There are 2 questions that people frequently ask me:
- How’s TAIWAN?
- What’s it like to live in paradise?
I am not even going to address the first question because it is so ignorant that I am mad at myself for even associating with people who would ask me that.
The second question is fair, assuming that I am a 50+ year old, fat, British or Australian man with a thing for Thai women. If that were the case, the place where I actually live, Bangkok, would be considered paradise. I think the Travel Channel’s incessant repeats of “21 Sexiest Beaches”, “Best Beaches in the World”, “World’s Hidden Beaches” and other diverse beach programming has conditioned people to think that all of Thailand is paradise. Thailand is, in fact, very diverse. While I don’t actually live in “Paradise”, a $5 bus ride or a 1 hour flight can get me pretty damn close so I’m going to take a step back and talk about the islands that I have had the opportunity to visit: Koh Samet, Koh Kood, Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi Don.
This is a small island east of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand. I decided to go here in October, about 2 weeks after I first arrived and it is still one of my favorite islands. I hopped on a bus for 300B (about $9USD) and headed east. Coach busses here are the same as the ones you took in middle school to go to the Science Museum. However, there is one major difference: for 9 bones I got a 3 hour ride to the coast, a bottle of water AND a snack. We are lucky if we even get water on an airplane in America anymore, and a snack?? Forget it. I was legitimately confused when this stuff was handed to me.
One of the other interesting parts about this trip was seeing the industrial sprawl of Bangkok. In America, we often hear about “our” manufacturing jobs going overseas, but until I saw the factories, I didn’t really see SE Asia for the manufacturing juggernaut that it is. When driving through American cities, even the largest ones, we are typically out of the built up areas and into farmland within an hour; maybe 30 minutes for the smaller cities. Here, it was over 2 hours before I exited factory land and saw my first crop.
Anyway, back to paradise. When I arrived at the port, I took a ferry that cost like a dollar. It was a short trip and they put us on a working boat so it was a little different from the other ferries I’ve taken. Samet is a really great place because most of it is actually a national park so it hasn’t been scarred the same way so many other islands have been. The small main road in town takes about 10 minutes to stroll down and there are a handful of restaurants, and two 7-11s, across the street from each other. The road dead ends into the most popular beach on the island, Hat Sai Kaew, which literally translates to Crystal Sand Beach. I spent my day lounging around here and reading and just enjoying the view.
That night, I found a great restaurant for dinner with a foreign owner who was a highly entertaining drunk. Since it was just the beginning of high season, the place wasn’t very busy and he sat with me and a German girl and ate dinner, which his Thai wife cooked for us. Still one of the best curries I’ve had. After that the German girl and I headed to the beach to check out the nightlife and watch one of the infamous fire shows. Those guys are crazy, but the drunk idiot, tourists are even crazier. All in all, even though I only spent a weekend here, I totally recommend it to anyone who wants to go somewhere that has clean water, some nightlife and isn’t covered in resorts.
Koh Kood is also in the Gulf of Thailand, further east than Samet. I won’t spend too much time talking about Koh Kood for a couple reasons. One, I already wrote about it in a previous entry (How to Spend 3 Weeks of Vacation). Two, I didn’t/couldn’t really
do much there since I was still beaten up pretty badly from my motorcycle accident in Pai. Koh Kood is definitely the least developed island I’ve been to. As a result, the water was the cleanest and the beaches were the nicest. We never left the resort because there was basically no town. Had I been alone, I would have gone insane, but I spent New Years there with about 10 of my friends so it was fun. We stayed in a bungalow that was on stilts on top of a stagnant pool of water, which made me a little nervous at first, but I got no mosquito bites. We just had mattresses on the floor and a couple bathrooms and it was perfect for our group.
Also known as Turtle Island. My next island trip didn’t happen until February when Doug came to visit. We took the overnight train to Chumpon and then ferried over to Koh Tao; this time on a real ferry, not a freight boat overflowing with palm fronds like the one I took to Samet. We got in early and parked it at the beach. The beach in Koh Tao is not as nice as Koh Kood or Koh Samet, but still, I can’t complain. I managed to completely sunburn almost my entire body within a few hours. Mission Accomplished.
We started that night at the beach watching the famous Koh Tao sunset. It was one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. Then it was food time. As of February, I had been in Thailand for about 4 months. With the exception of my pizza Christmas feast, I had pretty much only eaten Thai food. And there happened to be an Italian restaurant next to our hotel that had surprisingly good reviews on Trip Advisor so I dragged Doug there. I still do not understand why anyone who doesn’t live here would go to a non-Thai restaurant in Thailand unless a hangry ex-pat forces them. After that I introduced Doug to the orgasmically delicious banana pancake and we wandered around the town.
Koh Tao is world famous for diving. So this officially means that I have been to 4 of the best diving places in the world… sans PADI certification. We had to go snorkeling, again, sorry Doug. We got on a tourist boat which took us around to lots of really good spots though. The first place it dropped us was actually kind of sad. The coral was almost completely bleached out and dead. It was like an underwater wasteland. So…. that was depressing. The next stops were amazing though, including Ao Leuk. I saw some of the most beautiful coral and fish that I have ever seen. This moment was probably the closest I have ever been to realizing my childhood dream of becoming a mermaid. I also felt better about my lame snorkeling situation when I saw the scuba divers just a few feet below us. And Doug saw a squid that I didn’t see, so he won in the end.
The last stop was Koh Nangyuan which is a small island orbiting Koh Tao. We had 2 hours there so we hiked up to the top of the island and got a really breathtaking view of the turquoise water.
That night, we headed back to the beach, post sunset this time, and watched some fire shows. It got really entertaining when the guy accidentally threw his flaming nun chucks onto his kerosene can and all of his other props.
About 20 years ago, this island was probably amazing. Unfortunately now, it has been the victim of overzealous development and I don’t know that I would go back there, unless I got a free trip. This was our next stop after Koh Tao. Our first night we splurged and stayed at a resort that we had no business being in. It was absurdly nice. Promptly after check-in, we escaped the resort bubble, on foot, and had a goal of making it to Bophut beach, but we didn’t realize it was like 10K away. On the way, we stopped at a local market and saw the catch of the day. Sadly, there were Parrot fish in this market and sharks and other sea creatures that I don’t think the WWF would be happy to see on land.
We continued our trek and finally made it to the Fisherman’s village area at Bophut beach. This was actually the only part of Samui that I thought was nice. It was built up, but not horribly like the Chaweng area. The beach was still nice and the water looked fairly clean. We took a taxi back to our hotel and as part of our splurge, ate a really nice dinner at the hotel restaurant.
The next day, after eating breakfast, which included cereal (big deal for me these days), we relocated to the Chaweng area of the island to meet up with some friends. We actually had a nice hotel that was right on the beach and in a quieter area. But as we all agreed, the actual beach was nothing particularly unique. It was lined with chairs and umbrellas and annoying people trying to sell us stuff. It could have easily been Mexico. But again, I shouldn’t complain. The highlight of the day was our banana boat ride, or as our students say “we play banana boat”. It was fun and only a few of us got kicked in the face.
The following day we went to Ang Thong National Marine Park (a chain of islands west of Koh Samui) and went kayaking and hiking. This place was breathtaking. Everyone was experiencing varying degrees of hangover, except me, so the hour and a half boat ride was a little rough, and still drunken for some. When we got there, they put us in our kayaks and sent us on our way. After kayaking we went on our first hike, which was more like climbing stairs that were like half stairs/half ladders.
We continued on to another island for the big hike. This one was basically straight up a mountain for about an hour, which was really challenging in flip flops. They also had a rope tied to trees that zig zagged across the trail, but all it did was get in the way and make me try to climb over it or duck under it and almost fall to my death. Near the top the “trail” changed from dirt, rocks and trees to just rocks and trees, and finally to just really sharp rocks. But the view from the top was totally worth it. I’ll never forget it.
We clambered back down the mountain just in time to get rushed back on to the boat because the monsoon was coming. A literal monsoon, that’s what it’s called here. I thought the boat ride to Ang Thong was rough, but the trip home was just painful. Thank god I have spent a significant amount of my life on boats because otherwise I would have been barfing like lots of the other people. It was pouring rain, and we were heading straight into the wind in a basically uncovered boat, for 2 hours. Thailand is hot, but when you’re soaked to the bone and the wind is blowing 25 knots in your face, it’s not hot. So that was an unpleasant end.
For dinner, we went to a place called Green Bird and it was really good and comparatively cheap. I couldn’t resist shopping in the night market and bought a bunch of soap which I am still working my way through. Then we checked out the bar area of Chaweng and I really couldn’t tell the difference between Samui and Cabo. Same Same but different.
We flew Bangkok Airways home the next day. That is the nicest airline I’ve ever flown. We got to the gate and there was a free refreshment section with mini muffins, complimentary wifi and I felt like I was sitting on a couch at a resort hotel. Once aboard the plane, they served us a full meal, and the flight is only like an hour. What the hell America?
Koh Phi Phi Don
Last but not least, Koh Phi Phi, pronounced pee pee. This island was wrecked by the tsunami in 2004 but has been completely rebuilt. There are no cars so the town is all built on small walking streets. This place was a tourist explosion, but for good reason.
I went to Phi Phi with my sister and 3 friends from college. The first day, we just took it easy and hung out at the beach. The water was actually really dirty here, the worst I’ve seen so far, so that was a little disappointing. My friends had just flown in from the US, so our first day on Phi Phi was happily uneventful. We got some great Thai food for dinner on the beach and called it a night.
The next day, was the first day of Song Kran, which is the Thai New Year. They celebrate by throwing water on you. In the morning, only the kids were playing with water and we got splashed a little bit, nothing compared to what we would experience upon our return…
We hired a long tail boat to get us off party island and take us to the smaller uninhabited islands surrounding Phi Phi. It was just the 5 of us and a Japanese couple so it was basically a private trip. We went snorkeling and saw a bunch of really cool places, including Maya Bay, which is where they filmed the movie “The Beach”. These little beaches were the most beautiful ones I’ve been to; the sand was like sugar and the water was clean, so we took full advantage of that.
When we arrived back on the island, Song Kran was in full farang effect (farang is the word for foreigner). Gone were the little Thai kids splashing us with water. I can see why Thai people hate us. While the Thai people squirt you with a gun or splash a bucket on you, the farang get shit faced and pump their super soakers to full pressure and, shoot you right in the eye ball or ear. It’s more like war. And since the ratio of farang to Thai people on Phi Phi is in favor of the farang, walking home from the boat was like a battle zone.
It also happened to be Meg’s birthday, so for dinner we went to the Mexican restaurant across the street so we could enjoy some food without getting completely soaked. Well, the two margaritas and birthday shot got me off to a good start.
After dinner we went to one of the infamous beach bars, Slinky’s, but on the way, this farang decided that she needed to drink an entire bottle of Sang Som served to me in a bucket. I remember about 30 more minutes of my night. From what we could all piece together, the black-out started around 9:30. During the next 2 hours, I danced with a guy swinging fire poi around my head, lost and retrieved my phone, camera and wallet (although I didn’t find my wallet until the next morning on a table outside my room), ate a piece of pizza, and stood with Meg in the middle of a circle of people who were just shooting us with water. My injuries would indicate that I also: fell no fewer than 5 times, hit my forehead on something, fell down at least one flight of stairs, and stepped on something that caused the entire bottom of my foot to bruise. I am still unsure of how I got the fat lip. Maybe Meg punched me in the face when she brought me back to the hotel room at 11:30 PM and I projectile vomited on her and myself while she was trying to put me in the shower. Happy Birthday Meg, welcome to paradise!