It turns out there’s more to Koh Tao than diving and more to Koh Phangan than parties. Of course, that’s what they are famous for – Koh Tao for being one of the cheapest places in the world to scuba dive, and Koh Phangan for being home to the wild full moon, half moon, jungle, pool, and any other excuse they can think of parties. While we didn’t spend much time on either island, we had the chance to glimpse a little bit of their beauty.
I was lucky enough to meet up with my mom abroad not once, but twice during our RTW journey.
First, she and her partner, Terry, joined us in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They had originally told us they would meet us wherever in the world we happened to be in February and we had left home thinking it would be somewhere in South America. We didn’t make it that far, of course, but we had a great time together and appreciated their flexibility.
When they told us they wanted to meet up again this February (making it perfectly clear they wanted it to be in Southeast Asia this time) we decided to be the flexible ones and changed our itinerary to work with theirs.
Seeing my mom after a year apart was fabulous. We had had our challenges travelling together in Central America (mostly due to very different travel styles and budgets), so this time we opened up our budget and let them choose our hotels. We ended up paying about double our typical rate, but it was worth it to be close to them without the hassle of searching for accommodation that everyone could be happy with in each new place.
We met up with them at a less than favourable hotel in Bangkok (the thing with booking hotels online from home is you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get) and explored some of the city sights with them – the Royal Palace, the Reclining Buddha, China Town and Khaosan Road.
Then, we all caught a bus with them to Hua Hin. The beach here was ok, but there was way too much development and too much city encroaching on it for my tastes. When I picture a Thai beach, there definitely aren’t any skyscrapers to be seen. Large swathes of the beach were littered with “pay-for-the-privilege-to-sit” beach umbrellas – they took up so much space that at high tide there was actually no beach left to sit on.
We all beach-bummed around, explored the malls and night markets, and just enjoyed being together again.
Way too soon, our time together was up. Mom and Terry caught a train back to Bangkok to catch a flight to Bali and Mike and I took a fabulous (yes, this is sarcasm) night bus/ferry combo to Koh Tao for some diving.
We had a post about Meeting up with My Mom in Thailand already to publish. But then, I woke up to this…
… on April 30!
So in an effort to cope with the winter that just won’t end, I’m putting myself back on the beach with these Railay Beach pics. It’s one of those picture perfect beaches. The kind you find on the cover of travel magazines and top 100 travel destinations books. This is definitely one of my all-time favourite beaches!
We had too many beautiful pictures from Koh Lanta and the Four Island Tour we took there to leave it at their brief mention in our last Thai beaches post. With the perma-winter that is just finally starting to give way to spring here in Saskatchewan, we already find ourselves reminiscing about our time at the beach. So here’s some hot, beachy eye candy for you…
Infobox: We booked a 4 Islands tour from Koh Lanta. It included two snorkeling stops, a trip to the Emerald Cave lagoon and lunch on beautiful Koh Ngai. The snorkelling was meh, but the boat ride and islands were gorgeous. It can be booked at any of the dozens of travel agents in Lanta. Cost: 700 baht (~$23 CAD) per person, vegetarian-friendly lunch included.
Something happened to us when we got to Thailand. Maybe it was the rough time we had in Egypt just before or the fact we hadn’t been to a beach in 9 months. Maybe it was the somewhat inconvenient timing of our arrival 12 days before my mom’s arrival in Bangkok which required us to double back (more on this later). Maybe it was the fact that we knew we had a plane ticket booked home and we wanted to squeeze everything we could in before it happened. Or it could have been the heat or something we caught from all the other SE Asia backpackers. It was probably a little of each of these things.
Whatever it was, we threw our tried and tested travel style out the window and got it in our minds that we needed to see “everything” in the short time we had left. Big mistake! We found ourselves beach hopping, trying to see every place anyone had recommended to us. It didn’t take long before we wore ourselves out. Or before we realized that, in the end, a beach is a beach is a beach.
Thailand’s beaches are all same same but different.
Our first month of beaching it in Thailand was poorly planned and poorly executed. We felt like we spent way too much time on trains and buses, packing and unpacking our bags, and searching for hotels and vegetarian-friendly eateries. This is why we’ve never liked the “3 days and move” rule that so many travellers seem to live by. We usually consider three days to be an absolute minimum. It’s not until after three days that you start to get a real feel for a place.
Here’s what our itinerary looked like:
Jan. 9 – Arrive in Bangkok at about midnight, check into an airport hotel
Jan. 10 – Go to train station at about noon, book ticket for night train to Surat Thani, spend afternoon exploring (with all our luggage) and waiting in train station
Jan. 11 – Arrive in Surat Thani in the morning, take shuttle to (tourist) bus station, wait for bus to Krabi, wait for ferry to Koh Lanta (which turns out to be a minibus that takes the car ferries). Arrive in Koh Lanta at about 4 pm to discover all the cheap guesthouses are fully booked. Should have booked ahead. Book a budget-busting (800 baht/$26 CAD) bungalow on beach. We do the math – it took us 59 hours to get here from Cairo.
Jan. 12 – Relax on beach. Ahhhh!!! We could get used to this.
Jan. 13 – Move guesthouses to cheaper one in town. This one only has room available for 2 nights. We want to stay three. Doh!
Jan. 14 – 4 Islands Tour – Koh Waen, Koh Cheuak, Koh Mook (Emerald Cave), Koh Ngai
Jan. 15 – Move guesthouses to another cheap one in town since ours is full tonight. Again, knock head against wall for not booking ahead.
Jan. 16 – Catch ferry to Ao Nang. Nearly toss our cookies. Ticket includes free transport to hostel which is not, as advertised, in Ao Nang. Arrive in the middle of nowhere (aka the jungle just outside of Ao Nammao).
Jan. 17 – Catch longtail boat to Railay Beach (only about 30 minutes, after walking 45 minutes into town from guesthouse). Monkeys steal our bananas. Discover the roped off swimming area is infested with hundreds, if not thousands, of jellyfish, but the rest of the water is surprisingly not. Return the same way to find something amiss in our room (didn’t think too much of it, but later put the puzzle pieces together to discover 100 Euros had been stolen from our locked luggage that was inside our locked bungalow). Really not liking this guesthouse much.
Jan. 18 – Check out, leave luggage at front desk, and head back to Railay Beach. No longtail boats are heading back and we have a bus booked to Bangkok, so we have to charter one. They give us a good deal considering. Return to jungle bungalows, take minivan to Surat Thani and get on night bus.
Jan. 19 – Arrive in Bangkok at the ungodly hour of 5 am. Taxi to hotel rips us off, but we’re too tired to care too much. Hotel lets us check in early (as in immediately) and we take a long, long nap. Wake up and explore a little of Bangkok.
Jan. 20 – Bangkok sightseeing.
Jan. 21 – Move hotels. Meet up with Mom!
Jan. 22 – Bangkok sightseeing with Mom & Terry
Jan. 23 – Catch a bus to Hua Hin with Mom & Terry
Jan. 24 – Explore Hua Hin with Mom & Terry
Jan. 25 – Beaching & visiting at Hua Hin
Jan. 26 – Beaching & visiting at Hua Hin. Catch a night bus to Chumphon. Arrive at 3:30 am. Have to wait until 7 am to catch ferry.
Jan. 27 – Take ferry to Koh Tao. Spend our day wandering the town searching for a good dive shop.
Jan. 28 – After nearly a year, we’re finally back in the water. Two dives (and a little seasickness for Ashley).
Jan. 29 – Diving at Koh Tao.
Jan. 30 – Diving at Koh Tao.
Jan. 31 – Diving at Koh Tao in the morning. Catch ferry to Koh Phangan in the afternoon.
Feb. 1 – Walk the very very hilly southeastern road to the Full Moon Party beach (not for the party which wasn’t happening today, just for the beach). Rest up for the walk back.
Feb. 2- Take it easy in the morning instead of beaching it (Ashley wasn’t feeling so hot) and then catch a ferry to Koh Samui. Meet our old travel pal Talon and his son Tigger from 1Dad1Kid. Couchsurf with them.
Feb. 3 – Hang out with Talon and Tigger for the day. Catch up on some blogging and photos.
Feb. 4 – Hang out with Talon and Tigger and walk to the mummifed monk on the island.
Feb. 5 – Go admire the Grandmother & Grandfather rocks on Samui. Catch a boat and then a bus to Bangkok. Have to leave at around noon… won’t arrive until 5 am the next morning.
Feb. 6 – Arrive in Bangkok at 5 am. Check into hotel and sleep. Run errands around town in preparation for tomorrow’s trip to Cambodia (need passport photos, train tickets, and camera cleaning supplies).
Feb. 7 – Catch an EARLY morning train to Aranyaprathet, cross border into Cambodia
Exhausting, right? If you’re keeping track, that’s 4 night buses/trains and 5 other travel days in our first 30 days in Thailand. Not to mention 3 extra hotel moves within the same location. 6 different islands/beaches (plus the 4 islands from the tour). And 6 days spent in Bangkok over 3 separate trips. What were we thinking?
Now, we did see some amazing sights and we’re glad went everywhere we did. We just wish we hadn’t tried to cram it all into 30 days. We would have been a lot happier picking just one or two of these amazing beaches and relaxing there for a while.
Our favourite beach? It might surprise you. While we really loved the laid back vibe of Koh Lanta and Railay Beach’s scenery was worth the crowds, I might just have to pick Koh Ngai. And I only spent an hour or two there. It’s a tiny island we stopped at for lunch during our four island tour. While a little crowded at lunch time (a lot of longtail boat tours stop here), it would be total paradise the rest of the day – no roads, no noise, just 2 km by 4 km of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and dense green jungle.
Oh, Egypt! How I wanted to fall in love with you! And how I really, really didn’t!
I’m guessing you figured out by now that Egypt wasn’t one of our favourite countries. In fact, when attempting to rank the countries we’ve traveled, we’d start by throwing it on the bottom. So far on the bottom that you’d need a good pair of binoculars to find it.
Despite this fact, however, I don’t regret our time there for a second. If I had to do it all over again knowing what I know now, I probably would (though I’d strongly consider a guided tour). When travelling, you’re going to get some great experiences and some not so great experiences. Egypt just had a disproportionate amount of the not so great ones. But the sights were amazing, we met some great people, and we learned a thing or two about dealing with touts and negotiating for, well, everything.
Honestly, I did manage to fall in love with the sights and history of Egypt… I just couldn’t get past all the hassle, harassment, and frustration of the relentless a-holes. Thus I can’t give the country as a whole a thumbs up.
Length of Stay: 24 days
Average Cost per Day for Two People (excluding international transportation): $ 62.26 CAD [without the 3 night White Desert Tour, this cost would drop to $39.76 CAD per day - but we're glad we splurged!]
Cities Visited: 5
Distance Traveled: 4189 km in 9 automobiles, 5 trains and 5 boats
Days Sick: 0
Number of Items Lost: No items, just our patience and maybe our sanity
Biggest Tourist Traps: Egypt
Exchange Rate: $1 CAD = 6 Egyptian pounds
Cairo – White Desert (Bahariya Oasis, Black Desert) – Cairo – Alexandria – Aswan (Abu Simbel, Elephantine Island) – Luxor [via the Nile] – Cairo
- Hands down, the amazing FOOD!!!!
- Riding camels by day, sleeping under the incredible starry sky by night in the White Desert
- The people of Alexandria
- Abu Simbel temples (especially the interior)
- Gliding down the Nile on a felucca
- The scammers, hustlers, and pushy touts in the tourist areas
- Dodging traffic
- General lack of infrastructure makes identifying scams that much tougher
- The overwhelming lack of hope about the future (most Egyptians we talked with believe the revolution was stolen, things are worse now than before, and they can’t foresee any positive change)
- Constantly being treated as a walking ATM
- Constantly being treated as a sexual object
- See this previous post
- The general apathy of the people towards the constitutional referendum that was taking place when we arrived
- Just how overblown the media makes the situation look with their coverage of the protests
- The scammers, hustlers, and pushy touts in the tourist areas (as in just how many and how pushy they can be)
- How good, cheap, and healthy the food was and how easy it was to eat vegetarian
- Having locals ask to have their picture taken with me (I would expect this in rural China, maybe, but not from a hotel maid in Alexandria)
- Sometimes you should just pay the little bit extra to hire a driver/guide/horse because it will give you hours of peace you won’t otherwise find
- Tourism is not always easy and locals don’t always appreciate foreigners
Egypt Journal – Where/How Did We Spend Our Time?
Cairo (4 nights)
National Museum, Pyramids, Tahrir Square, Islamic Cairo, Coptic Christian Cairo
White Desert (3 nights)
Camel safari with jeep escort, camping under the stars
Cairo (1 night)
This was just a stopover on our way to Alexandria
Alexandria (3 nights)
This sidetrip was originally planned because we had to wait to take the night train from Cairo to Aswan, but it became our favourite Egyptian city
Aswan (3 nights + 1 on train en route to Aswan)
Day trips to Abu Simbel temples, Philae temple, Elephantine Island
Nile (2 nights)
Sleeping, eating, and cruising on a felucca
Luxor (4 nights)
Valley of the Kings, Karnak temple, Luxor temple
Cairo (3 nights + 1 in airport en route to Bangkok)
Tired of the hassles, we mostly caught up on blogging in our hostel while waiting for our flight out
During our Abu Simbel tour, we had the privilege of meeting a totally crazy (in a mostly good way) traveller from North Korea who spent most of the tour ensuring that we knew it would cost a mere pound to take a ferry to Elephantine Island from Aswan. He only knew a few words of English, but we had several in-depth “conversations” with him (is it actually a conversation when you can’t get a word in edgewise?) that inevitably included him curling his arms into an elephant “trunk”, swinging them around, and shouting “ELLY-FONT!!! ELLY-FONT!!!” loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to stop what they were doing and watch. He was the kind of guy that complete strangers either made an effort to keep a 20-foot distance from as they feared for their safety or, more commonly, crowded around to hear (and watch) his stories. The “elly-font” cry and dance also seemed to be his prime negotiation tactic with local vendors. And from what we saw, it worked.
Not being able to get his “elly-font” chant out of our heads and more than ready to escape the touts in Aswan, we took the ferry over to Elephantine Island and spent an afternoon there. Not being a crazy North Korean, we had to pay more than a pound for the ferry… but talked our way down to two pounds each. (According to our hotel owner, North Koreans are the only foreigners that get local pricing – mostly because they are so crazy that no one wants to deal with trying to rip them off.) As it turns out, the island certainly wasn’t a safe haven from scammers – we were quickly ushered into a house to “tour” a bunch of kitschy crap (all for sale, of course) occupying every nook and cranny. It ended with the owner opening up a metal drum with a poor, dead-looking crocodile crammed inside. It had no space to move and barely blinked when the man poked it with a stick. We had no interest in seeing it in the first place and felt really bad for the poor creature, but the man figured we owed him money for showing us. We quickly made our exit and made no further attempt to talk to anyone else on the island. It was quite scenic, however, and we did manage to snap quite a few photos that make it look like a lovely place to visit.