Monday, November 30, 2009

Bangkok – City, Embassies, and plenty of ground to cover

Nov 18-24 (by Swiss)

“Is there such a thing as too much island life?” The answer, in my humble opinion, is “Yes, and I think we've managed to reach our limit.” Ergo, Bangkok would be a welcome change from our tour of the islands in the south, and we were hoping to start removing ourselves a bit from the tourism centered beaches. This isn't to say that Bangkok doesn't cater plenty to tourists (Khao San Road is a prime example), but we were hoping for a more diverse and "large city" vibe – and that is what we got.

No sleep, no problem
We arrived in Bangkok from Phuket at 5:30 AM Tuesday morning, after a 12 hour semi-cramped bus ride. Neither of us got a whole lot of sleep given the sleeping arrangements on the bus (a narrow seat and blanket), but we were happy to have arrived in Bangkok safe, sound, and reasonably quick. A 45 minute rush hour cab ride (way overpriced @400 baht in hind sight, but we didn't care and had four people to split the cost) got us to the Banglamphu neighborhood, home of Khao San road and cheap guest house accommodations. Weary of the usual tourist traps, we headed north (away from Khao San), over a canal and left down Soi 1. Since all of us (Lawton, Team England, and myself) were weighed down by our backpacks, the goal was to find a reasonable room for 1 night so we could get the lay of the land and price some alternatives as needed. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon Bangkok guesthouse, which offered fairly clean double rooms with private bathroom and shower (cold only) in a charming teak house for 350 baht (just over USD 10) per room. While we explored some alternatives later in the day, we quickly came to appreciate our digs (and the nice family running it) and thus decided to spend the remainder of the stay at this location.

Our guest house in Bangkok, back down many alleys

With the room squared away, bags unloaded, and after a quick rinse in the shower it was time for the time honored tradition of finding some grub and perhaps score a map of the area. Both of these objectives were achieved on Khao San road, where food was had at a cute little breakfast place and maps were supplied by a number of hotels and travel agencies (I think we ended up with something like 5 different maps, each of which with their own advantages and disadvantages – apologies to the trees that had to take a bullet/axe for that one.)

Although we were tired, we also felt some motivation to be semi-productive – I guess it's the advantage of being on the move from 5:30 am. Sally wanted to check out the National Art gallery, so we headed there, only to find out that it was closed Mon and Tue, and instead found an overly helpful “local” who explained to us a variety of activities that can be done around the area. He then went into the license plate colors of Tuk Tuks, saying that the ones with white plates are private and thus generally cheaper than the ones with yellow plates. A white plated tuk tuk then conveniently pulled up and offered us a ride to a ferry terminal for tickets to the floating market for 10 baht. Lawton, ever the distrusting person, wouldn't have it and called a timeout to discuss the proposition. I had totally taken the bait, as did Sally, I think. Caroline, as usual, was off shopping somewhere. After Jason's reasoning, it seemed like a bad idea to take the guy up on the proposition; it just smelled a tad fishy. That turned out to be a wise decision, as we later found out it was a popular scam in the area. Oh, and the floating market apparently isn't even open on weekdays, a fact stated in at least 2-3 of our maps. Welcome to Bangkok.

We then decided to take a stroll to China town, which on our map was about 1-2 centimeters away. The problem was, we didn't really get the scaling thing down right, so what was supposed to be 20-30 minute stroll turned out to be a 45-60 minute trek in the heat of the day and got us about half way into Chinatown. This, coupled with lack of sleep, turned the group into a grumpy pile of, um, grumps, and a decision was made to forfeit spending any more time in Chinatown and instead head for the tried and true tradition of the air conditioned shopping mall. An 80 baht metered taxi ride got us there, where we cooled down and had some food. The remainder of the afternoon was spent around that part of town, which was very much developed but had a charm of its own, including an impromptu fashion show.

Fashion show in a mall in Bangkok

While the taxi ride to the mall was cheap, especially split between 4 people, we felt adventurous enough to try to take the bus back to our guesthouse. A few questions about bus stations, a 15 or so minute wait, and 7 baht a person got us within a 5 minute walk of our home.

The night was spent going out on Khao San road, because it was right there and we wanted to experience it. Besides the overpriced food and drinks coupled with a heavy tourist atmosphere, it was a lot of fun and had very good energy. Jason even got to try his first "Beerlao", pictured below. I retired a tad before Lawton, who headed back sometime around 1am, I think. The girls stayed out much later and paid for it proportionally the next day.

My first BeerLao, at a bar on Khao San Rd

Wednesday – aka Visa day
The word on the street (i.e., Lawton) is that you can't get a Vietnam visa at the border, so mission #1 for BKK was to apply for our Vietnam visa. Online research revealed a price somewhere around 1000 baht and wait of 3-4 working days. After our experience at the Chinese consulate in SF a few months ago, we were determined to get to the embassy early so as to minimize the potential impact of long lines. The embassy opened at 8:30, we hoped to get there by 9-9:30, but ended up getting there at around 10 due to bus related delays and a healthy hike after getting off said bus (#47.) The application process was actually pretty quick and uneventful, other than the unexpected cost of 1850 baht for a non-expedited visa and my misunderstanding of the price for an expedited version (2000 baht), which caused us to be kicked to the back of the line after we agreed to the expedite fee and then opted out after learning it was actually 2500 baht to save 3 days we were likely to spend in BKK anyways.

We left the embassy without passports and a paper visa receipt shortly after 11am, and sought food right away. A nice little bakery with free wifi satisfied that need, and by afternoon we were heading for Lumphini park for a little R&R.

Lumphini Park in Bangkok

Relaxing and reading in the park

Some monument at the SE corner of Lumphini Park

During our visit of the park, we noticed these odd looking water-wheel-like devices floating in the ponds. Our first guess was that these things were some kind of aeration devices. Sure enough, after stumbling upon a golden statue of such a device, we learned that the King of Thailand invented and patented this device, called a Chai Pattana aerator.  Given the love the Thai's have for their King, these things were used everywhere in the park. I'd have opted for a sparger and air blower or a plain ol' fountain, but I guess I don't count – oh, and I lack that “King” title.

The King's Royal Water Aeration System (he invented it and has the patent for it!)

The afternoon was capped off by our routine sampling of local Mickey D's, where Jason had a taste of the pork samurai burger and I took on the challenge of gobbling down a double Big Mac.

So we tried McDonald's in Thailand, Swiss got a DOUBLE Big Mac!!

It was in the evening when we managed to meet up with Sally and Caroline (after a free bus ride back – I guess the money collector was on break), who had been sleeping all day. Even with a full days' worth of sleep, Caroline was still suffering from the prior night's actions, so she didn't join Sally and us for dinner at a place just down the road from Khao San road. Thanks to Sally's iPod touch, we noted that the place had free wifi and cheap beer, and the food wasn't half bad either; we were bound to return at some point. It's amazing how finding good places for free wifi has become somewhat of an obsession among us...maybe it's time for some wifi annonymous (WA?) meetings.

After dinner we returned to the guesthouse, where Lawton and Sally retired. I spent the evening talking to Sandra, an Austrian girl we had met earlier. We were later joined by Nicole and Michael, two Swiss people from Kanton St. Gallen. Most of the night was spent with me alternating between speaking German and Swiss German, realizing that rusty doesn't even get close to describing my current German language skills. Must practice more. Bedtime came sometime after 1 am.

Wifi and Blog day (and Thanksgiving?)

Depending on your definition of productive, Thursday would be a productive day. That is, we spent time catching up on emails and writing blog updates, after getting a good night's sleep. If your idea of productivity involves getting up early for sight seeing, the day was a giant fail, and you might as well skip to the next section.

The day started with the intent of celebrating Thanksgiving, which would have been all well and good had it been the fourth rather than the third Thursday of November.  A couple of amusing replys on Jason's "Happy Thanksgiving" facebook status along the lines of "Um, that's not until next week" taught Jason (and me, I guess) a valuable lesson regarding the proper date to celebrate turkey day.  I'm Swiss, so I think I get a pass, but Jason? - Uncle Sam is shaking his head and quitely shedding a tear.  The quest for Turkey was thus quickly abandoned and postponed for the following week.

On our first night out, we got a flyer for a place that offered organic vegetarian and vegan food, which I really don't care much about, as well as free wifi and AC power outlets; which, as you know by now, we both care very much about. So with team England off to the Vietnam Embassy to re-enact our storyline from the previous day, we were on a mission to find the “Ethos” cafe after eating some street food (Pad Thai - Jason, fried rice - me, coconut fritters - me) for breakfast. Besides the usual tea and coffee, the place offered sticky rice and mango, which Jason promptly ordered and was beyond excellent. We spent a good two hours there, even though the internet kicked the bucket about 45 minutes in and the service was so-so at best. I was writing my previous blog entry (while Jason befriended a nice British couple who had some recos for Chiang Mai, our next destination.)

As I was wrapping up blog writing and Jason was wrapping up that social stuff, we both decided that internet would be nice to have at this point. So off we went to the place we had dinner the prior night for a drink and free wifi. I told you we'd be back.

Our paths would diverge for dinner, with Jason and Sally heading to a bakery while I had a craving for more street food (Pad Thai) and Archa beer. The whole dinner, including 640 ml of beer, cost me a little over 70 baht (USD 2.10), satisfying both my stomach and wallet. Night time rolled around with me reading and Jason finishing up his blog post for Phuket.

Sightseeing day
Friday marked the day for a different form of productivity: sightseeing. We wanted to ensure we had plenty of fuel (i.e., carbs), so we visited the bakery that Jason and Sally had frequented the prior night for fresh baguettes filled with ham, cheese, and other delicious (western) ingredients. Fueled-up, we started our stroll towards item 1 for the day, which was Wat Pho. On the way, an overly helpful thai guy on the street promptly informed us that the wat, of course, was “closed” – I'm sure he was ready to bring us somewhere that was “open.” Not falling for that whole spiel again, we moved on along the line of tour buses and after a 50 baht entry fee, got to see the temple including a huge reclining Buddha. Pictures from the stroll and subsequent temple visit below.

Random monuments in Bangkok

The Thai National Defence Center


Buddha and me

More around Wat Pho

More inside Wat Pho

More Buddha at Wat Pho

Templed out, we then proceeded to visit the national museum. Admission was 200 baht, which granted you access to around 30 or so different rooms covering anything from Thai history to funeral carriages. It was nice, I learned a bunch about several wars and that the King of Thailand actually studied in Switzerland, but the exhibits tended to become somewhat repetitive after a while.

This was especially true of the art section, which was very Buddha-centric and would have been fine had we not already been Buddha'd out from Wat Pho. But it was a nice way to spend the afternoon while escaping the heat outside. No pictures allowed, so documentation is scarce. I did take a picture of the ticket, which you may notice uses the Thai solar calendar to denote the current year (2552.)

No photos inside the national museum, so a picture of our ticket instead

The last item for the day was to be the national art gallery, which we had planned on visiting the first day when we got our first dose of Bangkok scams due to its closure that day. We arrived at around 3pm, and decided the 200 baht admission was not cost effective move given the closing time of 4pm. So that activity was scratched, and we instead headed to Cafe Lampu, a place down the road from our guesthouse that offered free wifi and a super chill atmosphere. Blog posts were uploaded, email was checked, and tired legs were rested.

I headed back shortly after my blog was loaded, Jason decided to stick around a while. I again had a craving for Pad Thai (notice a theme here?), so I swung by a street vendor for 20 baht pad thai and then headed back to the room.  Official dinner was had at an Indian place near Khao San road, where the food was ok, although my Dal Mahkni was oversalted.

TGIS and a very large Market
We awoke early (~8 am) on Saturday, where we had big plans to get train tickets squared away and then visit the Chatuchak market. For train tickets, we chose to ride a cab to the train station and promptly booked our 2nd class sleeper tickets on the Tuesday 19:35 A/C train from BKK to Chiang Mai. Being government run, the folks at the station were very helpful without being pushy and offered tips and advice as we were trying to make up our mind on the best option for travel. Around 800 baht was on the high side of the price spectrum, but you get a bed of sorts to sleep in during the 12 hour journey and traffic should not be an issue. We'll let you know how the train ride itself works out :)

Next up was a ride to the market on the subway, which is literally at its infancy. There is currently only one line (excluding the 4 semi-related skytrain lines), although it looks like they are working on expanding the subway portion over the next couple of years. As for the subway itself, it was very nice, modern, air conditioned, and efficient. We emerged from the subway stop near the Chatuchak market 30 minutes later.

So here's the gig with Chatuchat market: It's huge. It's the largest market in Thailand, and may even be the largest market in SE asia. Shoppers can get anything from clothes to furniture to live animals. We spent around 2.5 hours covering a good chunk of the market, although I didn't really buy anything (after all, that would involve spending money.) After eating lunch at a Japanese/Korean place that offered an interesting dining environment given their fans continuously blasting water mist (for cooling) in our general direction, Jason decided to head back to section 25 to purchase a “sweat rag”, somewhat of a necessity if you've ever spent extended periods of time outdoors in this part of the world.

While Caroline went on her usual shopping spree, Sally demonstrated her tough as nails negotiating skills by talking vendor down to 500 baht for a purse she “fancied” from an original asking price of 2000 baht. The highlight of the market was the live animals section (especially the cute puppies), although the distinct lack of any adult dogs did make you wonder what happens to the pups after they pass their cute puppy stage in life....

As always in Bangkok...

The endless stalls of Chatuchak Market

You can find literally everything at this place!

For dinner, we decided that we wanted to check out a little place just down the road from us that we had walked-by the previous day. Joe, who seemed to be running (literally) the place, quickly invited us in and served us with beer and peanuts. As he was frantically moving from table to table, he threw us a pad and paper and told us to write down our order. Below is a pic of Caroline playing waitress:

They like to just give you a notepad to order off of

Unfortunately, the place was packed which resulted in quite a wait for our food to come out. Only later did we learn that the restaurant was actually listed in the Lonely planet yellow bible, explaining all the whities hanging around everywhere. The food was very good, but not good enough to justify the 1 hour wait for din din.

The last activity for the day would be to explore the Patpong neighborhood, namely for a performance that Bangkok is, um, somewhat famous for. For the sake of keeping this PG, I'll leave it to the reader's imagination as to what I mean by that; I'll just say it's their take on a sport usually played with a small white ball and wooden paddles. 

The night concluded with Jason and I getting in a verbal fight, so I left sometime around midnight hopping on a Tuk Tuk and running into team Austria back at the guesthouse, while Jason and the girls stayed out around the Patpong area. It would be the next day when we learned that Caroline managed to lose her camera (this would the 3rd camera that fell victim to Caroline-zilla) at a bar where the bartender later professed his love via txt message – a txt she was somewhat forced to return with a question along the lines of “Do you happen to have my camera?”

Good news is that she recovered it two days later, although Mr. Bartender did insist on joining the girls (well, Caroline specifically) for a Thai boxing match after personally delivering her the camera in our part of the city.

Sunday bloody Sunday
Ok, I admit it, Sunday was a waste of a day for me. I was hungover and did not feel well. My achievement for most of the day was walking 200 ft down the road to score a breakfast pad thai and coffee for 32 baht, and a quick email check later in the day.

Jason had a more productive day, although some (including myself) would argue watching the new “Twilight” movie is somewhat equivalent to sleeping the day away. The only other honorable mention was me randomly running into my Malaysian diving buddy, Katerina, who I had last seen well over a month ago on Tioman Island. Small world, I guess.

I had dinner at a cool street vendor place down the street from Joe's spot, which offered delicious food at a fast pace and very cheap price (seafood and rice for 50 baht – under USD 2.) Lawton and Co stuck with popcorn at the movie for dinner.

Final day in BKK
Given our departure on the night train Tuesday, Monday would officially mark our last full day in Bangkok. That day was kicked off by visiting the Vietnamese embassy to pick up our passports, which we managed to do just in time before it closed for the morning at 11:30 am. Unfortunately we also learned that they only offered a 1 month visa, which means we'll have to file an extension in Vietnam. Thus far, the Vietnamese embassy/visa process has been the most unfriendly compared to other SE asia nations, although Indonesia is up there, too. We were happy to at least have the visa squared away, though.

Next up was a stop at 7-Eleven for Jason to break a 1000 baht bill (not that easy, and ATMs spit those things out left and right), while I performed my traditional Monday morning NFL score check. How about them Saints?

With another visa filling an entire page on our US passports, we figured it might be worth swinging by the US embassy to get some more pages added. Since the embassy was closed over lunch, we had lunch at a little street restaurant, where we again got to write down our order on paper and the English language came at a premium. My dish was pretty good, Lawton ended up with noodles in a bland puddle of gravy that was so-so at best. Can't win them all.

The visit to the US embassy, after it re-opened at 1pm, re-introduced us to writing dates in the mm-dd-yyyy format (as opposed to dd-mm-yyyy), and also provided plenty of entertainment watching old fat guys with young Thai women registering for marriage and/or birth certificates. Comes across kinda sad, really, but who are we to judge? Adding new pages was completely free and took us about an hour door to door.

We then hopped on the #47 bus, a reliable choice in the past, only to get dropped off on some street in BKK without a map or sense as to where we were. Jason located a sign for the “Golden Mountain”, which coupled with the way the sun was setting (west, right?) gave us a general idea where we had to head. 5 minutes later we ran into a Policeman who possessed better English language skills than any other Thai person we had met thus far, and happily directed us back to our digs. Why the bus decided to stop there as opposed to the place it usually stops remains a mystery to this day.

The remainder of the afternoon was uneventful, although we once again managed to randomly run into Katerina, dinner was had on the street (excellent curry and Tom Yam soup) after a roti place we wanted to check out was closed. As mentioned briefly above, the girls had attended Thai boxing after recovering Caroline's camera. Plans to meet up later fell through.

See you next Tuesday
So down to the last day in BKK. Lawton and I split up for breakfast, me heading to my favorite Pad Thai/coffee place down the street (which happened to be near an unsecured wifi network), while Jason went to cafe Lumpu for rice soup. We managed to re-unite late in the morning, checked out of Bangkok guesthouse, and were off to find a book exchange so I could exchange two of my books. None of the places were to my liking, so it resulted in the proverbial fail.

Speaking of fail, we then decided to check out Chitlada park, which the machine gun toting guard at the “park” politely informed us was actually the royal palace (where the King and Queen reside) and somewhat off limits to mortals like us. Again, if only I had that “King” title. A consult with map #2 revealed that it indeed was the palace and not a park as denoted on map #1. So we re-adjusted our route to find the “Golden Mountain”, once again without success, and called it a day instead. Plenty of exercise, though - Bangkok is massive.

We walked all the way to this park, only to find that it's the King's Palace, and we weren't invited in :(

The last couple of hours were spent at cafe Lampu checking email, downloading world maps (for travel planning on the train), and playing with a super adorable puppy residing at the cafe. We swung by the roti place we tried to visit the prior day for a later afternoon snack/lunch, and finally returned to the Bangkok guesthouse to pick up our bags. Then it was on to the train station via cab, where we boarded the train and are currently enjoying our ride next to a squabbling Austrian couple that I don't think realizes that I understand every single word of their bickering (I'm trying very hard not to chuckle, and Jason just texted me with a request for an update on the fight - time to go.)

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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Southern Tourism Capital of Phuket

Nov. 11-16th, by Jason

Well it was finally time to leave the relaxing atmosphere and good friends of Ko Lanta and head on to somewhere new, and Phuket was the new destination. After having spent almost 3 weeks on various islands we realized we needed to get heading north or we’d never make it through Thailand before Swiss’s brother arrived in Laos! Our departure options were 8am or 1pm for the 3.5 hour ferry ride to Phuket (with a 10 minute transfer on Ko Phi Phi) so we opted for the later option, which also happened to be the same ferry that Gary, Lily and Linh were taking over to Ko Phi Phi. We got a few tips on Bangkok from them on the ride over then hopped over on our 2nd ferry to Phuket. Now we should’ve realized that Phuket was different from the rest of southern Thailand when we get on the ferry and it was at least 3 levels with free water and biscuit service, announcements in Thai, English, Japanese and I believe French…but we’d learn more about Phuket as we went. We finally arrived to the pier in Phuket around 4.30pm and grabbed a shuttle into Phuket town for 50 THB each. We’d heard that Phuket was a bit of a tourist trap, that the beaches could be pricey (on the west coast of the island) and that Phuket town itself had some actual charm, so we decided to start out there (on the east coast) before hitting up the beaches in a few days. Of course when we were asked where we wanted to go in Phuket town and we told them we were looking for an inexpensive guest house, everyone had a recommendation for us at the pier and amazingly they all recommended the same place. We immediately were not really interested in that place once we kept getting the same name from multiple sources, along with the fact that the price changed from person to person and it was a little more than we wanted to pay. Of course our shuttle dropped us off there anyway and after verifying the price we decided to walk around to see what was out there. We checked out a few other places (all of increasing price) then stumbled upon the Rome Place hotel. For 450 THB/night we got a fan room with two double beds, hot water shower, satellite TV in room and a refrigerator, quite a deal and an upgrade after Phi Phi and Lanta.


We then set out on a hunt for dinner and found a food market about 5 minutes from our place and had dinner (pad thai and some rice) for just over $1/person, an amazing deal after the islands. We stopped by the supermarket next door to get some cool beverages to store in our in room refrigerator, enjoyed the free wifi in our lobby for a little while then headed to bed after a day of travel.

Walking and A/C…a little like Malaysia all over again!

Thursday morning we slept in and then headed over towards the “local bus” station and found a great little cafe for a Thai breakfast (chicken with chilis and basil leaves for Swiss, some noodles and pork for myself) and real iced coffee (yes, a proper espresso machine!)


We wandered around that area for a while, through “Old Town Phuket,” taking in the Thai/Chinese/Portuguese architecture throughout that part of town. After a bit of heat, though, it was time to head towards the mall (yes, reminds me of Melaka and Penang!!) to get some A/C comfort. We grabbed some cold drinks and snacks and headed back to the room for some TV (time to catch up on the world with BBC World News and Fox News Channel, haha!) and eventually a nap. Around 5pm the girls had arrived from Ko Lanta…Caroline set on doing some wandering around the markets and Sally joining us for some dinner back at the night market. The night before I really eyed some fried chicken they had there, so we headed back for dinner.


Since the girls got an A/C room we headed back to the hotel with a few beverages with the intentions of playing some cards in their cool room, but we found “Baby Mamma” on TV and ended up watching the movie instead!

The End of the World as we know it…via Hollywood Special Effects

The day before while at the mall I had noticed that “2012” was playing there in English and since I really enjoy the A/C, we decided to catch a noon movie to escape the midday heat! (And at 90 THB or just under USD 3 for a ticket, who could argue with that?!) Let’s just say it was an entertaining, mindless Hollywood special effects display, but as I said, also very entertaining. That evening we all met up and went to a local restaurant (meaning close to our hotel and no westerners!) for dinner, where we feasted on a spicy stir fried pork with garlic and chilis, a seafood noodle salad, garlic squid and stir fried vegetables (Caroline’s vegetarian dish that had chicken in it, what!?!?) The food was all very good and it was a nice while. We headed back to the hotel to play a few hands of cards but called it an early night.

The journey to the beach

Saturday we were ready to head out to the beach area of Phuket and had settled on Kata Beach. Phuket’s main beach areas are: Patong, Karon and Kata and we’ve heard can be ranked in that order of decreasing rowdiness. We trekked over to the local bus station to catch a ride out to Kata, and at only 30 THB/person a steal compared to a taxi. On the bus ride over we met a nice (although talkative) Swedish guy with tons of stories to tell. We’ll meet him again later. We arrived on Kata and finally found our way to Kata on Sea, a nice group of bungalows up a 100m steep driveway where we’d booked a room. For 1,200 THB/night we got an A/C room with 2 large beds (for 4 people), a refrigerator, satellite TV and a hot water shower…our own little paradise. We settled in and headed out to explore a little, walked up and down the beach area, around town to get our bearings and see what’s available around us and ended up running into our Swedish friend from the bus along with his brother and another friend of theirs. We stopped to grab a quick drink with them, they informed us where they’d be hanging out that night and we promptly decided that we’d not be frequenting that bar later! :) It was pretty hot out and our place had a really nice pool too, so we headed back to do a little swimming before dinner. Caroline skipped the pool to run a few errands and came back after having met Brendan, an Irish bloke also staying at our place…amazing how the Irish can just find each other :) We all got together around 8pm and headed down about 20 minutes walk to the main area of Kata for dinner. It was on these night time walks to and from our hotel that we caught our first glimpse of the other side of Phuket, the sex industry that is so prevalent here. Having passed many a bar with many Thai women all hollering for our business we passed them all and headed to our bar from earlier in the day (a nice family run joint) and then back to the room. Brendan, Swiss, Caroline and Sally hung out on the balcony for a few more hours talking but I was exhausted (must’ve been the swimming! :) and was off to bed.



Sunday’s adventure in Patong

Sunday morning was a late start for most of our room and most of us (Swiss excluded) made it down for a late breakfast. The girls went off shopping while we were perfectly content to enjoy the air conditioning and catch up on world news (this time we had BBC World News, Fox News Channel and CNN Headline News…man that Nancy Grace is still crazy!) We finally got assembled in the late afternoon and decided to catch a tuk tuk up to Patong Beach to see what everyone was talking about (it’s known as the party capital of Phuket, specifically Bangla Rd) We wandered around a bit, saw all the sights up and down that road and found a little happy hour bar for a drink (and ended up ordering a quesadilla as an appetizer as our London friends we’re entirely familiar with this popular Mexican treat!) Patong itself is quite different from Kata with western fast food restaurants everywhere (3 McDonald’s on 1 road!?!) and the seedy side of Thailand, the sex tourism industry, everywhere in your face. It was a very odd experience, one I wasn’t comfortable with, but one that everyone seems very open about there. We found a little place for dinner then headed to the “Australia Bar” to catch the Ireland/Australia rugby match. [Ah, the joy of european sports, where a 90 minute match only takes a little over an hour and a half!]




By about midnight we’d had about enough and grabbed a tuk tuk back to Kata after one last stroll through the mayhem of Bangla Rd in Patong Beach area.

The long journey to Bangkok

Monday morning we’d had about enough of islands and beaches and were ready to move on, so the plan was to catch an overnight bus that evening to Bangkok. Caroline and I had put in some laundry the morning before and needed to grab it before we left the area. Caroline was up early, as usual, and volunteered to pick up our stuff. Unfortunately it was a pretty rainy morning and she unfortunately had to trudge back through the rain with our washing (I slept in, oops) but luckily it was wrapped and sealed in a nice plastic bag! :) haha We grabbed a late breakfast then headed to the corner to wait for the local bus. Twenty minutes later we were on board and headed back to Phuket town [although it was an almost HOUR ride as he drove slowly the entire way in order to get more riders and increase his fare intake before completing the journey] where we made it across town to the other bus station. We found an overnight 1st class bus ticket for 626 THB (not VIP bus, but still A/C and the lowest price we could find) In preparation for the 12 hour bus journey I got some rice, Swiss also got some rice and we all got snacks at the 7/11 expecting to have that to fill in the needs along the way. Well we boarded the bus and just after getting underway were almost immediately given a bottle of water, bag of prawn coated peanuts, chicken buns and a fruit/veggie juice box. Needless to say we were not expecting it and overloaded with food. On top of that the bus randomly stopped at 9.30pm (about 4 hours into our journey) at a random bathroom/cafeteria/convenience store in the middle of nowhere. There we were fed a free dinner family style at tables with rice and various dishes. A nice surprise, delicious and the price was right (although certainly also included in our ticket price) but again a food overload. The rest of the trip was uneventful, although not super restful, and we arrived in Bangkok around 5.30am. More about our adventures in Bangkok on our next post though.

Ko Lanta and our little Riviera in Thailand

Ko Lanta – Nov 5 to 11 (by Swiss)

After suffering multiple delays in trying to get my final dive (the night dive) in at Phi Phi, we were all growing a tad restless to leave the beautiful but proportionally overpriced island for a new venue. That venue was Ko Lanta, a relatively large island south of Phi Phi with a much less developed tourism industry vis-a-vis Phi Phi but littered with various beaches and paved roads buzzing with motor scooters, pickup trucks, and tuk tuks carrying people (mainly Swedes) on their journeys up and down the island. We got a tip about a resort, the Lanta Riviera, during our stay in Krabi, and after a quick phone call confirming a fan room rate of 300 thai baht (<USD 10), it was decided that we'd give them a shot.

Thursday – Diving and travel

Since I needed one more dive to complete my advanced open water cert, I opted for the afternoon ferry while Jason and team England hopped on the morning ferry to Lanta. My day would be spent diving and enjoying the weather, while Jason and Co. got to ride an overcrowded ferry and figure out accommodation details. I think I got the better end of the deal.

Having resigned myself to the fact that I would probably spend the remainder of my life waiting to complete a night dive, I did a computer dive instead, which was so-so but I got the rubber stamp for my cert. The last dive of the day then would be a fun dive, which it truly was, as we tracked down a very large (4 ft or so) turtle feasting on corals. There was a second guy on the dive doing his open water cert, so Sean (my dive instructor), did some skills stuff with him while I got to spend a good 10-15 minutes observing and helping feed Mr. Turtle. It was AWESOME and made up for the somewhat lackluster dives I had the previous couple of days, although I wish I had an underwater camera with me. I must say, I liked the dive shop on Tioman (B&J) a lot more than the shop on Phi Phi. But such is life, and I now have my cert :) Time to move on.

A quick longtail boat ride from the dive shop on Long Beach got me to the dock and by 15:30 I was on board for the 1.5 hour ride to Lanta. Contrary to Lawton's earlier ride, my ferry was fairly empty and I managed to snag a spot on the deck towards the front of the boat where I enjoyed the ocean breeze, sun, and promptly nodded off exhausted after a full day of diving.

Jason had texted me earlier that Tan from the Riviera resort would be at the terminal on Lanta with a sign for “Swiss” and provide a free ride to the resort. Service – the Lanta Riviera has it. The resort itself was very clean, located directly on Klang Kloang beach, had a restaurant, pool, and a bar overlooking the Andaman Sea. Nifty and very economical, although I think we got there right before busy season, allowing for cheaper rates.

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The first night was uneventful, with dinner had at the resort and then a couple of drinks at Freedom bar, the bar attached to our resort.

Lazy days

Although we had originally booked one night, we quickly determined that the Lanta Riviera would be our home for a little while, so we reserved the room until the following Monday. With plenty of time on our hands, it was time for relaxing island life to take over. We quickly discovered a convenience store just down the driveway of the resort that offered large beers for around 50 baht, sodas for 15 baht, so a cheap source for drinks and snacks was now close by. This, coupled with chair equipped bungalow porches, made a lazy life very easy and convenient. (Un)fortunately, rain would be the theme for most of the day, greatly limiting our mobility and thus making porch life more of a necessity.

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Friday night would be spent by Jason, Sally, and Caroline turning the Freedom bar into their Thai version of Cheers. My sleep theme continued, so while the rest of our team were busy meeting and playing cards with Dan (Chicago), Kelly (Chicago), Ollie (UK), Sophie (UK) as well as the guys at the bar (Bao, Poor, Suki, etc) I was snoozing away in bed after a brief dinner and four short rounds of playing asshole [a card game] at Freedom bar. Yeah, lame, I know.

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I was determined to make Saturday more productive and perhaps even, gasp, social. Item 1 for productivity – rent a scooter. 200 baht got me a scooter for 24 hours, which in my case was good until 11:15 am the next morning. The scooter afforded us the flexibility to cruise to a nice little restaurant, Bulan Lanta, down the street that offered free wifi where email was checked and contact with the outside world established. We also found out that Gary Lo, a friend of ours from SF, was in the area and considering a visit to Lanta. As for the restaurant, it would become our go-to place for cheap food and free internet, and the owners were super nice. After the internet fix, we decided to check out the main town, where I scored some new flip flops while we explored the markets. As for the town itself, it was nothing to write home about, so I keep it at that.

The other mission for the day was to find a Styrofoam cooler, as our room didn't have a fridge and we figured it would be cool (no pun intended) to have a cooler with chilled beverages and ice handy. An exhaustive search yielded eventual victory at a Thai version of a hardware store, but with prices north of our threshold and haggling unsuccessful, the plan was abandoned. We decided it wasn't worth the expense, especially since the convenience store was literally a 1 minute walk from our room. But riding the scooter was fun, and it gave the day purpose.

For dinner, we joined up with Dan and Kelly for a trek down the road to a place called Where Else (shout out to all the Purdue people) for dinner, which was ok but quite different from the establishment in West Lafayette. But hey, at least we walked a little bit, and I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep at the table.


The crew spent a late night with friends at Freedom bar, I resorted to more sleep after a drink or two. So Saturday was semi-productive, semi-social, and semi-awake for me.

Swiss the Explorer, Jason the Cook

Sally and Caroline also had made it to town on Saturday and found a nice German bakery with supposedly excellent coffee. Since I still had the scooter on Sunday morning, Caroline and I went to this bakery to pick up coffee and breakfast for the rest of the crew. If you are in search of some good ol' European breakfast food and strong coffee, this bakery is it. Very good. I forget the name, but then again, there aren't that many German bakeries on the island. So if you ever come visit, make sure to look it up.

Jason's plan for the day was to attend a four hour Thai cooking class, for which Sally joined him. Having blown all my money on diving, I decided instead to rent the scooter for another day and go explore the rest of the island. Below are some pictures from my 3 hour cruise north, south, east and west on the island.

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I met up with Caroline a little later and we together traveled for about 30 minutes to the southern tip of the island to catch the sunset. Besides the pot hole littered dirt roads and steep hills straining the scooter, it was a fun little exploration.

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We met back up with Jason and Sally around 18:30, where they gave us the recap on cooking school. Here's Jason's summary:

Sally and I arrived at the cooking school just before classes began at 13.30 There were 6 other people in our course, three Germans, two Dutch and one French guy. Our first task, as a group, was to widdle the list of 10 dish options down to 5 that we would actually cook in our class. This “exercise” gave me a very quick introduction into why the EU cannot get their act in gear and accomplish anything. With lots of hemming and hawing, no one wanting to insult or offend anyone, we finally (after almost 20 minutes) got the list down. We moved over to the prep area where we got a quick introduction to Thai spices and uniquely Thai ingredients, then did all the chopping for our five dishes. [My claim to exclusive knowledge in this portion...our instructor held up a Kaffir Lime leaf and asked us what it was, when I answered correctly everyone was amazed, although I pointed out that it's a popular new flavor of Gin available in the US, haha] We then moved over to our individual cooking areas where we prepared our first dish, a coconut milk soup (I made mine with chicken) which was delicious and easy!! (Although I'll need to see if I can get 1 or 2 of those ingredients back home, but I have faith in the plentiful options back home in the Bay Area!! and the power of Ranch 99 too, haha!) After enjoying that dish we moved on to a red curry (I chose seafood this time) then a chicken fried rice, massaman beef curry and finally stir fried chicken with chilies and hot basil leaves. After each dish we stopped to taste and enjoy. I finished the soup, which was delicious. I finished almost all the red curry, but quickly realized that I could not keep up this eating pace. I ate about half the fried rice, had a few bites of the massaman curry and by the chicken and hot basil leaves I had about two bites and was so full I was certain I would burst. They bagged up my leftovers to take with us, along with a book of recipes to recreate these back home. The experience was great, it was nice to see how easily some of this tasty can be made at home (at a tiny fraction of the price of Thai restaurants in the states) and I had a lot of fun!


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So that was that, I think I'm gonna spring for cooking school in Vietnam. Dinner was had right outside our resort at a quaint little british pub with free (crummy) wifi and home made speakers (yes, that’s a Styrofoam cooler.)


Monday had now rolled around and we technically were to check out, but we really liked Lanta so it was decided to stay two more nights for good measure. Jason woke up not feeling very well, which may or may not have been a product from the cooking school the day prior. Sally was fine. I decided later that day to sample Jason's leftovers, which, after having sat out in the heat all night and day, weren't very good anymore. I had planned to see if it was the food from cooking school that made Jason sick, but after two bites that little experiment was quickly abandoned. Probably a wise move anyway.


Monday would also mark the day that Gary Lo and Co (Lily and Linh) arrived. They, too, booked for two more nights, so plan was to hang with them as our schedules aligned.

The day was mainly spent being lazy at the resort pool, reading books, and catching some sun. Kelly, Ollie and Sophie joined the girls and us for dinner at our favorite wifi spot, where we managed to put quite the strain on their kitchen. After dinner it was back to the resort, specifically Ollie and Sophie's porch. They had an A/C room with fridge, which was quickly stocked with beverages from the convenience store. I retired early once again, but I'm told it was quite a nice little party that eventually moved to the Freedom bar, including the store bought beers, as the guys at the bar were super cool and the group was pretty much part of the bar at this point anyway. The party lasted late into the night, with music streaming from the Jason and Co's iPods via the bar stereo system.

Power outages, theft, and the last big night out

We awoke Tuesday to quietness – no power, no fan, plenty of sweat. No big deal, we figured, since the island gets power from the main land and there was probably a minor failure somewhere along the line. After 1.5 hours without power, we inquired about how long power outages generally lasted, and the smiling lady at the front desk informed us that power would probably be back by 5pm. It was eleven AM at the time. Okey dokey, and thank God for the pool and ice – it was a scorcher.

It was around noon time that we found out that Dan and Kelly's room was broken into the previous night, and the robbers stole one of their backpacks and purse. More unbelievable, Kelly was sleeping inside the room at the time, with the door unlocked as Dan was still at the bar hanging with the usual suspects. Quite bold and scary. So note to self: lock doors, even when inside the room. The intruders stole a couple of debit cards, an iPod, and Dan's sketch pads, which had very high sentimental value. Kelly borrowed Jason's phone to cancel debit cards, and we then set off for a search and recovery mode, hoping the thieves just took the valuables and tossed the bag with the drawings on the side of the road or beach. But alas, the search ended up fruitless. On top of that, Dan and Kelly's visas had just expired two days before, making a visit to the local police a non-event. Needless to say, it put quite the damper on the day. They were scheduled to leave for KL the following day, and luckily had already booked all their tickets and had enough cash on hand to get there.

Apparently Caroline and Ollie made quite the impression with their iPod playlist skills the prior night, so the bar put up a sign about a beach party on Tuesday with live “DJ's” from the UK. Quite humorous. So Ollie and Caroline were employed for the evening, and Gary Lo and Co would join us for dinner and drinks. Dinner was had at a place across the street from the resort, with slow service and so-so food. It was then back to freedom bar, where our group now had a “Stammtisch”. It was the night for the a fire show, led off by Bao and Suki, and concluded with them bringing out a jump rope that was set on fire. Given our in with the bar/fire guys, we quickly got a chance to participate in some fire spinning and jump roping. Documentation below. Cool stuff.

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It was a very fitting ending to a very enjoyable stay on Ko Lanta. While Phi Phi was probably more scenic, the vibe of Lanta was much better. I think I can speak for both Jason and I that we would certainly consider visiting again.

Wednesday marked our departure from Lanta to Phuket town. Sally and Caroline stayed behind and would join us later on.