The Whole Trip In One
15.10.2011 - 29.10.2011
Photo Copyright Tasha
Images of white sand beaches, emerald jungles, turquoise waters, majestic elephants, golden temples....Thailand is made up of these things and so so much more. It was a place that was completely foreign to me. When I told people I was planning a trip there I got a lot of ...interesting.... remarks. A lot of them based off of things that the media or movies/tv had shown them about the country. Some correct, others way off the mark. I had a few friends that had recently gone and came back raving about everything so I decided to finally take the jump and just book my ticket. Two weeks in Thailand, myself and my bestie and travel buddy, Amanda. A good amount of time but not nearly enough to see everything I wanted to so we had to plan carefully.
"It's so far!"
"The flights are waaaaaay too long!!"
"The food!! Ew!!" (Anyone who knows me, knows I have the most sensitive stomach around..)
"I won't understand the language!!"
"Its so expensive to get there!!"
All things I had in the back of my mind when I was getting ready to book my tickets. I had done some research on my own and yes, it's far, the flights ARE long but there wasn't much I could do about that if I really wanted to get there. And I really wanted to get there!
The food? Ok - bottom line - I have stomach issues.... I have to be careful what I eat, all the time, otherwise I am not a happy camper - especially with foods that my body isn't used to....I had never had Thai food. I was comforted by the fact that I knew I could hit up a McDonalds (not really the greatest idea...) or a Pizza Hut if I really needed to..I could live off salad for two weeks no problem! (haha) And I did, a few times...but once I found a Thai dish I loved, there was no going back! Yum! And the fear I had of the food being too spicy was totally wrong...As long as I asked beforehand I was able to get most dishes that I wanted without spice. With the amount of fresh fruit that was available and that I ate I ended up getting sick anyway haha Oh well - who can turn down fresh flavourful pineapple?! omg - best Ive ever tasted! And watermelon! And bamboo! I could have lived on fresh fruit the entire trip. I ate a lot of it...and I paid for it...but it was worth it!
The language...that was probably the easiest thing to over come. Tourism is a huge industry in Thailand and I only ran into one person that hardly spoke any English (and he was a local hilltribe man that was a secondary guide on a jungle trek we took) He seemed to understand us alright though. Everyone else spoke English very well actually, or at least enough to get the point across. In fact, people were more than willing to speak English to us just to chat with us!
As for cost of the trip, yes, the flights will be a bit expensive, but that will be by far the most I spent on anything during the entire trip. (Unless you really want to splurge of course) There are so many things to see and do in Thailand that you'll need at LEAST 2 good weeks to get the things in that you SHOULD see (my opinion of course!) Longer if you really want to see a lot of it. The best way to see the country is by train or bus. Unfortunately, we went during the major flooding they had in the north of Thailand last year (Oct 2011) and didn't get those options so we had to fly between our destinations which meant NINE flights in 15 days....The plus side of that is that the flights within Thailand were relatively inexpensive and quick and we got to cram a lot more into our two weeks than we would have taking the bus or train. I would prolly do the same thing again (if I"m lucky enough to see Thailand again!)
Flights - We had a couple hours layover in Vancouver - where we met (Amanda coming from Toronto, myself from Calgary) - which was great because I knew some people that worked in the airport and we all had a lovely lunch - about an hr and a half in Tokyo airport - hardly enough time to even get to our flight since the flight came in late - there were a ton of people running to catch their flights - and security had ONE line open. It was the first time in an airport where I actually thought there was going to be a riot! People were angry and pushing and shoving and just being ridiculous...Really - full grown adults - heckling and swearing at airport security officers?? I'm sorry, yes it sucks to miss a flight but an airport security guard is the not a person you want to piss off. We ended up making it in time to grab a drink and sit for a few minutes before boarding our next flight. As for the flights on the way home - we had a 4 hour layover in Hong Kong on the way home and about an hour in Vancouver. Hong Kong Airport has so many places to shop that you could prolly never get bored. We just found a corner and chatted thou since we knew this was almost the end of our trip together...
This is what my flight schedule looked like for the duration of my trip: ((and just in case you think that it looks exhausting...it was...BUT...it was worth every minute spent in the air....))
YYC Calgary, Canada to YVR Vancouver, Canada - 427mi - 1:16hr
YVR Vancouver, Canada to NRT Tokyo, Japan Narita - 4,667mi - 8:51hr
NRT Tokyo, Japan Narita to BKK Bangkok, Thailand Suvarnabhumi - 2,892mi - 5:40hr
BKK Bangkok, Thailand Suvarnabhumi to HKT Phuket, Thailand - 419mi - 1:15hr
HKT Phuket, Thailand to CNX Chiang Mai, Thailand - 738mi 1:49hr
CNX Chiang Mai, Thailand to BKK Bangkok, Thailand Suvarnabhumi - 371mi - 1:10hr
BKK Bangkok, Thailand Suvarnabhumi to HKG Hong Kong, China International - 1,051mi - 2:23hr
HKG Hong Kong, China International to YVR Vancouver, Canada - 6,388mi - 11:55hr
YVR Vancouver, Canada to YYC Calgary, Canada - 427mi - 1:16hr
We had made the decision on our way over to land in Bangkok, fly straight to the islands (Phuket) and do our first 4 or 5 days there and then make our way up to Chiang Mai and finish off the trip in the North. We landed in Bangkok late at night, about 11pm and found out that the ticket counter for Air Asia wasn't open till 4am. Not wanting to pay for a hotel for a few measly hours we grabbed our backpacks, found a quiet spot (underneath an escalator) and tried to sleep. Well, sleeping on the floor of BKK Airport is not the most luxurious spot to try to sleep and I maybe got 10min here, 15 min there...and then gave up. We wasted some more time just wandering around the airport, looking in the few shops that were open overnight, and then found a spot right in front of the Air Asia counter and waited. When they finally opened, we booked a flight directly to Phuket. It only cost about $85 and was aprox a 45min flight. We were completely exhausted. We got our tickets, went through security, found a McDonalds (for Amanda) and a coffee shop (for me), found our gate, and waited some more. Really, we could have planned this part better I'm sure, but let me tell you, once we started our decent into Phuket, the view was a dream. It was my first glimpse of the typical Thailand scene - lush green islands dotting the turquoise ocean. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a view so gorgeous in all my travels.
The sun decided to come out just as we were landing which made the colours of the landscape that much more saturated. I was wide awake now. Grabbing my carry-on, I made my way to the front of the plane when the humidity hit me like a brick wall! I had never experience humidity like that.
- *FYI#1 - Humidity - If you hate humidity or have breathing problems, Thailand may not be for you. We did get used to it quickly but it is constant. It’s pretty humid. We went at the tail end of rainy season (end of October) We just accepted the fact that we would be sweating constantly when outdoors and then we were fine. Almost every building/hotel/etc is air conditioned. Air Conditioning - When looking for accommodations I recommend paying a little bit extra and getting a room with an air conditioner. Usually the price difference isn't all that much and it is worth it.
It wasn't enough to wreck my mood thou and I was very excited to finally be leaving inner world of airports and airplanes and to finally step foot IN Thailand. Phuket Airport is very small but very busy. Booths lined the hallway to the exit where locals vied to get your attention - selling accommodations, tours, transfers etc. Since we hadn't booked anything ahead of time, and we needed a hotel, we picked one at random, looked through the brochures, picked a guesthouse that looked decent, paid for it, got our voucher and transfers, and went outside to find our taxi. Our journey to our guesthouse was about an hour drive from the airport. We shares a cab with others who had booked accommodations in the same area. We made one stop along the way at a "travel agency" which made the hour feel a bit longer.
- *FYI#2 - You will find this a lot in Thailand. People driving cabs, tuk tuks or any other public transport similar will almost ALWAYS make an unrequested stop. Usually they stop at jewelry or precious stone businesses...this one stopped at a travel agency so that the people riding could go in and book extras for their trips. They are usually "affiliated" with the companies they stop at in some way. It's just another way to make money. And most of the drivers are good if you tell them you aren't interested or not to stop. We just stayed in the cab and waited for the other tourists to do their thing.
We just opted to sit in the cab and wait because we knew it was a money grab and all we wanted to do was get to our guesthouse and shower. We had decided to stay in Patong Beach because Amanda had never been there (this was her second trip to Thailand). Patong Beach is on the west coast of the island of Phuket. The drive there was gorgeous and really a lot for the eyes. So much to see. We finally arrived at our guesthouse, The Benetti House Hotel, checked in immediately and walked up to our room - this was where I learned that there aren't any elevators in the places we were paying to stay at in Thailand. Our room was on the 3rd floor and we had to carry all of our stuff up the stairs. The room was basic, 2 beds, dresser/closet, tv, typical Thai guesthouse bathroom (Thai bathrooms are neat - at least I think so - They are "usually" open concept - toilet/shower/sink all in one small tiled room, sometimes there is a shower curtain around the shower area but usually everything just gets wet - Some people find that annoying but I think it actually is a great way to keep the whole bathroom clean all the time! Just hose 'er down! Very clean) ((at least the places we stayed at were like this...they all had regular toilets and not squat toilets...althou I did get to experience a squat toilet and maybe I'm weird but I didn't think it was that bad! )).
Anyway.........I walked over to the drapes, ready to greet the view - threw the drapes back and was greeted with no view at all. We were unlucky enough to have been given a room that had a balcony attached, but about half a rulers width away from the railing was a brick wall. When I walked to the window beside it and opened the curtains I was greeted with another balcony of the building next door, which obviously belonged to a resident - the balcony had a laundry line hung across it - complete with drying laundry, some random shoes, a bucket of water, and a rice cooker. But I couldn't really complain...the room itself was clean and it was only about $18CAD a night. That's what you get for not booking ahead!
Here's where researching your trip beforehand helps. Please remember, for those who do not know me personally, I am the type of person (especially when I travel) that likes to be up early in the morning, go exploring for the day and be in bed early. I am not a late-nighter, I dont "party", I don't go to bars, and I'm not a drinker. If I had read a brochure before going to Patong Beach I never would have booked accommodations there. Although there was nothing wrong with our guesthouse, it was clean, staff were friendly and it was only about a 10 minute walk from the beach, the town of Patong Beach is another thing.
Direct quotes from the brochure; "Patong Beach is known for its hedonistic nightlife..." "Patong's pulsating nightlife never fails to attract curious visitors every evening." "Like a magnet, it's hard to resist a wander down Soi Bangla - the heart of bar scene where girls, neon lights and deafening music compete for your attention. Over a hundred bars ranging from beer bars (girlie bars), Go-Go bars, nightclubs, pubs are condensed into the small action packed area fondly known as "Bangla" where the only priority is to have a good time."
((Here is where I get a bit screwy with time - since my clock was way off and I had been up for like 48hrs or something ridiculous.....))
We settled into our room, freshened up and decided to go for a walk. Our guest house was on a main road that was PACKED with vendors...so lots of great deals to be had (haggling is fun and I am not bad at it!!) We walked down the main road to the beach. Thailand is busy. Even in low season, there are a lot of visitors in Thailand. And hoards of tourists = locals get to take advantage of that fact. If you can't get a good deal at one vendor...just walk two more down and you'll find the exact same stuff (and most likely a better deal). If not, you can always tell them "you know the guy two booths down is willing to give it to me for $$$ BHT..." and they will usually make you a deal just to get your business. It was really hard to not spend all my money on the first afternoon there!!
Now, because Patong is known for its "hedonistic nightlife" it's also known for (in my mind now) its Morning After - aka dirty streets, vomit crossed with garbage smelling sidewalks, mess everywhere...etc. I thought maybe because this was my first experience in Southeast Asia, I just needed to get used to the smell...I was honestly worried that I had made a huge mistake in going there and if all of Thailand smelled that way, I was in big trouble. We made it through the streets and finally, I had sand between my toes...and then the ocean! I think the first thing I noticed, even before the ocean, was the sheer amount of tourists on the beach....many of them in bathing suits that I can never un-see. ((I have always been a firm believer that speedos should be outlawed...and I believe that even MORE so since visiting Thailand! haha.)) The other thing I noticed is the random litter in the sand...This was not the Thailand I dreamed of. We walked in the ocean for a few minutes but didn't stick around very long. We were completely exhausted by this point and all I wanted was a bed. We decided to head back to our hotel.
I don't remember much after this - maybe Amanda can help here - I know we went back to the hotel - I think I had a shower - and lay down for a nap - this was about 3pm I think - and I remember waking up a few times - but I was pretty much down for the count. I finally woke up at about 4am and then I was awake for the rest of the day....
Amanda woke up shortly after I did and we just lazed around the room for a few hours, reading brochures and planning what we wanted to do for our time in the islands. We were getting hungry so we decided to go and see if anything was open so we could have some breakfast - It was very quiet walking down the main street, towards a big mall we had seen the day before - the smell that morning was even worse...Walking down the street to the mall was hell for me - My schedule was all off - which means my stomach was all off too - and the smell of garbage and vomit was not making me want to eat breakfast, in fact there were a few times I actually gagged and thought I was going to throw up. I walked through these areas as quick as I could and we eventually found the mall. There was one small bakery/coffee shop open (with air conditioning!! even at 7am the heat and humidity is high!) We went in, got croissants and slushie drinks (YUM!). We hung out there for awhile till the mall opened - I think - I get confused about this part too - I know that in the time we were in Patong Beach we went to the mall and did some shopping inside the mall, ate in the food court area in the center of the mall...aaaaannnddd...that's about it. I know we ended up deciding to leave after that - We packed up our stuff (somehow my backpack was already full even though I had hardly done any shopping!) and checked out - We didn't even ask for a refund (we just left) found a cab driver and left for Phuket Town.
Patong Beach wasn't ALL BAD - it just wasn't good for ME. I'm sure if I wasn't an 80 year old on the inside I could have really enjoyed the night life...but that's just not me...Let me share the things I did like about Patong Beach:
- Fantastic vendors/markets - we got a ton of great deals (and a full wall to wall to ceiling Hello Kitty store...heaven!!)
- Patong Beach - it was my first Thai beach that I set foot on and it was beautiful - the views were gorgeous and the water was warm. There are a lot of tourists and people selling stuff along the beach but just a simple no thank you works and they are really so friendly that it usually leads to an entertaining conversation anyway! If we hadn't been so exhausted we prolly would have spent more time there...
- Ocean (or Jungceylon) Shopping Center - great shopping mall with an open air food court with vendors in the middle of it. And a pirate ship! You can pretty much find anything here and it's air conditioned.
If you are someone that loves the nightlife and a good party than Patong would be for you....I just wouldn't recommend it to families or people like me
Another gorgeous, exhilarating drive to Phuket Town - the scenery is fantastic and there are just SO MANY things to see it never gets boring.
- *FYI#3 - One of the best things to do in Thailand is actually people and traffic watching. The traffic in Thailand is like nothing you will see here in Canada...Ever. And it’s entertaining as heck! (from a safe distance of course!) How many people can you cram onto a motor scooter? Go to Thailand and find out! I think the most that I saw while there was 5. Father driving, with small child standing in front of him on the floor, small child behind him, mother behind child carrying a small baby!! You really need to see it to believe it. And hardly anyone wears helmets. Its truly mind boggling!
Our second accommodation was at Rattana Mansion. We didn't have this booked either but took a recommendation from the cab driver. It's known as a luxury service apartment. Basically a hotel that you can rent for months or even a year at a time and you get the same amenities as in a hotel (room service, housekeeping etc.) 28 rooms, all with balconies, and it was 4 or 5 stories high (again no elevators) The lobby of the building holds the front desk for the hotel and a restaurant (where you order your room service from). We checked in for a few nights and again, lugged all of our stuff up to the 3rd floor. When we got into our room, again I went over to the drapes hoping for a better view, flung them open, and was caught off guard by a guy sitting on the railing holding onto some scaffolding.... He just looked at me, gave me a giant grin and waved. I quickly closed them again, surprised, and told Amanda that there was a strange guy on our balcony....of course she ran over with her camera to take a pic of him - which he gladly posed for! Apparently they were doing renovations on the front of the building and he was a worker. We ended up moving rooms because the A/C didn't work in the first one - the front desk was quick & efficient - didn't even ask questions - just came right up to our room and moved us to a new one. Again, two beds, television, small but clean bathroom. This was to be our home for the next few days.
We were only about 2 blocks from a big outdoor food market. We decided to check it out - it was kind of indoor/outdoor (had a roof but only side walls) It was dark inside. We walked thru the tight aisles, looking at all the foods laid out - fish, squid, peppers, fruits, etc. It was hot and humid and with all the fish it didn't smell great. As we were walking a rat ran out right in front of us and I swear I felt its tail hit me on the big toe! That was it for me...We left. We wandered around the area. Amanda bought a weird lime green slushie drink thing from a booth that had no English signs on it...so we have no idea what flavour it was. I was convinced she was going to die. She didn't......so on we went! We wandered down a few roads, looking at random businesses, avoiding drivers all calling out for our attention..wanting to drive us somewhere - anywhere - "why you walking?! I drive you!" None of them seemed to be able to comprehend why on earth we would want to walk anywhere.
This is how we met Mr Thong (pronounced "Tong") He was a tuk tuk driver that offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go all day long for a really inexpensive fare. He was fantastic and friendly so we told him the things we wanted to see and he took us there! I said I wanted a used bookstore - he found one (a great one too! I bought 4 books!!) We wanted to book our island excursions with a reasonable company - he found one for us and waited with us while we booked to make sure we didn't get gouged. We wanted to go to Phuket's First Sitting Buddah on Khao Rang Hill and then see the Tung-Ka Cafe & Restaurant at the top of the mountain (this cafe is outdoors and has an amazing panoramic view of the city) He drove us up the mountain and waited while we walked around taking pictures.
Then he suggested a local Thai shopping center if we wanted to do some shopping. We decided to check it out. He dropped us off saying he'd be back in an hour to pick us up. This "shopping center" was basically laid out like a night market, booths everywhere and it was an absolute MAZE! It was pretty fun to try to find out way around though, and we got some great deals. When Mr Thong came back he asked us if we wanted to see the night market that evening. He told us he would drop us off at our hotel so we could eat and freshen up and he would be back to pick us up at about 6pm. He had been driving us around all day and we hadn't even paid him yet! So we did just that. Ate something, had a little nap (we were still a bit jet lagged) and freshened up. He was back on time and drove us to the market. This was where we said goodbye, paid him, had pictures taken with him and he went on his way letting us know that if we needed anymore rides to call him. We ended up paying him about $30 (including a nice tip). Not bad for 2 people, driving us around all day.
- *FYI#4 - If you decide to go this route NEVER pay up front - always pay for what the driver has actually done for you. Unless it's a tour that you prepay - Mr Thong was worth every penny and I would attempt to contact him again if ever in the area! (I kept his business card) He DID make one pit-stop at a jewelry store (this is another thing that drivers will often do...and can be annoying but Mr Thong was so perfect about everything else - we just went in - browsed for 5 min and left without buying anything)
The Night Market - I have mixed feelings about the night market we went to that evening. The market itself was a fantastic, exciting experience. Booth upon booth of stuff for sale! A lot of it knock off big name brands like MAC Cosmetics and Gucci etc but lots of other wonderful stuff too. Local artists and their crafts, food and drinks, endless rows of people haggling and bargaining. That was my favourite part. Haggling. I got a lot of stuff for almost half of what they were originally asking! Most vendors know that there are usually 5 or so other booths at least in the same row, selling the same stuff so they want the best deal.
- *FYI#5 - Street Markets - best tip I can give you is to GO EARLY if you want the best deals - The Thai people are superstitious and believe that their first sale of the night brings all the luck for the rest of the evening - so most will be willing to make better deals with you JUST to get that first sale. Always be friendly with them when haggling - it can be great fun if you don't get rude about it if they aren't willing to budge. Also, don't insult them by low-balling them right off the bat. Be fair and friendly and they are usually willing to work with you. We actually had a lot of vendors call after us and "reconsider" our offers when politely declined their offers.
It was great - until my stomach issues decided to make an appearance....This is always my worst nightmare while traveling (and in every day life) and I knew it would happen SOMETIME while I was away. We had to leave the market immediately and find a restaurant where I had to pay to use the washroom - well Amanda paid while I ran past the attendant - and that ended our evening. (it was only like 10BHT or something....which isn't even $1 - If I'm wrong about the cost Amanda will correct me ) These are the kinds of things I deal with frequently...it makes for a very interesting life...
Now all I wanted to do was go back to our hotel and crawl into bed...and of course do you think we could find a tuk tuk driver? No of course not - there were lots of motorbike drivers that offered to take us but I was not feeling up to riding on the back of a bike. I was feeling desperate and here is where we potentially put ourselves into a "situation". We got a ride from a Thai man - younger looking - who was holding a sign that said "RIDES 300BHT" (aprox $10CAD) and made a deal with him for a ride and he took us across the street, into an alley beside a business where his truck was parked - we got in and drove away. I'm sure as you're reading this you can see how stupid that was...and could have actually turned out badly. It didn't. But all the way back to the hotel I felt pretty stupid. It was also dark out and we had no idea where we were driving so who knows where he could have taken us! (Sorry mum!) Amanda seemed pretty cool but I was very nervous.
We made it back to our hotel - and I went straight to my bed. We had to be up early for our Speed boat tour of the islands!!
- *FYI#6 I'm just going to say this right now - Thailand's sun is VERY HOT. You can always tell the tourists because most of them are completely sun burnt...think lobster. BRING SUNSCREEN!!! The best one you can find and re-apply it OFTEN. I know I may sound paranoid about this but I have good reasons...After two days doing boat/island tours I was completely burnt to a crisp...and I had been using sunscreen...just not a very high SPF one and I didn't re-apply often enough....And I went to Thailand with a great base-tan!
We were up early and ready outside of our hotel to be picked up to be taken to the waterfront for our day tour of the islands. I was really excited about this because one of the stops on the tour was Maya Bay, made famous by the 2000 movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a destination on my bucket list from the moment I saw it in the movie, and I was finally going to see it!! I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the sheer AMOUNT of boats anchored there and the number of tourists. To be expected I suppose. (Althou I know that people have gone and taken photos with hardly anyone there so it will depend on when you go I suppose...) It was still gorgeous. I took my first real swim in the ocean. The water was an amazing colour and so clear! And warm!! I could definitely get used to that! We spent some time there just walking up and down the beach, taking pics and them all loaded back into the boat. We cruised around stopping briefly at Monkey Beach. The tide was in so we couldn't go on shore but the guides had brought a bunch of bananas and we could see the monkeys on the branches. They threw them so that they would come out further so we could take pics of them.
Just off Phi Phi Don we anchored, put on our snorkel gear (the tour operator provided us with all the snorkel gear and lots of fresh water to drink for the day) and jumped off the back of the boat. I had never been snorkeling before and I thought it was super cool. The silence under the water and the colourful fish and interesting things to see! I'm still pretty rookie when it comes to doing stuff like this and I enjoyed it immensely After about 45min we all got back on the boat, anchored closer to shore to have a buffet lunch, do some shopping at the small market there, and walked the beach a bit. I have never seen so many asian tourists, wearing nothing but a speedo, those rubber swimming shoes and a lot of them had a minimum of 2 big fancy DSLR cameras hanging around their necks (and usually a point and shoot in their hand!) It was pretty funny.
Our last hour would be spent on Khai Island, snorkeling and just lazing in the sun. The water was perfect for snorkeling and there were tons of little fish all over. We spent the whole time on the island in the water chasing after little fish! By this point in the day, even though we had used sunscreen, we were totally burnt!
It was a long, hot day in the sun and after the tour we went back to our hotel, got food and went to bed! We had booked another boat tour for the next morning with another company and we wanted to make sure we were rested for that.
The next morning, we got up early again, got ready and headed downstairs to wait for our transportation to the next boat launch. At the boat launch (I really wish I could remember/find on google where the boat launched from or even the company we booked with! I held onto the brochure with the company name on it and I still can't find the company!) Just before boarding the jet boat, while standing on the dock, the staff took photos of everyone in their "groups". I thought this was strange but figured it was just for their website or something, so Amanda and I posed for our pic and then got on the boat. We were greeted by a very excited Captain Mike! He was great! So full of energy and wanted to make sure everyone was having fun. This tour was similar to the day before except we visited different islands. Stops (or "drive bys") this day included:
- Khao Machu Island, home of "Scooby Doo" rock. It's a rock high up on a cliff that actually looks like the outline of a dog! Captain Mike told us all about the area and took my camera from me, took some photos of Amanda and I and a few of himself
- Khao Tapu Island (aka James Bond Island) Made famous by the movie "Man With The Golden Gun". This one was a bit annoying for me - we weren't the only boat stopped there and the path to get up to the lookout to see James Bond Island was narrow and uphill - only enough room for one person at a time...which meant often waiting for twenty people to get back coming back down as you were trying to get up...I ended up just giving up halfway - got a decent shot of the island thru the trees and went back down to the beach. The sun had disappeared a bit and the shade felt great. Amanda and I sat on the beach for the next 10-15min that we had left on the island.
- Panak Island where we boarded rubber "kayaks" - 2 people per boat (plus the "guide") We paddled out to the sea caves. This was amazing. The limestone cliffs have lots of cracks and crevices that only the kayaks can fit into. On the way to the caves there was a guy in a log canoe that was handing out fresh coconuts with straws to drink! Mmm!! The our guide actually took us away from the main group towards a cliff and kept paddling towards the wall. I didn't even SEE the small cave under it until we were right up against it! He told us to lay down, pushed the canoe thru it carefully as we giggled and tried not to scrape our noses! We emerged into a small "hong" (inner room so to speak) where it was just us and the boat and the silence...It was breathtaking and left me speechless. The guide was great and asked for our cameras so he could take a bunch of pics of Amanda and I. On the way back to the boat dock we stopped back at the coconut guy and he took our coconuts back, chopped off the top and a piece that we could then use to scrape the inside of the coconut and eat it! There is really nothing better than fresh coconut, on a rubber kayak, in Phang Nga Bay!
- Ko Panyee. This was a place I was excited to see ever since I saw it on a postcard. Its a tiny fishing village that sits attached to a limestone cliff, built on stilts in the water. We would be having lunch here, along with a bunch of other tour boats and then had time to "shop" at the few tourists stores that were there or just wander and explore. We had to remember that people lived here and we needed to be respectful. (I was pretty surprised at the number of females in bikinis sitting at the tables eating - our tour guide was smart enough to tell us that it was a Muslim fishing village and to please cover up out of respect - but obviously other group guides hadn't done the same.
Lunch was fantastic. When we were finished we just started taking some of the little walkways that twisted and turned all over the place. Walking right along people's front steps where laundry hung out, bowls of fish they'd caught (things like squids and even a small bowl with a sting ray in it!) kids toys, random cats or birds in cages. Most people just left their doors open and we got a little peek of the insides of small huts with children playing or watching tv. It was very surreal. I walked along a hallway and took a corner. Before I even knew what had happened I was holding a baby gibbon! Complete with diaper and pink bow in its "hair". A woman had just planted it in my arms, catching me by surprise and asked me for 10BHT to have my picture taken with it....I was so stunned I just nodded... Popsicle in one hand, primate in the other, I just stood there and smiled! It was an obvious cash grab but it was pretty neat...Afterwards, when I thought about it I felt kinda bad, but I was so caught up in the moment that I didn't even think twice!
- Naka Island. This was by far the most gorgeous beach I'd ever been on. The sand was pristine white and baby powder soft. The water was crystal clear, an amazing shade of turquoise. We had been hanging out with an older couple from Scotland most of the day so we grabbed an empty spot on the beach and just chatted the rest of the afternoon away. It was truly paradise. The sun wasn't as hot or high in the sky so we had lots of shade but it was still a perfect temperature and after being in the sun for two days this was a great way to relax.
Eventually we heard our guide call out our boat number and we packed up all of our stuff and they loaded us all, lazy and sun burnt back into the boat. Captain Mike passed out fresh cold water and we wound down the day with photos and chit chat on the way back to the dock. At the dock, some of the locals were waiting to help us leave the boat and while we were gone they had printed the photos that were taken before we left and put them in frames covered in shells and sand. A cute little touch that they offered with the trip. The frames/photos did cost money but they weren't that expensive and it was a nice souvenir. We bought ours and then loaded into our transfer van. We were very happy for the air conditioning that evening. By the time we got back to our hotel we were pretty sleepy. So it was another night of supper then bed!
This ended our time in the beautiful south of Thailand and we made our arrangements to catch a flight the next morning to make our way to the Northern region...Chiang Mai!
We got up early, packed up our stuff and had made arrangements with the front desk for a cab. The cab that showed up was very interesting indeed! The interior looked like a comic book! Red and blue leather seats...sparklie stickers all over the inside...booming stereo system...and NOS bottles attached to the doors (for looks I'm sure..) It was definitely an interesting ride to the airport and a fun way to leave behind the islands...
The flight was quick...about 2hrs - and only about $100CAD total. The great thing about the smaller airports in Thailand is the second you walk in the door, your luggage goes through the xray - so once your inside you get your tickets and go to your gate. Its all done right away. Of course, I had a small plastic bottle of sand that I'd collected from "The Beach" in the bottom of my backpack and the security guard needed to see it to make sure it wasn't a liquid or anything worse...which meant I had to pull EVERYTHING out of my pack, show it to him and then repack it all. My own fault for not packing it on top. Lesson learned.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai it was rainy and grey. It was ok though because we DID go at the tail end of Rainy Season and we had yet to see any rain. To be honest, it felt good on our poor sunburned skin We had already figured out where we had wanted to stay and I had sent the owner an email a few days before checking rates, availability and confirming our reservation. We got a cab and gave her the address and off we went. Our accommodation was in the heart of downtown Chiang Mai called Vanilla Place.
It was a guesthouse with 15 rooms, a great sitting/social room where a simple breakfast was laid out every morning for you to eat - toast, cereal, coffee/tea, tons of fresh fruit. Also in the sitting room was a television with a shelf full of dvds and a computer with free internet. Wifi was also available. We were greeted by a very happy tail wagging shaggy dog named "Happy" who fit every letter of his name! Adorable. Also greeting us were the owners Kem & his wife Kat. They took our bags, sat us down with a nice cold glass of water, and went over our reservations. He is always pretty booked up and our only choice in room was a Superior Room, which was fine with us...this was our last destination and we were gonna splurge at about $36/night! This included a room with queen bed, mini fridge with water, window (regular rooms didnt have windows) air conditioning, (we learned to just TAKE the room with a/c) television, and access to the fridge in the sitting room where there was refreshments and snacks. The room was basic but very nice and clean. The guesthouse is only a 4 min walk from the nightly market on one of the main streets. (We visited it every single night and bought a TON of stuff for great prices) it was also a short tuk tuk ride from the Old City where there are a TON of temples in a walled off area, and also the big Weekend Night Market. And my favourite thing: it was attached to a used bookstore! Right up my alley!
Kem brought us up to our room, told us to get settled then if we had any questions to please come down and let him know and to PLEASE treat it like it was our home. We got settled then decided to go downstairs to talk to Kem about some of the things that we had wanted to see in the area. (No elevators again...we were on 3rd floor this time! Good exercise that's for sure) We had done some research on stuff we wanted to do while there and I wanted to go to a couple of the places that Amanda had been when she was in Chiang Mai last... Kem took the information of the tour company we had been looking at and made all the arrangements for us (FYI#9) He also took our ideas and found tour companies that would help us. We wanted to go to Elephant Nature Park, do a jungle trek, see the hill tribes, and possibly do white water rafting if we could. He made it all happen.
- *FYI#7 - I've seen some reviews online say that booking through Kem is more expensive because he marks it up - but I really wasn't concerned about that - the price we got was still great and he did the work, and treated us like family so I had no problems if he did.
Elephant Nature Park - an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand where you can volunteer and stay a few days and help out in the park or you can visit for a day and get to know the elephants while you're there - Feeding them and even getting to go in the river with them and give them a bath! We were picked up early and loaded into a van with another couple and drove around picking up the other guests. Then they do a short talk and put on a short dvd on the park and the purpose of it. The stories were hard to hear. As soon as we got there we noticed that there were also a ton of dogs running around.
- *FYI#8 - Thailand and Dogs - Thailand is a religous country - The Bhuddest Monks believe that you cannot harm any living creature and so the stray animal problem has become huge. Every where you go you will see stray dogs (and cats too) Especially at temples. People will drop them off there because the monks will feed them and do their best to care for them. In the cities they are rampant. Then they mate. And have babies. And the cycle continues. It was really hard to not take every one of them home with me. Even the ones that looked really really bad. Please be careful and don't pet these animals. They are not pets and are wild animals. Most have been traumatized and do not want to be your friend.
We did the one day Elephant Learning Tour. It included feeding the elephants, a GIGANTIC really awesome buffet lunch, and elephant bathing in the river! We got to get right up close to the elephants, feed them, rub their trunks or ears, have photos taken with them. I was even "kissed" by one (basically she lifted her trunk and smacked me in the face with the end of it and left a big mud streak! but it was cool) We wandered around hearing stories about some of the elephants, feeding some along the way, then they gave us an options - we could all meet in the viewing room and watch a video that was more in depth about the sanctuary and the elephants or we could just wander around. We had already heard about the video and that it was really really heart wrenching and that most people left it in tears...if they even made it through the whole thing...We opted to wander, and shop. Then it was time for lunch. The buffet table was so fantastic. They had all kinds of food and a TON of variety. We filled up our plates quickly and grabbed a table over looking the field where some of the elephants were just lounging around. Lunch while watching elephants. Such a great moment. After lunch we all got ready and headed down to the river. They let all of the elephants go in and we could follow with buckets to splash and throw water onto them. The elephants loved the water and rolled around and sprayed us. A totally amazing experience. Looking an elephant directly in the eye is something that everyone should experience.
- *FYI#9 - Elephant Nature Park Volunteers - Originally we were going to volunteer for this but after reading some reviews we decided not to. Now, dont get me wrong, the park NEEDS the volunteers and it is a good thing to do this - but it didn't end up being what we were looking for. We didn't want to stay that far away from everything and be tied to one thing for too long. We wanted to go in, learn about the elephants and then go on to other things. The volunteers really do work hard. Their days are spent cutting fruit and loading baskets for the elephants to eat. We wanted more of the "elephant" experience. There were lots of volunteers there when we visited and they have a lot of repeat visitors - one guy in our group was on his 5th time to the park! This really is a wonderful place and I advise you to make the right choice of stay for YOU. You dont want to leave regretting any part of your stay there.
Untouched Thailand Tours - This tour company we found on Trip Advisor and after looking around their website to see what kind of tours they offered we talked to Kem and he arranged for them to pick us up early in the morning and spend a full day with the guide. We opted for the Soft Jungle Trek - Private Tour - which meant that it was just Amanda, myself, the guide and the driver. Our guide was a chipper young woman named Bammie and she quickly became my favourite person in Thailand! We loaded into the SUV and were introduced to our driver Bon, a quite young man that had just joined the company and was learning how to do the trips. We then headed to Doi Inthanon National Park which encompasses the highest mountain in Chiang Mai. It was about an hour drive and we chatted easily with Bammi the whole way. We visited Diamond Waterfall and Padok Seaw Waterfall, two gorgeous spots where when standing in the mist it was actually FREEZING! I didnt think that was possible in Thailand! We then headed towards the jungles to visit a Hmong hill tribe market where we were able to purchase fresh fruits and take a few pictures while we waited for another guide, a local hill tribe man that didn't speak English and would take us on our jungle trek. The trek was an easy, 2hr downhill walk on a nature trail, taking us past where the local hill tribes grow flowers, fruits and vegetables, fields of wheat and coffee, and lots of gigantic spiders. Yes, giant spiders. I am terrified of them but they didn't hurt us at all of course and I just stayed away from them (except to snap a few pics of them) Our local guide pointed out all kinds of things in the bush, and once he found out we were freaked out by the spiders seem to have a good ol' time pointing every one of them out to us! Our trek lead us to a local hill tribe village where we were able to see how they live and their every day life in the mountains. It was really very interesting. It really makes you realize that life back home is quite extraordinary compared. The last stop on the trek was a small shack that sold the coffee that we had just walked past. We got a small free taste (really strong and really fresh) were able to use the washroom quick (my first experience with a squat toilet!) and Bon arrived with the SUV to take us back down to the main waterfall for an AMAZING lunch. Salt encrusted grilled fish, sticky rice, pad see ew (my favourite dish!!) and some other spicy chicken that I couldn't eat - all four of us sat and had a wonderful meal with a gorgeous view of the waterfall and banana trees. Nice and full, we then took all our fruits and souvenirs and headed back to our hotel. We were so impressed that we decided to book with them again the next day.
Untouched Thailand Tours - Day 2 - This time we were picked up by the owner of the tour company, Sipohn. He was wonderful as well. He had put together a package for us that day including all the things we had that we wanted to see (but they didn't offer already) Including - Tiger Kingdom, seeing the Hill Tribe women with the neck rings, and white water rafting. We did all of those things and more! He also made a stop at a small store where they take elephant dung, recycle it and turn it into paper products! Paper, picture frames, umbrellas and so much more! We got to go straight through the working area and see every step of how it was made. It was actually very interesting! We also made a stop at a real local Thai market where they didn't just sell the regular tourist things but you could buy things to eat like scorpions, beetles, chicken feet and all kinds of insects and things you probably wouldn't think to eat on a regular basis....I also got to fulfill one thing that I was determined to do while in Thailand - Eat Durian Fruit. If you've never heard of Durian fruit this is what Wikipedia says: "The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, that is strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as pleasantly fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and revolting. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine, and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit's banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia." There are signs in all airports and a lot of hotels that you are not allowed to have them. Ive heard them described as smelling like a cross between an old gym sock and a rotting corpse. Now why would I want to try this?? Well, why not! haha Sipohn was quick to talk about how much he loved them and how he grew up eating it and his whole family always had them around the house because they loved them so much. Well it couldnt be THAT bad then right? WRONG. Sipohn bought us some that was already out of the husk and wrapped in saran wrap. As soon as we opened it the smell hit me. And yes, it was putrid. He had already bought it for us thou and had quickly popped a big piece into his mouth and really truly looked like he was enjoying it. So maybe the smell was just one of those weird defense mechanisms that nature sometimes has...and maybe the fruit itself actually tasted like sweet delicious yumminess.....Wrong again. I took one bite and regretted it instantly. So did Amanda. We quickly wrapped the rest of it up and stuck it in Amanda's backpack. It had a weird texture that I'm not even sure how to describe...and the taste...reminded me of a soft chewy starting-to-rot onion. Not what I would imagine a fruit would taste like.
- *FYI#10 - I do not recommend re-wrapping a durian fruit and putting it in a back pack! The smell was so powerful we ended up having to get rid of the pack later! We couldnt get the smell out!!
Sipohn was amazing and told us all about the market and anything we wanted to found for us. He even bought us some of the fruits that we were going to buy ourselves. A nice little treat that we did get was to watch as a truck commercial was being shot on the street! That was pretty neat. After cuddling tigers, buying souvenirs from the Ring Neck Tribe Women, rushing down a river in a raft and accidentally swallowing some of the icky water, eating Durian, and watching a commercial being shot we were exhausted and Sipohn, even though he was willing to carry on and take us to more places, brought us back to our hotel. I have to say I highly highly recommend his company. Sipohn was really knowledgeable and really listed to what we wanted to get out of our time with him and I am thrilled with the tours we got and the service. I would make sure that if ever in Chiang Mai again, his company would be on my "to do" list.
Our last couple of days in Chiang Mai were spent walking around the city, seeing the "Old City", taking a tuk tuk to Wat Doi Suthep temple, and hitting the weekend night market. The weekend night market was amazing. Booth after booth of fun trinkets and souvenirs, food and drinks and so many people! Busy busy busy! Since it was our last weekend we spent almost the rest of our money making sure we had something small for our loved ones back home. It really was a great way to spend our last days and it was really sad that it was coming to an end.
Our last couple of days in Chiang Mai were spent mostly in our hotel room sick. We think it was a combo of all the fruit we were eating (from stores and street vendors alike) and the water that we ended up swallowing during our rafting trip. We relaxed but did get up to go for short walks - we went for a walk to the "Old City", took a tuk tuk to Wat Doi Suthep temple on one of the days where our tummies decided to behave for a longer period of time, and we still had to hit the weekend night market! The weekend night market was amazing. Booth after booth of fun trinkets and souvenirs, food and drinks and so many people! Busy busy busy! Since it was our last weekend we spent almost the rest of our money making sure we had something small for our loved ones back home. It really was a great way to spend our last days and it was really sad that it was coming to an end.
When we left Kem, Kat and Happy the dog, it really felt like we were leaving family. They had been so wonderful to us and we had felt so comfortable there. The little things they did (like always coming out of the office to say hello or wish us a good day when we were off on our adventures each morning, or one afternoon I decided to take a reading break and sit outside the guesthouse on a bench with a good book, Kem saw me reading there, went upstairs and came back out with a cold water from the fridge for me) made us feel like we mattered and weren't just another guest passing thru. We gathered Kem, Kat and Happy up and had our photo taken with them and after hugs, wished them well and left (in the taxi Kem had arranged for us and another backpacker staying there too) We took a quick flight back to Bangkok where we ended up getting a hotel just for the night near the airport. Nothing fancy, had a nice little pool and you got a free massage coupon to use at their facility when you checked in. Again, we were just down the street from yet another night market, so we visited that for a bit and then went back to our room to organize all of our stuff before our flight home the next morning. Getting on the plane for the last time, made me sad, and I know it made Amanda sad as well. As I sat and reflected on my time in Thailand on the way home I thought about how I went from total culture shock to total love for the country and its people. Thailand is not for everyone, it is busy, the culture and beliefs are different, but if you are open minded, love meeting local people and learning about their lives, or want to try something a little different, you will love Thailand. I have yet to meet anyone that's been there who hasn't come home and instantly started talking about their next trip there. Working in the travel industry I know that there are so many places I want to see and experience so how do I justify repeating the same trips over and over. I take comfort in the fact that there was still so much Thailand I didn't see and I KNOW that one day I will go back. In the meantime, I will share my experience with everyone who will listen!