After five days on the beach in Bali, we had another eight days to relax in southern Thailand before braving the chaos that is Manila. We had been to Thailand together before—our first trip together in 2007 included visits to Bangkok and Phuket. We had such a good time that we made sure Thailand would be one of our longest stops this time around. Remembering the gorgeous beaches and picturesque landscape around Phuket we decided to start our trip in Krabi, Phuket’s lesser-known counterpart across the bay. Understanding that a year off of work wouldn’t be complete without a raging Southeast Asian island party, we planned on spending the second half of our week on the islands of Ko Phangan and Ko Samui.
When making plans for Krabi, we had the option to either book a small apartment in the city or rent a beautiful, newly built country house several miles away from anything. This was a toss-up until we discovered that a small motorbike can be rented for about six bucks a day. So what if it’s pink with a big red lipstick kiss decal on the side? This was the perfect way to get from place to place, and a visit to Krabi is not best enjoyed by sitting around in the city all day. We found the house by taking a bus from the airport towards a different town and making the driver stop in the general area where we thought the house would be. Thankfully we found a sign for it and followed the arrow down a muddy country road. We were feeling a little nervous about our decision when we saw a perfect, brand new house appear on our left, complete with a 75+ year old Thai lady to welcome us. The owner of the house was a Bangkok businessman who had built the place as a retirement home for himself and his wife but had not yet moved in. The older lady who showed us around was his mother—she and her husband lived in a small cottage not 15 feet from the house itself. The owner’s mother (we never did learn her name) was as friendly as you can possibly be without being able to understand or speak a single word that we both knew. It’s interesting to think about how the area must have changed over her lifetime.
After getting settled in, we negotiated a ride into town with a passing bus driver. He dropped us off at a night market in the middle of Krabi—the perfect place to be for a taste of local culture on our first night. The entire market was covered in low, overlapping tarps and the dozens of stands sold all types of produce, pastries and street food. For our first dinner Carla and I went to a noodle stand run by a Muslim family that looked popular with locals. For about three bucks each we had a delicious meal of shrimp pad thai, cooked fresh in a giant skillet right in front of us. I won’t pretend it was as good as the perfected dishes you’ll find at a quality Thai restaurant but the uniquely tangy taste of pad thai as locals get it was certainly worth trying. Thai food in general is one of our favorite types of food and these eight days were not our healthiest. Good noodle and curry dishes are always available (at extremely low prices) and, even when they are cooked for the bland tourist palate, they never disappoint. The Thai peninsula isn’t quite Bangkok in terms of great locals’ restaurants (sometimes there seem to be more tourists than Thais here) but it’s not hard to pick out a place that takes its food seriously. Whether it’s sweet, rich, spicy or savory, the food in Thailand is some of the best cheap food you’ll find in the world. We finished off the night with a Singha at some picnic tables that street food vendors use along the river. After having an outdoor Singha, a Thai staple and one of my favorite Asian beers, I truly felt like I was back in Thailand.
The first thing we did the next morning was catch a bus to the nearby park where Carla would realize a lifelong dream: to ride an elephant. The experience was pretty amazing because this wasn’t something where you get on, get your picture taken and move along. We actually rode an elephant through the jungle for about an hour, about half of which was spent with the professional elephant-rider hanging out nearby and smoking cigarettes. I was struck by how powerful the animal was when she would sink into the mud up to what would have been my knees and step right out, up a slippery slope, like it was solid ground. Being on top of that large of an animal is a strange sensation—everything from the coarseness and thickness of its skin to the sense of powerlessness when it starts going off the path reminded me how small we must seem to the Earth’s biggest creatures.
Our next stop would be Ao Nang, Krabi’s smaller, beachier counterpart several miles away. After a leisurely lunch we rented our cheap, pink motorbike and explored the region a bit. The area around Krabi is unexpectedly gorgeous, with jagged limestone cliffs and mountains framing the beaches and roads. Everything is covered in lush tropical vegetation giving the area a fantastical jungle feel even when just motorbiking down the road. Many of the agricultural areas are rubber tree farms that have a charm just not found in cornfields. However, we strayed a little too far from home that day and things took a turn for the worse. I was hoping not to drive at night my first day on a motorbike, on the left side of the road, in a very foreign country, but just after we left for home the skies opened up. Any drizzle feels like a true rainstorm when you’re driving a motorbike with no windshield and a half-helmet, so when the torrential downpour began and night fell we had to just pull off into the nearest “convenience store” and wait it out. The quotation marks are there because this store would better be described as a family’s home with a bunch of shelves out front and an awning covering it all. While we couldn’t really talk to the proprietors / residents, we could see their family relaxing in the living room behind the shelves and they were friendly enough to let us stay under the awning until the storm lightened up. When we finally arrived back at the house that night, soaked, muddy and exhausted by the fear of crashing, I quickly cracked open a beer Chang (cheap and 6.4%; thank you Thailand) and soon afterwards we fell asleep.
Our third day in Krabi was much more relaxing but no less enjoyable. After a leisurely morning on our front porch we drove into Ao Nang and looked into taking a boat to an island nearby. We caught a little 8-person boat to Poda Island after lunch and proceeded to have what was probably our best beach experience of the year. First of all, the boat ride out of Ao Nang was absolutely beautiful. The hot sun was shining, the coast was a jumble of beaches and green cliffs, and the water was a perfect blue. We went by a few towering rock islands, the biggest of which was Poda Island. When we stepped off into shallow water the sand was a pillowy white and the sun was practically pushing us into it. We had finally made it to one of the legendary jungle islands this region is famous for. While the island isn’t quite deserted (a bunch of tour groups eventually showed up) a walk far enough down the beach will bring you to a secluded paradise that will always stick with you. Being that it was Saturday, after dark we drove back into Krabi to check out the nightlife. We had another stroke of luck that day, in that we stumbled on a great bar with a live reggae band and very friendly travelers. Like everyone else we took off our shoes, sat on the floor, and had a couple beers. Our last full day around Krabi couldn’t have been better.
Before leaving the house for good we had one last relaxing breakfast and squared things away with our elderly hostess (using smiles and hand gestures). We spent most of the day on a long bus ride then a ferry to Ko Phangan, arriving at the hotel around dusk. Our first two nights in the islands would be spent in Haad Rin, the site of the (in)famous full moon party. Unfortunately for us, the moon was only half full when we were in Thailand. Thankfully locals have long since capitalized on this scheduling inconvenience, creating a half moon party in the middle of the island that is supposed to be just as crazy as the original. We were in.
We spent our first day exploring the island on a motorbike. Luckily there were no rain storms to stop us this time and we drove all the way from the southeast corner to the northwest corner through a lush tropical forest. We arrived at a beach called Mae Haad and were immediately enchanted by this beautiful, remote place that appeared out of the trees. The beach itself was uncrowded with smooth yellow sand and crystal clear water, but the best feature was the long sandbar that led to an uninhabited island across the calm bay. The water was perfectly cool for swimming under the hot sun. A few blissful hours later we rode down the coast to another beach where we found a deserted stretch all to ourselves.
That night we caught the hotel bus to the half moon party, where we made fast friends with some other travelers staying at our hotel. We were a diverse crew, with the US, Australia, Holland, India and the UK represented among just nine people. We've actually stayed in touch with the Australian girl we met, who gave us the idea for a trip to Tasmania that we later followed through on. While the bumping house music wasn't exactly our scene, the general craziness was. When this many 18-35 year olds travel from around the world to let loose on one Thai island it makes for a unique party. The half moon party looked like an outdoor nightclub in the jungle, built into a hillside with multiple levels and a main dance floor full of highlighters and black lights. This was where we were introduced to Sang Som, a cheap Thai rum that left us a little queasy but was at least tolerable. Not too surprisingly, those looking for something "more" could get a variety of things off the same menu. Most of our group was pretty wiped out by 2:30 but the party was still going strong when we left, and probably went until dawn. The party officially ended when we found our same friends at breakfast (lunch?) the next day, trying to soak up the leftover alcohol.
Our initial plan was to leave Ko Phangan for Ko Samui after the party, but we had fallen in love with Phangan and had to stay one more night. In one of our more spontaneous moves, we checked out of the Best Western and made our way back to Mae Haad (the perfect beach with the sandbar) to see if we could find a place to sleep nearby. As it turned out, there was a bungalow available right on the beach (nothing in between our front door and the water) complete with a hammock on the front porch. This million dollar view cost us a cool fifty bucks. We spent the rest of our day relaxing beachside and avoiding the sight of alcohol. That night we laid in the hammock as dusk slowly turned into darkness. The weather was perfect for just sitting outside and listening to music over the calm waves. I will always remember that starry night as one of the happiest times of my life, sitting on the front porch of our beachfront bungalow on a remote Thai island, with pure freedom and everything I needed right there with me.
We would fly out of Ko Samui early Thursday morning, meaning we finally had to leave Ko Phangan Wednesday afternoon. Arriving in the bigger, busier Samui we were both glad we had just used it as a stopover and spent the extra time in Phangan. This island, closer to the mainland, became popular with tourists earlier and is also home to many more people. It doesn't have the slow-moving charm of Phangan and this, combined with cloudy and rainy weather, mostly kept us in our hotel for the 18 hours we were there. One highlight, however, was the authentic noodle restaurant that our hotel owner recommended to us, catering almost exclusively to locals. It didn't even have a name on the outside-- there were just a few people in the kitchen of an abandoned pizza place turning out delicious food for almost nothing. What a great send off.
Before this trip Thailand was one of my favorite places in the world, and it is even more so now. Something about the laid-back Buddhist culture, whimsical Thai script, amazing food and stunning landscapes just pulls me in. It doesn't seem to have that frantic feel found in Vietnam or China and people you meet seem a little happier, like some part of them knows they live in a pretty special place. It's easy to see how so many foreigners have dropped everything to move there for a slower-paced life, and we met a few in Krabi and Ko Phangan who did just that. We left Ko Samui preparing for a bit of culture shock when we would arrive in the pulsing metropolis of Manila Thursday night.
// asia trip to date: 10 flights, 4 trains, 3 buses, 5 boats, 12 cities, 8 countries