By , June 4, 2013 8:00 am
As we've already said, our first month in Thailand was a bit of a whirl wind tour. There's no doubt that we were feeling a bit short on time. We were short on time. Contrary to the open-ended, unplanned, free-to-do-whatever-we-want schedule that we'd grown accustomed to over the past 20 some months of travel, we arrived in Thailand having already purchased plane tickets out. We knew the day and the hour that we'd be leaving before we ever showed up. And when one is short on time, one rushes to squeeze everything in. Kind of like when procrastination finally catches up to you. You spend a few sleepless days and nights working like a dog trying to get things done just in time for that important deadline. That's something like what the whole month had been like for us. Rush, rush, rush... Folly. But we were not only rushing to plan out what we wanted to see during our short time in Thailand - we were also trying to figure out just exactly what we were going to do when we did get home. This is the important setup for the rest of this post. We weren't just planning on coming home to visit. We were coming home to live. After Egypt, we'd kind of gotten it into our heads that we were done with travelling. At least the way we had been travelling. Our intention was to return home and get jobs. The full time, life-long career kind. We'd also take the shrivelled remnants of our travel funds and do what was nearly unthinkable just a half year ago... lock ourselves into a long term mortgage, hopefully purchasing a fixer-up that could be made into a split rental home. Half for us, half for a renter. Ashley would return to teaching and enrol in what they call a "four in five" or deferred salary program. That allows her to take every fifth year off from work (along with the pay). We hadn't completely abandoned travel, just limited it and deferred it by four years. Me, I'd have to fix up the house, then find some career where I could also take every fifth year off along with summers. That pretty much rules out engineering (which I'd all but ruled out anyways because it made me unhappy). The plan: become a self-employed, home-based baker. Seriously, I love good German style bread and you just can't find it in the "bread basket" that is Saskatchewan. Our bread is spelled "Wonder", and it's a wonder they are allowed to label it bread (Please don't sue me, it's a joke. You know, ha ha). But the plans didn't stop there. Oh no. Next up, we were starting to talk about children. Or, more likely a child. I'm very much a believer in China's 1 child program. I mean, if you honestly look at it, pretty much all of the world's problems are a problem of overpopulation. Destruction of natural habitat, extinction of wild animals, global warming, high energy costs, high food costs, industrial chemical based farming, disease, etc, etc, etc. So you're probably wondering what all of this has to do with Koh Samui...

Koh Samui

Mike, Tigger, and Talon

Our good friends Talon and Tigger from 1 dad, 1 kid, 1 Crazy Adventure had a house sitting gig on Koh Samui while we were in Thailand. It had been exactly one year to the day since we last said goodbye to Talon in Utila, Honduras, and we were really stoked to meet up with him again. Just a little background for those that don't know... Talon was Ashley's certifying scuba dive instructor in Utila. He did such a great job of getting us to enjoy the sport that we stuck around to do a half dozen more courses including our divemaster certification. Now we were coming nearly direct to Talon from Koh Tao, the only place we'd been diving in the past year. We were looking forward to reminiscing about diving. As expected, seeing Tigger and Talon again was great. They are fantastic people and we really enjoy their company. But there was one conversation that stuck out above all others. And it was this. Ashley relayed to Talon the plans described to you above. You know, the whole going home, done with travelling plan. But she didn't just tell him the plan as if it were set in stone, she tried to convince him that the plan was a good plan while she told it. In truth, Talon was the first person that either of us had told our coming home plan too.  She realized, as she explained herself, that she wasn't so much trying to convince Talon that it was a good plan, she was trying to convince herself that it was indeed a good plan. After patiently listening while Ashley spoke, Talon's reaction exactly summed up what we were both feeling after hearing our own plan said aloud, "Nah, I don't think I could do that." Whoa, yep. We can't do it either. And thus began our research into teaching abroad, which eventually led us to our current plan of volunteering a year in the Himalayan country of  Bhutan. So there we go, three small days in a 627 day journey may have changed the rest of our lives - they've certainly changed the next year or so. Thanks Talon, you really saved us from ourselves. We're not ready to settle down, who were we trying to kid?

Oh yeah, we did some stuff in Koh Samui too

We were only there for 3 days. If you're really interested in Koh Samui, you should probably read Talon's write up of it. The coolest thing that we did see, in my opinion, was the under-decomposed monk. This fellow famously predicted the date of his own death and left instructions to his followers to leave his body on display if it should fail to rot or decompose. Supposedly his body didn't rot, so they stood him up, gave him some sun glasses and he's been on display at this temple ever since. My conspiracy theory is that he died from an overdose of formaldehyde or perhaps aspartame. Every time I hear of someone predicting the date of their own natural death, I can't help but think of self-induced poisoning. But, maybe the whole thing is just proof of the divine. I don't know. What I can say is: I think he's looking pretty good for a dead guy. Wouldn't you agree?

Dead monk in a box

Looking good

Grandfather rock

Grandmother rock. Do you get it?

Red Temple

Night market

Fire Dancing at the night market

 
By , May 22, 2013 7:50 pm
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.

Koh Tao Viewpoint

Koh Tao viewpoint

Hiking with a headache (word to the wise, skip the flip flops and lace up some hiking shoes)

Palm trees

The hiking trail

Koh Phangan

Gorgeous tree

Beach by our hotel

A floatin dock

Ahh!!! Relaxation!

View from the end of the  dock (Wasn't Mike brave to carry his SLR camera all the way out here?)

Walk in the hills

Beach panorama

By , May 15, 2013 8:16 am
We love diving. We really, really, love diving. That's why a little over a year ago we became divemasters in Utila, Honduras. Utila, as far as I know, is the world's cheapest place to learn to dive. It compares favourably with the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, which appears to be the world's cheapest place for a certified diver to rent tanks and go on a fun dive. All in all, we're doing a pretty good job of frugal living under the sea. Well, not exactly. The truth is, we've had to balance our love for diving with our love for travel and our love for not working (aka, our budget). That's kept us landlocked and feet-dry for the past year. So, when we arrived at Koh Tao we could hardly keep ourselves out of the water. We arrived sleep deprived from an insane night bus/ferry schedule that found us dropped off at the ferry depot at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am, only to have to wait until 7:00 am to actually get on the boat.  We spent that first day looking for a dive shop and were in the water first thing the next morning.

The Dive Shop

We dove with a company called Phoenix Divers. We chose them for a few reasons. Primarily, it was the vibe. We're professionals, and we wanted a laid-back shop that would let us dive the way we wanted to dive. Most dive shops wouldn't even entertain the idea of allowing us to dive on our own from the boat. They also wouldn't all guarantee a small group size, and ensure that like-qualified divers would be paired together. Phoenix Divers came through on all of that. They weren't pushy, and their price was right. So they got our business. Of course, being certified, we tend to be overly critical about our dive shop. Especially when it comes to following the standards to keep everyone safe. I like a relaxed shop but in the water, things have to be done right. After 4 days of diving with Phoenix, there were definitely some things I didn't like.
  • No drop tanks on deep dives. They used them from the wreck dive, at our insistence, but it wasn't typical.
  • We didn't get a boat briefing until day 4. It would have been nice to know that there was a dry room for our stuff on board a bit sooner.
  • One of the divers we dove with requested a tank of Nitrox. It's required that the the diver using the tank personally verifies the oxygen percentage before using it. Phoenix didn't have an O2 sensor, and they wanted him to use it anyways. That's a big no no.
  • Dive briefings were done individually, instead of as a group.  We had no idea which divers were in our group until we were in the water.
On the other hand, there were some really great things about the shop.
  • The price for diving with accommodation was the cheapest we found the day we spent looking. 2,700 Baht ($91 CAD) for four dives (two dives each) and 200 Baht ($6.70) for a private bungalow with hot water.
  • Our divemaster "F" was really good, except for skipping the whole boat briefing thing.
  • The dive boats had free food. Fresh fruit some days, and cookies every day.
  • Their equipment was in really good shape.
  • They took the boat out twice a day, giving you a choice of diving in the mornings or afternoons. They tried their best to schedule dive sites a day in advance giving you an informed choice of diving in the mornings, afternoons, or both.

Diving in Koh Tao

We don't actually have the greatest frame of reference when it comes to diving, as we've only really dove in two spots - Utila and here. But I can say that the diving was really enjoyable. Compared to Utila, there's just more fish to see. A lot more fish.  The coral seems to be in fairly good health. There's much worse visibility and much stronger currents. One of the most interesting things to me was the predictability of the local fish. They showed us a map of one of our dive sites with with a clown fish drawn on it, labelled Nemo. Our divemaster Eff said simply, "This is where we'll see Nemo." And he was right. That little clown fish spends every day hovering above a small tuft of anemone. He's just always there. Likewise, he was able to show us some large shark-like fish called cobias. They were just swimming circles right where he said they would be.

Movies

One of the saddest things I've ever seen, I saw while diving in Koh Tao. A fishing net had washed up and covered the Chumphon Pinnacle dive site, trapping several fish. A collage of clips from our 4 days of diving in Koh Tao

Photos

In general, I find underwater movies are much more enjoyable than photos. At least with our little point-and-shoot camera. We'd probably have taken nothing but movies, but our underwater enclosure is damaged (I'm kind of upset that I couldn't get warranty from Canon) and we can't change the camera mode back to movies once the camera is installed inside the enclosure. Inevitably, it gets bumped to photo and stays there for the rest of the day.

Our dive boat

Checking the aim on the sunken wreck's artillery.

A bit rusty, but only a bit

Colourful christmas tree worms

Butterfly fish

Another butterfly fish

The effect of long term exposure to pink snorkels while diving.

A happy eel

Neat coral

Checking out all the silvery fish

Lots and lots of silvery fish

Sea cucumber

Hard Coral

Worms

Awesome

By , May 7, 2013 6:07 pm
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.

With Mom & Terry in Leon, Nicaragua

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.

Khaosan Road at night

Duck, shark fins (awww...) and more in China Town

China Town

Mom, blessing Mike with some Buddhist "hocus-pocus" (at least that's what they called it at the Buddhist monastery we later stayed at)

Asian tourists crack me up!

Me, Terry, and Mom.... all taking pictures at the Royal Palace

Mom and I, dressed in the traditional Thai dress

The reclining Buddha

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.

City encroaching on beach

A whole lot of beach umbrellas

We all beach-bummed around, explored the malls and night markets, and just enjoyed being together again.

Mom & Terry at night market

Rice pudding balls at the night market

Walking the beach... a daily ritual

Reflections in the sand

Hua Hin restaurant

It's always windy in Hua Hin... perfect for kitesurfing!

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.

Saying goodbye to Mom at the train station

By , April 30, 2013 6:42 pm
We had a post about Meeting up with My Mom in Thailand already to publish. But then, I woke up to this... Snow in April ... 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!

Arriving at Railay East

Railay East

Walking the path to Railay West

Beautiful beach

Our first Thai monkey sighting

One of these guys stole our bananas...

Monkey fight!

Monkey with a coconut

Railay West

Lunch boats

By , April 29, 2013 12:36 pm
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...

Sunset on one of Koh Lanta's beaches

Snorkeling stop on the 4 Island Tour

The other side of Lanta... Lanta Old Town

4 Island Tour scenery

Swimming through the dark at Emerald Cove

The light at the end of the tunnel

In the secret lagoon of Emerald Cave

Looking up in the lagoon

Playing with water effects

Stunning!

Looking up in the lagoon

Island lunch on Koh Ngai

Paradise!

Koh Lanta beach

Koh Lanta tidal pools

Lanta sunset

Good night Lanta!

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.

By , April 25, 2013 3:53 pm
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.

Koh Lanta sunset

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

Entering Emerald Cave, an 85 m water tunnel (the only entrance to the lagoon in the centre of the island)

The lagoon emerges... the light at the end of the tunnel!

Snorkelling at one of the islands.  They feed the fish, so there are lots to see.

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).

At our Ao Nammao guesthouse

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.

Railay Beach West

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.

Docks at Ao Nammao

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

Kitesurfing at Hua Hin beach

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.

Beach on Koh Tao

Jan. 28 - After nearly a year, we're finally back in the water. Two dives (and a little seasickness for Ashley).

Diving!

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.

Beach on Koh Samui, Grandfather Rock

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.

Koh Ngui... talk about paradise!