Categories
Southeast Asia Thailand

What About Haircuts, Laundry, Medical Needs?

Current Location: Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand
Current  Weather: Hot and humid of course
Days Gone: 17
Days Remaining: 199

They say that when you rent a motorbike, make sure to point out every single scratch to the provider so that you do not get charged a fortune for “wrecking the bike” when you return it. Back on Koh Tao, I talked two guys I met into renting motorbikes with me and touring the island’s hectic and dangerous roads for a day. There were several driving rules that I had to learn very quickly. First, drive on the left side of the road. I became aware of this upon arrival in Bangkok (when the taxi driver seemed to be driving in all the wrong places) and one embarrassing moment when I tried to board a bus from the wrong (right) side. Putting it into practice was another story, instincts die hard. Second, the biggest thing in the road always has the right-of-way. The hierarchy goes something like this: Cargo vehicles >> Buses >> Trucks >> Cars >> Motorbikes >> Pedestrians. The third rule is counter-intuitive; motorbikes can drive however and wherever they want. This last bit was perfect, as any time I found myself instinctively drifting to the right side of the road, I just appeared to be a typical, rebellious, Thai motorbike driver. Well, except for the fact that I was wearing swim trunks, sandals and a daypack.

My new friends and I quickly became separated in the traffic between various beaches and lookout points, and so individually resigned to exploring the island independently. I must say, riding my motorbike up those thin mountain roads, paved only with dirt, grooved from water runoff and pocked with stones the size of cantaloupes, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. There was one hill that was so steep my bike couldn’t bear my weight. I had to jump off the bike and roll the accelerator while climbing carefully next to it. Coming back down the mountain was even worse. I was in constant fear that my brakes would burn out, and I would careen down into the jungle and meet my demise.  Obviously this was a grand experience overall and I highly recommend it to anyone who has decent balance on two wheels!

There comes a time when traveling when one has to put aside motorbike adventures and take care of basic needs. Things such as dirty laundry and ever-growing hair come to mind. For the most part, in my experience, local laundry facilities are plentiful. They usually advertise a price per kilogram of clothing. You drop off your clothes, they weigh them, give you a number, and tell you when to come back. You pay upon picking up your clothes, identifiable by a plastic bag with your number written on it. Always make sure to count the articles at drop off and again at pick up. Prices on the islands of Thailand usually run 40 baht per kilo (or 60 baht for 2 hour express). That’s about $1.20 per kilo, or a mere 54 cents per pound. I had just about all my laundry weigh in at 2.5 kilos, so 100 baht, or about $3, got all my clothing clean and fresh (and even folded). I’ll probably do laundry every week or so, but it’s far less frequent when I’m living on beaches because I tend to just wear swim-trunks and sandals every day.

I walked around Koh Pha Ngan yesterday in search of a haircut, and after zig-zagging through the streets for about 20 minutes, I found a beauty salon. I walked up and asked the owner if she did basic haircuts. She looked at me funny so I made a buzzing noise and moved my fist across the top of my head. She smiled and said, “Yes, yes, 150 baht.” In good form, I replied with, “too expensive, it’s very fast.” She retorted with a 100 baht offer, which I accepted, and got my hair cut by someone else for the first time since Nicaragua a year ago.

If your needs turn medical, you are in for a real adventure. Pharmacies are everywhere, and it seems that everything is available over the counter. At some point on Koh Tao, my left ankle and foot began swelling up and became extremely sore, to the point where I was limping heavily. I popped some Ibuprofen and the next morning the swelling had decreased and the pain was 90% less. I figured it would be fine in a couple days. Yesterday, here on Koh Pha Ngan, my whole foot was still swollen and it appeared to be holding fluid. It had been four days, so it was definitely time to have a pharmacy adventure. I stopped in the first pharmacy and had a broken English conversation with the white-coated Thai man behind the counter. After showing him my swollen foot, he handed me a pack of ten pills called Reparil-Dragees and wanted 150 baht (about $5). I decided to do some further research, so I turned to the internet where I discovered the drug in question was indeed a powerful anti-inflammatory that would suffice for my medical ailment. Also, if anyone reading is able to find out if Reparil-Dragees requires a prescription and how much it would cost in the United States I’d be curious to know. To compare, here it cost me about $3 total (30 cents per pill) and a bit of internet research.

Shout outs go to Luke and Yi, my buddies and motorbike partners from Koh Tao. Peter of Phoenix diving. Christoph with his amazing camera case and ever more amazing outlooks on life. Samuel, my Malaysian dive partner, and his girlfriend Emma from, if I remember correctly, England. Lisa and the rest of the Canadians from the Drop-In bar. Tash and Sarah, two couchsurfers now sharing my air-con room at Paradise Bungalows. And finally, the brief encounter with Andy, thanks for your advice about Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chiang-Mai.

Last thing consumed: Bread and jam from 7-Eleven
Thought fragment: I was going to write a bit about the power outages and resulting consequences, but the post is probably already too demanding on some attention-spans. Also, the frequent laying around on beaches and swimming in the ocean parts seem to get omitted, they’re just not as interesting to read about (though absolutely pleasant to experience).

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Categories
Southeast Asia Thailand

The “Why” of Travel (and Island Life)

Current Location: Koh Tao, Thailand
Current Weather: 93° F (feels like 108°F)
Days Gone: 10
Days Remaining: 205

I chose to come to Koh Tao because it’s known the world over for its amazing scuba-diving. After picking my destination, I just had to figure out the cheapest way to get here. Turns out there was an overnight cargo ferry that left the port city of Chumphon at midnight and arrived at Koh Tao at 6 AM. Of course, traveling with cargo isn’t a very luxurious option, but you get what you pay for: the ticket was a mere 200 baht ($6) – the other (faster) options climbed as high as $20. The added bonus of taking the night boat was that I didn’t have to find (or pay for) a place to stay, so the ticket was more than transportation, it was a place to sleep, sort of…(see photo).

I boarded the boat via a very thin, very slippery metal plank. This plank walk was a bit scary considering a fall into the fiendishly dark waters below would result in the likely destruction or permanent alteration of everything I had. Not to mention possible bodily injury or death. But I survived, as I tend to do somehow. Not long after departing, rain began to patter on the thin windows and soon lightning was crackling across the sky. Now some might think having to spend the night on a wave-rocked cargo ship during a storm would be torture. But for me, it is moments such as these that make me stop and think, “holy shit, I’m sitting on a little mat on a cargo ferry somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand, it’s the middle on the night, there are a six total people on the boat and five of us don’t speak English, we’re in the heart of a thunder storm, and there isn’t a bathroom.”

It’s difficult to explain the “why” of travel to someone who has never experienced it. But it is the frequency of moments such as this one, moments that result in a drastic increase in the clarity with which I can see the world, that account for a lot of it. Every breath counts for something, every instant is a new memory unlike any that came before it. There is no “time flies” phenomenon with travel such as this. Brief surprise that the journey has come to an end, perhaps, but not that it’s come to an end already. The days simply cannot blur together to create that dreadful life-mashing effect. Instead, they stand apart bold and true and full of color, entirely different from the days before and the days to come.

I’ve spent three full days on the island now. On day one I took a quick scuba refresher course for 500 baht ($15) which basically involved me jumping into a swimming pool and demonstrating that I remembered how to do everything. On the morning of day two I went out on two dives. There is really something to be said for swimming with giant schools of fish 60 feet below the oceans surface. I write diving off as a splurge as far as my budget is concerned, but it’s still very cheap here relative to other places on the planet. I can get four dives for 2700 baht ($83.40), which comes to about $21 per dive and that’s a good deal.

This is the second time I’ve found myself on a dive-centered island while the country’s mainland has been suffering political turmoil. I must say I quite like it. Shout outs go to the lady working the ticket booth for the night boat (I sat and watched a good four hours of Thai soap operas with her while waiting for the boat, and she was nice enough to let me borrow an umbrella), Chris and Dan of the UK (oh Dan, what befell you after your second Sangsom bucket?), Annina and her man from Finland, Divemaster Al who threw me in a pool for my scuba refresher, Tom who is a great dive-master and underwater guide, and also an exceptional guitar player (I heard you at Lotus bar), and that fellow from the South of France who spoke no English but made a good dive buddy. The great thing about being underwater is all communication is sign language, so it’s also a brief but welcome respite from language-barriers.

Final note, I know I have been procrastinating with updating the “Inside the Pack” page. I have not forgotten. It will be updated when I have a fresh battery. Also, technically this post is a day late due to lack of wifi (it was written a day before it was posted). Farewell!

Last thing consumed: Green Curry
Thought fragment: You also have got to love nightly drink specials and live music at every bar.

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Categories
Southeast Asia Thailand

Transport Mania: Tuk-Tuks, Motorbikes, and Haggling

Current Location: Cha-Am, Thailand
Current  Weather: 90° F (feels like 107°F)

Days Gone: 5
Days Remaining: 210

I had just finished dinner and was enjoying the rest of my liter-sized bottle of Chang (a Thai beer) when I struck up a conversation with a Scottish fellow named Keith. He was surprised to discover I was from the United States, and I agreed that Americans seemed scarce. Despite being in a major backpacking hub for three days, I had yet to me a single other person from the US. He explained to me that this was because I was especially distinguished, and broke down my rarity with statistics (though no sources were cited, these estimations are probably accurate enough). Let’s say 15% of US Citizens have a passport. That number used to be 5%, but since Canada now requires a passport for entry the number jumped. From that 5%, subtract anyone who wanted a passport for Spring Break in Cancun or any other pleasure-centered respite on a white beach or cruise ship. Then from that number subtract anyone who has a passport for business reasons. Keith estimated that the remainder, those US citizens with passports for “real” travel, was about 1 in 400. He went on to say that, based on these estimations, an American traveling abroad has, by default, overcome greater odds than the same traveler from Australia or Europe where international adventures are seen as commonplace and even expected. Thus, being an American traveling abroad is not only disturbingly rare, it is also something to be proud of.

After this chance meeting, I ended up indulging in the local nightlife with some other characters around Khao San Road. Eventually I found my way back to my guest house room which was located on top of a restaurant on the main strip. It was basically just a room with a fan, but it cost a mere 200 baht ($6) per night. 

As all the best dive spots and beaches are to the South, I decided to start working my way towards the Southern islands. I figured because I have time, I’d just city hop my way down. But now that I’m staying a night in the lazy (and mostly empty) coastal town of Cha-Am, I’m feeling a bit anxious to get to a locale that’s a bit more….social. I did get the opportunity to flex my old travel muscles by taking a public bus from Bangkok to Cha-Am. While private mini-buses were available for 400 baht ($12.30), I knew that a regular bus would be far cheaper. I decided that even if I broke even cost-wise, I’d at least have the added experience of getting myself to/from bus stations, acquiring a ticket, and actually boarding the bus and getting off at the right spot.

Here is how I managed to navigate the shaky world of public transportation. Only read these next four paragraphs if you are truly curious about the process, because I’m going to get technical. After packing up all my gear and making sure I had small bills available, I checked out of my guest house and flagged down the first Tuk-Tuk driver (which really means I just answered his cry of “Hey, sir, where you go?”) His original demand was 200 baht ($6) to the bus station 20 minutes away. After some debate, we agreed that he could take me to a ticketing center 5 minutes away and, if they had a ticket and a bus leaving soon, he would take me on to the bus station itself for a total charge of 50 baht ($1.60). If they didn’t have a ticket he could bring me back to Khao San and I’d pay 10 baht (30 cents).

The ticketing center was government operated and the friendly Thai working said the tickets he sold were a rip off and just to get one at the bus station for 150 baht ($4.60), and that buses left every 2 hours and were never full. Props to this guy for his honesty, it’s great when someone isn’t paid on commission. I told the Tuk-Tuk driver to head on to the bus station and off we went. I knew something was wrong when he pulled back onto Khao San. He claimed the bus station was too far so, after more debate, I just got off without paying as he broke the contract. I walked up to the next taxi (an actual car) I saw and negotiated a fare of 120 baht ($3.70) to the bus station. Some Bangkok taxis are metered and some aren’t, and as such people usually stick to the metered ones. From my airport taxi ride I knew that metered taxis ran about 100 baht per 10 minutes, so 120 baht for a ride that I knew was greater than 12 minutes was in my favor. It ended up taking about 20 minutes to get to the bus station, which was also a shopping mall.

I walked around the side to where dozens of buses were parked and searched for a ticket booth. I went up to a booth with a window and asked about a ticket to Cha-Am. A uniformed officer led me into the mall, up not one but two escalators, and past several booksellers and vendors, to a line of tons of tiny ticketing booths. I bought my ticket and wandered around the mall, noting prices about half that of the Khao San district. I also bought a small “Muslim pizza” for 60 baht ($2) that had a strange variety of toppings including corn and (I think) imitation ham. The mall also had a KFC – it’s hilarious to see international chains because the menus are spliced. I’ve seen Subway and KFC both offer slightly different versions of the normal stuff, but they also have Thai additions to the menu, like chicken and rice.

Anyway, I finally board the bus at the last second, pizza in hand, and settle in for a 3.5 hour ride. The whole ride went smooth except for a 30 minute unexplained stop in front of a massive superstore called “The Big C”. Eventually the bus stopped at a nondescript part of a main street and the driver stood up and called out “Cha-Am” a few times, so I grabbed my stuff and disembarked. Having no idea where I was, I sat down at a sidewalk table to see if my guidebook had a map. The town is so small there is no map, but there was the name of a hostel (Cha-Am Villa Beach) with AC, a pool, and wi-fi for 500 baht ($15). I asked a motorcycle transport guy if he knew where it was and he offered to take me for 30 baht ($1). He said it was 2 km away and I tried to talk him down in price but he wouldn’t budge. I folded and climbed on the back of his little 100cc bike, and off we went. So in the end, my total cost to get from Khao San Road to my final destination was 120+150+30=300 baht. So I only saved 100 baht by taking the adventurous route, but I also got to take a free Tuk-Tuk ride, learned of better Bangkok shopping prices, took a motorcycle taxi, and generally remind myself I have the ability to get around without the tourist-ready options if need be.

Shout outs for this post go to Keith of Scotland, Flo of Germany, and the four Thai girls from Chiang Mai (whose names I have forgotten, so sorry) that took me and Flo out to some crazy club in downtown Bangkok.

To my readers, I don’t know what you are particularly curious about, so leave a comment if there are things you want to hear about or things you don’t really care about. Detailed travel technicalities bore you? Let me know. Want to see pictures of crazy Thai snack food packages? Let me know. Want to hear about temples and architecture? Let me know.

Last thing consumed: Chocolate ice cream on a stick – 10 baht (30 cents)
Thought fragment: I saw a naked baby run out into the street and almost get nailed by a passing motorbike. Also, it seems common to have the shower area simply be the whole bathroom. Essentially, when you shower, you’re standing right next to the toilet and sink and water just goes everywhere. The bathroom -is- the shower.
 
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Categories
Southeast Asia Thailand

How to Dine and Shop in Khao San

Current Location: Bangkok, Thailand – Khao San Road
Current  Weather: 93° F (feels like 104°F)

Days Gone: 3
Days Remaining: 212

 Bangkok is wired with energy, it’s almost dizzying. I’m planning on bailing on the city and heading somewhere quieter within a couple days or so. I’ll be back in Bangkok in seven months to catch my return flight, so I can always come back early and spend several days downtown. Wandering the Khao San district yesterday I managed to find scissors for 10 baht (30 cents) and a power adapter for 35 baht ($1). I also found a breakfast option at a corner cafe called the Phomotion Breakfast. It included an omelette, bacon, toast, jam, hot coffee, potatoes, and fresh fruit for 110 baht. The man running the cafe happily told me it was extra special and only 100 baht today ($3). I accepted and was presented with this:

As you can see, the omelette was really just scrambled eggs in the shape of an omelette, but it was delicious anyway. I spent most of the day wandering the shops, stalls, and back alleys of the district to try and get a feel for what was available and what it cost. There is a plethora of items and services on hand, most common being clothing, jewelry, massages, and hair care (and food). A 30 minute spa style full body massage here costs $3. The clothing prices aren’t as phenomenal, most shirts/pants are priced at 200 baht ($6) which equates to sale prices back home. I am, however, already considering trading my jeans for a second pair of shorts.

I had lunch in a little alleyway that transforms into a restaurant by day, chicken and rice for 50 baht ($1.60). It looked bland but tasted amazing and fresh, while I ate several motorbikes squeezed through the alley inches from my table.

I ended up falling asleep passing out at about 6 pm local time without dinner; apparently I’m not as adjusted to the time change as I thought. After waking up refreshed at 2:30 AM, I forced myself to sleep (off and on) until 7. This morning I ventured back out into the city and found another hideaway dining option for breakfast. For those wondering how communication works with a language barrier, this is my breakfast experience:

I peak into the small, shady looking restaurant and see a Thai woman eating a bowl of some sort of soup. It looks tasty so I walk in (it’s also a good sign to see a local eating here). A man materializes before me and asks “wan?” holding up a single finger. “One,” I answer and he nods and gestures to a metal table nearby. I sit down and look around for some sort of menu or picture to point to. This isn’t necessary, however, as the man quickly prepares a bowl of the soup and sits it in front of me. No ordering is needed if the menu only has one option. It consisted of some sort of chicken broth and several types of noodles and vegetables. Three sauce options sat on the table among some other additives, so I chose the watery brown one with red and green bits in it and scooped it into my soup. It became both spicy and sour, yum!

After paying my 30 baht ($1), I wandered around a bit more and found a lady selling toasted bread with jam. She had several slices of a thick yellow bread sitting on a small charcoal grill. “How much?” I asked, pointing to the bread. “Five baht each,” she said, and when I pointed at the jam she said, “yes, yes, 5 baht.” So I gave her a 10 baht coin and figured I would get a piece of bread with jam. She slid one slice of bread back to the hot center of the grill for a few seconds, picked it and and slid a second into the heat, spread jam on the first slice, and dropped it onto the second slice to make a sandwich. She then carefully cut the final product into two pieces and slid them into a small plastic bag which she handed to me. “Korp khun clap,” (thank you) I said in broken Thai with a smile. She seemed delighted and I was happy to have a thick, crunchy jam sandwich for 30 cents.

Now I’m back at the hostel and about to check out. NapPark costs about $14 per night so I think I can find somewhere else to sleep for much cheaper. Also, I need to start thinking about where to go from here. I was originally planning to head North, but with 60 days in Thailand and a lot of nice beaches to the South, I might head down first and then backtrack. I’m trying to not get overwhelmed by the insanity of the city and the infinite options before me. I’m having to adapt to the limitless freedom as much as the time change and heat.

Last thing consumed: Jam sandwich
Thought fragment: 7-Eleven‘s are everywhere and they are the best places to break 1000 baht notes.


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