We spent one day and one night in Bangkok at the end of our trip. Our flight home left at 2:00 in the morning! We had two priorities for the day – eat at Cabbages and Condoms and see Wat Po and the Reclining Buddha.
Per the recommendation of a fellow traveler, we stayed at Saphaipae hostel. When we arrived, we found that they had booked us the wrong room – two twin beds in a boys dorm room! They didn’t have any of the correct room available, so we were upgraded to a premiere en suite room, which was basically as nice as a boutique hotel room. Score! The beds were comfortable, it was quiet and they had hot showers. What more could you ask for?
We spent the day taking in a few “must-see” tourist destinations – Wat Po and the Royal Palace. Wat Po is famous for the Reclining Buddha figure. It is 50 feet high and 143 feet long. It was incredible! The picture doesn’t even do it justice.
We also visited Chatuchak Market, a huge outdoor market that runs on Friday nights and weekends. It is so large, they actually publish a map book that is available for purchase. It had everything from art to furniture to hand goods to food. Apparently there is even a secret section that specializes in endangered animals. We also came across a section with pet stores.
For dinner, we ate at Cabbages and Condoms. This famous restaurant was started to raise money for family planning in Thailand. A Thai-run NGO recognized that large family sizes in rural Thailand (7 children average), was threatening to cause too much resource use. The idea behind the same is that condoms and birth control should be as widely available and accepted as cabbage. We had coconut milk soup and duck in red curry sauce. Especially for a tourist trap, the food was excellent!
All the decorations inside were made out of condoms. There was a condom Tiger Woods, Santa Claus, Christmas three and more.
On the way out, a group of Thai schoolgirls stopped us. They were doing a school project to benefit flood victims. They designed a canvas tote to raise money. I scored the one of the last limited edition, only 500 produced, totes! At least that is what they told me? Come to think of it, saying there are only 3 left is a great way to drive sales. Maybe these girls are master business minds!
Our room at Saphaipae, the biggest hostel in Bangkok:
The Bangkok Airport, all dressed up for the holidays:
Check out the rest of our Thailand adventure here!
After three days in Khao Lok, it was time to hit the road again. We caught a local bus to Krabi town. The bus was packed full and we ended up standing in the aisle for half of the three hour ride. Our next destination was the backpacker/climbing mecca of Ao Ton Sai, Thailand, which was only accessible by boat.
The first thing I noticed about Ao Ton Sai was that many, many people there were wearing dreads. The typical local and many backpackers looked something like this:
There were guys that had dreads down to their knees! The next thing I noticed was that those people were also full of arm tattoos. It seemed the longer you had stayed on the island, the more, well…homeless, you looked. Another trend was harem pants, which I detest on either sex. Can you wear anything less flattering or less functional?
Unlike most of the other beaches in the area, Ao Ton Sai has stayed relatively inexpensive. Especially when it isn’t high season, you can get a mattress in a bungalow with a shared bath for about $5 a night and meals are about $2-5. It’s very possible to live on about $20 a day. The problem is, the word is out on how great the climbing is and Ao Ton Sai is completely overwhelmed with tourists. When we were there, every place was full to capacity and there was the distinct smell of human excrement all over the island. Most of the toilet systems seem to drain directly into two ditches that line the one main road that loops through the residences on the hill above the beach.
We weren’t able to book in advance and were a little stressed about finding a place to stay on a busy holiday. We asked at every resort and bungalow and kept getting the same answer – full, full, full. We talked to other travelers who were planning to sleep on the beach for the night. We were just about to give up and catch a boat back to Krabi when a backpacker told us that there were three tents left to rent at The Forest. For 150B ($5) we had a tent on a cement platform in a shelter. There was no mattress available, so our strategy was to stay up as late as possible for the New Year so we would be too tired to notice that we were sleeping on a thin blanket spread over concrete.
Pat made some non-dreaded, non-tatted friends to go climbing one day. He was “super-amped” and was tempted to stay in Ton Sai for an extra day or two. Unfortunately, a massive storm hit the south of Thailand and it was pouring rain for an entire day and the weather reports said it would rain for three days total. We caught a ferry to Ko Lanta in search of good plumbing, beautiful beaches and more secure accommodations.
Check out the rest of our Thailand adventure here!
Ao Ton Sai was a great place to ring in the New Year. The place had a laid-back vibe and there were plenty of options for celebrating. The night started with tourists setting off traditional paper lanterns over the beach. Every once in a while, the lantern would backfire and burn itself out on the beach while the couple who had purchased it watched in dismay. Sometimes, a lantern would get caught in a tree and turn into a ball of fire that fell down on the heads of unsuspecting tourists. Luckily no one was hurt.
They looked beautiful as they drifted over the bay and eventually burned out.
There was live music and dancing. As you would expect if you know anything about hippies, there was also fire poi and slack lining to enjoy. At midnight, I lead the charge into the ocean. I found it very surprising that it wasn’t at all like in the movies. The only person to join was Pat, because I literally dragged him and Marianne, a girl we’d met from Scotland who is doing Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan! Response times must have been dulled by all the ganja-smoking done at Ao Ton Sai because the rest of the crowd eventually joined.
Pat and Marianne made new friends with some locals.
All-in-all, it was a great New Year’s and we stayed up late enough to get a good night’s sleep in our tent. This guy managed to sleep until 2 in the afternoon:
Check out the rest of our Thailand adventure here!
With our travels in the north behind us, we turned to the last portion of the trip – the tropical south. Our last 10 days was focused on the beach and ocean. According to the guidebook, the best place to scuba in Thailand was Khao Lak. The town basically exists to support trips to the nearby Similan Islands.
I finished the bookwork and pool dive portion of my PADI certification in Wisconsin through Breezeway Bubbles, which I highly recommend! The last step was four “check out” dives. I booked two days of scuba with the local company, Sea Dragon. They were highly recommended in both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. This was by far the most expensive portion of the trip, costing $350 for a private instructor, boat ride and the course fee. I spent the first day completing the skills portion and getting comfortable diving at a local reef. The visibility was about 3 meters and there were hardly any fish, which was probably good because I could focus more on diving without so many distractions. The second day we took a large live aboard boat to the Similan National park islands. We had a buffet breakfast of fruit, bacon, eggs, sausage and coffee as the boat headed out for the 3 hour ride. My two dives were incredible! It felt like I was watching an episode of BBC life. There were millions of fish as well as a sea turtle, several sting rays, a moray eel and an octopus.
Rebecca, my instructor was wonderful. She was patient and explained everything very well. After the dive, we got out a book with pictures of the fish so I could put names to what I saw. I am so excited to be PADI certified after scuba diving Khao Lak!
We also took a day trip to Phang Na Bay. We got to do a sea kayak trip around the huge rock walls. Part of the area’s claim to fame is “James Bond Rock”. Apparently this particular cliff was featured in the movie The Man With the Golden Gun. In the movie though, the peak is blown up. Somehow it is still standing today for tourists to gawk at. Ah, Hollywood.
Part of the trip was wiggling our way through sea caves. We literally had to put our hands on the ceiling of the caves and push our way through the narrow paths. Each one opened up into a secluded lagoon. One sea cave also had a larger cave to walk through, inside the rocks sparkled like they were made of millions of tiny diamonds.
I even busted out a bikini to show off my surgery scar. It’s healing quite well if I do say so myself!
It seems like there is a wat (temple) on every block in Chiang Mai. The monks walk the streets in the morning and collect food in baskets. They have no source of income and rely on the people of Thailand to donate food and money so they can maintain their simple lifestyles.
Several of the Wats offer “Monk Chats”. The novice monks sit and practice their English by answering tourist questions on what it is like to be a monk. I learned that all monks speak at least two languages well and at least one more moderately well. Some speak up to seven different languages. I also learned that the robes they wear are a single piece of fabric. The monks all attend the local university, but they have classes separate from the other students. They live in apartments scattered throughout the city. Most become novices around age 14, but can start any time in life. They become full-fledged monks at around 24 or 25. You can leave the monastery at any time and rejoin at any time, but after three times of changing your mind you can no longer rejoin.
I watched this meditating monk for a few minutes. He never blinked and I couldn’t even see his chest rise and fall. Finally I looked a bit closer and saw that there was a sign indicating that this was a statue of a former head monk! He looked so real. Madame Tussad’s wax museum has nothing on this guy.
Pat and I got massages every day in Chiang Mai. They averaged around $5 for an hour. In addition to the blind masseurs, we also went to a local women’s prison to get a massage. This may sound a bit strange, but the prisoners run a spa as part of their rehabilitation program. They also have a small shop where they sell handicrafts and a restaurant. The ladies were lovely and did a great job. Other than a suspiciously high amount of tattoos, I never would have guessed they were in the clinker. We also stopped at a swankier place the next day where we were given special robes and our feet were bathed in water with rose petals and lime peels before our massage. Still only $5 for the whole experience. Not as good as the prisoners though.
Even though Thailand is 85% Buddhist, there were still reminders of Christmas everywhere. It seemed more like an excuse for a holiday than an actual religious event though.
There were numerous opportunities for Pat to satisfy his sweet tooth with street food. Here he is enjoying a waffle on a stick that is soaked with honey.
Thailand is also known for bespoke (custom) suits for very inexpensive prices. Pat and I both got measured for wool/cashmere suits at a local tailor. They can make a custom suit in 2-3 days. We saw some examples and the work was incredible. You basically look through books of suits made by names like Armani and Versace pick out what you like and they make the suit. The total for two handmade custom suits was about $400!
Our favorite place to eat in Chiang Mai was Nice Kitchen. Every morning we were greeted with a friendly Sawadeka (Hello). The staff was wonderful and everything we tried on the menu was absolutely delicious. We had a huge bowl of muesli, yogurt and fruit every morning. The dried bananas on the top were so good we purchased a big bag for the rest of the trip.
Chiang Mai is also known for handmade mulberry paper. We purchased all the paper for our wedding invites, envelopes, and save the dates at HQ paper. You can read a little more about the process of making paper here, under the section “Making paper“. We also got some paper that is made from the fiber from elephant dung! Added bonus, there was no smell.