Thailand Part 3: The South

After our adventurously comical New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, we said good-bye to our favorite Thai city and boarded a plane for the South. Well, I guess if I’m being accurate I should say we boarded a plane for Bangkok, then a plane for the South. In planning our trip, I had made the inconvenient mistake of booking our flight to Bangkok instead of Phuket. How this happened, I do not know, but the problem was easily fixed by booking a separate flight to Phuket, and it didn’t cost us much more than it would have to do the flight as one booking. It DID, however, cost us some time. I was unable to book a separate flight that would leave Bangkok soon after our arrival, so we had about 5 hours to waste. Not fun. We explored the airport, took naps, and read up on the locations we booked for the rest of our trip. It was brutally boring. The highlight was getting to eat Subway for the first time in months.

We landed in Phuket around 9 or 10 that night, and I was shocked by how warm it was. We had been enjoying the cool temps of the North, but it was nice to get back to tropical weather. We found a cheap van shuttle that took passengers to their hotels and were lucky enough to be dropped off first. When the van pulled up in front of the Tiger Inn, our jaws dropped and I burst out laughing. The main floor of the hotel was a massive open-air restaurant that can only be compared to Rain Forest Cafe. The walls and ceiling were made up to look like a jungle with trees and branches criss-crossing the restaurant. Farther inside, the restaurant felt cave-like… I assume this was meant to represent some kind of den? A horrible cover band was jamming dead center, and we had to shout over their renditions of 80s love ballads to converse with the receptionist. She gave us our key and we headed up to our room, which was far enough from the main floor to be quiet, thankfully. In keeping with the tacky decor of the restaurant, our room was decorated in leopard prints: pillows, bed covers, chairs… you name it, it donned leopard spots. That tacky hotel room pretty much describes Patong Beach, Phuket.

The following day we had an excursion booked with John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Brandon and Danette had highly recommended the trip, so I was very excited. We were picked up and taken to a large boat with about 40 other people, a larger group than normal. Our guides gave us the run down for the day and laid out our first of many delicious meals. JG’s is a company that specializes in kayaking tripcs in the Phuket area. They take tourists through underwater caves accessible only at certain times of day.

After a short boat ride, we arrived at our first kayaking stop. Tom, our main tour guide, pointed out where we would be entering the cave. I had to squint to see the tiny opening. We hopped in our kayaks with our guides and made our way over to the cave. Up close it seemed even smaller. We were instructed to lie down as we entered; the ceiling was so low that my toes almost touched! Our guides navigated the tiny space, finding the few portions high enough for them to keep their heads up and paddle.

On the other end of the cave, we popped out into a wide expanse of water with massive cliffs surrounding us. These are called hongs.  It was like being in another world. The waters were calm, and our voices echoed, though most of us were too awed by the sights to talk much. We couldn’t stay very long because the water levels would soon rise, and we had to get out before the cave closed. But in several of the hongs we were able to stay longer.

At one such cave/hong system, we saw several monkeys waiting for us. Accustomed to receiving food from tourists, these monkeys had the tides timed and knew when to come looking for food. One of the monkeys found an old banana peel and took off with it as another monkey chased him. In order to escape his pursuer, the banana monkey jumped into the water right in front of us and swam to the next ledge. In the process, he lost his banana peel. When the second monkey realized the peel was gone, he began squawking vehemently at the other monkey. The scene was quite comical, and all of it took place right in front of us.

We continued on into the island’s interior and paddled around, looking at mangroves. At our last hong, we saw a one-handed monkey all by himself. Our guide explained that it is very rare to see solitary monkeys, and this one was probably ostracized because of his disfigurement. He seemed quite content on his own and spent several minutes watching us from his high perch.

We paddled through the hong and came out on the other side of the island where we could see the sea life on the muddy banks. Our guide paddled us around the exterior of the island, which was a straight vertical rock face. We were close enough to see that tons of tiny colorful crabs made their homes on the rock’s surface. Unfortunately, the little guys moved way too fast for me to get a good picture.

Afterwards we had about an hour of free time to swim or kayak on our own. Jeff and I set out to explore and practice paddling. As soon as my turn started, Jeff was fast asleep in the front of the kayak. : )

We got back on board the boat for a sunset dinner and helped our guide make our kratong. The kratong is an offering to the water god. It consists of a small wooden platform covered in leaves, flowers, and candles. The guides were experts at crafting beautiful kratong. Ours was topped with two flowers cut to look like kissing birds! The other kratongs were equally as beautiful.

Dinner was a massive seafood buffet with fruit and dessert. Even Jeff found something he could eat, and for the first time ever, he tried… RICE! Such an adventurer. : )

After sunset, we got back in our kayaks and re-entered the hong to light our offerings. All throughout the cave, the lit kratongs glowed, reflecting their light on the water. We lit the kratong and watched as it floated around our boat, bumping into the others before making its way back to us. After picking up our kratong (I couldn’t help but think of all the waste we had just created by making so many of these, then throwing them all away!), we went back through the cave, and our guide instructed us to wave our hands in the water. In the dark, we could see the phosphorescence of the plankton, and the water glowed, reminding me of the night sky full of stars. It was absolutely beautiful!

Back on the boat, we said good-bye to our guides as they boarded another boat to go home, and we made our way back to the dock to go back to our hotels. Exhausted from a long day on the water, we both passed out pretty quickly.

Day 2 in Phuket was more laid back. We found a place near our hotel for breakfast then made our way to the beach to work on our tans. The day was intensely hot, so we took breaks from the sun to cool off in the water throughout the late morning/early afternoon. The beach wasn’t ideal. I had unknowingly booked our Phuket hotel on the most touristy beach (Patong). The beach was very crowded and noisy. We were constantly bothered by people selling drinks and souvenirs. It got pretty annoying, but at least the people watching was good! We observed a couple of guys making a full circle around the vicinity, talking to every pair of girls they could find. It didn’t look like they were having much success. 🙂

After the beach, we went back to the hotel to cool off and then went out for dinner. I was pretty excited to have some fresh seafood, but most of it was just as expensive as it would have been back in the States. Phuket was the island of sticker shock for us. Up to that point, we had managed to stay, travel, eat, drink, and shop for really cheap. Because Phuket is an extremely popular tourist destination, it was a lot more expensive. A lot more crowded. And in Patong, a lot dirtier. Needless to say, Phuket was not our favorite stop on the Thailand trip.

We left early the next day on a ferry for P.A.N Beach Bungalows near Ao Nang. The ferry ride was pretty rough on my stomach, but the views were gorgeous. We made it to Ao Nang after a couple of hours and stopping at Krabi to drop people off. Then we got a ride in a “bus” (a truck, really) to P.A.N. Our ride pulled up in front of a short lane flanked by simple bungalows and ending in the water. Near the beach was the restaurant and “lobby.” The place was virtually deserted: paradise.

After checking in and seeing our simple accommodations (no electricity from 6AM-6PM, manual flush toilet, no heated water), we went to the restaurant to eat. Our expectations for the food were pretty low, but P.A.N. proved our assumptions completely wrong; the food was AMAZING. I probably gained 5 pounds in the 3 days we were there. Aside from Soppong River Inn, P.A.N. was the best food we had the entire trip, and the staff was wonderful – very friendly and helpful.

We spent our days at P.A.N. relaxing on the beach, taking naps, reading, and enjoying the solitude. There were less than a dozen guests and very few outsiders came to the beach. Around mid-afternoon, the tide would go out and we could walk all the way to an island off the shore. I was fascinated by the sea life living in the shallow pools along the way.

On the beach little crabs would spend the entire day rolling sand into tiny little balls, creating paths to their holes. All those sand balls and paths created cool patterns in the sand. Every day their little sand balls would get washed away by the tide. And every day they would start over.

We took a bike ride into Ao Nang on our second day at P.A.N. and walked up and down the main road in town, shopping at a few of the little stores. Jeff had fun haggling while I searched for gifts for friends and family.

Back at the resort we discovered a pack of puppies living under the wood pile next to our bungalow. They came out to play, biting our ankles and barking warnings at us. The mama and papa dogs had no problems with the guests playing with their pups. We all made daily (hourly for me!) stops to see them.

On our last full day, we borrowed a motorbike from the resort and took a short ride up to a small national park to go hiking. Just as we neared the end of the trail it started to rain and we had to run back to the motorcycle. Luckily, the trees provided decent protection. The shower didn’t last long, and we rode back under partly cloudy skies, enjoying the cooler temps.

We left mid-morning on the fourth day, sad to say good-bye to the tranquility and the amazing staff, but we had a long day of traveling ahead of us and needed to get on the road. Our first stop was Ao Nang to catch a mini-bus to Surat Thani. Then from Surat Thani we took an overnight train to Bangkok. The overnight train was supposed to leave at 6 PM. We pulled out of the station after 8:00. Jeff and I had planned to catch a train to Kanchanaburi the next day, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen anymore.

The overnight train was… an experience. The air conditioner broke, and the control for the fan was in the bunk across from me. Apparently the Frenchman over there was quite comfy in the stifling heat, because he turned the fan off not too long after lights went out. I was miserable! When we finally pulled into Bangkok, I couldn’t wait to get off that train. They directed us to a ticket window where we were refunded part of our ticket because of the broken air conditioning. It wasn’t much of a consolation. I’ve heard from friends here that overnight trains are usually a much better experience. I’ll have to take their word for it.

Since we were no longer going to Kanchanaburi, Jeff and I decided to do a little exploring around Bangkok after we found a hotel (surprisingly easily) and took showers. We stopped at the suit shop for Jeff’s fitting and made sure we could pick up the suits  before our flight out. We walked around Bangkok for a few hours, and it became apparent that the atmosphere in the city had changed significantly in the 2 short weeks we’d been gone. The protestor population seemed to have tripled in size, as had the area they were occupying. More roads were shut down. The cab drivers seemed ill at ease, too, and many of them turned down riders if they wanted to go near the protestor areas.

Our cab driver the morning we left told us we were smart to leave because Monday the protestors were planning to shut down eight major intersections, and all of the cab drivers would be staying home, rather than trying to deal with the chaos.

His information turned out to be accurate, as we saw on the news Monday morning at home in Subic Bay. Many of the roads were closed, cab drivers were taking the day off, and tourism was taking a serious hit. People were still able to get to the airport, and many of the major tourist destinations were still accessible. Regardless, it’s not a risk I was interested in taking!

On the morning we left, we showed up at the suit shop to pick up the suits and no one was there. Our flight was for 10:00. We had arranged to pick the suits up at 8, but the shop didn’t open until 10. I immediately started to panic. Just as I was ready to give up and have them mail the suits to us, the guy came around the corner, clearly confused to see us waiting there. After a quick explanation, Jeff got his suits and we dove back into the cab, tires squealing as we tore out of Bangkok and on to the airport. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it felt like it. I stared at the dashboard clock, willing time to slow down so we wouldn’t miss our flight.

We pulled up in front of the airport, grabbed our stuff from the taxi trunk, and Jeff pulled out a bill to pay the driver. He took one look at Jeff’s money and shook his head. He didn’t have change because it was the beginning of his shift. We lugged our bags in and Jeff took off to find change while I waited with our stuff. After getting change and running back out to the cab, Jeff found me and we went to the gate marked for our flight but were told we were in the wrong place. Of course! Lugging all our bags down four rows of check-in gates, we got to the new window, marked for a completely different airline, and checked in without problems.

After going through security and running halfway through the airport, we got to our gate to find that our flight was delayed. After all that stress and rushing… and now we were past the portion of the airport that had restaurants. Starving, we waited impatiently for our fight.

Once we got in the air (finally!), all that stress dissipated. We were going home! I know, it sounds odd to be excited to leave a vacation, but the only thing we wanted at that point in time was to sleep in our own beds, have our dog at our feet, and relax in familiar territory.

We had the most amazing experiences in Thailand and learned so much about ourselves and our relationship (mainly our threshold for stress). It was an amazing journey – one we aren’t likely to forget. Ever. But with as much fun as we had, we also realized something else: vacations are hard work. All that planning, getting from place to place, calculating spending, and being thrown into new and alien experiences can really wear a person out. This trip was our crash course in vacationing internationally and I’ve made a few rules for our future trips:

1. No matter how beautiful the country or how amazing the experiences, two weeks is our vacation expiration date. Fourteen days is more than enough time for us to take it all in and start to miss our real life.

2. Regardless of how many awesome places there are to stay and see, few destinations are worth a one-night stay as part of an extended vacation. All the commuting between locations cuts so much quality time out of a vacation. I’m pretty sure if I added up all the time we spent on and waiting for busses, trains, and planes it would come out to a solid 2 1/2 days of transporting, and that travel time was more exhausting, stressful, and emotionally draining than it was worth. It’s better to have one central location or stay in fewer places for longer periods of time.

3. Not so much a rule as a realization: We are not party people…anymore. Patong Beach, Phuket. Never again. In the future, places described as “hot spots” or having a “lively nightlife” won’t make it on our list. We’d rather spend our days hiking and exploring than recovering from night’s out.

4. If you like it, buy it. There are too many things I passed up at markets because I thought I could get it later. On the bright side, I have a very valid excuse to revisit Chiang Mai. 🙂

5. Book 70% of your hotels in advance; leave the rest to chance. Because I was so gung-ho with my planning, we ended up feeling tied to a schedule that we didn’t always enjoy. Next time I’ll book a few places in advance, and if we like a particular city we can stay a few extra days. Jeff and I would have been perfectly happy to spend 5 full days in Chiang Mai instead of going to Chiang Rai and Soppong. Yet another excuse to return. 🙂

6. Research persistently. I did tons of research  for places to stay in the early planning stages, but after awhile I got impatient with all the work it took to find good hotels, and I booked hastily. That’s how we ended up in Patong, and on the wrong end of Chiang Rai.

I hope I don’t give off the impression that Jeff and I had a miserable time in Thailand, because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The good FAR out-weighed the bad on this trip. Our vacation wasn’t perfect, but it was the experience of a lifetime. Every day something wonderful or funny happened. And every day I was reminded of why we wanted to move overseas; these experiences are invaluable.

Our next big trip is in 3 weeks to Cordilleras where we will hike the 2,000-year-old rice terraces for 5 days. We’ll see if I stick to the new rules…