Sikkim

Trip facts:

  • 7 nights
  • Mintokling guest house, Gangtok
  • Fortuna residency, Lachung
  • Chiminda International hotel, Pelling

General info:

Sikkim is a small State in North India. It is home to half the world’s 3rd highest mountain, the other half of the mountain lies in Nepal. Kanchenjunga, meaning 5 peaks, is a beautiful grouping of mountain tops visible from all over the state. This thumb shaped state is entirely mountainous and is surrounded on 3 sides by  Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It was easy for us to observe how unique this corner of the country is as are the people who live there, with a range of local ethic backgrounds being represented. There is a sense of gradual blending of the genetic features from Indian to Chinese to Nepalese, similar to what we experienced in East Asia. People are in tune with their regional pride and their genetic heritage.

While we were in Sikkim, it was quite rainy – we found that most locals use umbrellas  (sorry Seattle people – no hoodies here!). Upon entering we had to get a State permit – Sikkim is one of the strictest in terms of permitting. If you are not an Indian National, then you need a permit to enter the state, a different permit for North Sikkim, and specialized permits with extremely long lead times if you want to visit the Kanchenjunga National Park for trekking. In the very North of the state, there is a high lake called Lake Gurudongmar at 17,000′ that we wanted to visit, but these parts are reserved for Indian Nationals only. Upon entering the state, we found posters that advertised Sikkim as an eco-friendly destination, with no smoking allowed throughout the state, and we were looking forward to clean mountain air. What we found, and this is true for other parts of India, were polluting Indian-made cars, and police officers smoking in restaurants. Walking along the beautiful mountain roads, it was disappointing to know that these heavily traveled roads are fume-filled during the tourist season and police officers often do not do their jobs properly. The area is highly becoming more visited, mostly by Indian tourists looking to escape the heat of the plains, and this changes the vibe of Sikkim significantly. In any case, the natural beauty of this state is incredible – steep hills, villages with traditional Sikkimese construction (reminiscent of the Chinese style), waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and glaciers, as well as plenty of wildlife (the high pitched nighttime insect chirping is unlike anything we have heard before). We also noticed, as we drove around, that there is a lot of construction going on there in the forms of dams, retention/draining systems for roads, and roadwork. A lot of this is due to the heavy rain – when the monsoons hit, they hit hard!

Gangtok:

We spent a total of 3 nights in Gangtok, which was our launching point for the North and West of the state. The capital of Sikkim, it is good for walking and is noticeably cleaner than the littered streets of Darjeeling. Be prepared to walk up and down steep staircases to avoid the 3 main long hairpin bending roads that comprise most of the town. The central shopping road, MG Marg, is pedestrianized and is quite charming to walk up and down.

Our hotel, Mintokling Guest House, is a family-run establishment that has been around for a while. Tenzing and Pema, the brother and sister that run the place are friendly and the restaurant served up some great food.  It was a good base to explore the town. It was easy to find a rabies shot at one of the few pharmacies which I decided to have administered at the local hospital the morning we left.

One of the places we visited was the ropeway. We were really looking forward to taking the cable car down to bottom part of town and taking in some good views. We arrived at  the ropeway station and waited patiently for a cable car. When it arrived we found the car jam packed full of people – like a Tokyo subway car- we’re talking sardines! It was funny but we were not up for being that close to a lot of BO. We chose to wait for the next, hoping it would be less crowded. Well it wasn’t – so we decided to walk instead. It was funny, we remarked to each other – only in India would there be an attraction to take in the views – but they cram you in so tight – that the only view you get is of heads and maybe a bit of sky if you’re lucky.  Kinda sounds like a water park with not enough water! (That’s actually not a joke – more on that in the next post)

One of the best parts about being in Gangtok, and just Sikkim in general, is walking around town, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. When the mountains decide to expose themselves through the clouds, you will be amazed at their magnificence and size ! We visited some nice places in town including the fresh produce and spice market and a pretty park on top of the hill. The produce and particularly spices were amazing and fresh. We often encountered locals selling fragrant cardamom, cinnamon, white peppercorns, saffron, and many more spices on the streets. The park was great for a sunset stroll up on the ridge of the mountaintop over Gangtok.

Lachung:

One of the places we knew we wanted to visit was Lachung, 30km from the Tibet border, it is a small mountain village that is a perfect pit stop on the way to the beautiful Yumthang Valley. We set up an overnight tour including driver to visit this remote Alpine meadow full of wildlife and very close to the glacial source of the Yumthang river. The 7 hour drive up was very rough and rugged despite our vehicle being the highly coveted Mahindra Scorpio. Our moody driver, a lovelorn Sikkimese, pined for his desired wife and told us some familiar stories about unrequited love between young couples whose families forbid it. He also tried to make extra money off us by telling us he would drive us to Zero Point glacier if we paid for some bribes for policemen as well as an extra 3500Rs for him. We weren’t having it and decided we would get to a glacier on our own at some point during the trip (Finally made it in Iceland but you’ll have to check back for details!)

The Yumthang Valley was incredible – crisp cold air at 12,000ft, glacial river close to its source, lots of animals including horses, yak, cows, and many insects. The weather was somewhat cloudy when we went but as the morning progressed (We got there at 7am), the sun appeared and burned up the fog. This was lovely and revealed the peaks that give the place its name, the Switzerland of India. The famous flowering rhododendrons were reaching the end of their season but added a small pop of various colors. There was a sense of natural enchantment in a very remote and high up place.

Pelling:

Pelling, in West Sikkim, was our next stop. We had to stop overnight in Gangtok on our way there, which served as a good place to pick up my 3rd rabies vaccination which would be unavailable there. Pelling is a hot stop on the tourist trail and that is because of the views. Its prime location in West Sikkim puts you in good proximity to the mighty peaks of Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it we never saw the massive mountains unobstructed on a clear day, but fought the clouds for every stolen glance, each of which took our breath away.

Being there for 3 nights in a gigantic windowless room was disappointing at first but we soon experienced the perk of windowless India travel – no street noise – we took the opportunity to enjoy the cool weather and rest up.We had a love hate relationship with our hotel. They sadly didn’t stock bottled water, which led me on a sneaky mission through their kitchens late at night. I was surprised to find as I was attempting to raid their fridge, that my rabies shot was not there as requested. Oh Joy – it was in the freezer, where the dead rabies spores experienced their last living moments. Well the hotel people tried to shirk their responsibilities, but Tushar, who puts people in their place all over the world now, made sure they replaced it by sending an employee to the next town 2 hours away to fix their mistake and get me the shot I needed to stay alive! Tushar ended up administering that one, and all I have to say is OUCH!!  It didn’t quite make its way into my muscle but slowly seeped in from a big lump in the fatty layer of my upper arm. Yikes it hurt – and I made a note to myself to make it a priority to find a nurse for the next one.

 

 

One of the funnest things we did in Pelling was host a party in our gigantic 2 bedroom family windowless suite. We made friends with Roope, Shruti, and Renee at a local establishment while chilling on the deck and enjoying the sunset. Countries represented: Finland, France, USA, and India! We chatted with many people from all over the world on our travels and this helped enhance the experience of our travels by chatting to people who were also traveling, but in their own unique ways. The sense of crossing paths with world people on their own crazy adventures helped us with our cultural awareness.

Sikkim Pictures

Darjeeling Pictures

Kolkata

Trip Facts:

Kolkata was the capital of British India prior to Independence, home of the East India Company, and also where Mother Theresa did a lot of good work and established herself in the helping  of people that most people in society shunned. What’s there today is the second largest city in India – and a very culturally rich and vibrant city, home to the Bengali language, famous cuisine, and many remnants of British occupation, the most valuable being a venerable educational presence.
Hotel:

We stayed at the Bodhi Tree arthouse/guesthouse. Self labeled “peaceful retreat” in the city, we found the room to be beautifully decorated and the garden a nice place to have breakfast. The constant ringing of the doorbell and noisy staff quickly stole away our peace though. The guesthouse was located in the “posh” part of South Kolkata, the standards of posh being still very different to the West.

Culture:

Sadly, we only allowed for a couple of days here before heading up to Darjeeling, so could not get a deep understanding of what the city was like. Being Gujarati, we had difficulty communicating in this Bengali city which was a quick reminder of how vastly India differs depending on where you go. We definitely saw the remnants of British occupation in the architecture of old buildings, the many surviving Ambassador taxis, the gardens of the city, and of course, the Victoria Memorial.

We enjoyed a side trip to a shopping mall, where Jyoti was happy to pick up an indian outfit for 400 Rs (~$8USD) and had it tailored while we waited for 1oRs ($.20usd!).

Victoria Memorial:

If it weren’t for this building being a reminder of those invasive British people (tsk tsk), then this building would receive much more attention as one of India’s finest. Unfortunately though, it is a monument to Queen Victoria, and therefore does not receive an adequate level of maintenance (particularly the wild gardens). We found the monument to be home to a great small museum dedicated to to the history of British occupation in India. Personally, we had held only negative perceptions of their presence in India prior to this visit, but were surprised to learn of the ways that India benefited from the British. The influence of the educational system is one, but others include the merging of the two cultures. There were, believe it or not, many British people who had a deep respect for the Indian way of life, including peaceful spirituality, respect for living beings, infamous hospitality, historically rooted philosophy and scriptures, and a highly intelligent people. When British intellect met with that of India, what resulted was good literature, media, and artistic output – there were many great people, both British and Indian, who helped bridge the chasm between the cultures and reflect on the best of each. This was particularly true towards the end of British occupation when the uprising of Indian people in asserting their own independence reached phenomenal heights in terms of patriotic Indian rhetoric and an unprecedented solidarity, particularly among Hindus and Muslims. It is one way of looking at how India came out stronger after years of being controlled and looted by the British.
Food:

Kolkata is famous for seafood, rice dishes, and Indian sweets. It is also home to the Kati roll (made popular by drunk, hungry, Indian college students at late night New Jersey food trucks). We survived on standard Indian vegetarian fare (available throughout India) – veg curries, daal, and roti (yum!) and Masala Dosas (super yum!).  From a vegetarian perspective, Bengali food was not very accomodating, so we stuck with the popular dishes.

Final thoughts:

While we enjoyed the city, we did not find the Bengali people as welcoming as Gujaratis, and struggled a little to connect with them in the short time we had. We had an extremely difficult time at the Post Office, and were quickly reminded that despite India’s many charms, the lacking infrastructure and corruption is annoying. We were glad to escape North to the beautiful West Bengal hill station of Darjeeling – stay tuned!

Bangkok Pictures

Bangkok

Trip Facts:

 Hotel:

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.

Getting around:

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.

Shopping:

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.

Food:

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.

Cooking Class:

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!

Grand Palace:

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.

Wat Pho:

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:

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.

Culture:

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.

Ko Pha Ngan

Trip Facts:

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.

Location:

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.

Hotels:

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!

Weather:

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.

Food:

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!

Best Beaches:

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. 

The interior is like Jurassic Park – pitch black at night and always buzzing with loud insects and creatures… almost sounds like a freight-train is passing through.

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.

Party Reputation:

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.

Infrastructure:

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!

Phuket

Trip Facts:

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand. Situated on the West Andaman Coast, it is one of the most naturally beautiful places the country has to offer. What we found was a spectacular island with some beautiful coastline including white sand beaches, rocky outcroppings and outlying islands, and a mountainous interior. Sadly, we also found a place that continues to be overdeveloped, overrun, and polluted with vehicles and trash. We still loved it for the remnants of famous Thai hospitality and appreciated the natural wonder that remains there. Our 5 nights there started out with a recovery from a tummy bug that unfortunately made it hard for us to eat whatever we wanted (except coconuts!) and kept Tushar in bed for 24 hours with a high fever, but the R&R of beach time helped and we felt well enough to make a great comeback to full health and spicy Thai food.

Our hotel was the cheapest one so far – and fit the bill well. At 700 Baht(about $20) per night, it was a steal. We had a balcony, large fridge, and rooftop pool. It was about a 15 minute walk to the beach, which I only did one time before we got wheels.

Mopeds:

Mopeds are overywhere in Thailand – they are a cheap and quick way to get around. At only 200 Baht (about $6) per day to rent, it beats out trying to get taxis and is WAY more fun too. Just beware, after a couple weeks of it, your butt will hurt – if its not well padded! You are also more exposed to the wrath of Mother Nature (she’s pretty mad in Thailand sometimes) – more to come on this in our Koh Phangan post. If you visit, be sure to make note of or photograph any scratches prior to renting. As with most Asian countries, you need to constantly be aware of locals trying to make an extra buck off you. This is especially true in Phuket, where it seems the youth in particular, seem to resent tourists for taking advantage of the cheap travel and sadly (you see it quite often), the local women (more on this in the Bangkok post).

Kata Beach:

Kata beach is where our hotel was located. It is a medium sized beach town and the southernmost of three consecutive bays on the west coast of Phuket. It is more chill than nearby Patong, but large enough to offer a good range of shopping and dining options. The beach scene wasn’t crowded at all – but you could tell it does get busy in the high season (Dec-Jan) by all the beach loungers. We were there at the beginning of the low season – also known as the hot season – and the rainy season was right around the corner. We visited this beach and while swimming around, were bowled over by some large waves. I was quite surprised at this and then Tushar suggested we try to do some boogie boarding. I had never done it before but thought it was a fantastic idea so 15 minutes later we were paddling into the waves trying to wait for the big perfect wave to ride in. Well I guess I had some beginner’s luck and my patience paid off. I saw a large peak approaching – much larger than any of the others. I followed Tushars instructions to quickly turn around and paddle towards shore, building up enough speed to ride the wave in. All I have to say is WOW what a rush!! I must have done it all right that one time and the wave carried me in so fast. Seconds later, I was washed up on the sand with a massive smile on my face. It was incredible and I chased that rush for the rest of the afternoon but didn’t have the same luck or skill again. It made my day though! If waves are your thing, then the West Coast of Thailand is where you should head for in the region.

Kata is also home to a famous viewpoint – the scene graces many a postcard and you can see the three bays I mentioned earlier. We were there for the sunset and joined many other couples and youngsters there to do the same. It was a beautiful view – probably one of the best in the area.

There is also a large Buddha statue at the top of a hill in Kata that you can see from most of South Phuket – we didn’t make it there but could see the back of it from our balcony. We also saw it many times on the day we drove the moped in a large circle around the South side of the island.

Patong Beach:

Patong Beach is Phuket’s largest beach town and is filled to the brim with tourists, touts, and bars. Its one of those places that you either love or hate, depending on your style of vacationing. The beach is full of rows of loungers and jetskis, the beachfront road is jammed with Tuk Tuk drivers and aggressive sales people.Tuk Tuks are basically pickup trucks that have two opposing rows of seating in the bed that you access from the aft. They are a taxi alternative (similar to rickshaws in India) and the drivers constantly bug you into overpaying for a ride. North of Patong is home to some of the most scenic and least busy beaches on the island so we stopped by Patong for lunch on our way back from a gorgeous beach, Neam Singh. As usual, we were on the hunt for a relatively clean, veggie-friendly joint, but this proved difficult, so as much as we try to avoid the chains, we decided to settle for a Hard Rock Cafe lunch, popping both our Hard Rock cherries to satisfy our rumbling bellies! Once done, we were glad to leave Patong, only considering to return to check out their infamous nightlife, but failing to follow through because we were just not feeling it there.

Neam Singh Beach:

Neam Singh Beach is a tiny cove that you have to hike down a steep hill to get to. I found it after doing some googling for best beaches on the island. When we went, there were about 20 people there – mostly locals. We chatted to some kids that work at the lone restaurant on the beach and enjoyed some relaxing afternoon swimming. There was a local man charging for streetside parking before the hike down (we think he was a hustler) so we backtracked to a clearing and parked for free under a tree next to some local bikes. One of the things about traveling for 3 months is you learn real quick when people are trying to get money from you that you don’t owe them. Our guard is always up and rightfully so – especially in Asian countries where touts and scam artists are relentless. On the few occasions when we get good vibes from local people or sellers that don’t quote us inflated prices, we will gladly give them our business and not haggle hard – these are the people that we want to support. We’ll chat more about this in our Bangkok post.

Phuket Town & Cape Promthep:

One day we decided to drive to Phuket Town to scope out the scene and check out the bus station where we would be catching a ride to Koh Phangan from. On the whole, the town is polluted and probably good for shopping and catching a couple of small local attractions but it is mostly used as a transition point for tourists heading to other places or for local business people to acquire goods and resources. We didn’t stay for long but left after lunch to take a long leisurely drive back to Kata along the Southwest coast of Phuket. Cape Promthep is a rocky cape that extends off the corner of the island and offers spectacular views of Phuket and its outlying islands. The hike down to the cape is about an hour each way if you take your time and is well worth the effort. We enjoyed every second of it and snapped some great pictures in between watching crabs and waves breaking against the rocks. We unfortunately didn’t have water with us and were parched by the time we returned to the top. Each of us killed 2 coconuts – it was incredible and probably the most enjoyable coconut treat of many in our time in Thailand.

Mom Tri’s Kitchen Royale:

This restaurant is attached to the Villa Royale hotel. It has a prime beachfront location on Kata Noi beach (Yai means big, Noi means small) which is the smaller and nicer of two beaches in Kata. I read about this restaurant on Tripadvisor and without exaggaration, it was our best dining experience EVER!! The combination of food, ambiance, service, and views was incredible and blew us away. This place will always hold a special place in our heart because it was magical. We went there for lunch on our last day and were so blown away that we returned the same night for dinner. We spent time enjoying the property, snapping pictures and walking around. The prices are higher than most restaurants on the island, but still a steal if you look at what you are getting. It worked out to about $20 each for lunch and $25 for dinner. If you are on a super tight budget, you can go for happy hour 5-7pm daily just to check the place out and enjoy half price drinks. It would make a fantastic place for a celebration with some family and friends and we highly recommend visiting if you are ever in Phuket.

Kuala Lumpur

Trip Facts:

Hotel

While the room was clean, air-conditioned, and chock full of amentities, we could very easily hear our neighbors. First, there was the man who coughed all night and day(poor guy), and then there was the French family who slept through their morning alarm for so long that I had to politely ask them to wake up and turn it off through the paper thin wall (they heard me!).  Because the hotel is located in the city, there was a minor ant infestation in our room, so there was a heavy odor of pest control, and it only got worse after we asked for more pest control. We were centrally located amogst the locals and near public transport. The hotel was located in Masjid Jamek, a predominately Islamic area with many mosques. Daily, we heard the beautiful sounds of the call to prayer as we walked around the shops or to the monorail station. The area was very fashion oriented with the latest in Islamic womens fashions,  very modest clothing shops.

Transportation

Overall, we were impressed by the Malaysian transportation system and by the level of public infrastructure in place, although navigating aroung can be hectic at times. It is quite easy to get around KL. We travelled from Singapore to KL via train and it was a fairly smooth ride the whole way, even though our travel car had broken doors on both ends so air conditioning was not as effective in the heat and there were bugs entering the cabin as we travelled through the jungles and palm plantations (these are EVERYWHERE). It was still a very pleasant experience travelling with the locals and through the various  villages so we would recommend travelling on the trains. As we enterred the city we disembarked at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station which was a medium size station, and it appeared to be clean, and well laid out for the foreign traveller.

Our next mode of transport was taxi to our hotel. The good thing about getting a taxi from the railway station is that you prepay your taxi “ticket” at a counter inside the station, where the fares are standardized to protect the foreign traveller. We then waited in another line to get your taxi. The ride itself was great, fast drivers, but they still needed help getting us to our exact destination.

In the city, we generally used the monorail which was usually a short walk from wherever we were and we think its the best way to get around.  There are many hidden stairwells and escalators in all different directions, and poor signage, especially in English.  Depending on what time we rode it, the monorail was usually busy with lots of people. At night and especially on the weekend there were rowdy local teenagers (fun to see and generally harmless), and the rest of the time, it was still an entertaining ride.

Traveling by taxi can be quite hectic and it is common to be ripped off, especially at night with drivers choosing not to use their meters and instead charging you double flat rates.

Traffic in KL was a nightmare. It was an organized system of chaos with little regard for traffic laws. On our first night in KL we hailed a taxi and got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for15 minutes, so we got out and took the monorail instead.

People

The vibe we received from the Malaysian people is that they have a lot to learn service-wise in order to compete with their Western and SE Asian counterparts to help gain tourism dollars. We experienced many locals trying to rip us off at almost every opportunity. Watch out for the tour bus operators who will make surprise stops at handicraft shops. As vegetarians, we were surpised at how difficult it was to find food without meat. We found many locals who said “Yes” to everything even if they didn’t understand so we learned to scope out the restaurant before eating.

Food

We tried hard to stay away from the big hotels and restaurants geared towards foreigners and eat locally instead. We wanted to eat and taste the same foods as the locals, but to our surprise, quality vegetarian Malay food was actually difficult to find. English was not common at the establishments where the locals hang out, so asking for and describing vegetarian food was quite difficult for us. Even ordering a vegetarian pizza and veggie wrap was difficult at a Pizza Hut (it was a last resort!). Malay food in general is a fusion between Indian and Southeast Asian dishes. You have curries and dals, as well as fish dishes, and noodles.

The culinary highlight of the trip was a restaurant called Annalaxmi which we visited on our last night in KL. It was recommended to us by Rajeshbhai, Jyoti’s cousin (Thank you!). It is affiliated with a temple, therefore both men and women must be fully covered. Since I (Tushar) was wearing shorts, they required me to wear a Dohti prior to being allowed to dine. Picture shown for your viewing pleasure 🙂

You eat what you want and pay as you wish, a very shrewd business model as most patrons over pay, including us! We thought it was a fantastic concept and we stuffed ourselves with everything in their buffet in addition to ordering 3 masala dosas. They also served the best rice in the world and it had noodles in it.  We both at a lot  – I ate the most I have ever ate in my whole life, ever! We were both in pain as we walked back to our hotel room. It was a good pain though.

Nightlife

Nightlife in KL can be very fun and full of energy but expect to pay the same as a night out in the U.S. or Europe for dinner and drinks at most nightclubs and restaurants. We visited the Traders hotel for drinks one evening, which is also the best place for a nightime views of the Petronas Towers. We paid 100 Ringit for two drinks, which is about $19 per drink, but you pay for the views, which were amazing.

Batu Caves

The Batu Caves were a beautiful sight to see. Situated about 30 minutes out of the city, the Batu Caves were formed a long time ago in the limestone hills. As we approached the site,we started to see the 270+ steep steps leading up to the cave entrance then we noticed the gigantic statue of Murugan, the Hindu god, which is massive! At the top of the steps is a Hindu temple inside of the main cave. We entered the caves and were instantly drenched in sweat with the rainforest-like humidity. The ceiling of the main cave is sunken in and there are rays of light which light up the inside of the cave. Looking up and out of the caves is a beautiful sight, a habitat of its own, which trees, monkeys, birds, and all sorts of insect creatures. Just about 25 steps down from the main Batu Caves is an entrance to the dark caves. You walk back up a different set of stairs and enter an area where you can see the entrance to the cave, but are restricted from entering furthur unless you do a paid tour of the dark caves. This is where you can go into complete darkness, at a cost. The caves are a few hundred feet tall and the perspective is quite impressive.

Part of our tour was a tour of the world’s largest pewter factory, based in KL. We walked through the factory floor and got to see the molten pewter before it was cast into a variety of items. Apparently, pewter mugs are the best for the drinking liquids from as the metal can regulate the temperature for up to an hour. We also took pictures with the world’s largest pewter beer mug.

Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers are hard to miss seeing from anwhere in the city. Once the tallest towers in the world, their exterior consists of lots of glass and steel. The base of the Petronas contains a massive shopping mall with only the worlds finest(and most expensive) store brands, like Givenchy, Bulgari, and Harrods. To get a tour of the Towers and the walk across the sky-bridge connecting the two, it will take many hours of waiting in lines in the morning where they give you an assigned time, later in the day. This is just to be ushered across the sky bridge in 10 minutes so we decided to skip this given our limited time.

Elephant Sanctuary

The elephant santuary was one of the highlights of Malaysia. We spent a couple of hours going into the interior of the island, over a mountain pass, and through local villages before we arrived. We watched a short video on how the Malaysian Elephant Relocation Team moves and sometimes rescues elephants who threaten local Palm farmers due to their dimishing habitat. Elephants use the same migration paths forever so whenever another farm or palm oil plantation goes up, more destruction soon follows, as elephants will always follow the same migration path, even if there are farms in the way. Their need to stay in their herds makes it even harder for them.

Afterwards, we fed peanuts to the elephants. It was a wonderful experience. We saw some elephant tricks before we got to ride them which was very cool – and wobbly! It was an extremely hot day, apparently 120 degrees when a member of our tour group checked. We were lucky to be able to end our visit by jumping in the river, cooling off, and bathing with the elephants. We got to touch them and rub their skin(which is very rough). Jyoti freaked out a bit as one of the baby elephants wrapped his trunk around her legs. It was a refreshing end to a really fun day interacting with these incredible creatures.