Kickin it in St Mark’s Square!
- 4 nights
- Padi Madi Guest House
Our hotel was the Padi Madi Guest House located on Sukhimvit Road. This is a shopping oriented part of town and a popular spot for tourists to stay. We were located steps from Thong Lo station and enjoyed the convenience of this as well as many jokes about the station names in Bangkok. The managers: Fred from France and his Thai girlfriend Pimmy were gracious hosts and despite many small issues with our room (leaky AC, tiny wet & moldy bathroom, & spotty power), we enjoyed our stay there due to their hospitality and helpfulness. Pimmy’s mum and brother also work there and were also very friendy. Even though her mum asked Tushar a couple of times if he was married in a flirtatious manner, I let it go without thinking twice but later noted this as one of many observations about the duality of interracial relationships with Thai women and how it ties in with the culture there.
There are many ways to get around Bangkok. To beat the intense traffic, choose the skytrain or the river taxis. Using a combination of these will get you close to most in-city destinations. There are also many taxis, Tuk Tuks, and moped taxis, which are best for short distances. The skytrain is efficient and runs until midnight – expect to mingle with all sorts of locals as well as Western business visitors and tourists who we found to be mostly male. The river taxis are a great experience and at only 15 Baht (50c), are economical too. However, on 3 of the 4 trips we took on the the river taxi, Tushar was overcharged by cheating boat conductors so beware of that!
Taxis are the most effective way to get around on wheels without being ripped off – the drivers use the meter so its fool proof. There were many times that drivers turned us down for rides though, likely wanting to avoid traffic hotspots or stick to their particular areas. Tuk Tuks are notorious for aggressive drivers that take advantage of tourists. Their prices should be the same as taxis, but you have to pre-negotiate with them because they do not have meters. They are also notorious for asking you to stop off at their “sponsor” shops, so that they can receive coupons for free gasoline. This is really annoying because when you refuse, they’ll drop you wherever you happen to be, often far from public transportation and main roads.
We were burned by a tout posing as a policeman. He approached us as we were walking to a shopping district and quite convincingly told us of a once every four years government tax-free sale on any and all Thai made goods, held at the World Trade Center. He was even kind enough to hail and negotiate a Tuk Tuk for us at a bargain rate. Well the Trade Center turned out to be a gem and silk showroom, with nothing good or cheap. We quickly realized we too are susceptible to being duped and tried to get back to where we came from to resume our day. This in itself was a huge hassle as we ran into some more shady Tuk Tuk drivers (who dropped us off in the aforementioned fashion) and a tonne of traffIc. Overall, once you stop trusting strangers and put up your guards, you can get on with enjoying the city. Alternatively you can take these experiences as a window into one aspect of visiting Bangkok and shake em off with a laugh. We did both depending on our moods.
Bangkok is undoubtedly a shopping destination. Famous for clothing, handicrafts, textiles, housewares, and especially fake designer stuff, people come here from all over the world to acquire on the cheap. Anyone who knows us knows we love to shop so were expecting to go to town on Bangkok. Overall, I would say our expectations were not met. The knock-offs we saw were not convincing, and the cheap clothes obviously of low quality, or just not our style. We did get some handicrafts and scarves, and Tushar got some simple cotton button-downs at a deal, and that was the bulk of our shopping there. I am sure there is a lot more to the shopping in Bangkok, we just didn’t see it. Big things we missed were the Chatuchak weekend market and the Floating market. The former is something we were sad to miss and probably would have swayed our opinion a little but we were not in Bangkok over a weekend so could not go.
The culinary side of Bangkok is incredible. Street food is everwhere you look, and some of the safest around. There are also many restaurants catering to your any cravings. Late night delivery services will bring you anything you desire and tropical fruits dominate the street stands. Durian, the famously stinky fruit, was in season during our visit, and my dad would have been sad if we didn’t taste it, so we went ahead and tried some. The taste was sweet, the smell wasn’t too bad (not like the rotting flesh smell from the one he put in my fridge during his last visit to Seattle), and the texture noticably firmer. I guess acquiring it fresh is the way to go! Score 🙂 We also tried some infamous street pad thai (yes vegetarians – just ask for tofu and no fish sauce) – it lived up to its reputation and was delicious and cheap.
The absolute highlight of our Bangkok trip was the Mai Kaidee Vegetarian cooking class. All I have to say is SAP SAP (Yum Yum). We cooked and ate 15 courses of food over the course of 4 hours. Mai Kaidee is a true entrepeneur who has built a brand around herself. She owns 3 restaurants, a cooking school, and has published a cookbook. We learned about Thai cooking from the ground up. The key ingredients you need for Thai food are galangal (ginger family), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and thai green chillies. We learned our favorite Thai dishes: Tom Yum Soup, peanut sauce, green curry, pad thai, and papaya salad. At the end of the class, Mai Kaidee first danced for us and then led us through some traditional Thai dancing and we all had a good laugh and entertained some innocent restaurant customers who probably also had a good laugh. Good times!
Bangkok is famous for its palaces and we had no intention of going to them all so settled for a few big hitters. The Grand Palace is a massive compound that houses a series of beautifully decorated buildings, including the famous temple of the Emerald Buddha (unfortunately closed for a service when we went). We enjoyed walking around the grounds, despite the crazy heat, and snapped some good pics of the property. One thing to remember is that you have to cover up when you visit the temples, and tha Grand Palace is the strictest of them all. No shorts and your legs and shoulders must be covered. If you are not dressed to their satisfaction, they have clothes to borrow in exchange for a small deposit. Tushar got some cotton jammies to wear over his shorts and I got a button down shirt over my tank top. I particularly enjoyed the incredible artwork on the walls which is laced with gold leaf.
This temple houses the famous massive reclining Buddha. I was really looking forward to this one because of all the various poses of Buddha, the reclining pose is one Tushar and I can relate to the most. It emphasizes the need for rest and rejuvenation, and exudes serenity and peace. The temple did however have a feeling of being too small for this gigantic representation of Buddha who seemed not to mind his cramped quarters.
Patpong is home to a night market and probably the heart of Bangkok’s sex trade. There is a very seedy feeling in the air as you roam around looking at fake watches and purses, while hearing booming (bad) house music fill the air. Men approached us repeatedly asking us to check out sex shows and gave us very vivid decriptions of what occurs inside these clubs. The streets are lined with scantily clad women (or what seemed to be women), trying to entice you into their club over a neighboring one. The area is one that seems to not sleep so after shopping unsuccessfully for a good knockoff watch, we parked up on some steps with a beer and people watched for a few entertaining hours. This was our last night in Thailand and gave us an opportunity to process a lot of what we had seen over the previous 2 1/2 weeks. We chatted about the sex trade, the attitudes we witnessed of the youth, the stories we had heard from the locals and European immigrants about how Thailand has changed in the last two decades, and our perceptions of public awareness of world issues here in Thailand.
Traditional Thai culture is wonderful. We experienced this from mostly older Thai people and through some of our better restaurant experiences in Thailand. The smiling Thai people are famous for letting go of their aggressions and embracing Sanuk (worry free enjoyment). Buddhism has a massive influence on this and the many temples are a testament to this. Thai hospitality is famous, as well as their massage, and there is much to enjoy on a trip here. We had a great time here and loved the beaches of Thailand and the spicy flavorful food.
The flip side of all this is what we perceived to be the overdevelopment of Thailand, as well as the obvious lure of sex tourism. Land is developed by multinational corporations, and new malls constantly erected. The youth of Thailand seem to hold some contempt for tourists, and there are a lot of people trying to take advantage of foreigners. There are many Western males coupled with Thai women and we noticed that they fall into two categories -relationships that appear to be genuinely loving (hand holding, affection and chatter) and relationships that seem to be transactional or shameful (pretending they dont know each other, old men taking young girls shopping). Thai people appear to frown on these relationships in particular. We think that tourists are often viewed either as dollar signs, or as perverts and there must be some effects that trickle down from these negative images. The things we witnessed had quite lasting effects, and made us feel some sadness for this aspect of Thailand.
Getting there and around:
We took the first-class government bus from Phuket Town to Surat Thani which was about a 6 hour ride. Most of the buses are newer luxury coaches but our bus was most likely older than us, the A/C was broken, and it leaked when it rained. The goverment-run buses are usually a safer bet in terms of sticking to schedules, safety, and your bags are less likely to be compromised, but the comfort on ours was at the bottom end of the scale. You can get to Surat Thani from most major cities in Thailand, but almost all tourists will end up taking the ferry to Thong Sala Port in KPN.
The island itself is of small to medium size with a decent amount of roads connecting most of the island. The Northeast side of the island is the hardest to get to unless you are up for a partially-off road and very steep challenge which takes you across a small mountain pass which we did on our moped. Do not drive around if the rain is more than trickling or you will find yourself stuck in knee deep pools of run-off water with all sorts of fun little critters. This happened to us one night in a torrential downpour which started during dinner. On our way back to the hotel, our moped stalled and everything went pitch black causing us to wade through the tropical juice and backtrack to the restaurant for Plan B. Also make sure you have plenty of gas in your ride, especially if driving around at night, because you never know when you will accidently make a wrong turn and end up in the interior of the island, like us.
Koh Pha Ngan is only accesible by ferry or private boat so from Surat Thani we took a two and a half hour ferry ride east. The island itself is located on the East side of Thailand, close to Ko Samui (tourist hotspot) and Ko Tao (good for diving) islands. Although KPN is known for the Full, Half, and Black Moon Parties, the non party sides (anwhere other than from Haad Rin Beach to Thongsala) of the island are still somewhat harder to reach and less tourists go there. Funny enough, the party reputation keeps the families and resort lovers away, leaving the entire island with a new-age vibe.
We first stayed at Kho Pha Ngan (KPN) Beach Resort located on Ban Tai Beach about 10 minutes from the Thongsala Beach Pier. It is a smaller resort with a beachfront location and rooms with a garden or sea view. Since we were booked for only 4 nights, splashing out on the “best” room they offered, a deluxe beachfront bungalow, sounded like a good idea and treat for us so we wouldn’t have to go far to chill out on the beach. We woke up every morning to a wicked view of the sea just steps away from our front porch. The water itself was not worth swimming around in as the seasonal tides had left most of the beach with murky, stagnant, & shallow water, and you had to go quite far out to find any depth or currents. The water was fine for jumping in for a quick dip, maybe knee deep. Either of the owners of the hotel, British Andy or his Russian wife, were usually present on site. Andy was great for providing information and she was a loud, money-hungry drunk, who always made her presence known. There are signs everywhere on how guests should behave and how we would be fined if we break the rules – an unclassy measure by our standards. Accessibilty to food and Haad Rin (AKA Full Moon Party) Beach was pretty good, and there were few lady boy bars within a 10- 15 minute walking distance from our resort, none that we visited though!
After 4 nights on the more touristy and party-side of the island we decided to spend our remaining 5 nights of our vacation on the chill and more remote side of the island – Haad Salad Beach. We spent a morning driving our moped, scoping out our next potential hotel, on the Northwest side of the island, with our top priority being easy access to good swimming (we were burned by our tease of a beachfront bungalow without a beach to swim in). We dodged sinkholes and huge cracks in the road and traversed up and down very steep hills to find Salad Beach Resort. The resort is located on the beach, with a pool (YAY), very decent restaurant, and beautiful garden situated throughout most of the property. The resort is one of the first here and is run by locals. The manager, Patrick, and his staff bring a family-run atmosphere which made the resort an enjoyable stay for us. Jyoti also was lucky enough to enjoy an afternoon of free Watsu (Water Shiatsu) by acting as a guinea pig for an English instructor. Good stuff!
We arrived there in late April, which is the HOTTEST month. Although we experienced some afternoon showers and a heavy rain one night, the rainy season doesn’t officially start until Mid-May. However, when it rains, it pours. We heard stories of heavy rains lasting a month straight and saw evidence of the aftermath in the form of mudslides, washed out roads, and bungalows swept off their foundations. December and January are the coolest months and also the peak season for tourism.
As vegetarians, food was surprisingly better and easier to find here than on Phuket Island. There is definitely a yoga loving hippy vibe to the island which translates to an understanding of healthy food with many vegetarian options. As you may have guessed, most of these types of establishments are mostly owned by foreigners, predominantly Europeans and with some Aussies and South Africans mixed in. We found several places which we would recommend to others: Fabio’s, Fellini’s, Om Ganesh, Namaste Restaurant and Calcutta Bar, Karma, and Ananda’s. We also recommend casual street dining at the super cheap and yummy Thongsala Street Market. KPN is home to a great variety of foods such as Italian, American, Mediterranean, Indian, as well as fresh fruit juices like watermelon, coconut, mango, popaya, carrot, and more!
The beaches on the southeast and northeast part of the island are the best. Haad Rin Beach is the beach located on the SW tip of the island and is the site of the infamous Full Moon Party. It is overpopulated and lined with hotels and bars, not to mention the whole beach is littered with waste, which saddened us – beautiful beach though.
One of the best beaches, which is also one of the hardest to reach, is Thong Nai Pan Yai. It is located on the NE side of the islan, just south of Thong Nai Pan Noi. The only paved road to here is being built but its still has a ways to go before seeing completion. Most travellers take a boat to get here, and if you are staying at a resort located here, then they will handle the transfer and bring you via boat taxi. This area has an uber chill vibe and it is the place to be to if you want to get away from the partiers. A handful of large resorts are buying up all the land along the east coast so this side will soon too be ridden with resort bungalows and pools. It was like a beachside ghost town when we visited.
Although we didn’t make it there, the locals told us that Bottle Beach is also one of the most beautiful on the island – only way to get there is via a longer hike or a private boat taxi.
Natural Beauty and Wildlife:
The wildlife here is rich and full of life. We could always hear the wildlife buzzing from outside our door and we even had lizards, spiders, and mosquitos in our room most of the time. There are many resident snakes including cobras, which in one restaurant owner’s case had found a home under the steps leading to their property. Elephants were brought to the island some years back and now there is an elephant and cobra shows where a crazed man pokes and prods at cobras in a show of utter stupidity. We never went but saw a video recap on the camera of a Canadian tourist.
Sealife and underwater adventures in Thailand are said to be some of the best in the world. We got a chance to go snorkelling off one of the islands comprising Ang Thong National Park where we were able to see coral and swim with various schools of fish.
KPN is also a great place to obtain a PADI scuba certification quickly and cheap – if you are after the certificate and not so worried about quality of instruction, this is your place.
As mentioned, Ko Pha Ngan is known globally for the Full-Moon Party. Its also one of the less developed islands in Thailand, which still allowed us to appreciate the island life along with the locals. Unless you’re looking for a world famous party, don’t plan on being on KPN and especially Haad Rin Beach during the Full Moon Party which brings the luminescent paint covered party crowd by the droves. We were here in the off-season but we did manage to catch the Black Moon party, which along with the twice monthy half-moon parties, fill the time between the full-moons. It was alright, lots of psy-trance with a sprinkling of techno and not too many people. Mac’s Bay Resort is where you will find the Black Moon Parties unless politics and upcoming elections force the organizers to change the venue . This happens every couple of years and represents the struggle between the money that these often drug-using partiers bring to the island through tourism and Thai political agendas which are heavily anti-drugs. It lasts for about a month before everything returns back to normal. In spite of this, we sense that the Full Moon Parties have probably experienced their peak and now that tourism and money-hungry promoters have taken over, the free love driving force is dying and the seedy underbelly of the operation beginning to be exposed.
Despite this, unlike Phuket or Ko Samui, you will be able to unwind and enjoy nature; it’s one of the less developed Thai Islands. Head for the NW or NE parts of the island where its harder to get to – you will find peace and tranquility here, and very little pollution and noise. Here, you will find local bartenders sleeping in hammocks on the beach, and you’ll hear lounge or island music as you sip on your beverage of choice while lazing in the sun.
Buildings are quite basic in terms of amenities and construction materials used. Many of the restaurants are indoor/outdoor and local timber and bamboo is used for the frame and roof. Many foreigners set up small businesses like restaurant/cafes and souvenir shops, mainly because initial investment can be less expensive than exotic islands in the western world. Resorts range from extremely basic to luxurious despite their titles so do your research. Get used to bugs and reptiles in your room. The septic and sewer systems are a not the best but comparitively speaking, better than other some Asian countries. The heavy rains constantly wash out the especially steep roads so you need to give the road your undivided attention or a sink hole in the middle of the street might swallow you up.
Ang Thong Trip:
On our lat full day, we booked an awesome all day boat trip to see the Angthong Marine Park. There are 42 islands, most of which are uninhabitable. The sealife is abundant and the waves are huge. We took a 3 engine boat full of 30-40 people, toured around the islands, and snorkelled for a bit before making our way to Tale Nai to catch breathtaking views of the other islands. Finally, we made our way to the national park headquarters on Wua Talap Island where we ate lunch and were free to bath in the water, take kayak tours, or go on a hike. The day ended with us heading back to Thongsala pier in heavy rains. Being chased by the monsoon is a theme that continued on into India. Stay tuned!