Thailand 2004 Trip Journal

By September 19, 2004 4:05PM [link]

September 2nd (Thursday)

My journey started in Seattle -- the same place it would end for both of us, but Alysa began her multi-national journey in Vancouver, Canada where she had been at a scientific conference all week. It's always a little dangerous having one international trip begin only hours after another one ends, so it was with some trepidation that I glanced idly at the news reports that afternoon while waiting for her to return. Luckily for us, there weren't any delays at the border crossing, and she arrived back in Seattle with plenty of time to spare.

So began our final preparations for the trip. We double-checked everything as we hastily crammed a few final things into the last nooks and crannies of our backpacks. We left the apartment around 10pm and started walking over to the bus stops in front of Terry and Lander. On the way, we were happily surprised at how little stuff we were bringing (just one small backpack each!), but at the same time we were startled to realize that, in an attempt to minimize the amount of stuff we brought (to achieve the aforementioned happy surprise) we both had neglected to bring our bus passes! No worries though, we had a few bucks to pay the fare and took our seats on the #72 to downtown.

Metro bus transfers in hand, we got off the bus in front of the Bon Marche downtown and walked over to 2nd avenue to await the #174 to the airport. Some last minute phone calls with James and a brief conversation with the friend of some Turkish tourists later, we got on the next bus. On the bus, a talkative, middle aged, possibly inebriated but definitely gregarious man managed to entertain, offend, and converse with everyone on the bus before being silenced by the tired driver.

Just before midnight, we pulled into Seatac and our trip had begun!

September 3rd (Friday)

We pinched each other to stay awake while awaiting our 2am departure and tried to watch the mindless airport news channel. After midnight, airports are a lot less crowded, and all the little trinket and magazine stores that line the hallways are closed, so there's not as much to do. I paced back and forth to keep my legs moving before the long flight and to stay alert. (It was mid-afternoon in Thailand. Better to stay awake now to lessen jet lag -- or so the theory went, at least.)

Finally, our flight was called. The smartly dressed flight attendants from China Airlines showed us our seats and the twelve hour flight to Taipei began. Did I mention it was twelve (12) hours long? Yes, I know there are sixteen, eighteen, and probably even twenty-hour flights to God-knows-where, but it was still not a short flight. Plus, we crossed the International Date Line so when you add all the time lost to the black hole that is world time zone jumping, we were on that plane for a while.

September 4th (Saturday)


We had a couple of hours layover, and spent the first part wandering around the lower, secret (not really, but it felt like it) part of the airport. There were cute little drinking water machines with colored buttons labeled in Chinese. (Or should that be coloured? I don't know which spellings they use in Taiwan.) There were cuter, littler paper sleeve cup dispensers near the water machines. We unfolded one of the sleeves, guessed that the blue button meant cold water, and were rewarded with cool and refreshing water! I turned my cell phone on to see if it would work, and not only did it work, but I was greeted with a "Welcome to Taiwan" text message. Whee!

After this, we went up the stairs and were right back in the middle of a bustling international airport. There were people going every which way catching one flight or another. We killed a little bit of time in the gift shops and made our way over to our next flight.

Hong Kong

As we approached from the sky, the island sparkled ocean leading up to HKG was impressive. The sea looked very green, and many islands of varying sizes were everywhere. The islands looked like they had a light brownish soil, but were covered in greenery. Boats of all types were traveling around. Inbound, outbound, and whoknowswhere-bound. Little fishing boats and large ocean-bound ships that could carry enormous amounts of freight all the way to Seattle.

We had to get off the plane even though the same plane would take us to Bangkok (so they could sweep the plane to make sure no stray bags were left behind with nefarious intent). On the way off the plane, they affixed special stickers to the Bangkok-bound so that we'd be sent to the right place. Then, we made our way upstairs after being pointed in the right direction by some other friendly folks from Seattle and waited again. We looked out the windows at the tall nest of circular towers across the way from the airport until they called our flight once again.


Back on the plane for our final hop to BKK. One more mysterious meal later and we were there. We got off the plane in Bangkok and (this will become a theme as the story goes on) I was immediately surprised at how many western-looking tourists there were. We made our way through customs/immigration, and into the wild! OK, not really that wild. We were still in an international airport after all.

We walked over to the railway station, past a smiling airport guard and into the hot, muggy air outside. We went out to the walkway over the platforms, and over to the other side. Hoping to find a ticketbooth, we instead found nothing but food stalls. Remembering that the guidebook had told us to get a ticket before going out to the platform, we were slightly puzzled and returned to the airport side. Past the smiling guard again. Still no ticket booth. We asked at the information booth, and they told us that the ticket booth was, in fact, on the platform itself. So we walked again past the still-smiling guard and made our way out to the northbound platform. There, we got tickets for the overnight A/C sleeper train to Chiang Mai. WhooHoo!

The only problem was that we still had 4+ hours to kill before the train was to leave. We sat on the platform for a bit (somewhat exhausted from all the traveling thusfar), but then decided that sitting on a railway platform, even a railway platform in Thailand, was a rather dull way to spend four hours. So we got up and walked around. This being Thailand, of course there was a beautiful Wat down the street. We walked through some very busy streets over to the Wat, removed our shoes and entered the pavilion. There, we took the first of countless photos of Buddha images (statues).

This temple, like most Wats in Thailand, was visually stunning -- the main pavilion hall being rectangular shaped with the main Buddha image on the far end from where you enter, though there are quite a few sub altars with many Buddhas everywhere. After spending some time there, we left the wat. Not wanting to get too lost with out train coming, we made our way back to the airport A/C to hide from the heat. We ate a snack-meal at an airport restaurant (oooh! Spicy!) and hung out watching soccer with some other weary travelers at the airport lounge.

Finally, it was time to head back to the train train platform. We used the nice airport restrooms one last time and made our way out to the station. (Past a different smiling airport guard this time -- the first one's shift must have ended.) The train pulled into the station, we jumped in and we were off! The sun sets very quickly this close to the equator, so it was dark as the train left even though it felt like it was bright daylight just minutes ago. But that's ok, our thoughts of spending the evening watching the countryside fly by were already squashed by something else: it was 4am in Seattle and we had been up a very long time. Sleep! We crashed very soon after boarding the train and slept for most of the 14 hour journey. Thailand was flying by in the night but we were too sleepy to see it. Don't worry, we'd have other chances, and in the daylight too.

September 5th (Sunday)

The train pulled into the Chiang Mai station, and we got off. Slightly bewildered, and finally in a city that we were going to actually stay in, and not merely pass through, we wandered off the platform only to be hit with a barrage of taxi services and guest house pushers. Knowing that it might now be the wisest thing to do, but also knowing that we could always take the free ride into town and go somewhere else if the resulting guesthouse wasn't up to snuff, we went with one of the people there: a friendly charismatic woman pushing the "Chiang Mai Guesthouse" (a 150 Baht barebones place with a bathroom down the hall, a cold shower only, and no TP). Luckily, it was hot enough that a cold shower was actually nice, and we had brought our own TP.

So after planes and trains, we finally found ourselves aboard an automobile. (A songthaew - a pickup truck with a roof over the back but still very open to the air on the sides and rear. They have benches in back that are parallel to the long side of the truck and serve as a common taxi-like vehicle in Thailand.) An our-age-ish pair of sisters from England and a middle-aged couple (Thai woman who was originally from that area with a man from OZ (NZ?) here on vacation) shared the ride with us. The guesthouse proprietor was very talkative and showed us the room and shared facilities. We thought it over and decided to stay, paying her the 150 Baht ($3.75) for the night. Then, we set out to explore Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai is an amazing city. The main town is surrounded by a square ancient red brick wall that is 15 feet high in some parts and still formidable, while in other parts it's completely non-existent due to ruin, with varying stages in between. Traffic flows in a loop pattern around the city, and while nothing compared to Bangkok, it's still quite bustling.

We had not yet eaten breakfast, and while walking along the wall, we stumbled upon a place called the "Art Cafe" that served breakfast burritos. Not quite ready to start eating Thai food for 3 meals a day, we decided that two was enough and went in for a nice breakfast. Then, we spent the rest of the morning walking around the inner city, stopping at various Wats. Chaing Mai has as many Wats as Bangkok, despite being only 10-15% the size, which makes for what seems like a Wat every other block. Each Wat is an enclosed compound with a few buildings and a courtyard inside. Monks reside there (in fact, at least 5 monks must be in residence before it's officially a Wat.) They serve as prayer centers for the Buddhist community, but also as community centers. You'll see basketball hoops, people doing aerobics or Tai Chi, meetings of various types, dogs, cats, chickens, and all sorts of other random things.

We stopped for a soda at a place that was soon to be our favorite Chiang Mai eatery, a curry joint on the moat that (along with the brick wall) encircles the old city called "Aroon (Rai)". This time, we were just there for drinks, but we glanced at the dinner menu and, after spending the afternoon walking around to a few more Wats, decided to come back for dinner. They had all sorts of curries and other great Thai food, and it was quite cheap too, with most dishes costing only about a dollar, including the best Phad Thai I've ever had.

Then, the jet lag was still affecting us, so we stopped back at the guesthouse for a quick nap, waking up as it was getting dark. We'd heard from a few people how fabulous the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar was, so we decided to check it out. (It's located in an area of a few city blocks that were only a half mile or so from where we were staying.)

Suffice it to say, we were underwhelmed. From what we had read, I was expecting something out of a sci-fi novel, with all sorts of crazy items, people swallowing fire, a constant drum beat in the background, people buying and selling unicorns and other mythical beasts, jugglers on the corner, etc. Instead, what we found was booth after booth packed into too small a space, containing the same tourist trinkets, T-shirts, and pirated DVDs you find all over the place, with people saying "hello" looking rather bored in an attempt to get all the tourists walking slowly by into their shop. Oh well, it was an interesting experience in claustrophobia.

On the way back, we stopped by one of the many outdoor bars along Loi Kroh road (which I was always calling Leo Carillo after the park in southern Califorina that I used to go to as a kid). We had a drink and watched a little soccer on TV. (There were often soccer games on TV wherever we went, alternating between European club league games, and World Cup qualifying matches for the Asian region. We even saw Thailand's national team play once or twice.)

Then, it was back to the Chiang Mai Guesthouse for a good night's sleep.

September 6th (Monday)

In the morning, we decided to upgrade our lodgings a little bit, and checked out of the guesthouse. We walked over to the Top North Hotel, a place just inside the old city walls/moat. This was an actual hotel (if still a little barebones by US standards). It even had a swimming pool!

After checking into the hotel, we went over to the area of the city where the sonthaew gather to take people to Doi Suthep (a large, famous Wat about 25 km outside of the city). Supposedly, people gather there, and when there are 6-8 people that want to go, they all pay their 30-40 Baht and head up. Unfortunately, by the time we had checked into our hotel and made it over there, most of the people that wanted to go had already left. There was only one Irish woman waiting there for more people to show up.

We waited for a little while with her, then since it was the low season decided that it was going to be a while before enough people arrived. We didn't feel like splitting the songthaew's entire fee just between the three of us, so we gave up and decided to go tomorrow instead. (The songthaew driver was flustered to see the three people he had managed to collect all leaving at the same time!)

We spent the remainder of the morning walking around to more Wats, eventually making it over to a place called Darret's for lunch. They have a Thai-food buffet for about $1.50, which is great because it meant we could eat more than the usual Thai-sized portions -- I really got full!) Darret's is a fun little place: it's a guesthouse, and a restaurant, and a used book exchange, and the staff there are really friendly.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel and spent the afternoon lazily in front of the pool, swimming, reading, napping. We were in vacation mode as opposed to trip mode for a little while. This was followed by dinner at Aroon (Rai)'s again.

After dinner, we walked over to a different nighttime market. Instead of the "Night Bazaar ", there is another place where people set up booths in the evening. This time, the customers are almost entirely Thai (we only saw one or two other westerners there). While the market was much smaller and quieter, it was a lot more friendly (the booth-keepers didn't keep trying to entice you into their shop). It felt like (and was) so much less of a tourist trap than the Night Bazzar -- the clothes there were the kind people actually wear, and the items were the kind people actually use, instead of trinkets and endless pirated CDs. We again didn't buy anything, but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless.

September 7th (Tuesday)

On Tuesday we woke up and decided to stay at the hotel one more night. Also, instead of going back to wait for the songthaew to Doi Suthep, we decided it might be fun to take an organized tour for a change. We got tickets for the afternoon Doi Suthep / Hmong Village guided tour.

That morning, we saw still more beautiful Wats. We had been instructed by a friendly Thai woman we met in a Wat as to which were the four most important Wats in Chiang Mai, so we went around to see the ones we had previously missed. We ate lunch again at Darret's buffet, and made it back in time for our 1pm tour.

As it turned out, Alysa and I were the only ones that had signed up for the tour! (It was still the low season after all.) So we effectively had a private tour, with our gude (who's name was pronounced "poo-eey". If I were to romanize the spelling, I would write it as "Phui", but I never saw her write it either in Thai or roman letters.)

The tour bus made its way outside of Chiang Mai and up the hill. Then, we stopped at Doi Suthep and changed over to a songthaew for the remainder of the journey up the steep roads to the Hmong village (that was the first stop on the tour).

The guidebooks say that, due to its proximity to the city, this particular village is the least authentic and the most touristed of the "Hill Tribe" villages in Thailand. (Many of the villages require multi day treks to reach.) It also feels a little weird walking around a village like that -- people are living here and we're treating it like a tourist attraction. Luckily (well, maybe) the "villagers" are fully aware of this and have decided to capitalize on the opportunity by lining the streets with shops so that they get something out of the many tourists that come by every day.

From the Hmong village, we went back to Doi Suthep. There are many beautiful Wats in Chiang Mai, but Doi Suthep is really an impressive. Even the location is inspiring, up on a hill with aerial views back down to Chiang Mai. It's a rather extensive complex, with many buildings and many many Buddha images. There's even a banyan tree growing in the complex (it's said that the Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a banyan tree. Not this one, but one like it in India.) Our guide was great, full of historical background and other anecdotes as she took us around the temple.

Finally, we walked back down the 307 (or was it 306?) steps from the temple down to the parking lot and headed back into Chiang Mai. On our last evening, we had one more dinner at Aroon (Rai), and walked back over to a temple that had been partially closed the previous day, hoping to see the rest of it. Unfortunately, it was still closed, but we did meet a nice man who's father (uncle? I don't remember) was a monk. He had stopped by the Wat for a visit. He was very excited about everything and was happy to meet us and tell us all about his family, kids, the person he knows in San Diego, everything.

He, like many other people, also told us about the factories just outside of town where they make all sorts of crafts, etc. This guy just sounded like he was proud of his region and wanted us to see what they produced, but with other people, the "factory tour" sounded kinda like an opportunity to sell more goods to tourists. (Albeit locally produced goods.) Perhaps fortunately, perhaps not, we never made it out to the factory tours.

September 8th (Wednesday)

On Wednesday morning, we checked out of the hotel and took a songthaew to the bus terminal. There, we got tickets for the 9am (8?) bus south to Sukothai. The bus ride was 5 or 6 hours long, and was quite a good trip. They played this ridiculous movie dubbed into Thai called "I'm gonna get you, Sucka!", but luckily the bus had nice large windows and we could see the countryside stream by. On the way, there were several police checkpoints where they came aboard and checked everyone's ID, ostensibly at least to catch illegal immigrants. Once they even pulled a guy off the bus for additional questioning, but he got back on again afterwards (apparently) none the worse off. If I spoke Thai, or was more familiar with Thai law, I might be able to comment more on this, but since I don't, I'll summarize it with: "weird".

When we arrived in Sukothai, we had a bit of a run-in with the local taxi and guesthouse mafia. Somehow, the taxi drivers and the guesthouses had an arrangement where there were kickbacks for pushing incoming tourists towards certain guesthouses. I'm not sure if the taxi drivers or the guesthouse operators were in charge of the relationship, but they were both pretty serious about it.

From the bus station, the taxi guy was going to give us a great deal to go to a few particular guesthouses and wasn't interested in taking us anywhere else. Looking at the map, the place we wanted to stay was near one of them, so we told him we'd consider his recommendation. We then went along with him, paid him for the ride, made a show of checking the place out, and then said "no thanks" and started walking down the street to the place we wanted to go.

At which point both the guesthouse operators and the taxi guy (who was still outside waiting for us even though we didn't ask him to), insisted that we get back in the taxi and he'd take us to one of the other places on their list. We kept telling them "no, we're going down the street instead", and they followed us for a little while repeatedly telling us to get back in the taxi before finally getting the hint that we weren't going along with their plan. And it was a good thing too, because the place we ended up staying (the TR Guesthouse) turned out to be the best place we'd stayed in yet!

The owner was very friendly, and showed us (along with a Japanese gal who was arriving at the same time as us) a map of the runs. He pointed out which were the most important ones, and gave us advice on renting bicycles and riding around. He also told us about the town and answered a bunch of questions. The main town where people live is called New Sukothai and it's about 12 km from the ancient ruins at Old Sukothai. (Songthaews run back and forth all day long between them.)

We ate a quick lunch at the guesthouse, and then hopped on a songthaew for Old Sukothai. There, we rented bicycles for the afternoon to ride around all the runs. The bikes felt like they were made sometime around the last Burmese invasion (and looked like the one the wicked witch of the west rides in Kansas in the tornado), but they did just fine. This wasn't the Tour de France after all, just an afternoon ride around the ruins. It was really fun riding from ruin to ruin and the whole area was a sort of park.

Some people were riding around on motor bikes, but most of them, were riding on bicycles like us (and most of the bicycles were granny bikes like ours too.) We ran into a nice Indian couple from the US a few times at various ruin sites, plus one mysterious man that the dogs didn't seem to like -- they barked at him wherever he went.

The ruins were really fun. Isolated from all the hustle and bustle of modern life, they consisted of old brick structures that were in varying states of ruin. Except for a few chedis, none had roofs anymore. Some still had the pillars that may have once held a roof, while others were merely elevated platforms. Large Buddha images and statues were everywhere -- Thailand has been a strongly Buddhist region for a long time now.

The most fascinating site was also the farthest away. It was a temple that was very large, I'd guess something like 5 meters high. The temple was tall and skinny, and closed on all four sides except for a slit opening in the front through which you could see a massive Buddha statue peeking out. It was really quite visually stunning. Even just the statue itself inside the temple is amazing, but the effect of the Buddha peering out through the slit is amazing.

Our bikes had to be returned by 6pm, so we made our way back to the park entrance to take them back, then hopped on a songthaew back to New Sukothai and went back to the guesthouse. We tried to walk around the town a bit, but there wasn't much going on, so we went back for some dinner and watched soccer on TV with the guesthouse owners.

September 9th (Thursday)

On Thursday, we went back to the bus station and got some tickets to Autthaya. In my haste, I accidentally got tickets on a private tour bus instead of the state run bus system. They fed us on that bus, so the cost wasn't too much more, but the private bus dropped us off on the highway outside of town instead of at the bus station (we left from the same bus station as the state run buses, so why we didn't end up at the same station I don't know). But we ended up on the highway in the middle of a taxi-man controlled market for a ride into town and had to overpay a bit. Oh well, lesson learned. Next time be sure I'm at the correct ticket counter. It was actually an interesting experience, since this bus had a far more yuppie cross section of Thai people on it. We also never had to go through any police checkpoints, though it may be that there simply were none on this section of highway. In general though, I recommend getting tickets at the state run bus if you can.

In Autthaya, we hoped to stay at a guesthouse called "Tony's Place" since it had been recommended by a couple from Seattle that we met at a temple in Chiang Mai. Tony's was a combination guesthouse / restaurant / movie theater / hangout for tourists from everywhere. Unfortunately, it was full for the night so we had to go down the street to a place called Chantana. Chantana looked on the surface to be very nice and clean, through only later did we learn their dark secret: bed bugs!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. After checking in but before we found the bedbugs, we went for a walk around town and ended up getting stuck in a monsoon! The rain came so suddenly that we were a little ways from the guesthouse when it started downpouring. We took shelter inside a nearby wat and waited for 30-45 minutes while buckets of water fell from the sky. Then, we walked back to the guesthouse and headed over to Tony's for some dinner.

September 10th (Friday)

The next morning, we decided to escape the bedbugs and went back to Tony's, who this time had space for us. Then we rented some more bicycles and set out to explore the ruins of Ayutthaya!

Unlike Sukothai, the ruins in Ayutthaya are interspersed with the modern city. So instead of a nice tranquil park setting between each site of ruins, there are busy streets with heavy traffic. Which means you spend half the time dodging large trucks and the other half of the time figuring out which turn to take while navigating the map in the guidebook. Once you get off the bike at each ruin site though, it's nice and quiet -- you can walk around and take photos and be a tourist without having to know there's a big city just beyond the walls. At many of the ruin sites in Ayutthaya, there are large lineups of Buddha images, all missing their heads. When the Burmese invaded Thailand in the 18th century, Ayutthaya was the capital of the nation. The invading army cut the heads off the Buddha statues as they occupied the area, and the statues remain headless to this day. (Complete with amusing signs instructing tourists not to sit behind the statue and take photos which make it look like your head is on top of the Buddha statue. ;-)

One of the places we stopped at was a museum. It was a nice air-conditioned escape from the heat, plus it had exhibits detailing Thailand's (and specifically Ayutthaya's) history. A group of schoolchildren were there with us in the museum, which made it slightly chaotic but a fun experience.

Eventually, we made our way back, returned our bicycles, and enjoyed a cold drink in the open-air restaurant attached to our guesthouse. That evening, a boat tour was scheduled to go around the island (Ayutthaya consists mainly of a large island encircled by a river. There are several bridges connecting the island to the mainland, but most of the exciting stuff -- including the ancient ruins and our guesthouse -- is on the island.) We decided to take the tour, along with another couple from Spain. The tour was a fun little ride in a longboat, and lasted for 2-3 hours stopping at 4-5 Wats along the way. The Wats were both ancient and Modern - the ancient ones being vast outdoor stone structures with old stone Buddha statues, and the modern ones being the same style as can be found all over Thailand: a compound with buildings, beautiful ornate Buddha statues, and busy with orange-draped monks and lots of activity.

After the boat tour, we decided to try something I like to do at least once in every country I visit: go to the McDonald's. Yes, they're a sign of American everywhere-presence, but it's also interesting to note the differences between McDonald's around the world. Also, sometimes after all the curry you just want some French Fries. In general, McDonald's in Thailand is closer to those in Chicago than the one's in India are, though they're all different in their own ways.

September 11th (Saturday)

We took a taxi to the train station, and were fumbling through buying a ticket to Bangkok in Thai. Once the ticket agent learned where we were going, he hurriedly told us that the train was about to depart! He hastily sold us two 3rd class tickets for the two-hour journey and we ran out to the platform onto the train just moments before it pulled out of the station. Whew! (Trains between Ayutthaya and Bangkok leave roughly every hour, so if we had missed this one we wouldn't have been set back too much, but it was still an adventure in racing to the correct train.) Then, we sat back and enjoyed the ride. As we approached Bangkok, the city grew denser and denser by the minute.

We got off the train just outside of Bangkok at the airport, and stepped out onto the platform just opposite from where we had caught the train to Chiang Mai exactly one week earlier. It was interesting to remember, and this marked the end of the first part of our trip. One Saturday we arrived in Thailand. The following Saturday we arrived back at the airport having been to various places north of Bangkok. Over the next week we would see Bangkok and spend some time on a few islands in the Gulf of Thailand, finally making our way back to the airport again the following Saturday for our trip home.

This time at the airport we had hoped to walk up to the ticket counter and get some tickets for a plane to Ko Samui. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and the guidebooks and a few people we had talked to indicated that it was a good way to travel -- that way you don't have to plan in advance of when you want to depart. Unfortunately, when we were talking to the ticketing agent, we learned that though they did indeed have tickets for a flight that departs in a couple hours, it would be significantly cheaper if we bought our tickets even one day in advance over the internet and left tomorrow instead. We made some brief calculations with our budget and decided that leaving tomorrow instead of today would mean the difference between some pretty shabby places to stay in on the island instead of some nicer ones if we wanted to stay on budget.

At this point we got into a little bit of traveler's funk. We were a little disappointed that we wouldn't be able to leave for the islands, a little frazzled because we weren't quite sure what we were going do to, and we wandered around the airport for a while deciding. Eventually, we decided to go into Bangkok for the remainder of that day, see what we could see, and to get tickets in an internet cafe to leave for Ko Samui tomorrow.

We took the train the rest of the way into Bangkok, got a room at the Sathorn Inn just off Thanon Silom and set out to explore the city, walking around that area of southern Bangkok. We went to Lumpini park, relaxed a bit, and went to an Irish pub for late-lunch / early-dinner. (Where we sat next to a few middle aged western men with their young Thai "girlfriends" having dinner.) Then, we walked around some more, felt a little overwhelmed by the pollution and tired from traveling, so we went back to our hotel in the early evening for an early night. (Stopping at an internet cafe to get some tickets to Ko Samui for the following day.) We watched Groundhog Day on the TV (the first place we stayed in all trip with a TV). Luckily for us, it was in English with Thai subtitles.

September 12th (Sunday)

Sunday morning we woke up and took the Airport Bus back to the airport. We caught our plane to Ko Samui and took the short flight to the island down south. The airport on Ko Samui was such a typical "tropical island airport". It's outdoors, and there are palm trees everywhere, and it's of course very touristy. The taxi drivers are eager to take the tourists from their plane to wherever they're going on the island, and we caught a van-taxi to Hat Bangrak (Big Buddha Beach). The beach is named after a large (12m) bronzed statue of Buddha in a temple on a peninsula on one side of the beach. You can see the Buddha from everywhere on the beach. We had originally intended to stay at a place called Shambla but it was full so we went next door to a place called Kinnaree, which had nice bungalows on the beach. We went for a non-AC bungalow, which was right off the beach. Just outside our bungalow, there was a nice little gazebo from which you could see the sand, the waves, the beach up and down. We spent the rest of the day lazing around: alternating between swimming in the ocean and reading in the sun-shelter of the gazebo. The water was very shallow for a long way out to sea, so we swam out 50 meters or so and were just barely beyond being able to touch the bottom with our feet.

That night, we walked up the beach looking for a place to eat, and eventually found an Indian restaurant. We wandered up from the beach to the restaurant that had two front-sides: one facing the street and one facing the beach. People came and went from both directions -- it was sort of novel (to me at any rate). We ate some nice (Indian) curry for dinner, and then wandered back down the beach to our bungalow. What a nice relaxing tropical life ;-)

September 13th (Monday)

The next day, we woke up and decided to hike to the Big Buddha. We walked down the beach eastwards towards the statue, and an hour or so later we were there. The statue really is huge, and there's a little compound encircling it, with some stairs leading up to the Buddha on top of a small hill. Organized tour guides were there showing around pale-skinned tourists with cameras (not that we were any different.) I'm sure many people come to Thailand just to go to the beaches, so this gives a small feeling for what it's like to be in a Thai Wat to those that don't get a chance to go to Chiang Mai or Bangkok. We had a small snack here before setting out again. On the way back, we stopped in the tourist-trap stores the surround the temple, and looked at some clothing and other things before deciding that we were just window shopping.

We walked back along the beach to our bungalow, and settled in for a nice afternoon of reading, swimming, relaxing, and in general being on vacation. I was working my way through a cheesy spy novel, while Alysa was reading a fantasy book she had picked up a few days earlier. While we were reading in the gazebo, a couple from Wales walked by asking us about the Big Buddha, and we gave them a few directions as they walked down the beach. Then, a few hours later we saw them come back ... they accused us of being lazy bums as we hadn't moved since they first came by! Then, they later showed up with a bottle of coke and vodka, which we shared sipping in the gazebo and talked for a while as the sun set. Their names were Catherine and Dillon, and they had been traveling around Thailand, like us, for a week or so. Mostly focusing on the south, though they had been to Bangkok already.

We decided to go to dinner down the road, and went our separate ways for 30 mins or so to get ready. During that time, the island decided to remind us that it was in fact still monsoon season and it began to rain! I mean really rain. It was coming down in buckets! We ran to the restaurant only a couple buildings away but were soaked. The proprietor lent us some towels, which were much appreciated. The rain kept falling through our entire dinner, which consisted of some more curry and a few beers, all very good. The food in a more resort-like area like this one was much more expensive than in Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand, but prices were still very reasonable by Seattle standards.

After dinner, we decided to brave the rain and run back up the street to our bungalows. The restaurant owner offered to lend us umbrellas for use on the way home, but we (perhaps foolishly) declined thinking "how much wetter can we get?" Again, we were startled by just how wet you can get running a couple hundred feet in a monsoon!

September 14th (Tuesday)

The next day, our plan was to get up and take the ferry to the island directly to the North, Ko Pha-Ngan. The ferry left from a pier in the middle of the beach we were staying on (Big Buddha beach is on the North end of Samui.) We wanted to make sure we got the first ferry of the day so that we could find lodging before it all filled up, so we woke up early and went out to get ferry tickets first thing in the morning. The boat left, filled with twenty-something backpackers. Later, we would return to Ko Samui for one night at a fairly ritzy part of the beach, but even coming from the only-partially-resort-like area at Big Buddha where we had been for a couple days, we immediately noticed a difference in the people going to Ko Pha-Ngan. For the most part, they were foreigners, in their early 20s, and had the "backpacker" look. It was like we were transported to some Evergreen State College summer field trip, or a festival in Berkeley, California. I don't mean this in a bad way at all -- it was actually really fun. Just a little different.

When the boat left, Pha-Ngan was a hilly island that we could barely make out across the sea, and Samui was the sand and rocks and trees around us. Over the hour or so that the boat took, their positions gradually reversed, with Samui getting smaller while Pha-Ngan got larger until they had fully swapped roles. The ferry landed in the south-east corner of Pha-Ngan on Hat Rin beach, which is the most common (and for us, only) destination on Pha-Ngan. Many people take the ferry directly from the mainland, which arrives on the west side of the island, and then have to make their way to Hat Rin. By taking the Samui boat, we bypassed the extra journey. But we also missed seeing the rest of the island. Oh well, another trip. It's also fairly common to rent motorcycles and ride around these islands. Neither one of us knew a thing about motorcycles, certainly not how to drive one, so we didn't get a chance to do this either.

The most concentrated "action" on Pha-Ngan happens on a peninsula on the southeast corner of the island. The east and west sides of the peninsula are called (respectively) Hat Rin Nok, and Hat Rin Nai. (We saw them written in English as "Sunset beach" and "Sunrise beach", but I don't know if that's an actual translation, or merely an easy-to-remember naming for the silly travelers who can't be bothered to learn the real names.) Being the tourist trap that this island is, we were hit with a barrage of people pushing various guest houses, restaurants, boat rides, motorcycle rentals, and the like. This happened at Samui too, but it was funny to see the difference in approach they took here, where the primary target was the backpacker crowd. They all took on a "made by travelers for travelers" style which you didn't see on Samui. One guy had a very Rastafarian style as he handed out little flyers to everyone getting off the boat.

We walked through the little town, which was a blast. It was, quite literally, a backpacker paradise. There were a lot of tourists everywhere we went in Thailand, but here there were more tourists than locals. Young people milling about everywhere. Every group was speaking a different language. Fun little streets with the occasional car, the semi-frequent motorcycle, and people walking all the time. It was an experience unlike any I'd had before.

We made our way over to the sunrise beach on the other side of town, and started looking for a place to stay for the night. We stopped at a few places and eventually settled on the "Mountain Bungalows", named because they're set up on the hillside overlooking the beach. Then, we went back down and sat on the beach for a little while. We got a chicken sandwich at "Chicken corner", which is at one of the intersections in town and has a famous chicken sandwich shop. We had dinner at one of the many semi-outdoor restaurants where they show pirated movies. Most of the restaurants that line the streets of town have roofs to keep out the rain, but only three walls, so they're open to the street. They all publish movie schedules on whiteboards by the street, and you wander by looking for a place that has the type of food you're looking for and is playing a movie you want to see.

As night fell, we went back to the beach where the party was just getting started! We went to a drink stand on the beach and got a "bucket", which is a can of coke, a bottle of red bull, and a little bottle of Sangsom rum. They mix it all up for you in a mini plastic bucket, and give you a bunch of straws so you can share with friends. We took our bucket and sat down on the beach and enjoyed the atmosphere.

September 15th (Wednesday)

The next day we decided to get a little farther inland, so we left the Mountain Bungalows and began walking back through the town. We found a nice place just off one of the main roads and did some quick laundry in the sink. The warm weather and breeze ensured that our clothes would dry quickly after we hung them up. We then set out again to another lazy day of wandering around the town, eating in outdoor restaurants with pirated movies playing, relaxing on the beach. You know, the "we're on vacation on a tropical island" life. We went to chicken corner again for another tasty chicken sandwich.

Towards evening, we decided to get a Thai Massage. They have a special style of massage in Thailand, and everywhere you go, there are masseurs waiting to give massages to tourists. (Some of which are more questionable than others -- you can usually tell the types of "massage" apart by whether they have pictures of scantily clad women pasted all over the front of the shop. We stayed out of those ones. ;-) Neither of us had ever had a Thai massage, and getting one was one of our goals for the trip, despite the fact that descriptions of Thai massage I'd read in the guidebooks made them sound less than appealing. More on that later. A friend had recommended a massage place in Pha-Ngan, so we decided to try it out.

An hour or so later, we emerged, having been poked and prodded every which way. Thai massage is ... interesting. Some people really like it, but we didn't much care for it. For me, it kinda felt like everything I didn't like about yoga (bending my joints in funny ways I'm not sure they're supposed to bend), without any of the good aspects of yoga (flexibility and strength training). It wasn't all bad -- some of it was more like a normal massage and relaxing. But if I ever do this again I'm sticking to the "western" massage which they also offer.

For anyone reading this with a trip to Thailand in mind, I'd still recommend getting a Thai massage at least once. Some people really like them, and it's a cultural experience too. Really, for a few bucks an hour you can't go wrong. But just be forewarned. And make sure to tell them if it hurts or you're not supposed to bend that way. ;-)

September 16th (Thursday)

On Thursday we began our multi-hop journey back to Seattle. Each successive day would find us one step closer. (Pha-Ngan to Samui today, to Bangkok tomorrow, and to Seattle the following day.)

We took the boat back to Samui, arriving again on Big Buddha beach. This time, we wanted to go to a different part of the island, so we caught a ride to Chaweng beach. Samui is a more highly populated island, and the tourist crowd it caters to is a bit older and less "backpacker" than on Pha-Ngan. There are a lot of fancy resorts along this beach, but there are reasonably priced places too. We found one of them and worked hard at being beach bums again. The beach is really long, and we walked up and down the beach both in and outside of the ocean. This is where I got my only (mild) sunburn of the trip, by foolishly walking around with no shirt in the noontime tropical sun without sunscreen. Oh well, it wasn't too bad, just a little dehydrating. After that experience, I decided that I was done with sun for the rest of the year, and resolved to wear either sunscreen or a thick shirt for the rest of the trip.

In the evening, we went to a sports bar, and sat outdoors eating good food and watching soccer matches on TV. Afterwards, we stopped at a grocery store to get some crackers and other snack foods and wandered around the town a bit.

As an interesting (to me at least) aside, Chaweng beach is now the farthest south I've ever been, at less than 10 degrees latitude. My previous travels to South India were farther north than this.

September 17th (Friday)

We woke up, packed, and headed back to the airport to catch our flight back to Bangkok. It was a fairly early flight, which we hoped would give us enough time to be tourists in the city, as we had only spent one partial day there previously and hadn't seen much yet. We decide to stay along Thanon Ko San (Ko San Road), both to experience the backpacker hangout in Bangkok, and for its proximity to the royal palace and some other sites we wanted to see.

We took the airport bus out to Ko San, and found a place to stay right in the middle of all the action. Then, we set out to explore the Royal Palace and other sites in the area. Unfortunately, we were too late to see the Royal Palace, as it was just closing when we were arriving. But we did see the national museum, and a few really nice wats, including Wat Pho (with the giant reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). The latter of which we took a little ferry boat across the river to see.

One really interesting thing about walking around this area was the number of people trying to get us to see a "Big White Buddha". The first guy seemed innocent enough -- wanted to chat with us and asked us where we were from, all that. Then he casually worked it into the conversation that there's this big white Buddha across town that we should really go see. He (of course) had his friend the taxi driver that was ready to take us there, and we politely declined (there were more than enough sites in this area to see and we didn't want to go across town). At this point, we still didn't think much of it -- it's fairly common for taxi drivers to work with folks on the sidewalks directing tourists to particular taxis. As long as the taxi is honest and charges the same fare as the next guy it's no big deal.

But then we came across another person trying to get us to see the "Big White Buddha". And another. And another. Some of them weren't even attached to taxis, though they were all adamant that we go see the Big White Buddha. We never did figure out what was going on. It didn't really seem like a scam (other than pushing us to a particular taxi), but it was interesting nonetheless. Maybe there was a festival going on, or people were just really proud of the Big White Buddha. Or maybe there was some scam going on that we were either too smart or too oblivious to fall for. Regardless, it was interesting. And we never did see the "Big White Buddha".

After all the touristy stuff, we went back to Ko San, and had dinner and a beer at a place down the street from where we were staying. Then, we wandered around the area, doing a bit of shopping, enjoying our last night in Thailand. Our flight was pretty early the next morning, so we were going to have to leave before the first official airport bus departed. We thought we were going to have to catch a Taxi, but during our wandering, we found a bunch of private airport shuttles that left Ko San road at all hours of the morning. So we happily signed up for one that left around 5am.

We also ran into a bunch of Tailors that were eager to make us some nice clothes. Interestingly enough, most of the tailors in Thailand seemed to be Indian rather than Thai. We told them that we were leaving tomorrow so there would be no time to make the clothes before we had to go. "No problem", they said. They could make it by tomorrow. "What time is your flight?" ... "We need to leave at 5am", we said. And they quickly agreed that it would never work by then. Not that we wanted new clothes anyway, but it was a fun exchange nonetheless.

September 18th (Saturday)

We got up ridiculously early after only a few hours of sleep and made our way down to where the airport shuttle would pick us up. We waited a bit as the appointed time came and went. The minutes went by and made us nervous ... what if the shuttle doesn't show up? How are we going to make it to the airport? I glanced anxiously at my watch as the passing minutes seemed like hours.

Finally, the shuttle arrived. It was a large 15-or-so passenger van with a luggage rack on top. We just had one backpack each, so we didn't need to store any luggage in the rack. (Which turned out to be lucky. More on that later.) We jumped in the van and were off!

Or so we thought.

Actually, we had about 87 more stops to make up all over the Ko San area before we actually set off for the airport, including at least one additional stop at the same place where we caught the van! The driver (apparently) had to make sure he found everyone on his passenger list before really setting off. We had plenty of time to catch our plane, so we weren't worried about being late. It was just a little strange to see a stop 20 or so minutes later at the exact same spot where we caught the bus. Are we ever going to get to the airport?

All the going 'round in circles must have put the driver behind schedule. Which (apparently) was not allright with him. The guy drove like London Bridge was falling down, and he was the only one that could stop it ... but only if he got there in the next six and a half minutes! It was like being on the Knight Bus from the movie version of the 3rd Harry Potter story. The guy would spin around corners, and then jam on the gas pedal to accelerate like mad for 10 seconds ... only to slam on the brakes when it came to make the next turn.

At one point, we started to lose the luggage on top of the van ... we saw bits and pieces of it bouncing around on the windows as the ties on top came loose. So we had to stop as the driver re-attached everything.

And then he drove extra-fast (if that's even possible) to make up for the lost time!

It was indeed a wild ride. Hearts beating a little faster than normal, but otherwise in one piece, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Whew, what a fun way to end the trip.

From that point on, our trip was rather mundane. (Though a lot of things would seem mundane after that ride in the Knight Bus.) We had some time to kill so we spent our last few Baht buying some snacks at the airport quick-e-mart and waited for our flight to depart. On the way back, we flew straight from Bangkok to Taipei, rather then through Hong Kong. And from Taipei on to Seattle. This time, the international date line was in our favor, so it was one very long day -- we left Thailand on Saturday morning, and arrived in Seattle the "same" day in the early afternoon.

After arriving in Seattle, we caught the metro bus back home. (And ran into a friend on the bus who had just returned from a trip to Fiji and New Zealand.) Though we had only been gone a short while, it felt great to hear English naively spoken all around us again, and it felt great to be back to the brisk Seattle fall weather. The tropics are great, but I'll take Seattle's climate any day...

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