybe half a mile long by a couple hundred yards wide. There is basically a beach on both sides with higher hills on the other two sides. In the 2004 tsunami, waves came in from both the beach sides and 2,000 people were killed. They rebuilt almost immediately, and it appears like they might have torn down some of the buildings that wee put up right after the tsunami and are replacing them with new buildings. If you want to party it looks like it might be a great place to stay but I am really glad we didn't stay there. An hour was the right amount of time for both of us.

Another day we went to the Old Town on the east side of Ko Lanta. The east side isn’t developed as the coast is petty much just mangrove swamps. On our way over we stopped off at a tourist site that allows you to wonder around walkways than run in the swamp. It was not that impressive. We saw mangroves, mud and a few crabs. But it was only like $0.60 per person to get in.

Old Town is the original town on the island. Going back to the 1800’s it was a stop for boats in the area running up and down the peninsula. There are a number of traditional wood buildings that are built out over the water. There we some interesting shops there that we didn’t find in Saladan. 

We really enjoyed Ko Lanta. It is someplace that I could see living. It has some wonderful beaches without the chaos and all the people you have everywhere else. It is someplace I can definitely see us going back to.

Ou departure from Ko Lanta involved taking a ferry that stopped first in Railay. We waited quite a while in Railay waiting for another ferry to show up. They then moved people for the ferry we were on onto the other ferry which then was apparently going to Phuket. They then off loaded all of the people off both ferries that were getting off in Railay onto long tails. Our ferry then debated and we went into Ao Nang where we got onto to a mini van that took us to the Krabi airport. We then caught an Air Asia flight to Bangkok.

We spent the night in a hotel right next to the airport. It is part of a Thai hotel chain and worked well enough for our purpose. The interesting thing that I found was that there was a sign in reception that bringing a Durian into the hotel would result in a $1,000 fine.

Durian Warning

Durian Warning

Durian is a very interesting fruit. They are brown, oblong, spiky fruit about the size of a cantaloupe. They are similar to custard both in texture and taste and I actually kind of like it. The problem is that the smell is truly horrendous and if you did take a durian into a hotel the smell would permeate everything and for a number of rooms around the room it is in. They don't allow durians a number of places but this was the first time I had seen anything close to $1,000 fine for having one.

We had an early morning the next day. The alam went off at 4:45 as we had a 7:10 flight. The checkin lines were long and then we had to go through immigration and exit Thailand. We then had a 1 hour flight to Phnom Penh.

Railay

January 26, 2016


We left Railay yesterday and arrived in Ko Lanta. I have been thinking about what to write about Railay for the last few days.

Our departure from Ko Samui was an early morning for us. We were supposed to have a hotel pick-up between 6:30 and 7:00. We got up just before 6:00 and just about ready to walk out of the room at 6:20 when the front desk called and told us our ride was there. So we did have a golf cart arrive shortly thereafter arrive to take us and our bags to reception to checkout and load up on the van for our ride to the dock.

This trip I did something different from in the past. Whereas with most of trips with Shannon I have booked everything staging with the hotel, this time I booked most of our rooms through Expedia. I  had booked our flight through Expedia because it was cheapest and then was offered 20% off rooms that I booked in the next few weeks. When I was a backpacker, travel was the greatest expense on a trip. Now that we have gone slightly more upscale,  and no longer stay in hostels, hotels have become the greatest expense. Saving 20%  on these was nice since we have been able to stay at slightly nicer places for what I had budgeted. There has also been a side benefit in that I paid for most of them at that time. Checkout is now just covering any minibar or restaurant expenses which is kind of nice.

Ko Samui was pretty quiet other than all of these white vans everywhere. I really hadn't noticed them before since we hadn’t gotten out and explored the island at all, but there where a lot of these white vans shuttling tourists around. 

We hadn't, in large pat, explored the island because there really wasn’t much to do. We enjoyed our time on Ko Samui, but there really just aren't the attractions there that make you want to leave the area you are at. I don't actually think it is someplace I will go back to.

After stopping at a few other hotels and hostels we drove to the both end and the other pier on the island. After waiting for about a half an hour with more people arriving, they had us move to the end of the pier. The first pier we went to at the southern end of the island was strictly for ferries. This one included a lot of larger fishing boats. We finally found the right ferry and this time it was much smaller, only people and no cars. 

We had about an hour and 15 minute ferry ride and then were pointed to the bus going to Krabi. Krabi is the main hub on the southwest coast of Thailand. We again drove across the Thai country side. I made a post to Facebook during this time that travel has changed. Back in the day I would have have a paperback book that I would need to ration. Book exchanges existed at hostels, restaurants and some stand alone businesses but you never knew what you would find. Now I had 3G service on my trip and it left me more out of the moment since I could be distracted by whatever online. 

In many ways the drive could have been in any tropical country as the landscape looked similar to a lot of Central America.Parts of the road were actually 4 lanes. In Thailand they drive on the left which means that the left hand lane has slower traffic and you pass on the right. We almost wee in an accident when a car was going very slow (like 10-15 mph) and a car was overtaking us on the right. The bus driver laid on the horn and then actually pulled the bus diagonally in front of the car that was driving slowly. Both the bus drive and his assistant got out and exchanged words with the driver of the car. We were then back on our way.

About an hour and a half in to our journey and just 5 or 10 miles outside of Krabi we stopped and then bus backed down a dirt road. It was kind of odd, but there was a late covered area with picnics tables and it was this companies bus stop. We were given stickers to put on our shirts based on our destinations. People going to Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, Ao Nang and then Railay. The other groups left and we waited. Another bus shows up and new people arrive, this time people headed to where we had come from.

Finally there are about 8 of us left going to Railay. It was about a 15 minute ride to Ao Nang. Once we got to Ao Nang were were taken slightly outside of town to the farther end of their rather long beach. We knew that we needed to wade out to a long tail boat. The problem was it was low tide. The driver leads us to a ticket booth and we gather a few more people and they head down the embankment.

The boats were about a quarter of a mile out across the muddy sand. My bag looks like a large duffle bag but it has backpack straps on it. I had it slung over one shoulder and my other daypack over the other. Shannon has a large wheeled bag that also has backpack straps. The boat guy took off and we felt like we were in a little bit too much of a hurry and weren't prepared. Shannon tried wheeling her bag, but that didn’t work well. So she started taking the steps out and puts it on her back. I set my large bag down and put it on both shoulders. We move out in to the water and once we are in water over our knees and I almost fall over I realize that my phone, wallet, passport are all in my pockets so I get them out and give them to Shannon. We spend about 5 minutes standing there waiting on the worlds laziest boat taxi driver. We finally have to climb up in the boat. We finally get out stuff in and climb in, I help people get their things in and then we wait as more people arrive. 

We were on the biggest version of a long tail, with benches running down both sides and capable of holding 15 or so people and their luggage. They we called long tails because the motor is mounted on a long rod – 6’ or so that goes to the prop which is then quite a ways behind the boat. They we used throughout SE Asia.

Arrival at Railay

Arrival at Railay

The boat finally takes off going south along the beach. Tall cliffs then start and loom over the left hand side of the boat. The cliffs then come to a point and we turn left, and come into one of the most beautiful spots in the world. 

Railay is land locked. The cliffs are several hundred feet tall and are vertical. This is a big rock climbing area and you can watch climbers all over the area. Railay proper is a sandy area probably ¼ by ½ mile.

West Railay

West Railay

The ¼ mile side is between the beach we were going to, West Railay and the beach on the other side East Railay. East Railay isn't really much of a beach, it is mainly mangrove swamps.

East Railay

East Railay

The ½ mile side is between the cliffs on the peninsula and then a large rock outcropping. Most everything is built on that can be. There is a small field between where some of the locals live and the main walking street that has been built on but most every other inch has been.

Main street on Railay

Main street on Railay

There are no cars, just golf carts, a few mopeds with sidecar like platforms  and a few tractors (used to haul people and goods to long tails on East Railay). 

Long tails at Railay West

Long tails at Railay West

Railay really is the most beautiful tropical place I have ever been to.

Sunset at West Railay

Sunset at West Railay

The problem is there are too many people in to small of a space. There are people everywhere. It isn’t quite as bad as being in an urban tourist destination like Las Ramblas in Barcelona or the Old Town in Prague but it is a lot in a place where you really don't want to see anyone else and that you want all to yourself.

We got there ought after the people had won the $1.5 billion lottery and I told Shannon that if I ever won something like that I would buy all of Railay, tear down everything and build myself a nice little 30,000-40,000 square foot house.

Our hotel was nice, but bothering spectacular. We stayed at the Railay Bay Resort and Spa. West Railay is the desirable place to be because of the beach. This hotel is big enough to run for West Railay all the way to East Railay. We were closer to East Railay than West, and our room was on something like a private lane that ran off of the main path through the hotel from East to West.

There are  so many people moving through Railay that the service is just ok. I think everyone working there is burned out from dealing with so many people. They weren't at all as nice as the place we stayed at on Ko Samui. Food poising is rampant on Railay. Both Shannon and I were lucky and never had a problem but Trip Advisor is filled with food positioning comments. There is no such thing as a good restaurant on Railay. The best place is an Indian/pasta/pizza restaurant that we ate at twice. The service was pretty good as was the food. Most other places either had very bad service (like waiting an hour for food) and/or a high likely hood for food poisoning.

We spent one day on the beach on Railay West. We spent another at one of the 2 pools our hotel had and a third at Phra nang beach which is a beach in the rock walls at the point of Railay. 

Climbers at Phra Nang beach

Climbers at Phra Nang beach

Phra Nang has been rated as one of the best beaches in the world and it is. But loads of people come by long tail and the day we laid there at times you could see several hundred people in front of you, to your left and right. There is an alter for the love goddess filled with hundreds of phalluses in every imaginable shape and size. A few were 4 feet tall. 

Alter to the Love Goddess

Alter to the Love Goddess

The path to Phra Nang has crab eating Macaques that we very used to people.

Crab Eating Macaque

Crab Eating Macaque

Shannon had both a teen aged and baby jump into her arms – the mother of the baby came up screaming at her and bared her teeth, but was well behaved when her baby jumped down and continued to eat her piece of fruit.

Shannon and the baby just before the mother scolded us

Shannon and the baby just before the mother scolded us

There is also a viewpoint up above the trail. One morning I climbed it. It wasn't a technical climb but it was a climb, up rocks and through clay.

The trail to the viewpoint

The trail to the viewpoint

It was a nice little workout both going up and going down but the view was pretty spectacular. 

View from the top looking down on East Railay

View from the top looking down on East Railay

We could have taken excursions to other islands, that were just as beautiful and filled with just as many people. We did go back to Ao Nang and explored a little one day but there wasn't much of interest there. Just the same old bars, souvenir shops and other tourist oriented businesses. 

I loved our time at Railay and would go back again. The whole area around Krabi is phenomenally beautiful and worth more exploration. You just have to be surrounded by people.

Ko Samui

We arrived on Ko Samui last Wednesday. Ko Samui is a rather large island at about 10 miles by 10 miles across. Backpackers started coming in the 70’s and 80’s. Up until then it was mainly devoted to harvesting coconuts.  At this point, the best beaches we all heavily developed. There is a 4 Seasons here along with a couple of other similar level luxury resorts. There are also a large number of backpacker accommodations on the island. Phuket is the number one destination in Thailand for package tourists, Ko Samui is number one for independent travelers like Shannon and I.

I don’t remember Ko Samui as a top destination on my first trip in 1997, even though I was not that far away in Ko Tao, an island just north of Ko Phangan, which is just north of Ko Samui. So I missed seeing it before it was as heavily developed as it is now.

There are a number of beaches around the island to stay and I researched several of them as I was planning this trip. I ended up deciding on Chaweng beach, which is the most highly developed of the beaches on the island. I chose it for the same reason it has been heavily developed, it is the nicest beach.

As I discussed in my previous post I normally base where we stay on location. I did exactly that when we figured out where to stay. I booked us at Chaweng Garden Beach Resort. Resort is one of the terms that I always take with a grain of salt in a hotel’s name. Trip Advisor is a resource I still use pretty heavily. The reviews of the hotel were pretty good, along with a few complaints. You never know how to take low ratings and complaints from people. They very well could be justified, but in many cases I have found that my experiences have been good even when there are complaints.

The hotel restaurant and pool

The hotel restaurant and pool

The one concern I had before we arrived is that this hotel is right next to a hotel/bar called the Ark Bar which is one of the more popular destinations for the DJ crowd. If you want the Thai version of the Ibiza experience on Ko Samui, the Ark Bar is the place for you. I did read a few reviews that complained about the music from the Ark bar keeping people awake until 2:00am.

Fortunately for us, this wasn’t a problem and we love the resort. And in the end it is kind of resort like, to the extent that I like resorts. If it was any bigger I probably wouldn’t like it (I would guess that it has 40-50 rooms). It is right on the beach. None of the rooms have beach views, which is ok with me. The pool and restaurant are right on the beach. The paths between the buildings are sand covered and the landscaping is nice and luscious without being overly done. The included breakfast is the best I have had outside of being at a major resort or in a western chain hotel with eggs to order, a selection of breakfast meats, pancakes, French toast, waffles (all very important to Shannon), the makings for an English breakfast (fried tomatoes and bake beans) and a varying array of Asian dishes (Pad Thai, curries, fried noodles are all examples they have had). It is probably a 3 minute walk for our room both to the beach and the Main Street that runs along the beach.

Chaweng Beach 

Chaweng Beach 

Chaweng beach is about 5 miles long. Every inch of it is developed. Hotels line the beach. Have have wandered the beach a little and I ran part of the beach a few days ago (in Thailand everything from the high tide line down is public), our hotel is at one end of a reef that runs north. North of us the reef total breaks the waves, so the waves that actually break on the beach are just a few inches high. Here the waves are slightly bigger, so you actually get the sensation that you are swimming in the ocean and not a saltwater swimming pool.

Where as I originally had plans to rent a car one day and go explore the island, those thoughts died quickly. On past vacations it has taken us both a while to wind down and get used to the concept of relaxing. One of the reasons I decided on coming to Ko Samui, instead of going to a more remote, less developed and potentially more authentic destinations is that there is more activity here and that we could wander out and go shopping  and have a wider selection of restaurants within walking distance. While we have taken advantage of both, neither of us really had any problems just spending time on the beach.

Afternoon at the beach

Afternoon at the beach


We both had pretty much adjusted to the time change by the time we arrived. Our days have been pretty similar schedule wise since we got here. I wake up 6:30-7:00 and will go read/spend time online until Shannon wakes up which is 7:30-8:00. We will get ready and go to breakfast and put our towels down to ‘reserve’ the beach chairs we want. The pool,  restaurant and rooms are all elevated from beach level. The area just between the beach and the pool has trees that provide shade under which are beach chairs that are in pretty high demand and we enjoy instead of dealing with direct sun and/or umbrellas.

Several days we have spent most of the day from about 9:00 to about 4:00 next to the pool overlooking the ocean. It has been at least partially overcast every day, which I think we both prefer. It is much cooler than it was in Bangkok. Where as Bangkok was in the low to mid 90’s, it has been low to mid 80’s here. But it is even more humid. We have gotten rain a couple of times, but not for that long. 

They do massages next to the pool so that is something we have done several times. We have had a wide variety when it comes to the level of quality of massages in SE Asia. Many of them have been in street side businesses where the woman performing the massages have not gone through any sort of training program but just on the job training. They are enjoyable as more of a relaxing experience instead of a therapeutic one, but they are cheap at about $6. At the other end of the extreme is true Thai massage. We have both had massages at Wat Po in Bangkok whee they run a Thai massage school. It is a very different style where you remain fully dressed, you are on a cushion and they move you into different positions, using different parts of their body to apply pressure and stretch you.

A couple of the women here really know what they are doing. I have had two different Thai Deep massages by two different woman and parts of them have been excruciating. I know that there are several parts of my body that are normally tight and every one of them was pointed out to me very clearly. My calves are one area that I have a difficult time rolling with a foam roller and I have not been good about using a lacrosse ball on them. On both of the massages the woman used her elbow and a lot of force in several different places on both sides of both of my calves. One calves dealt with it ok, the other did not either time. It was truly horrendous during the massage but I have to say that several days later it feels much better and it was well with it. 

During the day we spend time reading and people watching. Ko Samui has the most diverse tourists I have ever seen. In SE Asia you normally see a decent number of Australians (we had dinner next to an Australian couple tonight at dinner), Canadians and people from the US. It wasn’t until like 2 days ago that I heard someone from the US. The other day I was thinking that I hadn’t seen anyone that I knew was from Russia. That night we were seated at dinner next to a Russian couple. The one thing that has changed is that China’s middle class is now traveling. There are a lot of Chinese tourists here. Their economy might have problems at the moment, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the number of tourists here.

This leads to interesting people watching at the beach. Lots of men in speedos that we in their 60-80’s. Every body type and age in bikinis. Lots of people taking selfies. We watched a Chinese threesome do a whole Swimsuit Illustrated photo shoot that they filmed both with their phones and a Go Pro. Lots of vendors selling ice cream, bikinis and  floaties. The water is just the right temperature and pretty clear when there is no wind.

The main road in Chaweng

The main road in Chaweng


A couple minutes walk in the opposite direction is the main road. It is narrow, with just enough room for one way traffic and some parking. It is a couple miles long, with lots of restaurants, bars, pharmacies, tailors and various tourist oriented souvenir and clothing stores. At night there are a couple of corners that have ladyboys all dressed up trying to get you into their cabaret shows. There are also several advertisement trucks that have sign boards on both sides and loudspeakers advertising their particular business. There is the one advertising the reggae bar, another advertising an indoor skydiving and cart track. My favorites are the Japanese Nuru massage (for some reason I think the sort of massages they offer aren't legal in the US) and the shooting range. The advert for the shooting range announces in a Thai accent ‘shoot a real gun with real bullet’ as gun shot sounds come from the speakers.    

The food has been good. We found a couple of good Thai restaurants (one, the Green Bird, is very good and inexpensive). We also found a really good Italian pasta restaurant. 

Dinner at the Green Bird

Dinner at the Green Bird


We have enjoyed our time here, but it is time to move on. Tomorrow we get up for a 6:30-7:00 pickup for a trip across the peninsula.  

Portland to Bangkok to Ko Samui

Our trip started with a 4:15am wake up at a hotel near the Portland airport. We had a 7:00 flight and spending the night at a hotel the night before is preferable to a 3:00 wake up at home in order to make the drive.

We were flying Korean Air which doesn't fly to Portland so we had an Alaska flight to San Fransisco. It went well, Alaska is one of the few airlines that I like. We then had a 2 hour layover and boarded our flight to Seoul. 

My last flight to Seoul was in 1996 when I was on my way to my one year tour in Korea at the end of my enlistment in the Army. I remember the flight as being pretty miserable even though I lucked out with a bulkhead seat. Part of that was that I was smoker at the time and things like nicotine gum and patches were prescription only. It was also before I found out about the benefits of Ambien on long haul trips. 

We flew Korean because it was inexpensive, our tickets were $400 cheaper per person than our tickets the last time we went to Thailand in 2010. It also has a reputation of providing pretty good service. Our flight was on a B747-8. I can't remember the last time I was on a 747. They are somewhat unique because after you board and walk by the lucky people in business class (they call it Prestige class) you walk by a staircase that goes to the upper level. I. In this case it looks like it is configured as part of the galley. 

The service is very Korean. Very formal, orchestrated and polite. The stewardess (they are all young women) are dressed in outfits with rather ornate scarves and stiff bows in their hair. 

All of this would be great if we were in the seats that I thought we were in, on the windows. Instead, we ended up with the middle middle seats. The plane has a 3-4-3 configuration and we were in the middle of the 4 middle seats, with a Korean gentleman on either side of us. The legroom was ok, but shoulder room was difficult.

I took Ambien, and was barely able to sleep for about 3 hrs. I watched a few movies, wrote the previous paragraphs, but was mainly miserable. The flight just seemed to drag on. As time went on, time seemed to continue to slow. I don’t understand how people can have jobs that require regular long-haul flying. 

Last summer I was at a conference and talked to a guy who was an executive with one of the largest IT services company. He described his previous week. The US to London to Dubai to Australia and the back to the US. All in one week, and it sounded like he had weeks like this on a monthly basis. His company paid for business class which would make it more tolerable (and what did these flights cost - $40k?) but not something I could ever do.

We finally landed at Seoul Incheon. It is a rather new airport and very well ranked – I think it normally appears in the top 5 airports in the world, not that we had much time to explore. We landed and little early and I think we ended up having about an hour and a half on the ground before we took off on our final flight.

The last leg ended up being 6 hours. We again were on a 3-4-3 configuration, but this time we at least had seats on the aisle. So while I ended up next to another couple Shannon at least had the aisle. Not that it was a great flight for her. She hadn’t slept on the previous flight and the moment she fell asleep on this one the stewardess woke her up for food service. 

The Seoul to Bangkok leg was on an Airbus A380-800. It was our first flight on one and I not been so exhausted, I normally would have gotten pretty excited. I didn’t even mention the fact to Shannon until I started writing this. 

The A380 is the largest passenger jet in the world. The first time I saw one a few years ago I was in a 757  or something similar and we taxied next to it and the way I just described it to Shannon was that it was like I was in a Honda Fit and we pulled up next to a lifted F-350. It is the reverse of the time I was taxiing into one of the New York airports and we pulled up next to the Concord. That was like being in a mini van and pulling up next to a Ferrari. The A380 is two levels the entire length of the plane and can hold 535 passengers in a 3 class arrangement (which is what we were in – and I had to look this up, I am not quite that much of an aviation nerd). 

Shannon and I got up to use the restroom and I walked back first. We were in the far back of the plane and I went it to the restroom and walked out and Shannon was standing there and told me that they had a store. Sure enough to I walk into what I thought was a galley and there was a duty free store. On both flights they had pushed duty free sales pretty hard, which is now common on a lot of international flights, but on this they had display cases so you could see a number of the things they had for sale.

We finally got into Bangkok just after 11:00. At that point we had been in the air for about 21 hours. It was a really long walk to get out bags. We finally end up finding the right carousel (we went to another Seoul flight first) and waited quite a while for all of the golf bags to come off first. I had realized that we were at the wrong carousel when all that we saw come off were golf bags and I look sound and see nothing but men. We then went to the right one and all that was coming off was golf bags too. I don’t know if the trend had started the last time we were in Thailand, but one of the things I figured out is that a new trend has started since I was stationed in Korea and that is golf vacations to Thailand.

Golf is ridiculously expensive in Korea and I mean truly astronomical. Every inch of flat land in South Korea is either built on or farmland which means there are basically no golf courses. The few that do exist are members only and when I was there 20 years ago it was $500k-1 million to join. I am guessing now it could be $5 million. Golf was, and I assume still is very popular, but back then playing golf meant going to a driving range. Most people who ‘played’ had never actually been on a golf course. 

I think in the mean time someone figured out a very lucrative business model. Fly Korean men to Thailand to play golf. Charge the rates that by Thai standards are expensive but relatively modest by Korean golf cost standards and then stand back and watch the money roll in.  

We got our bags, went through immigration and customs and grabbed a taxi. The taxi has sticker on both of the back windows that were just odd. The no guns and no hand grenades (didn’t know they had a problem with those here, Cambodia sure) There was one with a woman who had a leash with a man on all fours attached, another with a woman off of American mud flaps with musical notes new her butt (Shannon figured out that it was  no farting) and then there was another with the same woman and a hand reaching out to fondle her (that one actually makes sense with some of the stories I have read about men and Thai prostitutes). 

Speaking of Thai prostitutes, the hotel that we stayed at was in Sukhumvit, which is in the modern commercial center of Bangkok, and is across the street from Soi Cowboy which is one of the red light districts in Bangkok. When we checked in there was a westerner who was checking in a  bar girl so he could take her up to his room. She gave the hotel clerk her ID card, which they photo copied. It's odd but it makes sense to me. 

I had no idea if many of the prostitutes are thieves but having a copy of their ID would remove almost any chance of that happening. I will never understand Thai culture as they we very conservative in their dress, they do not show public displays of affection and yet they are ok with prostitution.

We finally turned off the lights at 1:30. The next morning I was awake around 7:00 and Shannon shortly thereafter. Adjusting to other side of the world time zone changes takes both of us 3-4 days. It can be pretty miserable at times, even with the assistance of Ambien. 

Our hotel and room was nice. Everything in the hotel was white and most of it was marble. The hotel was the Grande Centre Pointe and it is in the same building as the Terminal 21 mall. Malls may be dying in the US but they are not in Thailand. Terminal 21 is new since we were here in 2010. Last time we were here we stayed in the same area at the beginning of our trip at a smaller hotel just down the Soi, or side street. I like this area of the start of the trip. When you walk out of the hotel in the morning you definitely know you are in a very different place. It is overwhelming.

This isn’t a nice quiet little area. This hotel, versus the one we stayed at last time, is right on Sukhumvit road and you walk out into a mass of people. It is in an area known as Asok, which is the major cross street on the other side of the hotel from the Soi, Soi 21. It is an area where the BTS, elevated light rail, and MTS, the subway, converge. It is the best spot in Bangkok for public transportation. The BTS is concrete and so Sukhumvit is totally covered by it.

Sukhumvit with the BTS overhead

Sukhumvit with the BTS overhead

It smells, in the way only SE Asia smells. It is hot and humid. Traffic at this intersection has been in a total traffic jam for probably the last 15 or 20 years. Taxi drivers roll their eyes and silently curse when you tell them Asok is your destination. It feels like you are stepping into Blade Runner.

I am a big believer in choosing hotels most of the time based on location. I would much rather be near the sites or in a neighborhood I like than stay at some hotel because of the amenities. There are exceptions to this. The 14th century converted convent on the outskirts of Evora, Portugal, Apartment Baltazar in Dubrovnik because Evo was the best host ever, the Edgefield in Portland because what isn’t great about a McMenamins with the 8 or so bad scattered across the property. 

We left Portland Saturday morning and went to bed at 1:30am on Monday. We just had Monday and Tuesday in Bangkok. Those 2 days we spent out of our time in the malls on Sukhumvit. There is one in particular that we like that I think is unique as we haven’t seen another one like it anywhere else.

MBK

MBK

 

The mall is called MBK. It is 7 floors and contains 2,000 stores and restaurants. It has some of the things you would recognize like Burger King, Dairy Queen, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Most of the shops are really more like kiosks and parts of it as really like a market. You can buy just about anything there except it doesn’t have a lot of the fresh food. But you need a locksmith, massage, Chinese medicinal herbs or any sort of inexpensive clothing or electronics they have it. Several of the floors are focused on a specific type of item like clothing or electronics. 

The clothing floor inside MBK

The clothing floor inside MBK

Shannon didn’t bring a lot of clothes on this trip and planned on buying stuff at MBK. From one vendor who had a space that was probably 8’ x 15’ she bought 6 skirts/dresses for less than $40. On Monday for lunch we were looking for this food court they have and thought it was on the 7th floor. We didn’t find it but there were a number of other restaurants, including both western and SE Asia chains (Swenson’s is a SE Asia food and ice cream chain as one example). We were hungry and lazy and had Pizza Hut. Tuesday we went back to find the food court and went to the 6th floor and it was there but there was an international food buffet. We went to 5 and did find it. 

We also went to the same food court on our last trip and ran into the same issue as the first time. I forgot that the stalls don’t use cash. You have to any fist and put money on a card and then you use the card to pay for your food. We went to a stall that sold Thai food, we got our food and then went to pay and the guy working pointed out the place we needed to pay. I didn’t know how much it was going to be so I put 300 baht on the card which is $8.34. I had 3 different Thai dishes and rice and Shannon had 2. That was less than $4. We had fresh fruit drinks which were a couple of dollars and then I get a steamed pork bun because I wanted to try it and still have about $1 left on the card. I could have gotten a refund but it works well as a souvenir. 

We also went to several other malls. The big trend in Thai malls these days is themed Zones. ‘Summer’, ‘Winter’ ‘Rainy’ were the themes in one,  ‘London’, ‘Istanbul’  and ‘Paris’ in another. The designs in the zones we then built around the themes. They also tend to put a number of similar types of stores together. Banks, cell phone carriers and other electronics were all normally grouped together. 

Siam Paragon is the swankiest mall with the top designers – Prada, Versace etc. One of the Siam malls has an aquarium. Central World has an ice skating rink. Several of them have the same stores in most malls around the world. The Body Shop, Carhart (slightly different clothes than we get in the US, I think they figured out places like Thailand don’t need heavy winner coats) H&M, Zara are all there. In many cases in several of the malls. It isn’t any more than a few miles between MBK at one end and Terminal 21 at the other but there are several of the biggest world wide chains spread out across the malls. I have never been in an H&M or Zara in the US but I have in Croatia. I have bought items online from Uniqlo which I would describe as a Japanese Old Navy but had never been in a store until Bangkok. The most interesting item that is hot in more ways than one in Bangkok malls right now are the puffy lightweight down jackets. I don’t now why anyone would ever purchase one here as I don’t think the temperature ever drops below 60 and even then that low is rare but there were on sale everywhere.

We did buy a few things. I bought a different wallet to carry, more of a pub really that I can fold up bills, throw in a credit card and keep change in. I also bought a padded case for my iPad mini. Shannon bought a bag to carry around. There are some of those design items that we regional companies that we don’t see in the US. Nicely designed and inexpensive.  

The other thing that we needed to get were local SIM cards. I bought an Amazon Fire phone late last year as my Amazon Prime membership was coming up to renew and for $140 I got a year of Prime ($99 normally) and the phone. Not a great phone but for $41 dollars I can’t complain. Shannon has my old iPhone 5s. Just so that you now how much the carriers overcharge us to data we both got SIMs on the Thai carrier DTAC for 49 baht for the SIM and 300 baht for 12 GB for 30 days. That is $9.73. And we also got unlimited wifi at the carriers hotspots around the country. Not bad.

Bargirls outside of their place of business in Patpong

Bargirls outside of their place of business in Patpong

Monday night we went to Patpong. It is interesting in that it is both a red light district and a night market. You can buy a fake Bose Bluetooth speaker and go see a ping pong show (If you don’t know what a ping pong show is you can Google it). 

The Super Pussy sign in Patpong

The Super Pussy sign in Patpong

We then went to bed. I woke up at something like 3:00 the next morning and somewhere around 3:30 I heard a light knock on the door and after we didn’t answer the phone rang. I answered it, but they hung up. They then called again and it was the night manager wanting in because the smoke detector apparently went off on their master panel. We then end up with the night manager and 2 other guys who come in with a ladder and do something with the smoke detector. Shannon was not happy. I was already awake so it didn’t bother me as much. 

I was able to sleep for a while, but not a lot after. We went out to the malls on Tuesday and then Tuesday night went to Asiatique. Bangkok used to have another better night market that has been shut down and the land is being developed. In the meantime, they have opened a large night market/entertainment districting the Chao Phraya river that runs through Bangkok. 

We took the subway to the river and then caught a free boat to Asiatique. They have a late Ferris wheel, a ladyboy show, a Muay Thai fighting show, restaurants and stalls filled with vendors. It is slightly interesting in the way that the malls were interesting, but not as good as the authentic market, even if it is a tourist market, was.

Wednesday we were up before 7:00 for a busy day of travel. First was a flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani which is a town south of Bangkok on the peninsula that runs from Thailand, down through Malaysia and then to Singapore. Surat Thani is the gateway for the low cost carriers in this part of the country. We were flying Air Asia, which we have flown before. And by low cost I mean low cost. They charge for everything and even after checked baggage I think we paid $35 a piece for our flights.

We got to the airport just in time to check in before our deadline, make it through a very fast security check (we flew through the old airport Don Muang which is domestic only and so security was like pre 911 US – shoes on, liquids are ok in your carry on) and a quick stop at Starbucks before we went to our gate only to be told that we had to hurry all the way across the airport because the gate changed. We make it to the new gate as they are making last call announcements and walk out to stand on a bus to be taken to the plane which is sitting on the Tarmac. We wait for 15 or 20 minutes on the bus as other people slowly trickle in. Then they drive us to another part of the airport and have us get off and walk on the plane. This flight was just over an hour. 

We land, get our bags and find the place to catch a bus to the ferry terminal. We are the last people on that bus and it takes off. We then had an hour and a half bus ride through small towns across the Thai peninsula. The bus was a double decker and we were on the upper level. All tourists and based on the languages being spoken most of them were European and most were going to Ko Phangan, the island next to ours. I was next to a guy with his wife and child in the seat in front of us who  were Scandinavian. It was a bus ride with views that could be in a number of tropical countries. Farms, tropical forests and towns with moped stores. Spending time moving slowly in towns and then speeding up to 45 or 50 between the towns. The bus driver would ink when he approached other traffic in the same direction, especially mopeds which were going 10-15 MPH slower than us.

We finally got to the ferry terminal. Mixed traffic, trucks, cars and mopeds below and passengers in the middle deck. We had an hour and a half ride on the ferry during which we able to watch a very bad Thai music competition show whee all of the lead singer of the bands wore sunglasses and had women dancing behind them. With one act the woman had pillows. It was very, very bad. 

We finally arrive at Ko Samui, the island we will be at for the next week. We got a taxi and went to our hotel. Ko Samui is rather large. We arrived at the southwest corner of the island and our hotel is at Chaweng, which is on the northeast side of the island 15 miles or about 30 minutes away. We got to our hotel at 2:30, an hour earlier than planned.

I will write more later about our time on Ko Samui.