Koh Tao!

Paradise!  If you’re wanting clear blue waters, white sand, and activities ranging scuba diving to bouldering on their “mountains” then this is the place for it!  We bought a bus to ferry ticket so we didn’t have to worry about finding an AM bus and stayed at Salsa Hostel in Chumphon. We did a walk in price and paid 200 baht less than what was posted online.  It was seated right next to some delicious places to eat and the hostel had four cats! FOUR! The ferry to Koh Tao takes about three hours. When pulling into the Koh Tao harbor we had the opportunity to glimpse the breathtaking stay we were about to have.  Once we got off the boat and ran away from the taxi drivers we started towards our Airbnb. There are two roads to get you to all of the resorts, definitely take the road that goes along the shore. We ended up taking the long way. Carrying all of our gear, 90 degree weather and going uphill kind of sucked.  We stayed at Nat Resort. It was a laid back place, but if you’re stuck in the back of the resort with just a fan in the room it gets pretty hot. I would recommend staying as close to the beach as possible to get that breeze. We dropped off our belongings and immediately went for a swim. There is a small area of coral reef only about 20 yards from the beach and if you rent snorkeling gear from one of the smaller beer vendors it is pretty cheap.  The beer vendor we rented from costs 50 baht for one hour. There are also puppies that roam the beach to go swimming with you! We came to this location for scuba diving, which we ended up choosing Crystal Dive. There is an “AWARE” program that is eco friendly and sets out to educate people on how to better preserve the environment when you’re out on the water, and what you shouldn’t bring in the water. Crystal Dive is not only one of the most affordable diving places, but it makes it even better when you know it’s with someone working to clean up the oceans.  For our Open Water Certificate, I believe we paid around $300-$330 American dollars. We could have paid extra for their hospitality, which is right next to the facility, but we saved a chunk of change by booking elsewhere through Airbnb. When it comes to our travels, the Coronavirus has been kind of a silver lining. The Chinese population most of the time makes up about 50% of tourists. Due to the virus, all of our destinations have been pretty empty. Usually, the classes are all full at Crystal Dive (6-8) people, but my class was just me and a Canadian. Walter had already done his classroom time in America.  We went through a few hours of videos, took a few tests, then spent the next day in the pool with our scuba gear learning the basics. The next two days the dives began and Walter and a Swedish man joined us. We had an amazing instructor! Dav came to Koh Tao a few years ago from Australia and never left. He has been an instructor ever since. Taking your first breath underwater is quite the experience. We saw so many fish, stingrays, coral reefs, sea slugs, and numerous other entities! After this, we decided we HAVE to get our advanced! With the regular Open Water Diver, you can only dive down 18 meters, with the Advanced you can dive down to 30 meters; which is better since 75% of the world’s dive sites are roughly 30 meters down.  The food here wasn’t anything to brag about. Our favorite place was owned by a Thai lady so we ate there most of the time. We ended up walking to the other end of the island one day where most of the French owned resorts were. They all seemed to be closed down for some reason. We weren’t technically breaking and entering since there wasn’t a sign saying stay out, and the gate was open so we just went on it. These cabanas were pretty awesome. They had steps leading from their front door right into the water. This time around they were definitely out of our price range. I also learned here that the geckos have an ability to scream. Every now and then we would just hear a little scream and wondered wtf was going on or did someone need help…Nope.  Geckos. Unfortunately (kind of), scuba diving took up all of our days. If we had known we were going to love it so much we would have planned to stay a few days longer, but we were scheduled to catch a flight to Nepal. Quick knowledge point! If you go scuba diving you need to wait 12-18 hours before flying due to the nitrogen content in your body! I already miss this place so much. It had some of the best sunrises, sunsets, and waters I’ve ever seen. Who knows, maybe Indonesia will top this.

Chiang Mai

Out of our time traveling, I think I would have to say Khao Soi is the most amazing thing I have tasted!  Khao Soi is a coconut based curry. I haven’t come across this curry in Bangkok or Southern Thailand, so to my knowledge, Northern Thailand is the only place to find it.  Chiang Mai has so many cheap eat spots. A few of the places we tried were the Blue Noodle, the Coconut Shell, Khao Soi, Jok Sompet (porridge and dim sum), and some street foods around the old town.  The Blue Noodle dishes reminded me of Vietnam, something similar to Pho. The Coconut Shell had the usual Thai dishes and most of the curries (yellow, green, coconut, red, Khao Soi). I tried Khao Soi at pretty much every place I could and my absolute favorite is Khao Soi Khun Yai.  It is only open from 10-2 every day. I arrived at noon, waited in line for 20 minutes and another 20 minutes to receive my food. They sold out before 1 pm. There were locals along with tourists at this place so you KNOW it’s gonna be delicious! Walter took a cooking class while we were in Chiang Mai and was given a book with recipes afterward so he gets to make me Khao Soi when we get home!  A slightly more expensive place we ate was The Crazy Noodle. Here you have the option to make your own curry or noodle dish by picking the noodles, sauce, protein and a few more things. Again, so amazing! When it came to a curry place we only spent about 50 baht per person ($1.75). Uuuhhh salivating…..

Phuket/Koh Chang Noi

I think before we even started our adventure, I knew South Thailand was one of the places I was most looking forward to.  I have always loved the ocean ever since the first time I saw it in Florida as a kid. Unfortunately, I was not prepared to be robbed on my way to this paradise destination.  After leaving Chiang Mai, we stayed in Bangkok for two days so Walter could get his tooth fixed. We stayed at Oh Bangkok Hostel near Khao San Road. It was a lovely hostel with beer and kitties located near some stellar street food.  We needed to get from Bangkok to Phuket and the hostel had their own bus services. Something to keep in mind when you’re traveling is if you find something that is way cheaper than the rest of the similar products (like bus lines for instance), there may be a reason it is cheaper.  We have never booked transportation through a hostel before, we have always gone online, which seems to be the safest way to not get scammed. However, we thought we would give it a try. Our first red flag was after we paid in cash, they would not give us a receipt showing that we paid.  They only handed us a piece of paper with Walter’s name on it. When it came time to leave, typically a minivan would take you to the bus station, but instead, a man on a two person scooter showed up and told us he would take us one by one. I went first. He dropped me off at a random curb where three other women were waiting looking just as confused as I was.  Walter showed up ten minutes later. A large bus came to the curb. Typically these buses hold anywhere from 60-100 people and they are ALWAYS full. The man who drove us here took our measly little paper with Walter’s name on it and rode away. The driver immediately asked us for our ticket. Of course we didn’t have one. I already saw how this might go. We told him that the man on the bike kept it and thankfully he let us on.  After driving for about two hours we realized we were going to be the only five people on this bus. Again, super weird and not normal. Aside from our backpacking bags, we carry around a small day bag that has our important stuff like passport, money, computers, my little llama, and this bag NEVER leaves my sight. Another red flag we noticed was that these bus drivers didn’t seem to know how the bus operated, and every now and then along the way they would stop and seemingly visit with friends.  Since this was a night bus, it made things a bit creepier. I think this ride truly showed me how easy it would have been to get caught up in a sex trafficking operation or something similar. We eventually stopped around midnight to eat at a bus stop restaurant. Like usual, I took my small bag with me, bought some snacks, then just headed back to the bus. Once back on the road we all separated into our own row of seats so we could stretch out comfortably. I put my bag on the floor at my feet. Throughout the night I heard the two drivers take turns walking through the aisle to get to the onboard bathroom.  Around 5 am the bus pulled over on the side of an empty street and a man demanded for us to get off. He put us on a mini bus and drove us to a makeshift bus station down the street from a real bus station. A few other travelers there shared their weird stories and we all seemed to agree we thought we were going to be kidnapped somewhere along the way. We finally figured out that the people that had driven us didn’t really work for a bus line. It seems like they maybe bought their own bus and that is why we had to pay cash so it couldn’t be traced. After we arrived at what was definitely a fake bus station we were then picked up by an authentic bus that had extra empty seats.  It was here that again someone demanded for our ticket which we were never given one. We were vigilant in stating that the driver from the last bus kept it we they didn’t make us pay again, but others weren’t so lucky. Some other travelers also were never given a ticket and were forced to pay again. After we boarded the bus we made the last stretch to Phuket. We stopped for lunch and it was there I realized while I was asleep on our overnight bus, someone had taken my little bag, rummaged through it and stole 5000 baht from me (almost $200). I was pretty upset for a while, more so because of the feeling of being violated. I was sleeping away from the three women on the bus so I can only assume when one of the drivers walked by they most likely picked up my bag.  I told Walter this was the last time we were taking a night bus. Moral of the story, don’t put your shit down. If you think you’re going to sleep at all, don’t put it under the seat or in the overhead baggage, just keep it in your lap. I am the one who decided to visit Phuket because so many people had recommended it. That was dumb. There were way too many people there for my liking and everything was hella expensive. Usually a taxi ride that lasts a few kilometers is maybe 100 baht, but here for just one kilometer they were charging 400 baht. Insane. The food was really nothing special. We finally found one good curry place and kind of stuck with that. There were loads of people at the beaches, and to get a boat ride to literally the next bay (maybe half a kilometer) was 1500-2000 baht ($35-$45).  I really would never recommend this city to anyone that is budget traveling. We did find a great rooftop place that sat on the side of a “mountain”. It was Wassa Homemade Bar. We took a taxi to get here. If you talk to the taxi drivers wearing a blue shirt they will definitely give you the best deal. We stayed at Cpak hostel. Veena was super sweet! The rooms were great and had a lot of space! Her bike rental was literally half the price of anyone else we found. After four days here we were ready to get out.

  We at this point are tired of all of the people and overrun beaches and cities.  Walter suggested we try a primitive island. Everyone recommended Koh Phayam, and since it was so highly recommended we decided to NOT go there.  We instead went to its neighbor Koh Chang that no one knew about. The speed boat is cheaper if you buy online, but the bus from Phuket is for sure going to be late so be careful which time you pick.  If you do the morning boat it will drop you off on the beach that you are staying, but if you choose afternoon they will drop you off at the pier and you will have to take a motorbike taxi (150 baht) to get to your destination.  Which was fine because the bike ride across the island was phenomenal. This was by far one of the best experiences we’ve had. We stayed at Mama’s Bungalow on the other side of the island in a bay. There were maybe 10-15 people total staying there.  Everyone was welcoming along with Mama Soi and her family. You never had to leave. Soi and her family cooked every meal (the BEST curry in the south), they had beer, water refills, snorkeling gear for free, free wifi in the common area which made everyone hang out and get to know each other.  There were Great Hornbill birds, hummingbirds, bioluminescent plankton on the beach at night, and so many pups! I would suggest visiting an island like this before it is changed by tourism. You don’t have to worry about people stealing your things, everyone leaves their doors open! I can’t rave enough about this place.  We were sad to leave. Something I always struggle with is no matter how detailed the blog or beautiful the pictures, I’ll never really be able to construe the emotions I hold for these experiences. This time we planned to leave on the first ferry. The boat comes to shore at your bungalow, you waddle out in the water a bit, throw your stuff in and jump in after it.  This post is a bit longer than I planned so I will leave Koh Tao for another blog. There is an Unesco site by Koh Chang, it holds the largest field of Mangroves in the world. We weren’t able to make time for it, but I hear it is beautiful. Not surprising.    

Chiang Mai!

For the time being, I am going to skip my Bangkok blog since Walter and I will be going back for a few days here and there.  Bangkok is one of the most affordable airports to fly out of to get to neighboring countries so it will be a hub we use a few times.  From Bangkok, we took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai which is Northwest of Bangkok. We contemplated doing an overnight bus, but it would have been $20 more expensive per person.  The overnight buses are not as comfortable as they were in Vietnam. You just get a partially reclining seat that may or may not have a functioning reclining ability. There is not a guarantee if you will have charging ports on the bus, which is a let down because you will obviously need to look up directions to your stay when you get to town.  We got to Chiang Mai at six in the morning and took a taxi to our hostel. We stayed at 248 Hostel because of its proximity to the city and it had a pool. They don’t allow early check-in, however, they will let you store your luggage in a locked room. Good enough. Chiang Mai is a fairly large place and has an “Old City” and “New City”. I feel like these should describe themselves, but for those of you that struggle; the old city is where you’ll find temples, street foods, and cheaper clothing stalls.  The new city has department stores, malls, more expensive restaurants. Everything is close enough to walk to, but if that isn’t your favorite activity, simply flag down one of the big red taxi trucks and they will cater you around for a few baht. I usually list off the cheap eats places we found for other travelers that may read this, but really this place has no shortage! Every night and especially weekends street food carts are in full swing with eats so cheap you’ll want to buy a few different bowls of numerous foods.  We ate at a Korean food cart where each plate was 30 baht ($1) so naturally, I ordered like five different things. Chiang Mai is known for their Khao Soi (spelled many different ways), and this is a MUST try! If you ever listen to me, do it now. My favorite Khoa Soi place was only open from 10a to 2p, but when I was there the line was 20 minutes long with travelers and locals, which really speaks for itself, and they sold out of everything by 1 pm! I’ll write about this along with the address under my Eatables section. I had Khao Soi at least once a day, sometimes twice.  I would recommend walking around the old city at night. Usually, the temples close at dusk, but in Chiang Mai, they leave a few open after dark and start lighting things up. We came across a somewhat hidden beautiful prayer area that has us mesmerized for a while.

Pictured above: Prayer area in the old city hidden from view of the road

We did a day trip to Chiang Rai that costs 1000 baht ($30).  We had always planned on seeing the White Temple so we decided on this day trip since it had the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black Temple, lunch, and a village called Long Neck Karen.  These temples are modern compared to the usual ancient temples. The White Temple was built in 1997 and has American depictions everywhere. In the main temple on the walls, there are paintings of Spongebob, Scooby doo, and Marvel/DC characters.  Around the gardens, there are sculpted faces similar to these paintings. I was pretty confused on the meaning. In hindsight, I would have just paid for a bus to take us to Chiang Rai and rent a motorbike to see all of these places on our own. The ride was 4 hours each way, which we did not know.  All of the tours going on that day went to each place at the same time, so when we arrived somewhere so did a few hundred other people, but when we drove by the White Temple an hour later it was empty. They provided a lunch buffet which was not that great. We only had about 30 minutes at some of the temples.  We lastly went to Long Neck Karen village. This is a village of a tribe of women that wore gold rings on their neck to stretch it out. Once the neck is stretched out they can not remove the rings due to their weakened neck muscles. Every tour tries to bring you to the village, but after some research on our part, we stayed near the van while everyone else went in.  On top of the tour costing 1000 baht, it was an extra 300 baht to see the women. I don’t like doing these village tours because the guides prod people to take pictures like these women are in a zoo, but really they are in extreme poverty and only surviving on some of the money they get from people visiting these places.

Picture below: White Temple in Chiang Rai

Pictured Below: Blue Temple and Black Temple (also known as Wooden Temple)

One of my “have to do” things while on this trip is going to an Elephant Sanctuary, and after many hours of research done, I decided this might be the best place.  If you go to an Elephant Sanctuary please go to an ethical one! They are at least $10-$15 more than unethical ones, but if you can’t afford to go somewhere they don’t abuse animals, maybe you shouldn’t go at all.  This goes for tiger and big cat sanctuaries. There is mounting evidence showing that these tigers are drugged all day so tourists can get close enough to get a picture, lay on them, or pet them. Don’t encourage this bullshit.  Go pay for a Jungle safari in Cambodia or Laos and see wild tigers. We decided to go to Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. We booked through the hostel and it costs 1200 baht per person ($35). They pick you up from the hostel, provide fruit and snack, provide some free photography, and obviously give you a ride back.  It was one of the best experiences of my life and induced an emotional response that really surprised me. It’s amazing to touch them and hug their snout all while knowing they could kill you pretty easily, but really they are just gentle giants! That is what made it emotional, to witness their caring nature and think of how their whole life they were treated as props and beaten if they didn’t perform.  We were able to feed them sugarcane for about an hour, then made them medicine balls that they take a few times a day, and finally rubbed them down in the river! Everything really exceeded my expectations! On our last day there Walter broke his tooth. We would get to figure out just how good our insurance and the medical care here was. Walter emailed our insurance company (Geo Blue) to figure out what the next steps would be and if he was covered.  It took about four days to receive a response from the insurance, which goes to show even American travel insurance can be shit. We had already waited two days without a response, and I was overreacting thinking he might be at risk from endocarditis ( which is a serious bacteria that affects the lining of your heart from entering in through the gumline) so after we arrived back in Bangkok we decided that no matter the price it wasn’t worth waiting any longer for.  Especially being in a country where the water isn’t clean, or maybe food isn’t properly cooked the risk for something to happen was a bit higher. Without any prior notice, we walked into a hospital, located a periodontist, filled out two short papers and he was in the dental chair within ten minutes. The procedure (exam, Xrays, and new filling) took about 40 minutes, and everything without insurance and out of pocket costs $75! The process in America just to get into the office would have taken days, and the costs of all of this with insurance could have easily cost a few hundred dollars out of pocket!  We were astounded at the quality of the work and price. The insurance eventually got back to Walter (four days after we reached out) and told him to fill out a form to see if they would cover it. He is still waiting to hear back. Next stop, South Thailand!