Southeast Asia Thailand

The Journey North

Current Location: Ayutthaya, Thailand
Current  Weather: 88
°F (feels like 97°F)
Days Gone: 33
Days Remaining:183

I am no longer suffering from Conjunctivitus, woohoo! I had a lot of people ask me before I left, “What happens if you get sick?” This is what happens: step 1: get meds, step 2: get better. It’s just like at home, only cheaper, faster, and without air-conditioning. Now, granted, if I get something serious like Japanese B Encephalitis I’ll be in a bit of trouble – but the odds are (very, very) heavily against it and, well, in the game of travel, everything comes down to odds and risk management. So, newly healthy, I abandoned Koh Phi Phi and took a night bus back to Bangkok. And so it was that I arrived in Thailand’s capital at 5 AM for the second time in a month. This time I was slightly less clueless. Instead of finding a guest house to grab a couple more hours of sleep, I just bought a 10 baht Red Bull from 7-Eleven and wandered the streets while I waited for the public bus station to open (to head on to Nakhon Pathom). I watched as Bangkok woke up with the sun, street vendors sleepily dragging their carts into position and firing up their grills and woks. I talked to several drunken travelers on Khao San Road at the end of their night and watched rats scurrying back into their daytime shadows. Then I went to the 24-hour Burger King and had breakfast.

Fast food chains cannot offer the cheapest food here. It actually costs a bit more to have a meal at a KFC or Subway than it would at a local open-air restaurant. So why do they stay in business? They do have a few very important things to offer that the local joints cannot. Burger King was clean, quiet, and cold. Along with my chicken sandwich, fries, and cola, they gave me peace and air-con and a clean table all to myself, all for the low price of 99 baht ($3). This was my first Southeast Asia fast-food experience, but I can already say it won’t be my last. A little bubble of calm and little taste of home, I never thought a McDonald’s could offer such respite.

Then the bubble popped and once I found myself on the road again, headed rapidly toward the bus station in a cab. On the way I saw a shoe in the middle lane of the interstate, then a helmeted man running toward it, traffic swerving around him, then finally a blue motorbike on it’s side. The chaos was back. At the bus station I was going down an escalator when suddenly I heard a sharp whistle blow behind me. I turned a saw a uniformed man with a whistle in his mouth just as an orchestrated song began playing over the loudspeakers. Everyone stopped moving. All motion ceased. Except for me on my escalator. Four Thais had just reached the bottom and now they stood motionless as I slowly lowered toward them. I guessed (and have now confirmed) that the tune playing was the National Anthem of Thailand and everyone was stopping to show observance. So once I reached the bottom I too stood motionless (and rather awkwardly) inches from the group of four. Before the last note had died, everyone began moving again as quickly as they had stopped.

So off I went, found my bus, and headed on to Nakhon Pathom, where it turned out there wasn’t much to do. Some quick local shopping with the newly cheapened prices of the mainland provided me with shampoo, my first little vat of Tiger Balm (40 baht), and a delightful product called Prickly Heat (12 baht). I checked out a local temple, then walked back to the bus stop to move on, again, to Kanchanaburi. A pedal-bike fellow took me to a guesthouse, and then I wandered around and ordered “matabah” from a street-food vendor. I cannot find anything about this dish anywhere online. It was like a thin lasagna, breaded and fried, and stuffed with, I think, cabbage and pork (among other things).While in Kanchanaburi I also visited Erawan Falls and climbed to the 7th tier, got attacked by monkeys (they totally flanked me), visited the River Kwai Bridge, and drank 10 baht (30 cent) rum and cokes. While at the bridge I had a Thai couple want to take a photo with me, apparently just because I was a white guy with a beard. I’ve seen this happen to people with giant afros, dreadlocks, or costumes, so I guess I just looked unique for Kanchanaburi. I politely obliged and am now smiling foolishly in two photos on a strangers camera, always to be remembered as “the white guy on the bridge that day.”

Next I caught a bus to Ayutthaya (via a connection in Suphanburi) and talked my way into a free room upgrade at a local guest house where I’m only paying 150 baht ($5) per night. I visited a local night market for dinner my first night and had a crunchy catfish salad in green mango with rice for 60 baht. Snake head was on the menu but I was too hungry to risk it, maybe next time though. Then I found an ice cream shop that had 10 baht (30 cent) cones in about 15 different flavors. Low cost desserts will likely be the bane of my health before any foreign infectious disease.

While in the ice cream shop a kid ran out screaming and crying. I realized it was the first truly upset child I had seen in the month that I’ve been here. It turns out something was seriously wrong, he hobbled to the street and puked several times. This is what it took to force him into a crying rage. Back home I might see a kid scream like this because he didn’t get a candy bar he wanted. It made me stop and think about how quickly Thai kids seem to grow up from a responsibility standpoint. The boy who brought me my rice at the night market couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and he was already working late hours with his family.

I spent today bicycling around the city and checking out several temples and ruins leftover from the 1300s. The bike rental cost me 30 baht ($1) for the whole day. I also cycled through some open air markets, where I found I could actually buy live snakes and frogs along with the usual fruits, veggies, and seafood. I’ll probably leave and head further North to Lopburi tomorrow.

Shout outs go to Bobbie Ann of Canada and her drunken friends from Brazil and Colombia who I found wandering Khao San at 5:30 AM. The pedal-bike driver who took me to my next choice guesthouse for free when the first one was full. And Tony, who braved Ayutthaya traffic with me on bicycle to reach the various ruins dotting the city.

Last thing consumed: Cantaloupe and a glass-bottled Pepsi (10 baht + 10 baht = 60 cents)
Thought fragment: I had KFC for lunch today, but I ordered a spicy Thai dish and rice (65 baht / $2). The chicken included was indeed of KFC variety, it was an interesting blend of cultures.

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Southeast Asia Thailand

Fire and Water

Current Location: Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Current  Weather: 90
°F (feels like 99°F)
Days Gone: 27
Days Remaining:189

Every night on Had Rin Beach grew more and more chaotic as the moon approached its critical mass, the vital signifier of the infamous Full Moon Party. It was kind of incredible to watch the build up; my first night I had to entire beach to myself, by Full Moon there were an estimated 20,000 people dancing in the sand. Everything was on fire. Thai guys spinning balls of fire and flaming sticks, occasionally on stilts also set aflame. Should one wish to risk their own skin, one could jump in a flaming jump rope. Or through a flaming hoop. There was also flaming limbo. Fire breathers lit up the night along with black lights and glowing neon paint on everything, including (or, perhaps, mostly) people. Massive speakers thumped along the entire stretch of beach and stall owners hawked their goods, which for the most part consisted of alcohol. Not sold in a glass or a bottle, mind you, but in a bucket. Think of the kind of bucket a child might use to build a sand castle, then fill that bucket with ice, upturn an entire bottle (about a third of a liter) of Sangsom (Thai rum), then fill the rest with one of many available mixers, a choice which includes the Thai version of Red Bull (more concentrated than the Western variety) or any other energy drink. The kicker, buckets only cost 100 to 300 baht ($3-$9) depending on the quality of liquor desired. It’s easy to see where so many people find the courage to participate in activities such as the flaming jump rope. Walking the beach at sunrise was, as one might imagine, both surreal and disgusting. The orange globe revealed everything, and everyone, in their true state. I won’t go into the details, but the things and people left behind after hours of heavy drinking should not be seen in full daylight. I don’t mean to detract from the experience, however, as my seven nights on Koh Pha Ngan were delightful.

I bid farewell to the island and headed for Khao Sok, a national park, dense jungle, and home to creatures great and small. While there, I encountered numerous bugs bigger than my thumb in my bungalow, a gecko on my bed, and multiple blood-sucking leeches. This was the kind of place where having mosquito nets over the beds was standard procedure. On my journey to Khao Sok, I ended up in the back of a pick-up truck modified with benches along the sides and a roof, which came in quite handy as we plummeted through the rainy darkness sporadically lit by flickering lightening. It was on this death ride that my path crossed with two fellows from London, two girls from Holland, and a guy from Boston (another American, rare!). We formed a group and were able to get a 1500 baht day trip into the jungle for just 1000 ($30). This garnered us a trip deep into Khao Sok where we got an hour boat ride across a lake gouged by limestone cliffs and thick foliage. The Jurassic Park theme song played in my head constantly. We also got to explore/climb/swim through a cave with headlamps. The rainy season had just begun, which often brings flash floods which submerge the cave system quickly and without warning. Apparently eight tourists drowned two years before. Our guides just watched the clouds and said “once inside, keep moving, don’t stop.” So that’s what we did, at some points swimming in water which, despite being crystal clear under the headlamps, had no visible bottom. Between climbing ropes up freezing waterfalls and watching out for the hundreds of bats squeaking overhead and occasionally flapping by (not to mention their guano), there wasn’t much time to worry about flash-flood induced deaths. Oh yeah, and the cave was also home to deadly, poisonous spiders.

Following the jungle, our newly formed travel group headed off to yet another island, this time Koh Phi Phi. It is where I am now enjoying some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. An all-day snorkeling trip two days ago (500 baht/$15) brought us not just to some choice snorkeling spots. We also got to kayak from the boat to a beach that was home to dozens of monkeys which climbed about on the kayaks and hopped around dodging the incoming waves. We also had the opportunity to visit the beach where the movie The Beach was filmed. For anyone who has seen the film, it’s a gorgeous and iconic locale. White sands stretch to the perfectly blue waters, held on either far side by great limestone cliffs reaching to the sky.

I have had a stroke of bad luck, however. I acquired some sort of jungle cold in Khao Sok which I carried with me to Phi Phi. Now that I am overcoming that minor illness, I have contracted Conjunctivitus in my left eye. Three of us all got it nearly simultaneously, and now we are all reasonably paranoid about touching anything. A trip to the pharmacy got me a small tube of Fucithalmic which will hopefully cure my eye because I am seriously looking like that guy from District 9 when he is turning into an alien. I plan to hang here for however many days (hopefully less than five) it takes to get back to normal health. Once I’m ready to be on the move again I’ll make the long trek back to Bangkok and start city-hopping my way up to Chiang-Mai.

I’m trying to keep this from growing too long, but I also need to mention the fire show gone wrong in Khao Sok. It was the fire spinner’s first show at a Reggae bar and partway through he let go of one of the swinging fireballs which flew towards our group and, about a foot before making contact with the Bostonian’s face, thunked into and wrapped around the low bamboo railing. We all stared in shock for a moment as the fireball sat blackening the bamboo an arm’s length away from our table. The firespinner grabbed it back and quickly rode off on his motorbike. If not for the feeble bamboo rail and the precise angle at which the ball of doom was released, we would have had a burn victim. There is something to be said here on the subject of safety standards, but there is also something to be said for a good story.

Shout outs go to the Khao Sok originals: Nigel and Steve of London, Tamara and Petula of Holland, and Josh of Boston who saw his life flash before his eyes as the fireball flew toward him. The crazy Thai guy on the snorkel boat, thanks for letting us all use your dry-sack.  The newly married Jo and Duncan, good luck on your future travels. Darren and Emily of England who keep reappearing everywhere. Rihanna, also of Holland. Desmond, definitely do your diving on Koh Tao, not Phi Phi.

Last thing consumed: Chocolate Chip Cookie (purchased to access the cafe’s wifi)
Thought fragment: The fanciest and most expensive dinner I have had thus far was at a Western-ish restaurant called Unni’s. My chicken fajitas cost a whopping 250 baht ($7.50). Halfway through dinner a massive, orange, hard-shelled bug crawled onto my remaining tortillas. This is the only time I have had a bug in my food in nearly a month of Thailand dining. But we did have a chandelier.   

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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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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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