The Thai word Phalang (I think Pharang is actually correct but that’s how I learned it and the pronunciation is the same) means foreigner, but to my ears it has come to mean Tourist (note the distinction). I have come to view Tourists, to a lesser or greater degree, as stupid, naïve and irresponsible. I know it’s a harsh thing to say as an opening sentence but honestly, after three months of travelling the country I’ve observed the affects tourism has on a place. To bunch Tourists into one general category (as I know you can’t) the common Tourists is a fool on holiday with, thanks to a favourable exchange rate, ridiculous amounts Thai currency. They wander around spending their cash on well… whatever takes their fancy really. Resorts, deck chairs, cocktails, massages, prostitutes, ping-pong shows, lion petting, animal shows, suits, taxis, jet ski rides, parasailing, alcohol, etc. etc. I have encountered loud Aussies, whiney Americans, poncy Brits, and sheer multitudes of secular Russians. The stereotypes aren’t always right, but they definitely exist.
Yes, Tourist is a word I have come to use with a certain amount of venom. Why? Two reasons. One is because of the way the irresponsibly spend their cash and the appearance of the economies which have consequently sprung up to cater to their whims, and the other reason is that I, being white, look just like one and am therefore treated like one.
Tourists like (and pay for) having their photos taken with wild animals. Endangered animals are therefore shot so that their babies can become models, and tigers are put on a heavy diet of sedatives to keep them from eating the tasty looking white people visiting their cages for photos. Eagles lead lives of tethered captivity and crocodiles endure being poked, prodded and dragged around by their tails to the cheer of an audience. Tourists like sex. The sex industry in Thailand exists because of tourists. It’s completely normal to see a middle-aged or elderly gentleman accompanied by a young, attractive Thai woman. Should that woman happen to be a boy? Well they look the other way then too (I have not seen this mind you, but I have heard first-hand accounts).
The months between November and February are known as “Tourist Season” because the weather is relatively cool, it doesn’t rain, and it’s winter in the northern hemisphere. Tourists flock to Thailand’s beaches in their thousands during these times and prices skyrocket. The worst I saw (and had to pay) was a taxi ride on Koh Samet one hundred times the price in Bangkok for the same distance. Thai people move to the tourist destinations for work to meet the insatiable demand, and get in on the money train. They have travelled long distances, taken time away from their homes and families, and are there precisely for the purpose of making money. You can get nearly anything you want from these people provided there is money involved. After all, that is what they are there for. What you can’t easily get however is a conversation, a joke, an exchange of stories, a night out drinking, or a friendship. They take too long and don’t pull enough cash.
And perhaps now you catch a glimpse of my frustration at being in Thailand during tourist season in a tourist area, and being white. If you go to the beautiful places you get treated like a fat white dollar (as we came to know them). The more touristy the destination, the pushier and more numerous the salespeople are. Phuket was the worst we experienced where every taxi or tuk-tuk driver, tailor, and masseuse calls at you from across the street any time you pass. Everyone is a potential customer and everyone buys sooner or later (normally by the third day) – it’s just a matter of persistence. You won’t be left alone. The massage girls there actually will grab you as you walk past and sometimes forcefully drag you into their shops. I’m not kidding. It’s funny the first three or four times. They want to sleep with you. They want to give you happy ending massages. They actually shout “Love you long time!”. They have sold their souls. They. Want. Your. Money.
Okay okay I know, I’m a cynical bastard. And a hypocrite. Yes I’m a tourist too. But I prefer to call myself a Traveller. Yes, I went to a ping pong show with my Kiwi mates. Yes, I saw a crocodile show (and was so appalled that I left half way through). I dined in restaurants and stayed in lodges. I dived, I snorkelled, and I paid and paid like any other fat white dollar out there, and I’m also part of the problem. BUT, I made an honest attempt to be respectful, frugal, and responsible. Thanks to Johnboy and Sas I learned some Thai. I made Thai friends in Bangkok and Hua Hin and caught up with couchsurfers wherever I could. I avoided, when possible, spending money on industries whose side-effects I disliked (i.e. cluttersome deck chairs, noisy jet skis and pushy pedlars). I tried to convince locals I wasn’t just a stupid tourist there to be ripped off. So I shopped around and bartered, more as a point of pride than anything. At times I felt I was being overly stingy and remembered how the Israelis bartering and skimping had annoyed me in Nepal. The irony was not lost on me. At some point you must realise that you are a tourist, you can afford it, you’re expected to pay and you’re here to enjoy yourself. So I followed a sort of middle line, paying when I had to, splashing out occasionally, and following my conscience.
Later, I was thinking to myself how great it would be if there were a way to distinguish between Tourists and Travellers, and I designed this t-shirt. I think it should be compulsory Tourist uniform.
Yes, I am just a tiny bit cynical.
Thai food is great. Thai food in Thailand is amazing. It doesn’t matter where you go, whether you get it from an expensive restaurant or off the street, it’s always good. The curries, the soups, the salads, the fruit shakes (my favourite), the drinking from fresh coconuts and scooping out the flesh, the meat-on-a-stick stalls on the side of the road. It’s all great. I don’t actually talk about the food in the various places I went because well… it’s just all great. It’s just given.
Thailand is, sadly, plagued by corruption. When Johnboy told me about how the police stand on the side of the road and collect money I thought he was being cynical. It was only when we were pulled over ourselves that I realised that’s exactly what they were doing. We were flagged down on our way north to Chiang Mai. Apparently we were doing 120km/h though the police officer had no radar or instruments. But if that’s what he said then it must have been true. Johnboy just opened his wallet and asked “How much“ in Thai. 400 Baht was the reply. Then Sas interjected from the back “Hey, I have to pay it. Last time it was 200.” “Okay, fine.” Johnboy forked out 200 Baht and we were waived on without further incident or record of our passing. Wow. And that’s how you bribe a policeman.
Sas had a lot to say about corruption. She works as an environmental engineer, auditing and certifying waste water systems for hotels. Around Christmas her customers might ask for gifts for their staff, which she provides. That’s how she keeps contracts, and it’s just how it works. I also spoke to an English teacher working ‘illegally’ (i.e. on a tourist visa). His employer simply bribes the Thai immigration authorities and they don’t ask questions. Problem solved.
My second brush with corruption came on Koh Samet, which is described in detail later (under the Koh Samet section).
The roads in Thailand are pretty good. I mean, compared to Nepal they are amazing with tar seal and everything. Multiple lanes, tollways (the King’s highway is free), traffic lights. It’s fairly up-there with western standards. They can be pot-holed, and they’re not always built to spec (due to corruption apparently) so once you leave the cities the left lane can be rough or even unusable (particularly to the north of Thailand), but if you’re prepared to dodge the occasional pothole it’s semi-smooth riding.
Driving however is something else. In contrast to more Indian cultures (I’m thinking Sri Lanka, Nepal and India obviously) Thai drivers rarely use their horns. They also rarely use indicators, lanes or obey traffic signals (a red light on a left turn is actually green when no police are looking). It’s just expected that people will swerve madly between lanes, cut you off, pull out in front of you or tailgate. And it’s no problem. Shrug and get used to it.
…is actually pretty good. Busses go everywhere and although I never took the train, I hear it’s very cheap. You do need to figure the prices out before-hand or get someone Thai to call and book it for you, as buying from a travel agent will inevitably incur a fierce stupid-tax unless you can talk him down. Beware of overnight Tourist busses though. I heard a lot of stories of people losing luggage.
The sky train in Bangkok is as modern as you could wish for and runs directly to the airport. Combined with a short tuk-tuk or taxi drive, you can get anywhere you want to.
Taxis in Bangkok are required to run a meter which doesn’t distinguish Thais from tourists, so taxis in Bangkok are super cheap. Beware of taxi drivers who try to offer you a fixed amount though. Insist they use the meter and make sure they ‘remember’ to turn the meter on once you’re in. They’re sly bastards, some of them.
Taxis in places other than Bangkok will rip what they can from you. If they’ve formed a conglomerate they’ll charge you whatever the ‘tourist rate’ happens to be. Don’t compare it to Bangkok – it’ll just leave you feeling annoyed.
Tuk-tuks in Bangkok are fun. You have to beware of them though too, as they often get ‘sponsored’ by jewlery shops to bring tourists to the shop. Honest Tuk-Tuk drivers might offer you a cheap price in exchange for 10 mins of your time in a jewlery shop (as happened to us, and we happily obliged). Unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers will tell you your destination (temple, market whatever) is unfortunately closed today, BUT there is another tourist market he can take you to! And voilà you’re in a jewlery shop instead of where you wanted to be. I also read about some jewlery shops offering spiked drinks to tourists to encourage purchase making. Just be careful, okay?
The coolest mode of transport in Bangkok (imo) is by riverboat. It’s pretty cheap and you can cruise along the river for over an hour marvelling at temples, bridges and other funky river traffic.
The all-time winners of the cheap award are the Songtell (busses) which lap back and forth through the suburbs. It’s just a sheltered pick-up truck with some seats. You climb in the back and when it’s full it departs. A ride costs 5.50 to 6 Baht and saves you up to 40 mins of walking.
Thailand is known for its medical tourism. This is because the hospitals are relatively good, and they are cheap. My emergency appendix removal including tests, surgery, anaesthetic, two night’s accommodation, food, nursing, etc. etc. cost just under 30’000 Thai Baht (NZ$1’200 or CHF900). I would rate the facilities as ‘safe’. Not first class, but pretty good. Excusing the odd spider web, gecko (those guys get everywhere) or ant population, they’ve got the important stuff down.
Oh yes, I had my appendix removed in Thailand by the way. I awoke at 3am with gut ache and initially thought it was food poisoning, so I waited for the onset of diarrhoea and vomiting which would end the cramps. But it never came and the cramps only got worse. I paced up and down the hallway for a few hours and managed to sleep for an hour at around 6am or so. At 7am I went with Sas to find a pharmacy. At 8am one opened and I bought a thermometer. No fever. We drove south towards Bangkok and the pain slowly grew and centered on where my appendix was at the time. Remember: your appendix is on your right side, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. By lunchtime I rechecked my temperature and it was ever so slightly up. No more questions, let’s find a hospital. We skipped the closest one (which was a bit rural) and headed for the next big city: Nakhon Sawan. The pain kept growing and the mere pressure of the seatbelt hurt. Sas was flooring it, doing 130km/h at times. Normally I’d say something but not today. We pulled into the hospital at around 4pm. I almost couldn’t stand when I initially got out of the car and stood up straight, such was the pain. After a moment’s breath, assisted by Johnboy, I gingerly hobbled over to the emergency ramp. They put me in a wheelchair, poked me where it hurt and asked “does this hurt?” to which I said “yes”, and told me I had acute appendicitis. Surgery was scheduled for 7:30pm. I had opted for a semi-conscious spinal anaesthetic (which knocked me clean out anyway) and woke up in the supervision ward. Did you know that spinal anaesthesia makes you itchy? Particularly the nose but basically everywhere, and it takes ages to go away. What is with that? There was also some bruising from the jab which had me sitting funny for the next two weeks. I spent two nights in the hospital and came away with an inch-long scar and a weird bald patch on the right half of my belly.
As a tribute to Johnboy and Sas, they cancelled their plans, got a hotel and waited it out with me for the two days. They didn’t have to but they did. Sas translated everything to the doctors for me and they just hung around until I was discharged. What great friends I have.
Should you ever go to a touristy area of Thailand (particularly Phuket or maybe Pattaya), and should you find yourself drinking in a bar, and should during the course of the evening you meet an attractive Thai girl who you seem to be getting on just fine with, let these words swim into focus: Watch Out. ‘She’, may not be what you think.
Yes, I’ve heard stories. And not just distant legends either. Toom (a friend from Bangkok) told me about a couchsurfer he’d hosted who’d unwittingly made out with a pretty young guy the previous weekend. He hadn’t had the heart to tell him. The couchsurfers I met in Phuket said you have to be careful of ladyboys. It could just be all anti-cross-dressing talk, but they’re apparently the ones who are the most eager to take you home and most likely to steal your wallet. Especially if you’re obviously drunk, alone and stumbling home.
Thailand is unique in its high acceptance of transgender people. Ladyboys are considered fairly normal, hold fairly normal jobs (cafés, McDonalds, supermarkets etc though they’re also often found in massage parlours, beauty salons and in the sex industry), and represent around 1% of the male population. With a basic sex change operation starting from only around 40’000 Thai baht it’s not only acceptable for a guy to make the switch, it’s also affordable. Some young men start taking hormones as teenagers(!) to curb their natural physical development (so I’ve heard). Thai men are generally slim, slight and hairless to start with so the finished product can be quite convincing.
There’s a bit of an art to spotting a ladyboy. There are the really obvious signs like the 5 O’clock shadow, the square jaw or the adams apple but you can’t rely on those alone. Some people undergo all sorts of surgery to mask their transition and not just the obvious breast implants either. The adams apple can be removed/reduced and even the pitch of one’s voice can be altered. The most reliable way I’ve found to spot a ladyboy is to look for overdressing (high-heels are a dead give-away), too much make-up, and walking with just a bit too much hip. Usually there’s some other clue too (broad shoulders, big arms, adams apple, voice etc) though you can’t ever be completely sure. If you have to look twice, she’s probably a he.
I found an interesting blog which I recommend as further reading on the subject, should it take your interest. Read on at http://www.thaicultureblogs.com/index.php/thailand-ladyboys/ (Regarding the final comment, I was careful to remind the nurse what to cut and what to leave – though I only meant it as a joke. Well okay, a half-joke. And she didn’t laugh.)
But surely it’s not all prostitutes and ladyboys; there must be some nice girls looking to meet up with nice foreign boys. Well there are. Actually foreign boyfriends are quite sought after in Thailand. Some are in it for the love, but some are also in it for the money. Yoyo in Phuket had a French boyfriend who sent her 15’000 Baht a month. Not bad. I don’t think he was the only one either. Coincidentally she was the owner of a massage shop.
The Thai word ‘gig’ by the way means foreign boyfriend/sugar daddy. It describes a relationship of convenience. Most of the time it’s agreeable for both the guy (who’s looking for a good time at a nice price) and the girl (who gets wined, dined and maybe paid), but if she’s in it for the cash chances are she’s got other gigs lined up for when the current guy heads home. Gigs needn’t necessarily know about each other.
This is something I saw a lot of in Phuket and hardly anywhere else (we never went to Pattaya but that’s apparently the sex tourism capital so it’d be there too). One of the great things about meeting locals via couchsurfing are the stories and tidbits of advice you pick up (at least, that’s how I claim to know all this). :) So if prostitution’s your thing, let me impart you with this advice.
1. Do not hire girls from off the street. Get them from a ‘place’. For example, if you hire one of the dancers from a strip club (which you can), you’ll have to pay the club around 400 Thai Baht to let her go and then you’ll have to pay her her fee (probably around 2000 Baht). The reason for this is that if she steals your wallet, gives you HIV or breaks your heart her id is recorded at the bar and you can find her again.
2. Thai law requires it that prostitutes register at a client’s hotel. You’ll have to pay the hotel something extra for having an unexpected ‘guest’, but again her ID will be recorded at the hotel.
3. Don’t forget your Hepatitis A shot before you go. Methinks you’ll need it.
Oh, and if you’re into children? Go choke on a pretzel.
From here on in I’ll briefly describe each place I visited rather than going by topic. The locations are ordered chronologically.
Let’s be honest, it was the least pleasant of the locations I visited. Our reason for going there was that we were to meet Bev, Sarika and Cryo there. They’d altered their plans, we altered ours, and we met in Phuket for ten days in a flash hotel in Pathong (Bev and Sarika found a nice deal via www.wotif.com).
It’s one of the big tourist capitals, and my god do you get harassed. At least, at Pathong you sure do. By massage girls standing in your way or grabbing your arm as you pass. By tailors asking you every bloody time (in an Aussie accent!) if you want a suit (“Wanna suit mate?”). By tuk tuks and taxis shouting at you from across the street. By people renting deck chairs or selling jet ski rides, parasailing and souvenir junk on the beach. And the bloody cars which drive slowly up and down the main streets playing recorded Muay Thai boxing ads on loudspeaker. I can still hear it. “Friday night. To-night. Muay Thai boxing. You see Muay Thai you see Thailand.” I wished for an RPG more than once.
I tried once to take my guitar down to the beach to play and have a bit of a chillout space. I failed. All of the open spaces were occupied by deck chairs (which I’s have to pay 100 Baht to rent). The few shady spots were either cluttered with deck chairs, stalls or were close to the busy road. I sat in the searing sun in the middle of the beach for a while until it got too hot, and I went back to my hotel to play. And I stayed there.
The nightlife is pumping, and they convert one of the main streets into a walking street. It’s flanked by bars and nightlife, and is completely packed. Definitely party central.
Likes: the island is beautiful, beaches are nice, snorkelling (from Kata beach) was quite good.
Dislikes: plenty. Prices, harassment, tourism.
Go there if: you’re a Tourist. You like to party. You have cash to spend.
Chilling with the NZ Crew
Parasailing at sunset: doesn't it just make you want to pay?
Patong Beach / Party time at Bangla Road
Lion Fish / Angel Fish
|Actually Chaam, but close enough.|
Half way up the coast between Phuket and Bangkok is a sleepy little place called Hua Hin. It is semi-touristic, the water is murky and the beaches aren’t quite as nice (they more or less disappear at high tide). But the prices are more reasonable and you have a much better chance of meeting real Thai people who actually live nearby. We met Nui at Burger King who took us out to see the nightlife a few times. Whilst walking along the beach I came across a small hut with some guys playing music. I was able to borrow a guitar and join them for a few covers.
Likes: real people, quiet, being left alone after Phuket.
Dislikes: was full of people from Bangkok who had left because of the flooding.
Go there if: you want to be a tourist but you like some quiet and some space.
We stayed there all up for around three weeks, and spent most of the time at Whitesands Beach. Wow I loved that beach. My morning routine was to wake up at some time before lunchtime, put on my boardies and go for a run along the beach. Once thoroughly tired I’d order a fruit shake and a simple breakfast (eggs on toast). Back to the hotel to shower and I was ready to see what the day had to offer.
The Good Life
|A free waterfall? Awesome.|
The island really is beautiful. They’ve made a national park in the center of it which conveniently nets most of the waterfalls, costing Phalangs 200 Baht entry (though there is a free one on the south-east side). There are walking tracks which cross the island but asking about them results in being sold a guided tour. Of course it’s too dangerous to go without a guide. And there are no maps. The beaches vary greatly. Some are beautiful and sandy, others stony. My favourite is of course Whitesands. A day’s snorkelling trip is only 550 Baht or so (fin hire for another 100 Baht) and was some of the best I’ve seen. The diving was also fantastic.
It’s not too touristy. Yet. But it’s getting there. Two suit shops have opened and the massage girls have started calling, but I found a good massage place with reasonable prices where they didn’t have girls out front. Johnboy and I (and sometimes Sas) went every second day. We spent a lot of evenings down on the beach with some drinks (appletinis) and the guitar. Occasionally we would be joined by randoms. We even spent a night jamming with some local Thais. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Thai, but we had the guitar and that sufficed nicely. There is a wee party section down the street full of little pool bars where girls will call and lure you into, but generally you don’t get harassed too much. OH, I did get stopped by a ladyboy from one of these bars once. She came and stood in my way as Johnboy and I were walking by. I tried to sidestep right but she blocked me. I tried left and was blocked again. So I bent down, picked her up and walked off with her slung her over my right shoulder. “Hey Johnboy, I got one.”
Driving around the island
We were robbed. Thieves had rented two rooms in the hotel and had figured out how to open them. They hit three rooms, taking cash, cameras and phones. I lost a decent amount of cash, but my phone and camera were (coincidentally) with me at the time. My laptop was on the bedside table but they didn’t take it. They left my passports and eftpos card, which I’m thankful for. We reported it all to the police, but well… let’s assume they did their best.
Our neighbour's 'safe' / Owners + staff of the hotel we were staying at
Likes: Beaches, nature, space, locals.
Dislikes: too many couples, national park tollgate, being robbed.
Go there if: you want chill-out time with a loved one.
I liked Chiang Mai. Its way to the north, far removed from the beaches and tourist areas. I found it to be much more welcoming than other parts of Thailand. It felt like a real city, as opposed to the tourist Disneyland which has been created in other places. It’s the only part of Thailand where you can get insurance when you rent a bike/motorbike (more about that topic in the Koh Phagnan chapter). I was able to meet up with local couchsurfers here, spent the most time socialising and was able to see quite a bit of the central city in the short time we were there. There’s also a real music scene, jazz and such. Not that I’m super keen on jazz, but that’s partly what I liked about it. It wasn’t just pop covers like it is everywhere else. Geez I got sick of hearing the same cover of Pink’s ‘Just Like a Pill’ every night at around 2am from our hotel room in Koh Chang.
The mountainous area to the north of Chiang Mai makes for a beautiful drive. There are also several wildlife parks there. We made a day-trip of it. The first stop was the Tiger Kingdom. You don’t have to pay any admission to get into the main area, but the options to pay are there. You can eat in a restaurant next to the tiger cage or you can pay an exorbitant amount to actually go into the cages with the tigers. Tigers are led into the cage and lay around sleepily while Tourists have their facebook profile pictures taken lying down next to them. Kind of strange though, don’t you think, a wild carnivorous animal being all tame and sleepy like that. You don’t think… no. Surely not. They’re not doping the tigers are they? That would be horrible.
We went to a crocodile show. God it was horrible. What they do to the crocodiles is just short of brutality. To my shame, when you pay for a crocodile show you pay for a guy dressed as a thai boxer to jump around in a crocodile pit, drag crocodiles around by their tails and provoke them with sticks until they snap and react. All to music and some stupid guy commentating in Thai over the loudspeaker. I just wish the guy wasn’t quite that quick. I got up and left half way through.
We didn’t see the snake show.
The things stupid white people do
The elephant park was closed, but you could drive half a kilometre up the road and observe them from the opposite bank of the river. That was really nice, and it was clear they were being treated well.
Likes: culture, music, bars, people (locals and foreigners)
Dislikes: animal shows
Go there if: you want to see a non-over-touristy town, to meet other travellers, to hike
Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle
We stayed two nights in Chaing Rai – one on the way to the Golden Triangle and one on the way back. It’s a quiet place. I think the most remarkable thing about it is the round-about shrine light show at 9pm.
Likes: nice day trip in a car
Go there if: you want to tick “top of Thailand” off your list.
Oh, I just realised I'd forgotten about the white temple. We visited it on our drive down to Bangkok, before my appendix tried to self-destruct. What's unique is that it's Thailand's only white temple. The temple itself is remarkable too. Particularly once you're inside, the depiction of the Budhist 'hell' painted on the rear wall is fascinating. It features a multi-layered scene of hell, populated by American pop icons such as Harry Potter, Terminator, Micheal Jackson, Transformers, Judge Dredd, Spiderman, Superman, etc. etc. Sadly no photographs were allowed inside the temple, but I got some nice shots of the outside. See for yourself.
And since I'm on the topic of interesting places without much mention, the following pics were taken from a day trip to Ayutthaya. The place is full of old temples and is seeped in history. Coincidentally we caught a cultural exchange show between Thailand and China.
The flood had finally receded, and we could return to Bangkok. Excepting the central part, the flooding hat hit most of the city. Johnboy and Sas’s office had a waterline half a meter up the wall. The sides of the streets became a dumpsite as people threw away all their ruined furniture. It took about a month before the military came and cleaned it all up in our neighbourhood. Things returned back to normal exceptionally quickly though. Still, the whole neighbourhood has a brown watermark sometimes as high as your head. Hard to believe.
Float-a-loo / Trash
Waterline on fence / in Sas's office
|Saddest scene ever, 2am, Khao San Rd.|
The tourist area is Khao San road. I visited it once, but it’s nothing special. You get harassed and hustled like in any tourist area. After spending time in the suburbs it’s strange to see crowds of phalangs again. I used to shout “phalang!” and point every time I saw one, but that only works when the place isn't full of them. It has its party scene with lots of pubs and food outlets. Johnboy and I spent a night drinking there, telling stories of woe and misfortune to cheer the spirits of a disheartened French guy who'd arrived the previous day, gotten himself good and drunk, gone home with some random girl (we hope), and woken up with nothing but a hangover - no cash, no passports, no bank cards, nothing. But after relaying my own tales of woe (and one borrowed for a good cause), he honestly felt better. He said the nicest thing as we parted company. "Marco, I'm so glad I met you". Awww... yay for storyteller.
That big famous bridge in Bangkok / This temple is on the 10 Baht coin you know?
A park near Johnboy's place
The city, as you can imagine, is immense. But it’s a fairly comfortable place to live. Johnboy and Sas lived in a small condominium. They have all the services they need nearby. I stayed for a month, maybe more on their couch in the second condo they rented downstairs as an office (because of the flood). Chatuchak market is a must see if you’re ever there. We also went to a few couchsurfing meetups and made friends with a local couchsurfing legend Toom. Admittedly I spent a lot of time playing games with Johnboy (a mutual passion, and how we met back in NZ), so time went relatively quickly.
Likes: food, people, markets, prices, boats, etc. etc. It has everything.
Dislikes: tourist scams, traffic
Go there if: you go to Thailand. It's not like you have much choice.
We did drive through Pattaya by the way. It looked just like Phuket so we didn’t stop. Instead we drove a few kilometres out of town to the ferry terminal, parked the car and took a boat to Koh Larn.
Koh Larn is a special sort of tourist area. Rich white (almost exclusively Russian) tourists come each morning from Pattaya by speedboat, lounge around on the beaches during the day, and then take the speedboat back again in the evening. There is only one small town on the island offering accommodation, and the prices are brutal. The next morning we went to visit the beaches, and this is what we saw:
Deck chairs & umbrellas
Deck chairs & umbrellas
Deck chairs. Umbrellas.
|Nice boat trip though|
No. Beach. Deck chairs and sun umbrellas covered the entire beach from the bushline to the waterline. What the hell? To walk along the beach you had to wade in the tide. I couldn’t believe it. So we went to another beach. Same thing. And another, and another. Same everywhere. Koh Larn had gone so mad with tourism that the beaches didn’t exist anymore. And yet the tourists still come. Good god. We abandoned our plans of staying a second night, returned to the mainland and went to Koh Samet.
Likes: it’s pretty.
Dislikes : The beautiful beaches are hidden by deck chairs and crowded with day-tripping tourists.
Go there if: you are a Tourist in Pattaya and want to make a day-trip to an island beach, and you like sitting in deck chairs.
Despite some of my bittersweet rantings about Koh Samet (see below), I actually liked the place. It is a tourist place and it’s more difficult to find cheap accommodation, but I persevered, did my leg-work and eventually found a place for Johnboy and I to stay at a cheap rate. It’s has a lot of small bays, which become gradually more isolated the further north you go. Again there are places you can find peace and quiet, and there’s even a section of the beach reserved for meditation.
Beaches by day, beaches by night.
Again, Koh Samet is a national park (which is Thai for tollgate). There we had our second significant encounter with corruption. What follows is an account of our experiences there, written for a woman I met on Koh Phagnan who was so appalled at what I’d told her she had said she would publish it in a Thai newspaper (although at the time of writing I’m not sure whether she ever did). Regardless, here is what I wrote:
Koh Samet National Park
Immediately upon arriving off the boat at Koh Samet we were greeted by a host of enthusiastic taxi drivers. It didn’t bother us too much that we were overcharged for the taxi ride - this is to be expected in any Thai tourist destination – however we found that being dropped five meters past the national park toll booth, which charges foreigners 200BHT, was a bit cheeky. Never mind we thought. The national park entry ticket was valid for as long as we wanted and we’d have to get it at some point, so we paid our money and entered the Koh Samet national park without complaint.
National Park officers collecting tourist cash
There are many, many tourists on Koh Samet. This equates to a lot of money collected at the national park toll gate. As I wandered around the national park I wondered how the money was being used. It seemed to me that little attention was being paid to the roads which are unsealed, dusty and so uneven only 4WD vehicles can travel easily along them. In fact, Koh Samet is the only island I’ve seen which rents quad bikes. There is little in the way of irrigation either. Water is instead transported from the reservoir by water tankers.
Several days later my friend and I decided to explore the national park. We walked along the coastline to the southernmost point from beach to beach. As we rounded the corner to Ao Kiew Beach we were spied by a security guard dozing in his shack. Upon seeing us he hurriedly jumped up, snatched up his hat and radio, and ran urgently over to us.
|View of Ao Kiew Beach|
|A dozing privacy assurance officer jumps to attention|
I showed him my national park ticket and said we were walking around the rocks. He didn’t speak any English but was adamant we weren’t allowed to go any further. He communicated our presence to someone on his radio phone. I didn’t understand. We were walking around the coast in a national park we had paid entry for. I argued but it was futile. He was steadfast and bade us to follow him along a path leading away from the coast. We were led around the back of an expensive looking resort and were eventually escorted out of the front gate and onto the road. What had just happened? I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew.
|Escorted by security|
There was only one, infuriating answer. The resort had evidently secured private access to the beach despite it being situated in a national park of Thailand for which we had paid entry. The fact that the resort exists in a national park at all is questionable and has been the topic of controversy in the past, however for a resort to claim exclusive access to the coastline of a national park which charges visitors entry fees is nothing short of blatant hypocrisy. Why has the national park administration allowed it?
The establishment in question is the Paradee resort. According to their official web page the resort spans the entire breadth of Koh Samet at its thinnest point. Interestingly, it seems that Paradee, Le Vimarn and Ao Phrao Resorts all belong to the same, very lucky, very rich owner.
|Paradee Resort: Exclusive beaches, no pesky tourists|
Guests getting around in golf cartsFor me, this experience raised several questions I would love to know the answers to. How is it possible that a private resort in a national park can claim exclusive access to a beach? Is this legal? Does the national park administration know about it? If so, why have they done nothing?
It saddens me to see greed get in the way of public interest. I am aware that corruption is a widespread problem for Thailand. While I cannot say for sure this was the case, it felt very much like it at the time.
 Paradee hotel official website: www.samedresorts.com/resort/paradee.htmTravelfish.org website, requires verification: http://www.travelfish.org/accommodation_profile/thailand/eastern_thailand/rayong/ao_kiu_na_nok/all/2892
Johnboy and I stayed in Koh Samet for almost a week before the island fatigue set in and we returned via minibus to Bangkok.
Likes: beautiful beaches, relatively quiet, not too over-touristed, the coastline
Dislikes: evident corruption, exorbitant taxi prices, bad roads
Go there if: you want island time with nice beaches and some nice coastline to explore, or for an ultra-expensive resort with an exclusive beach.
With only two weeks left, this was to be my last trip to a tourist area in Thailand. I went to go meet with a friend Tash, who I’d met on the Sri Lanka trip, and Eva who was travelling with her. We only stayed here for two or three nights before heading on to Koh Phagnan. We rented motor bikes and drove around the island. My bike was a perfect death-trap. It was only at the opposite end of the island I realised that the brake fluid had all leaked out of the front brake, and the back wasn’t that flash to start with. When I clamped down hard on both brakes I came to a rolling stop. Coming home in the dark wasn’t a barrel of laughs.
Tash and Eva had booked a boat/snorkelling/kayaking trip for 2000 Baht. It was vastly overpriced but I wasn’t going to do anything else otherwise so I sucked it up and joined them. Oh, plus an extra hundred Baht for entering a marine national park. The snorkelling was terrible, all dead coral, silt, rubbish and hardly any fish. And three fishing boats sitting innocently a few hundred metres away. Where could the fish have gone? The kayaking trip was brief but the relatively simple meal was good (as always in Thailand). All walks of tourist stereotypes crowded the beaches. I took more pleasure in watching the phalangs than the actual nature. Except for this little monkey chilling out on his own in the undergrowth. He was cool. My verdict? Vastly overpriced.
I'm on a boat
A liquidity of phalangs
Monkeys watching monkeys watching monkeys...
Likes: space, beaches/coastline, lots of stuff to see
Dislikes: rubbish/glass on the beach, overpriced tours
Go there if: you want to go to a big island with a lot of different things to offer (and with Koh Phagnan close by).
If you visit Koh Samui, Koh Phagnan is an obvious follow-on destination. Like Koh Samui you don’t get hassled too much, but I found that these islands were set up in a way which forces you to pay a lot of money. Maybe it was the timing (early January) but things were comparatively expensive and it was nearly impossible to negotiate prices. First off, they’re both quite big islands so you’re forced to either take a taxi or rent a motorbike. Taxis are expensive here too (500 Baht per person for a 45 min ride, non negotiable). Motorbikes are can be hired for 200 Baht per day and carries two people, but whatever you do don’t you crash one (and you will, sooner or later). Behold, the great Koh Phagnan bike scam.
You see, the bike shops know that tourists inevitably crash bikes, so they take your passport as a deposit and make you sign a form agreeing liability to pay the following prices for a bike:
Hirer agree to pay
These prices are stupidly high. Of course if you’re in a resort in the middle of nowhere and the next shop is 2km down the road you don’t really have a fat load of choice, and the next shop will do the same besides (two out of the two bike rental shops I saw used the same form).
While I was wandering along the road looking for a bike to hire I had the fortune to come upon a bike rental shop owner engaged in an argument with two Russian ladies over a scratched bike. The owner shook his head. “New bike. Very expensive!” he said. He pointed to several superficial scratches. “Have to replace everything. “ It really wasn’t as bad as he’d made it out to be and I tried to interject and offered to rent the bike then and there (I needed a bike after all), but he wouldn’t have any of it. He had the girls on his hook and was reeling them in. He took out The Form, crossed off several of the damaged parts and added the amounts together. 17’500 appeared on his calculator. WTF? That’s half of the price of a new bike. What a Futhermucker. The girls stood their ground and argued, and I eventually realised I wasn’t getting a bike and left.
Maybe half an hour later, after being unable to find a motorbike, I rode past on the pushbike I’d been lent. I saw the same guy repairing the bike himself. He was filling the scratches with a filler he had had the whole time (yet had argued that all parts must be replaced). I asked how much the girls had paid. Six thousand Baht. You Futhermucker.
I happened to pass again later that day. He was renting the self-same bike to another unwary tourist. I called the guy over and told him a story I’d seen earlier that day about the bike he was riding, and cautioned him not to scratch it. And the greatest thing about it all is that insurance isn’t even available if you ask for it. Wonder why that is. Futhermuckers.
Food market. Nice!
We went to a full moon festival on Koh Phagnan. It’s a huge party full of foreigners drinking and being stupidly drunk. Of course it’s expensive, but who cares. When you’re foreign, drunk and loaded it’s a complete blast. Leave your bikes at home, boys.
Buckets / The Sign
Party time / Aftermath
I went diving again to a place called Sail Rock, which is just a big rock out in the middle of the ocean. I did my deep water diver’s cert there, taking me as far down as 30m (where I promptly knelt on a sea urchin – one of the spines is still in there). Ow. And wow. The aquatic life there is amazing. Really worth it if you get the chance. Sadly my camera only goes to 10m depth.
We saw Muai Thai for the first time. Locals apparently pay 10 Baht, Phalangs pay 500. Meh. Saw several pairs of guys punch, kick and knee the crap out of each other for a few hours. Brutal as hell, though I like that the damage is spread across the body (instead of just focussed on the brain).
By the way, Koh Phagnan was the only place where I encountered bad food. And by bad, I don’t mean inedible. I mean I twice ordered an English breakfast (for a price you can usually get a main meal for) and was utterly disappointed by what I got. The first morning I ordered "2 pc toast, baked beans, bacon and jam". The following was served.
Time to make money! / Sunset
Likes: Full moon festival, diving, food market
Dislikes: tourism, motorbike scams, near absence of cheap accommodation, wysinwyg breakfast
Go there if: you’ve been to Koh Samui, for good diving, for the full moon festival, for nice resorts.
And that’s it. After Koh Phagnan I took a fourteen hour boat/bus ride back to Bangkok, boarded a plane, and flew to…