Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A short conclusion to my trip blogs

(Written the day after we got back. Posted much later.)

It was a wonderful 8 weeks away.

It all started with a meeting with my boss, Steve Bochen, at which we decided that I was no longer a good fit with the company. It was not planned. I had wanted to leave for quite a while but I hadn't found the right next thing for me yet. All I knew was that for the first time in my life I didn't know exactly what I'd be doing next, and that felt a little odd. I also had a little money in the bank, which made things not quite so scary as they would have been otherwise. This was actually my dream scenario, as I'd always wanted to go off on a longer trip, but had never been able to. I just hadn't thought that it would come true.

After watching a travel show about a year ago I had decided that I wanted to go to Indonesia. It looked like a great adventure. So that was to be part of the trip. But I also wanted some time to relax and think about my life. Everyone said that Thailand was a wonderful place, but I'd always avoided it, thinking it being overly "done". Perhaps there's a bit of ego in selecting a travel destination for me, wanting to go somewhere others don't, but still wanting to go somewhere warm and fun. This time however, with Indonesia already on the itinerary, it seemed like a good time to go to Thailand. The trip was set. We got our families' permission to be away at Christmas, which is not something I take lightly, booked our tickets through Aeroplan, and we were set.

Many people were shocked that we were leaving so quickly. They said that we were impulsive. It didn't feel that way at all. If felt like we'd been leading up to this trip for awhile, we just hadn't known it.

I've written about all of our experiences in this blog in detail, so I won't go into any of that again. Some bigger picture items instead -

  • Indonesia is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it's sure not easy travelling. In fact, it is by far the hardest country to travel in that I've ever been to. It's cheap, but not if you actually want to get from A to B in a short amount of time. We met some people who had done a lot of traveling there. When we told them what we'd done in 4 weeks they were amazed. They'd done a lot of the things we'd wanted to do, but they'd had 4 months, and they still felt they'd only scratched the surface.
  • We feel like we only got to the easier parts of Indonesia. We wish we'd made it to Sulawesi, Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo). Those will have to be for other trips, and not any time soon. Maybe when I've bought my boat and have a lot of time on my hands.
  • My favourite time in Indonesia was on Gili Air. It's not particularly "Indonesian", but it was close to my idea of paradise. I was very happy there doing very little.
  • Yogyakarta is overrated. Jakarta is overly criticized.
  • Indonesian people are some of the hardest working, nicest people. Sure, anywhere you travel you might have a less than great experience, but overall they are terrific. I think that one of the most amazing parts of our trip was being taken in by the Sergeant and his family in Jember. It had nothing to do with scenery or tourism, it was just a simple act of generosity by someone who had never met us and never expects to see us again. I'll do my best to remember that the next time I run into a tourist that needs a hand.
  • Tourism to Indonesia has been killed by terrorism. It's tragic, because it's one of the best ways some of those people can rise about the poverty the engulfs the country. The odds of getting killed by a terrorist in Indonesia is probably less than getting run over on your way to work, so stop worrying so much.
  • Thailand was very easy to travel around. It's relatively affordable, and it's a very nice country. Interesting culture, good food, great beaches. Not surprisingly, it's busy in the busy season. It's pretty much what I expected it to be. Very few surprises. I'd recommend it to someone who hasn't traveled much, but I didn't love it. I don't imagine we'll be going back.
  • Even though you know it's going to happen in advance, and are ready to deal with it, it becomes very tiring being lied to. I'm tired of being told something is closed, etc. when it's not. This happens in most countries, but in Thailand I found it particularly exasperating.
After 8 weeks, I'm glad to be home. I think I was ready to come home after 6. I've always been jealous of those people who go away for 6 months at a time. It still sounds interesting, but it also sounds hard. I think that if I were to do that I'd need a home base, such as the aforementioned sailboat. (About 52' will do fine, thank you very much.)

I've had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about who I am and what I want to do next in my career. Fortunately, or not, I have not had any grand revelations, perhaps just some realizations. They're a bit too private for a blog, but I can say a few things. I love the communications business and the weird nebulous thing that that is starting to include. I enjoy leading a team, and have realized that I'm pretty good at it. I need to give myself more credit for some things and perhaps less for others. And, in the end, my personal success, failure and happiness is up to me.

In the end, I am glad to have done the trip. No, it wasn't my favourite trip ever. I still think that that was Vietnam. But if I hadn't done it I think I'd have regretted it. Now, I've got that out of the way and am ready for the next chapter in my life.

Anyone know of any super-wicked-cool-fun-successful Vancouver based communications firms that are hiring?

Flying home

On the morning of January 22nd we headed home.

We left our hotel and walked out to the street to be accosted by cab drivers wanting more than double the appropriate fare. My response to each was to ask for the meter rate, at which they looked horrified and would throw up their hands in frustration. We walked a block to the main road, where the first cab said no but the second relented.

I had a Whopper and a coffee for breakfast since I hadn't been to bed the night before. It seemed like a good idea at the time, although my stomach would make me pay for it later. Colleen was feeling rather ill and stuck to the airport croissants.

The new Bangkok airport is huge. It's fascinating looking, with great billowing roofs and massive steel structures. It feels like something out of a science fiction movie, like a base on Mars. But it's totally generic and a little spooky. Interesting? Yes. Nice? No.

We flew Thai Airways to Seoul via Taipei. The Taipei bit was a surprise to us, as it wasn't on our itinerary, but it was nice to get out and walk around for an hour or so. Now I can say I've been to Taiwan. Sort of.

In Seoul we transferred to Air Canada. We'd flown through Seoul on our way to Indonesia, so we knew our way around a bit. I had expressed my enthusiasm for this flight to Colleen earlier, as I was looking forward to 12 hours of my own entertainment system, with a selection of about 30 movies, like we'd had on our way over. (It's amazing what'll get me excited after 8 weeks away.) Then, about 20 minutes before our already hour late departure, the flight crew came onto the PA and announced that passengers may want to go to a nearby book stall and pick up reading materials, as the in-flight entertainment system was not operating. Yay Air Canada!

I went to the book stall. An average magazine in English was over $20. No way. I'd read my Churchill biography. It was going to be a long 12 hours. Once we got on our flight I tried to turn on my seat's overhead light to read. No such luck. Oh God! There was only one solution. I got a few drinks from the liquor cart, took one of Colleen's sleeping pills, and said good night.

I awoke somewhere over Northern BC. I've never taken sleeping pills before but wow, do they ever work great. We had a little breakfast and landed.

Colleen's parents were there to pick us up. They'd also brought us jackets and blankets. They drove us home, where they dropped me off in our apartment which they'd filled with fresh groceries that morning. Thank you so much Mr. & Mrs. Rostek. What a wonderful way to arrive home.

Colleen went with them to use their laundry facilities. We'd been in enough places over the past 8 weeks that had bed bugs that everything was going to go through the super hot treatment a few times each.

I did "home" things, which I won't continue to write about in detail anymore. It was good to be back.

Bangkok wandering - Our last day

The 21st was the last day of our 8 week trip.

We started by meeting T&B for a bit of breakfast. Unfortunately, Thomas was feeling rather ill after our less than perfect dinner the night before, but he was eager to head out and do a little bit of final sight-seeing. They were flying out that evening.

I had told them all of my trip to the market from the day before and T&B were eager to see if we could find something similar that day. Both Bridget and I had come across the same interesting sounding market in our Lonely Planets, so it was determined that that should be our destination. I also wanted to take a bit of a canal boat trip in Bangkok, so we decided we'd give that a shot after the market.

We took a cab to the market. The interesting thing about taking a cab from the tourist area is that most of the cabs that are waiting for passengers want to negotiate the price upfront, even though they are meter taxis. And, for the most part, the price that they want to negotiate is about twice as much as should be paid. We'd also recently discovered that the tuk tuk in Bangkok is a huge rip-off, costing far more in most instances than a meter taxi. This is all easily sorted out by simply walking an extra block or so and hailing a couple of cabs until you find one that is willing to use their meter, but it takes a day or two to figure this process out. Additionally, once you do get into a cab that agrees to use their meter, they will often still try to negotiate a fixed fare to the destination. Colleen and I always just stuck to our guns about using the meter, but we did meet others who were kicked out of their cab when they insisted on using the meter price. I suppose it's all part of the adventure.

This time, right after our cab picked us up, he was pulled over by a cop. It was interesting to watch two Thais argue about a traffic ticket. Our driver kept smiling and laughing the whole time with the cop, who smiled patiently back but was clearly going to give him a ticket. This is the Thai way of arguing, with smiles and laughter the whole time. I don't mean to say that he was happy. He definitely wasn't. He simply had to save face.

After the ticketing incident our driver then tried to convince us that we should go to take a tour of a government factory. He said that since we were going to a market we should be happy at the factory too since there was a gift shop inside. And, oh yeah, he'd receive 10 litres of gas for taking us there. As badly as we felt for our driver, who had just received a traffic fine, he didn't make a terribly compelling argument.

Eventually we got dropped off near the market that had been described by good ol' LP as the "in-city version of Chatuchak". It wasn't a good sign when we couldn't even find the place. A helpful passer-by pointed us in the right direction, but also let us know that they didn't think it was open until 2:00, due to some sort of event associated with the Princess's death. (See Jan 19 post) When we did eventually find it, it appeared to be open, but it was terrible. It was small, cramped and smelly. And the only thing that appeared to be on sale was sequined ball gowns. Not exactly what I was looking for. We decided to get out of there. I still suspect that we did something wrong, and there was a big market that we must have missed, but I'm not sure where it could have been.

At this point Thomas wasn't feeling so well again, so we took a little break and planned our next step. We decided to go to a mall called MBK, which was supposedly like Chatuchak, but within a mall format. (Whatever that means.) We decided to walk and made our way over there, walking past the huge Bangkok high end department stores and shopping centres. It's a pretty impressive shopping destination if you've got a lot of money to spend.

MBK was essentially a 6 storey mega-mall comprised of loads of small shops. We spent some time wandering around, particularly on the third floor, where at one end was a section that really did feel like the outdoor market, with lots of small vendors with their own little spaces. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, and grabbed a couple of items for my niece and nephew. I quite liked this place with its market feel plus air conditioning. However, Colleen and T&B were much less impressed, with Thomas feeling quite under the weather. We left MBK and went down street to another market which didn't seem too impressive. At this point T&B and Colleen seemed to want to leave, whereas I wanted to stay and look around a bit further, so the three of them jumped in a cab to take them to the canal and back to Banglamphu, the area where we were all staying.

I grabbed a bite and explored the market that we were in. It turned out that we'd just been a little bit off. It was a cute little collection of stores called Siam Square that were a bit less markety and more like small boutiques. It was quite nice, but would have been a lot better with Colleen and the others with me.

I went back into MBK to explore around. It was a fascinating retail environment. Each floor has it's own specialty, so the bottom two floors were mostly clothes and accessories. The third was jewellery and souvenirs. The fourth had cell phones and technology. And so on. I did a little more shopping for a couple of small items and did a little negotiating for a watch. There are dozens of watch shops, each with the same catalogue on their front counter. You find your watch of choice in the catalogue and the salesperson will find it for you behind their counter. Of course, none of the watches are real, so the challenge is to find out what the real price is. I had my eye on an Omega Seamaster, but couldn't get them down to my price.

What is the "value" of a knock-off product? An Omega Seamaster sells for from $2,500 to $4,500 online. In MBK the prices ranged from $70 to $400. The quality of knock-offs these days is often as good as the original. I'm sure that Omega has very good reasons why their watches are worth $3,000, but the ones I was looking at will tell time very well, and could probably be relied on to do a lot of the things that the real ones do. So, what is the right price here? Or, is there even such a thing as the "right price", since it is a counterfeit and should not be encouraged? Lots of questions. Very few answers.

At around 5:00 I knew I had to get going because T&B were leaving at 7:00 and I wanted to say goodbye to them before they left. I left MBK and walked back through the high end malls. (Here I found a North Face store with the duffel bag I had been looking for the day before. Way overpriced though.) I found my way to the canal, where one catches the khlong (canal) taxi. This wasn't really a tourist thing, so I just tried to do as the locals did. I jumped on board, took a seat, paid the man barely hanging onto the side of the boat and tried to enjoy the view flying by. One thing you learn from the locals is to cover your face. The last thing you want is a mouthful of Bangkok canal water.

Upon arriving at the other end of the canal I had to make my way to our hotel. First though, I had to figure out where I was. I thought I'd gotten it when a stranger offered to help. I pointed on the map to where I thought I was and he shook his head, then he took my book, turned it around several times, and let me know that I was somewhere in "this" area, which was shown by the random wiggling of a finger. One thing I've learned on this trip is that Thais and Indonesians cannot read a map. Frequently, they won't even look at it. After walking for a bit I determined that where I had originally thought I was was correct.

I made it back to our neighborhood by 6:15, hoping to find T&B at a roadside bar for one final beer. But, after looking around, they were nowhere to be found. I discovered Colleen back in our room, packing up. She let me know that they'd left early to catch their bus to the airport. I hurried down to where the buses departed from and got there just in time to watch the doors close and the bus pull away. As it was leaving Bridget spotted me out the window and stood up to wave goodbye, as did Thomas. I was disappointed to not have had the chance to say bye, but was glad that I'd made at least some sort of contact.

Our flight was leaving the following morning at 7:00. That meant that we had to leave for the airport at around 4:00. We had two choices. We could sleep for a bit or we could stay up. Knowing that we'd be fighting off jet lag upon our return to Vancouver I thought we'd have the best chance of fast recovery if we tried to get on Vancouver time as soon as possible. That meant staying up as long as possible.

We went for dinner at a fairly busy place down street and had a good last meal in Thailand. Then we went to another place that provided Thai massages. This seemed like a good idea just prior to a very long flight. It started with a foot bath, then Colleen and I were led to a side room with mats and a change of clothes. Two small Thai women came in, told us to lie on the mats, and got to work on us.

I never would have imagined that a 90 lb. woman could inflict such pain. Right from the start she grabbed my foot, yanking it downwards, and I yelped in pain. The two masseuses giggled. She twisted me, prodded me, punched me, walked on me, and broke me for the next hour. Colleen got much the same treatment, just a lot lighter. I suppose they thought that since I'm bigger I can take more abuse. (Wrong!) And, in the end, it felt great. I felt loose and good. No permanent damage had been done.

Now we only had 5 hours to burn. In the recovery room we started talking to a Swiss guy who had just had a Swedish massage. Done! We signed up for one of those, hit up the ATM to cover massage costs, and went back in. Colleen and I enjoyed another hour of rubdown, although this one had a lot more oil and was far less painful. Afterwards we agreed that we'd much preferred the abuse of the Thai massage to the relaxation of the Swedish.

We went back to our room and showered to get rid of the oil. Colleen started to pack her bags and I went out to see if I could get one last souvenir for a friend that I had lost a bet with and who had asked to be paid in gifts from Thailand. It was after 1:00 AM and, of course, most souvenir shops had closed up. The streets were full of drunken tourists, Thai scam artists and Thai prostitutes of both female and boy-that-looks-like-a-girl variety. Yikes! I walked for a few blocks with no t-shirt luck, went back to our hotel and did a little e-mailing/blogging.

By 3:00 I went back to the room and tried to stay awake by watching TV. Eventually it was time to go. Time to head for the airport. Time to go home.

Shopping in Bangkok

January 20th in Bangkok was a Sunday. And on weekends the number one thing to do in Bangkok is to go shopping. Or, to be specific, one goes to the Chatuchak market. Yet another of the 1000 Places to Go Before You Die, which is rather a morbid way of planning one's travel.

In the morning I awoke, did a little blog writing (I do hope someone is reading these, because they have taken far too much time) and picked up Colleen a coffee from the local Starbucks. I know, we should be eating local cuisine, but having something warm and familiar is a nice way to start the day. We got Colleen breakfast from the local English cafe and I left her to head out to Chatuchak. Colleen can think of no worse way to spend the day than at a huge, crowded, smelly market. She may have a point, but I was curious.

I caught a taxi to the main shopping area, then caught a Skytrain several stops to the market. (The Bangkok Skytrain is remarkably similar to what we've got in Vancouver.) When I arrived at my stop it was clear where to go. First, the masses of people getting off with me all headed in one direction. Second, from the Skytrain you could see a massive metal roof covering a huge area of park.

Chatuchak is one huge market. It is the largest in Thailand, and from what I understand it may also be the largest in the world. The market space covers over 35 acres and has over 15,000 stalls. I read that between 200,000 and 300,000 people shop here every weekend. As you can guess from those numbers, you can probably buy just about anything here. It is chaotic, loud, confusing, hot and a lot of fun. There are sort of sections, that supposedly dictate where certain types of stalls should be located, and these guidelines are occasionally adhered to. Other than that, you're on your own. If you get lost, there is no lack of food vendors throughout, selling everything from the farang friendly pad thai to some seriously scary looking fried bugs and worms. Just to give some idea of scope, I was trying to find the end of a row of stalls when I found myself in the fish and aquarium section. It took me 15 minutes to find my way out.

Since Colleen wasn't with me my shopping options were limited. I couldn't buy anything for the house, and real fashion selection without her input is always very dangerous. I limited myself to looking for another bag to bring things home in and t-shirts. On the former item, I had no luck. There were dozens of bag shops interspersed between everything else, so it was a good target item to explore the larger market, but no one carried the specific North Face duffel that I was looking for. On the latter item, t-shirts, I went a little crazy. There were so many little design shops, set up in 10x15 ft. stalls. Some sold industrial produced products, some factory knock-offs, and some sold their very own designs. I had a wonderful time searching, trying on, and negotiating for a bunch of items.

Negotiation in a market like this is a real skill. The variation in pricing is amazing. I'd often try to see what Thai's were paying, as I assumed that this was more likely the real market value, but they often seemed to be overpaying as well. Sometimes negotiations would break down over the difference of 10 baht, which is less than 50 cents. And sometimes both sides would just smile and do the deal anyway. It's sort of fun, but it also runs so much against our Western culture that it can be challenging. After a while it simply becomes tiring.

I spent several hours in Chatuchak. It was time to go when the stalls started to put up their shutters. I joined the mass of humanity heading for the exits, caught the Skytrain back to the new part of town, then another taxi back to our hotel. As I passed a sidewalk cafe near our place Thomas called out my name. He and Bridget had arrived that afternoon. I joined him for a few beers, showed off my acquisitions and recounted my tales of adventure from my day of shopping.

Colleen, T&B and I all headed out for dinner together than evening at a sidewalk cafe on Khao San. The food was dodgy but the atmosphere was entertaining. Then we did a little bit of a pub crawl, enjoying the spectacle that surrounds an evening out in Bangkok.

A word of advice - a bucket full of mojitos is never a good idea.

Monday, January 21, 2008

One Day in Bangkok

On Saturday, January 19th, we had the day to visit some sights in Bangkok.

We started the day off with a waffle at the local Wiffle Waffle. I'm a big fan of waffles, it's my Sunday morning specialty, but I was very disappointed with Wiffle. The waffles were cold, the butter was frozen, and we didn't have control over our own syrup. There's nothing sadder than a bad waffle. Not a great start to the day, it was rough but we'd get by somehow.

After WW we made our way down to the Grand Palace complex. This place was included in my 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die book, so I expected it to be pretty good.

On January 2nd of this year the King of Thailand's older sister, a Thai princess, passed away after a 6 month battle with cancer. She was 84. Initially the king declared a 15 day period of mourning, which was subsequently expanded by 100 days. During this period of mourning all Thai government officials, as well as anyone who wants to show their respect for the Princess, wears black. Additionally all major celebrations, festivals, company parties, etc. have been cancelled.

I bring this up here because as we walked through a park to get to the palace there were people wearing black all around us. There were market stands set up all along the walkway selling photos, amulets and other items bearing the princess's image. It was very interesting to have all of the tourists, purely there to see the sights, mixed in with all of the people showing their respect for someone who appears to have been held in rather high esteem

We purchased our tickets to enter Wat Phra Kaew, which comprises half the Palace complex area, and is actually the bigger attraction. Locals went in for free. We went in through the tourist entrance.

We'd been to more than a few temples over the past few weeks. And while Phra Kaew clearly wasn't more impressive than some of the ancients, like Borobudur or Prambanan, this was the most amazing active temple we'd seen on our trip. While it was shiny and gaudy, like so many other Buddhist monuments throughout Thailand, it was also beautiful.

There were your standard giant golden chedi, an odd recreation of Angkor Wat, fantastic statue guards holding up chedi and giant mythical guards surrounding statues of kings. Everything was covered in this mosaic/tile/gold material. Along one wall, for what appeared to be hundreds of meters, there was a painting portraying the entire Ramayana story. The whole thing was really quite beautiful.

The main feature of Wat Phra Kaew is the emerald Buddha, which takes centre stage in a temple fully dedicated to him. There's a whole long story about the emerald Buddha's history, which I won't go into here. If you're interested you can find it here. In short, the emerald Buddha isn't emerald, he's jade. He's a little guy, but he's so important that several wars have been fought over him. We went in, saw him, gave our respects, and left. No photos were allowed. It was incredibly busy due to a mix of tourists and Thai's. Phra Kaew is Thailand's most revered temple and as a result very popular.

After Phra Kaew we decided to go the other half of the Grand Palace complex to check out the Royal Palace. This was a bit of a disappointment. We got there just in time for the changing of the guard, but we couldn't get into any of the buildings. Yes, the Palace looked rather impressive from the exterior, but I wanted to see the interiors. They're no longer used but for the rarest of occasions, so I didn't really see the need to keep tourists out, but that's the way it was. All the same, the architecture, which had incorporated an odd mix of Italian and Thai influences, was very impressive.

We left the Grand Temple complex and decided to walk down to Wat Pho, a few blocks away. It was extremely hot out, so we had a couple of drinks in an effort to rehydrate, and made our way down through a sidewalk market selling everything from amulets to all the latest Hollywood DVDs. It's amazing how much things start to suck when you're dehydrated.

Wat Pho is another large temple complex that includes a large reclining Buddha, the largest collection of Buddha images of any temple in Thailand and, of course, a Thai massage school. The huge Buddha collection was impressive, but not particularly interesting. The massage school was set up by Rama V (the fifth king of the current lineage), who was concerned about the future of traditional Thai medicine, worried that it might disappear. His efforts were effective, as now Thai massage is available on every corner and beach throughout the country.
We did not take up the opportunity to have a student massage. Lastly, we went into the temple containing the huge Buddha. This guy was rather impressive. He was over 45 meters long and up to 15 meters high, lying on his side. The reclining Buddha is meant to show Buddha at the point of his ascension into Nirvana, a.k.a. his death. It was a pretty impressive statue although, as I've stated before, I still don't really understand the religious significance of having the biggest Buddha.

We took at tuk tuk back to our hotel, showered and went for a roti, which is a meat, vegetable or fruit filled pancake. I did a little exploring around our neighbourhood, visiting the chaos of Khao San road, then did a little blogging.

We were beat. We hadn't done that much, but with the heat we were exhausted. We chilled out for the evening, had another meal from a street vendor, watched a little TV, and crashed out. Not the party-time that one is supposed to have in Bangkok, but we were happy.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Back to Bangkok

On January 18th we left Nai Phlao to head back north to Bangkok.

We started the day out leisurely, but it was still raining so we didn't go out for one last dip. Our ride from One More Beer picked us up around 11:30 and drove us to Khanom. From there we caught a mini-van up to Surat Thani and then a taxi out to the Surat Thani airport. We looked around the airport for a restaurant, couldn't find one, so we dined on Pringles and Coke again. Then we got our 1-2-Go flight up to Bangkok.

We arrived at the old airport in Bangkok that isn't supposed to be used anymore, but is extremely busy anyway, and took a cab into town to a hotel that T&B had mentioned to us, the Rambutri Village Inn. Our cab driver had difficulty finding it, primarily due to the fact that it's located in tourist central, which is packed with hundreds of other little hotels. We're just a block or two away from Khao San Road, which is like the backpacker mecca of S.E. Asia, so it's a little hectic. We took a look at the rooms, which are fine, and checked in with the very surly staff.

We had three days in Bangkok until we had to fly home. That evening we didn't do much. We walked around a bit. Got some food at a restaurant just down the street from the hotel. (Terrible food. I guess it's their "tourist" special.") Checked out another hotel that T&B were thinking of staying at, and watched a bit of TV at our place. Nothing special.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Day two in Nai Phlao

On the second day in Nai Phlao, January 17, we decided to be a bit more active. We had our scooter and we planned out an itinerary with T&B. We started the day by getting them a scooter, then the four of us went to breakfast at a little cafe along about 10 minutes drive away, which was lovely except for the very grumpy Aussie proprietor.

It was a cloudy morning and while dined it began to blow a bit. Our waitress suggested that this might mean rain, but that it generally came down for a bit then blew over. A few drops weren't going to stop us. Number one on our list for the day was to climb (via motorbike) the local mountain. Number two was to do some spelunking at the local caves. And number three was to visit the local waterfall.

We had our trusty map provided by our scooter rental shop that had all of the sites on it, but absolutely no scale. It could be relied on for general directions, but you had no idea when to turn or where you were. Very handy.

We found the mountain and set off up it. It was a beautiful drive through a twisty steep road, no wider than 3/4 of a normal lane. There were great signs all the way up warning of curves, with a picture of a horn to remind drivers to toot as they went along. The hill was much longer than we had expected, and we went on and on. After a bit I noticed that T&B were falling a little further behind. We waited for them to catch up, and they let us know that, while we were close to our destination, they couldn't go on. Their scooter was overheating with the two of them on it. Thomas, at well over 250 lbs, was not a light load for the scooter to take up a hill. (Sorry Thomas.)

Colleen and I set off to make the last few minutes up the hill. We got to the view area, almost at the top, and realized that there was nothing to see. The clouds had settled in, a mist was blowing across the mountain, and there would definitely be no views that day. We carried on to the top, when a few drops of rain started to fall. When we reached the peak it was a disappointing area primarily comprised of a radio/tv tower. I'm sure it would be lovely on a sunny day, but at that point the heavens decided to open up on us. We were in the absolutely worst place at the worst time, and we were going to pay for it.

We jumped back on our bike and started down the hill. By the time we reached T&B, huddling under a tree on the side of the road, we were drenched right through. For the first time in Thailand, except for in over air-conditioned vehicles, I was really cold. Driving quickly down the hill in wet clothes didn't help matters. We had seen a shelter on the way up and Thomas suggested we make our way there, where we could let the storm pass over. We quickly agreed and drove until we got to the shelter, which was much farther than either of us had remembered.

We huddled on the porch of a shack that was likely used by the neighboring rubber plantation until the worst of the storm had passed. We dined on chips and water. We wrung our clothes out and we shivered.

By the time that it had cleared enough to go on T&B were eager to make their way to the caves. Colleen and I kind of wanted to head back to our room, get changed and have a cup of tea, but we were easily swayed. The two couples climbed back on our bikes and made our way to the Khao Wang Thong Caves, which was no easy feat again due to our lack of proper maps.

When we got to the caves we knew we had to get a key from the Cave Keeper. We laughed at this bizarre instruction on the back of the map that seemed like something out of grail lore, but there was a grill across the entrance to the cave with a padlock keeping us out. The key must be sought. Leaving the others at the foot of the stairs to the caves I set off to find the Cave Keeper. At the first house below the caves I pulled in. Four heads popped up on an upstairs patio, wondering what this farang was looking for. I made the universal sign for key, turning my hand left and right. They all laughed and pointed me down the road.

I went down the road a few hundred more yards until I came to another house. I pulled in here again and made the sign of the key. At this a young man jumped up, ran down the stairs and jumped on his motorbike. I restarted mine to follow him, but he clearly told me to wait there. So now I'm just standing in someone's front driveway when a group of their friends arrive. One of the friends, clearly nominated due to his superior English skills, comes over to tell me to just sit tight, the key was coming.

A minute or so later the young man returned on his motorbike and gave me a couple of keys. I gave him a few dollars for his troubles. He looked a little shocked, but took the money anyway. And I went back to join Colleen T&B.

We climb the 150 steps to the cave, where there is a very odd description of what's inside. (See photo.) I unlock the gate, and we enter. Colleen has brought her headlamp, but this is not your normal cave. This cave has had lights placed sporadically through it. Once Thomas and I figure out how to turn them on via a fuse box on the cave wall we start to explore.

The first four or five larger openings are pretty impressive but, really, it's just a cave. There's a small Buddhist shrine in the first one, that's fairly beaten up. It's pretty dark and wet, as caves should be. We're able to sort of find our way between caves by making out the next light in the distance. After a bit, we come upon an iron ladder that takes us up to the next level in the caves. We crawl through an opening or two, then come upon a massive opening. It's beautiful. There are huge stalagmites and stalactites all over. The ceiling is a forest of looming stone. And the floor has been built up, reaching towards the ceiling. In some spots they're almost touching, in others they have met to form huge stone pillars.

We poked around in this area for a bit, taking lots of photos that mostly didn't turn out, due to lack of light. We slid and tried not to fall down. We looked through some of the other smaller caves around, and tried not to go too far from the main cave since we only had one light. After a bit we decided we'd had enough and made our way out. We reached the gate, turned out the lights and locked it behind us.

While we'd been in the cave it had started to rain again, so we hid out in a pagoda just outside the entrance. When the rain had abated we made our way back down the hill, got on our bikes, and I returned the key to the young man who had fetched it for us in the first place. He, presumably, then returned it to the Cave Keeper.

We'd had a great time, but we were cold and wet. We decided that the waterfall might not be the best idea at that time and returned to our guesthouse. We dined at the little place across the street again, which had the most delicious fried chicken. Then we napped, read and watched the Gulf of Thailand crash upon the shore in front of us. That evening, after a nice but pricey dinner at One More Beer, Colleen and I taught T&B our version of Gin Rummy. Needless to say, they turned the tables this time and cleaned us out.

A day of rest

We started our first full day in Nai Phlao with breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. The hotel was actually about a 10 minute drive from Nai Phlao. There were 44 bungalows, but I'm not sure if there was anyone other than us staying there. The restaurant was empty, and I had to send my eggs back to get them cooked. Little scary.

We checked out of our hotel so that we could move back to Nai Phlao. We ended up with T&B in a beautiful house that had been divided in two, right on the beach. Our room had a loft area for the bed, the best bathroom we'd seen in Thailand, a sitting room, and a patio right on the beach. All for 800 baht a night. (Less than $30.) We were very happy.

Needless to say, we didn't do much that day. Colleen climbed back into bed for a nap. She hadn't been feeling that well since the hike and wasn't able to keep any food down. I read, napped and grabbed some lunch. Later we sat on the porch. I went for a bit of a swim, and it was in general a very nice day.

In the evening we went across the street to a tiny little restaurant run by an extended Thai family. No name, just a couple of woks in the front and fresh ingredients. Colleen and I ordered our default meal of Tom Kha Gai and Pad Thai. As in most places, the best meals come from small family run places without a lot of money but a tonne of pride. It was delicious.

After dinner T&B taught us how to play their version of rummy. I'm proud to say that I won, but only through some solid beginners luck.

To Nai Phlao

We'd gotten along quite well with Bridget and Thomas, and the next day they decided to continue travelling with us. They had been debating whether to go to Ko Lok or Ko Tao, both of which had some positives, but also some pretty big negatives. (Ko Lok, previously devastated by the tsunami, has become expensive and touristy. Ko Tao, sounding like the perfect Thai island, has become very busy and overrun by tourists. Plus, the weather there at this time of year can be dodgy, making departure challenging.) Now, instead, they decided to join us to Nai Phlao, which we'd only settled on the day before.

We had breakfast at Art's, then got a ride to the highway. We were going to grab a government bus, but a mini-van bus pulled up and offered to take us to Surat Thani for 150 baht each. This seemed like a good deal, particularly for tall Thomas, since the van was empty. Stupid us. It filled up quickly along the way and took much longer than the bus. We've learned this lesson several times before, but we don't learn.

Eventually we got to Surat Thani. We negotiated with several travel agencies before deciding on which one to let rip us off. We had a lunch of Pringles and Coke and were picked up around 1:30. This mini-van was actually pretty decent, and we had a nice ride to the beach area of Nai Phlao, near the small town of Khanom.

Nai Phlao is describe in Lonely Planet at having "Ko Samui's beauty without its crowds... Here the mountains meet the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the sand is pristine white. Coconut palms blow gently in the wind, and you'll be left with the impression that a chunk of Ko Samui somehow cut loose and drifted ashore." Clearly, this place had a lot to live up to.

It didn't live up to that billing, but it was still quite nice. Upon arrival Bridget and Colleen stayed with our bags at one of the big hotels on the beach while Thomas and I looked around a place to stay. Unfortunately, when we got to these less popular places there are less options. We walked around in the late afternoon heat for hours. We found one place that was perfect, but it only had one room, with another opening up the next day. We tossed a coin to see who got the room, and Colleen and I won. When we went back to claim our prize the room was no longer available, due to some earlier miscommunication. I could go on at length about finding a room that night, but it doesn't make particularly interesting reading. Suffice to say that we rented a motor bike, drove around and got a room in the end that was great, but we ended up being able to take two of the rooms that we'd originally wanted the next morning.

We had dinner at the Supar Villa Hotel dining room, where T&B had ended up for the evening. Colleen ordered prawn spring rolls. When they arrived she took a big bite, quickly realizing that they'd left the heads on and she'd bitten that end. Rather nasty. The rest of the meal was not much better. We were glad we weren't staying there.

We rode back to our hotel. I can't remember what it was called, but it had the best beds we'd been in on our travels, very cool sinks made out of the trunks of trees, and terrible plumbing that ran across the floor and caused showers to stop after 5 minutes.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hiking in Khao Sok

Our day of trekking in Khao Sok began with a hotel breakfast of french toast. Deep fried French Toast from Ted's in Sausalito used to be my way of starting hikes in Marin. It's always a good way to start the day, and assured of having me hungry by noon. Thomas and Bridget (T&B) met us at breakfast and after finishing our meals we went to the Bamboo House, where our hike was to begin. There we met our guide, were provided with water to drink/carry for the day, and were picked up by a pick-up truck.

Besides T&B there were two others in our party. Robert and Nadine, a couple of Germans from Berlin. We all piled into the pick-up, which drove us up to the park entrance where we had to buy tickets at 200 baht each, which is pretty steep for this country. Then we left the park, picked up a second guide, and drove about 20 minutes along the highway to where our hike was to begin.

One guide started in front of us, one took up the rear, and our hiking party headed up the hill. It was a long hill and by the time we were 1/4 way up it we were sweating profusely. It was like starting a day-hike by going up the Grind. Our guide in the lead didn't speak any English, so he'd try to explain what we were doing through a series of grunts. Our guide in back didn't seem to know the way, he was just following the lead guide.

After another period of going up hill we stopped again for a water break. Our lead guide had a smoke and a chew of what they said was a coca leaf, claiming it was good for energy and would get us up the hill. I've done a bit of subsequent research (thank you Wikipedia) and I'm pretty sure that coca doesn't grow here, but what do I know about that kind of thing. Another 10 minutes of walking, and our lead guide stopped for more water. (We needed it. It was hot, humid and straight uphill.) At this point he rolled himself out a nice big joint and went to pass it around. Not particularly tempting, since we were walking up a hill, with cliffs on either side and roots trying to trip us along the way. No one took him up on his offer.

While we were having this last break Colleen and Bridget had forged off ahead. The guide started us off again and when we were a little further on he stopped and took us all off the path and into the forest. There he showed us an open flower, a Bua Phut in Thai or Rafflesia Kerri. These flowers grow to a diameter of 80 cm, and have a smell of rotting meat in order to attract flies for pollination. It wasn't a particularly beautiful flower, but I was glad to have seen it just for its size. Unfortunately, Colleen didn't get to see this one flowering, and all of the others that we saw later were still just buds. She had the camera, so we didn't get a shot of it, but here's a photo from the web.

Post flower viewing we carried on up the hill. After a bit we stopped again for some water and our guide tried to explain something about a tree by the side of the path. He grunted a bit and made some motions. We couldn't quite figure out why the other guide didn't translate for him. It was only at this point that we realized that our guide was deaf and mute. There would be no explanations in English or Thai for this tree, or any other along the way. He was a guide in the most literal sense.

We finally crested our hill. We were all exhausted and we were only a couple of hours into our trip. From there it was up and down for the next hour or so. We kept an eye out for wildlife, but didn't see anything the entire day, which was somewhat disappointing. The forest was beautiful, but my eyes spent most of their time on the ground, trying not to trip and fall along the rain forest path.

Some time in the early afternoon we were able to hear water flowing nearby. Our guide stopped along the trail to chop down some bamboo trees for a fire, and the rest of us followed the trail down to a river. It came out at a series of pools, just above a waterfall. The hikers all jumped into the crisp water, while the guides built a fire and prepared lunch.

Lunch was terrific. The guides made the whole thing without using any pots and pans. Noodles were cooked lengthwise in a bamboo tree that had been cut down. Rice was cooked inside leaves that had be taken from the forest, then stuffed into bamboo shells. And chicken and pork were cooked over the fire on a grill that had been assembled from bamboo pieces. It was all pretty impressive, and it was rather tasty. However, it may not have been as good as it sounds, as Colleen was pretty sick right after lunch and didn't get to "keep" her meal. Also, I guess that it's a good thing that there aren't more people doing these kinds of hikes, as this wasn't a particularly sustainable form of cooking.

After lunch we carried on our hike, but from here on it was along the river bed. We began by descending the waterfall, scrambling down boulders and using ropes. It was a pretty daunting climb, and it would have helped to have a guide who could talk us through it, but we all made it just fine. At the bottom of the falls Colleen jumped in for another swim.

We carried on down the river, hopping from rock to rock, occassionally falling in, for the next couple of hours. We worked our way down two more waterfalls, with Colleen jumping in after each for a swim. We traversed the river with our bags over our heads. And eventually we came back onto some trails. From here guide #2 said it was about 1/2 an hour to home, which wasn't even close. We went another hour, then came to the main road, at which point we realized that there wasn't going to be a pick-up service. So we kept walking along the park entrance road, all the way back to our hotel.

It had been a very nice hike. It was extremely long, and we were all exhausted, but the three waterfalls had made it worth it.

Colleen and I went down to the local store and picked up a bottle of vodka. Then back to Art's Lodge for drinks and a well deserved good night's sleep.

Leaving Ko Lanta

The day we left Ko Lanta we were up early to catch a 7:00 mini-van. On the way to the ferry we made several stops, picking up other passengers. We caught a 5 minute ferry to the next island over (also called Ko Lanta) and then another 15 minute ferry to the mainland. From there it was an hour long ride to PP Travel, in Krabi, where we were to catch another mini-bus to take us the rest of the way to Khao Sok National Park, our destination that day.

It was a bit of a wait at Krabi, and while we were standing around waiting for our luxury van to arrive Colleen got to talking with a German couple who were also waiting for the same van. They were Thomas and Bridget, a very friendly pair who we got along well with. When finally our mini-van arrived, not surprisingly looking nothing like the van that we'd been shown pictures of and promised, we climbed in with the two of them. Thomas got first pick of seating, due to his size. He's 6'9" and over 250 pounds, so cramming him into a mini-van is a little challenging. Our mini-van then made it's way over to another pick-up spot, where we filled the van with several others. It was unpleasant, particularly for Thomas, but not unendurable, and nothing compared to Indonesia, so we couldn't complain too much.

When we arrived in Khao Sok we teamed up with Thomas and Bridget to go to a guest house that they'd heard about, Bamboo House, which had tree houses. Unfortunately, when we got there all the tree houses were taken, and their only rooms were not so nice. Colleen and Bridget sat down in the Bamboo House restaurant while Thomas and I went in search of accommodation. We looked at a few places, but they were far apart and it was extremely hot. When we got back to Colleen Bridget was no longer with her. She'd gone to look at a place down the road that she'd heard about. I'd read about the same place, and it sounded interesting, so I followed after Bridget.

When I got there they showed me to a room. I'd just been venting to Thomas about the lack of decent accommodation, and how travellers would be willing to pay a little more for something just a little nicer and slightly different. These people had been listening. It was called Art's Riverview Lodge and it was perfect. Big guesthouses with balconies overlooking the river that flowed through the national park. Clean and with a bit of personality. Perfect. It cost a bit more, but we were happy to take it. S0 were Thomas and Bridget, who became our neighbours.

That evening we dined at our hotel with Thomas and Bridget (to be called T&B from here on) and then went down the road to book an adventure at Bamboo House for the following day. Our hotel may have been nice, but they overcharged for trips, so we were looking for an alternative and had heard that Bamboo House had good reviews. After much debate we decided to sign up for the full-day 10-hour trek through the forest the following day.

We returned to our nice little hotel for evening drinks on our patio, then to bed in preparation for a big day.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Day five on Ko Lanta

Today was day five on Ko Lanta. Our last day here.

Today I didn't want any special adventures. I just wanted to have a peaceful and relaxing day, like our first day here, and that's what we did.

We ate breakfast at The Drunken Sailor, renewed our scooter rental for one more day, then headed over to the beach in front of the SunMoon Resort. We were able to find a couple of hammocks under shade for rent, and we kicked back with our books. I was aiming to finish 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith today, since I'd borrowed it from The Drunken Sailor and needed to return it this evening.

We had lunch on the restaurant on the beach. We went for a swim in the beautiful warm waters. And we read. Not much more. Perfect. Just what I was looking for.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon we headed over to a bar at Hat Nui again to watch it set. Then we went back to our scooter rental place, which doubles as a travel agency, to book a ride to tomorrow's destination. (7:00 AM departure. Ick.) We had a decent dinner at a place with great service, called the Jungle View Restaurant. Then back here to finish off the last three day's blogs.

To those of you who have been kind enough to read these postings, my apologies for the lack of images in the recoen

Day four on Koh Lanta

Day four started with breakfast at our resort, then us checking out of that resort. We had to move to somewhere less pricey, and had found room at a Lonely Planer recommended place just down the hill. The Kantiang Bay View Resort. We'd booked a couple of days before, as it seemed to always be full, and when they showed us our rooms we were extremely disappointed. I won't go into full details here, suffice to say that on a budget trip like we've been on, this was/is about the worst.

(Our worst ever hotel, Colleen reminded me the other day, was a government run place in Vietnam a few years ago. I'll provide details to anyone who wants to buy me a beer.)

The only solution, get out of the room ASAP and enjoy the island. So we climbed on our trusty bike and filled it up with gas, at which point the bike's owner came over to the gas station to let me know that we had a flat tire. There followed a lengthy debate with the scooter shop about whose fault the flat tire was, after which we split the costs. The big problem however was that we needed a scooter. Being Friday, anyone able to fix the scooter appeared to be off at the local mosque at the time. Eventually I got the rental person to give us a new scooter and off we went.

We had read in our semi-trusty Lonely Planet that there were caves to be explored in the middle of the island. We found our way across various dirt roads to a point where someone had put out a hand written sign letting us know that we should buy our cave tickets there. Some smart family had made cave tours their business, although I doubt they had any ownership in the land at all. Regardless, we were happy to buy tickets. I'm not a big fan of freelance spelunking, so we paid our 400 baht and waited for our guide.

Our group included three women from London, a father/son Swedish team, a lone Swede and Colleen and I, plus our Thai guide. It was a pretty good group. We made the half hour walk up to the caves, which included a pretty steep climb through jungle terrain. Then we caught our breath, our guide handed out headlamps, and we went into the caves.

The whole tour took just over 50 minutes, but it was rather impressive. Water has slowly eroded these caves over the millennia, so that now some of the interiors of the caves are the size of cathedrals. They're all interconnected and the guide family has put in some dodgy but effective bamboo ladders and bridges. The limestone in places was incredibly slippery, so you had to watch your step, and there were very interesting spiders along the walls to be identified later. Bats filled some caves and in places we had to get down on our bellies to make it through openings. (No obese people, or the elderly, should do this trip.) We enjoyed it, though Colleen and I both would have liked it to have been longer and perhaps more in depth.

Following the tour we hiked back down on our own, passing some families wearing very nice white and delicate clothes. Bad move. We climbed on our bike, went back to the "resort" for a shower, and grabbed a bit of lunch. Post-lunch I told Colleen that I wanted to go explore the south of the island on our bike. I had got the feeling that it might be nice down there, but the only way to get there was on the really bad dirt road that we'd ridden the day before. (Possible cause of the aforementioned flat tire.) Colleen was game and we headed south.

Bouncing along we passed our second hotel, then we passed a few other hotels that we thought maybe we should check out for the next day, then we continued to bump along the dirt road. Then, to our complete surprise, we came across a paved road that wasn't on any of the maps. We jumped on and drove down this road for a bit, coming to a guard station for a national park after a few minutes. There was a big sign saying we had to pay our entrance fee there, but there was no one to pay it to. After a few minutes of waiting (how Canadian of us) we just went in. The following road was incredibly steep downhill, to the point of being a little scary on the scooter, and we wondered how the brakes were on a rental bike like this, but we survived. At the bottom of the hill there were some Thais, but no one seemed to be around to give any information. After a boneheaded move on the scooter by me that I won't go into here we headed off for a little walk around.

It was a beautiful park on the Southern tip of Koh Lanta. It was surrounded by dense jungle forest with a daunting black rocky beach on one side of a point and a beautiful sandy beach on the other side. And, at the end of the point, was an old lighthouse. Colleen and I walked along the point to the lighthouse. Everything was broken down and rotted. There had clearly been no upkeep in years. But it was all open to us.

The door to the lighthouse was open, so how could I not climb up. Three flights of stairs on a rusty but solid old ladder took me to the top, where I was able to climb out onto the walkway. From there, the view was incredible. The beaches on both sides of me, the jungle forest behind them, and out at sea beautiful islands in the distance. A bit of vertigo caused me not to linger, but it was a wonderful view. After climbing down the lighthouse we set out our beach blanket on the point and I enjoyed a Heineken that Colleen had packed for me.

The sun was now setting and I wanted to get out of there before we lost too much light. I didn't want to be riding along those dirt roads, with their huge potholes, in the dark. We set off and, about two big hills before we made it back to the relative safety of pavement we turned into what had earlier appeared to be a bar beside the road, so that we could watch the end of the sunset. However, once we got into the parking lot we realized that there was definitely no longer a bar here. It had been deserted.

The deserted bar had had a fabulous viewpoint on the top of a cliff. We walked down through four levels of what had likely been seating areas, then continued down the scree below the bar area to see if there was a path down to the water. There wasn't one, so we set out our beach mat on the scree and enjoyed the end of another terrific sunset. This time, once the sunset was done, instead of packing up and moving on we simply stayed on our blanket and watched the stars come out. It was warm on the rocks and the moon was like the sliver in the Dreamworks logo. We were able to count over 50 brightly lit prawn boats out at sea, almost like stars set on the ocean. We stayed there for a couple of hours just looking out. It was a wonderful experience.

Eventually, we scrambled back up the scree and found our way to dinner. Then, we finally had to return to our ugly hotel room. It smelled funny and the bed was hard, but we'd had an eventful day and went right off to sleep.

Day three on Koh Lanta

On our third day in Koh Lanta we had a late breakfast at a little cafe down the road from our hotel, called the Drunken Sailor. Great coffee and fruit shakes there.

We renewed our rental scooter and rode over to the area where our previous hotel had been. The drive was a bit of an adventure, since it was up and down a steep unpaved road. We had seen signs that said that there was a waterfall in the area, and we wanted to see it. At the bottom of another dirt road there was a hut, where you could hire an elephant to take you to the waterfall. We got directions there for walking and set off.

The hike was essentially straight up the river that was fed by the waterfall. In some areas there was a little trail through the forest, but for the most part it was picking our way along the rocks. We were confused, as we couldn't figure out where the elephants would have walked, so we kept looking for what would have to be a fairly apparent elephant trail. We were only later to discover that the elephants only went about 10 minutes, to the base of the river, and riders walked from there. Colleen took me on a side trip or two up into the hills in search of a trail, but we never found one. (Because there wasn't one.)

After about an hour we arrived at the waterfall. It wasn't spectacular, but it was very nice. It was about a 50 foot drop and there was a little pool at the bottom. Way too shallow for swimming, but nice to walk out into. Colleen was first under the falls and I followed. After the heat and humidity of the walk in it was incredibly refreshing and we both enjoyed a good soaking.

We hiked back down the river, which took far less time than on the way up, and climbed back on our bike. We headed back along the dirt road, grabbed a late snack, then along to the wonderful beach where we'd spent the previous evening, Hat Nui. We read on the beach and played in the water, then got ready to leave. We weren't going to stay for yet another disappointing sunset. But as the sun went down the view got better and better. It was truly spectacular. This was one Thai sunset that didn't disappoint.

After the show in the sky was finally over we rode down to the north end of the island, back to the hotel where we'd stayed the first night. We had gone back for their fantastic Indian curry, and it was as great as we'd hoped for. Well worth the hour long ride.

That's about it for day three. Another great relaxing island day.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Day Two on Ko Lanta

On our second day in Ko Lanta we were once again picked up by a hotel vehicle first thing in the morning. It took us to our new place, the Ko Lanta Marine Park View Resort. This was our 4th hotel in 4 days and 6th in 7.

We'd been promised a beautiful room with a view of the bay. It was not to be, but it had AC and hot water. We had breakfast and decided what to do with the day. I wanted to explore the island so we went just down the street and rented a scooter. We picked our scooter rental shop based on which one looked like it would have two helmets, a rarity around here. We got them, but mine was about 3 sizes too small, Thai sized, giving me terrible headaches after about 5 minutes of wearing.

We set off on our island driving adventure. We started by driving north. I won't go into details of the entire island, but eventually we got to the end of the island, where there's a small two street town. Colleen and I have been having lengthy discussions about how nice it would be to have a sailboat here, so when we saw a sailing charter office we decided to stop in. The woman that helped us was very eager, but the price tag for a one day charter was a little steep for us. We said we'd think about it and were heading to leave when Colleen asked a question that I can't quite remember, but from the answer we learned that her husband was Canadian. We talked a little further and found out that her husband was a pilot for Westcoast Air, that they spent 6 months each year in Thailand and 6 in Canada, and that they'd recently bought a house in Sechelt. When we told her that our family had a place near Halfmoon Bay she let us know that her husband likes to grab a beer in the bay and have a sit on the beach. It's such a cliche, but it's true, it's an incredibly small world. As we went to leave her husband pulled up. So we spent some time talking to him, finding out about life for a Canadian in this part of the world and what it's like to run a sailing charter operation. It was a good chat and they were very nice people. Her name was Sammy (sp?) and he was Wynn Davies.

After we left them we headed south, down the other side of the island. The beaches aren't as nice there, so there are very few tourist things. We found the old town, which was the island's original port where traders on their way to Singapore would stop, and had a drink. Then we carried on south, past where the Sea Gypsies camp out, to the end of the road where there's a bit of a settlement. We turned around and headed north again, until we found a road that would take us back across the island.

We had spotted a beautiful little beach earlier in the day and went in search of it again. After a few wrong turns we found it, Hat Nui. Gorgeous sand, some rocky bits and no resorts, just a restaurant on the cliffs overlooking and a few scooters pulled up on the road. There was no shade, but it was late enough now to not be a problem. We found a nice secluded spot, had a bit of a swim and enjoyed the sunset.

After the sunset we hurried back to the resort. In the dark I didn't fully trust my scooter driving yet. Remembering to keep to the left wasn't too hard, but the occasional lapses were a little scary. We had a nice dinner at the hotel's restaurant overlooking the bay, I did a little blogging (several postings ago), and headed for bed.

Day One on Ko Lanta

Day one in Ko Lanta was just about perfect for me.

It started with us getting picked up by our new hotel, the SunMoon Resort, from our old hotel, The Diamond Sand Resort. We made a 30 minute drive to the other end of the island in their pickup truck, with groceries rolling around in the back. The last 10 minutes were along a dirt road that had been thoroughly abused.

Upon arriving at the "resort" we got our bungalow. It was a tragic broken down old thing. We asked to see a more expensive one, which looked just like the first. We decided to stay and suffer through it. We took a quick walk down to the beach then had breakfast in the "resorts" dining area, alone. Never a good sign.

At around noon I headed down to the beach again, about a 5 minute walk from the resort. The beach was beautiful. Gorgeous fluffy sand. Very calm. No people. A couple of sailboats moored in the harbour. Cliffs on either end. I entered the beach through a little bar/restaurant, and right beside it was a place where you could rent a hammock for the day under shade for about 20 baht. (60 cents)

I rented a hammock for myself and another for Colleen, then sat back to relax. I was reading another of Anthony Bourdain's books, A Cook's Tour, the second of his on this trip. Colleen came down to join me after a few minutes and took over her hammock. We had a few drinks and did very little else. I was very happy.

There's not much else to post for this day. We went for a swim in warm clear water. We watched a good, but not great, sunset. We had drinks at a bar at the far end of the beach, where we were the only customers. We sat there, me with my G&T and Colleen with some fruity concoction, and watched the waves catch the moon rays. And we had dinner on the beach. Close to the perfect day.

In the end, we went back to our room where a few little creatures awaited us. But not even they could disturb the kind of island day that I had had.

Over to Ko Lanta

On the morning of the seventh I got up nice and early to get over to the travel agent's so that I could book a hotel room for that evening. Unfortunately, he didn't show up. I waited in the neighboring climbing shop for half and hour, then decided that I couldn't keep waiting. I went back to our place and borrowed the mobile phone of the woman from the front desk. I then proceeded to call every hotel on Ko Lanta that was listed in our Lonely Planet that was in our price range. None of them had rooms. Half of them didn't even bother to answer the phone. Finally, on my last number, I found a room available. It was more than I was planning to spend, and it was in an area that we didn't want to be in, but I took it. Better that than having to deal with all the touts when we got off the boat.

Colleen and I grabbed our bags and headed for the other side of the island to catch our boat. We hurried over to make it for the 10:00 departure time, but we should have known better. Some time around 11:00 we were directed to a couple of long tail boats. Piling in with a group of other tourists it looked like it was going to be a long voyage, but once we got out of the bay we pulled alongside a much larger ship, which we were transferred to.

The boat was full. Actually, I expect that it was far more than full, but that's what we've become used to. Colleen and I found a spot along the railing, half-way up the ship, that had a bit of space and sat down. And that's where we remained for the entire voyage. Now, other than the overcrowding, it wasn't that bad. We had a beautiful view of islands going by for part of the trip, and for the rest we just looked out on open water. It was a beautiful sunny day. I read my book and we tried to relax. We got far far too much sun, but beyond that it was very nice.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Ko Lanta's primary port. We grabbed our bags and piled off. As expected, the touts were out in droves. I wasn't happy about the place I'd booked that morning, but I was glad not to have to deal with those guys. Our place, The Diamond Sand Palace, had sent someone to pick us up. We piled into the back of their pickup truck and made the 5 minute voyage to our hotel. We had a little bungalow. It wasn't necessarily nice, but it did have AC, hot water shower and a TV, which is pretty fantastic relative to what we'd been staying in.

We grabbed a bite to eat. Colleen got an amazingly delicious curry. We had a bit of a nap. Then walked down the beach to do a little shopping. We bought all the essentials: A couple of beach mats. A beach towel. Some beers. And one of those stupid paddle and ball sets that I always see people playing with on the beach. I don't know why, but I've always wanted one. Then we sat down to watch the sunset.

To be honest, it wasn't a particularly spectacular sunset. When the sun was about 10 degrees above the horizon it seemed to drop behind some clouds or pollution and that was it. But we were very happy anyway. This place was much nicer than Railay. Sure, there were no huge limestone formations rising from the water, but there were no longtails buzzing around either. And there were fewer people. It was a much nicer, far more chilled atmosphere. Actually, it turned out that most of the people around us were Swedes, who appear to have taken over this region of Thailand. That's cool though, as I've come to like the Swedes quite a bit through my work at Coastal.

After the sunset we had dinner on the beach at a restaurant that had set its tables out in the sand. Very romantic, except for the mosquitoes.

Following dinner, we went up to a local travel agent to try to find another hotel on the island. While ours was decent, it was out of our price range (I am unemployed after all.) and wasn't on the right part of the island. It was in the north, which is somewhat more touristy. Again, most places that we were interested in were full up. After much debate and deliberation we booked a very cheap room for the following day, then the next two days after that in a more expensive place on what sounded like a better beach. We were set.

We returned to the room and I flicked on the TV to see if anything interesting was on. To my delight an NFL playoff game was on. A real rarity here in Asia. Steelers vs. Jacksonville . And it was a great game, although my team came out on the wrong end. Needless to say, it was a very late night, and Colleen was wonderfully patient.