Travel stories from Thailand
Wander the streets and beaches of Phuket and other tourist destinations around Thailand and you’ll often soon be met by someone trying to sell you a photograph with an exotic animal. The thrill of an encounter with a gibbon, slow loris, iguana or python might add some excitement to someone’s tropical holiday, but what many don’t realise is that these happy snapshots mask a brutal, damaging and illegal trade.
Music has the power to launch you far and wide, create a sense of community, replace hopelessness with creativity and soothe the deepest roots of your soul. In Bangkok's poorest area, underprivileged kids are exposed to all of this and more thanks to Khlong Toey Music Program (KTMP).
Phuket, like most areas of Thailand, is home to many stray animals in need of care. But visitors returning to Phuket will notice that there are far fewer sad, sickly dogs and cats on the loose than there were a decade ago, thanks in no small part to the tireless work of Soi Dog Foundation in providing medical care, sterilisations and adoptions for the island's strays.
At Travelfish, we work hard to steer you towards the best Thai food in Thailand by way of our many Eat and Meet sections, like this one for Chiang Mai. But those who want to voyage deeper into the vibrant world of Thai cuisine have several terrific blogs to choose from. In no particular order, these are the sites that we look to when our taste buds need some inspiration.
It's around 02:00 at Greenpeace Restaurant in the heart of Ko Pha Ngan's Full Moon Party and Nat is up at the counter trying to pay the bill for our table. "What did you have? We have no idea what you had," says one of the Burmese staff "Just pay me whatever you think is right." He's distracted, busy trying to deal with a Western guy who is covered in his own faeces, so Nat passes him a few hundred and we move on.
Anchoring the Siam Square shopping district, Siam BTS station (aka "central station") provides the only interchange between the Skytrain system's Sukhumvit and Silom lines. The station sits over Rama I Road in a central area of the city where real estate is among the priciest in Thailand.
Number E4 on the Sukhumvit Line, Asok station is the centrepiece of a vibrant area where Sukhumvit, Ratchadiphisek and Asok Montri roads converge. The city's coolest mall -- Terminal 21 -- opened in 2011 right next to Asok station and is a great place to watch a movie at the FX Cinema, grab a bite at any of dozens of Thai and international restaurants, or pick up funky clothes and jewellery crafted by local designers. Apart from Terminal, the Asok area is probably best known -- and notoriously so -- for the go-go bars and "massage" parlours of Soi Cowboy. This is also one of three BTS stations where you can transfer to the MRT subway.
Recently I sat down with Travis Sherry of Extra Pack of Peanuts for an interview about Travelfish.org, travel in Southeast Asia and so on. I mentioned that during my frequent travels over the years to Thailand, I've visited 31 islands in total. So while Thailand has very famous islands like Ko Samui and Phuket -- perhaps your average traveller would be pushing it to name more than five -- it also has a lot of others worth considering. Without further ado, here's my list of 31 islands with a few lines about each. Happy island hopping!
This past Sunday, Thailand's capital Bangkok saw some of its biggest political demonstrations since anti-government protesters took to the streets two months ago. The latest round in a seven-year-long political saga has triggered several isolated incidents of violence and caused major traffic congestion. At this point, we would not cancel a trip to Thailand, or even to Bangkok, but it's wise to stay informed.
Back in 1994, Peter Robinson, a British Buddhist monk living at a temple in the Northern Thai province of Nakhon Sawan, began looking into how he could help a promising student find enough money to attend university. His actions then planted the seeds of an education trust that has since grown into a multi-million baht scholarship fund supporting thousands of students across Thailand.
Well away from the sunset cocktail bars and five-star resorts of Phuket there are untold stories of families in struggle. When families are burdened by poverty, illness, addiction or abuse, it’s often the children who suffer the most. Life sometimes gets tough enough that the family home is no longer safe or secure for a child; in some cases, there is no home for them to go to. This is where the Phuket Sunshine Village (PSV) Foundation steps in to help.
The northernmost station in the BTS system, Mo Chit is number S8 on the Sukhumvit Line. It sits directly over one of Bangkok's busiest roads, Phahonyothin. While best known as a gateway to Chatuchak weekend market, Mo Chit is also useful if catching a bus from the northern bus terminal of the same name, heading to the Bangkok immigration office, Don Muang Airport or anywhere else in the city's northern reaches. One of Bangkok's largest parks is also located in the shadow of the station, and it's one of three places where the BTS connects to the MRT subway line.
Other than running Chiang Mai's excellent Freebird Cafe -- a Shan/Burmese vegetarian restaurant -- Thai Freedom House runs a community education, arts and language centre for both refugees from Burma (Myanmar) as well as underprivileged ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand itself.
Wat this, wat that, what the... ? Yes Chiang Mai city's numerous Buddhist temples, or wats, can be overwhelming for travellers. The city is famous for them and any guide -- including our own -- will proffer extensive lists of must-see temples, prestigious Buddha images and not-to-be missed Lanna-style religious architecture. We lost count at 35 wats within the old city walls, and there's at least that number again in the surrounding downtown area -- and probably a similar number in the 'burbs. So what to do? Choosing which ones look the best is purely subjective, but we can at least place them in order of importance in terms of prestige and historical significance and suggest a few routes. Here we go.
Number E9 on the Sukhumvit Line, On Nut was the furthest out of the new BTS stations to be added back in 2010, and it's a prime example of how the Skytrain is revitalising the outlying areas that it reaches. Before the BTS arrived, this area was a sort of backwater chiefly defined by local neighbourhoods with charming old wood homes and ugly concrete shophouses. Since On Nut station opened, more than a dozen enormous condominium buildings have been constructed, and new restaurants and hotels are popping up like dandelions in the springtime. The transformation is far from complete -- expect to see ongoing construction here -- but On Nut increasingly has something to offer both the traveller and the expat seeking affordability and a non-touristy setting.
The Samui Prison Project (SPP) was set up by local legal firm, PKN Legal & Business Consultancy, to work with groups raising money to help prisoners in the Women’s Unit at the Ko Samui District Prison. The aim is to assist the prison in its own efforts to provide rehabilitation for female offenders through education, training and community support.
The answer to the question of where you should stay on Thailand's Ko Samui for a holiday would depend entirely on what you are looking for from a stay on the island. Do you want to be where the party is? Would you prefer a little peace and quiet and a taste of the old Samui? Here we give you a few pointers on what to expect from the different areas, so you can make an informed choice of where to head.
The only station west of the main interchange station at Siam, National Stadium is number W1 on the Silom line. A stone's throw from Siam Square, National Stadium is useful for accessing -- you guessed it -- the National Stadium sports complex along with a handful of hotels and some notable sights along Rama I Road. This is also the closest you can get by sky train to Khao San Road and the rest of Banglamphu, although it's still a four kilometre walk or 60 to 120 baht taxi ride depending on traffic.
Ko Pha Ngan is home to some of the most picturesque beaches in the world, with turquoise waves lapping on powder-white sand. With 32 beaches in total, some without proper roads to reach them, it's possible to find your own little piece of paradise not overrun with other travellers – you just need to know what you're looking for. We took a stab at this back in 2005, but the island has grown up quite a bit and here are our 2013 picks for Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches, starting from the northeast corner of the island, and continuing counter-clockwise.
Coconut trees crouch over white sands, limestone cliffs soar from clear aquamarine water and another magnificent sunset unfolds; it must be the Andaman Sea off the southwest coast of Thailand. The decision to visit this, one of the world's most idyllic destinations, is an easy one, but choosing an island or two can be tough. Settling into a single island for a solid chunk of time is the best way to fully unwind, but if seeking adventure, why not hop till you drop by way of high-speed ferries?
There's nothing like settling into a bare-bones beach hut on a nearly off-the-map tropical island where honking horns, politics and TV commercials exist only as distant memories. On the Thai islands below, the mind has space to relax, reflect, and to lose itself in gently swaying palms. These places aren't bursting with activities -- and that's sort of the point.
Many of Thailand's islands have seen staggering development in recent years, but a slice of unspoilt paradise can still be enjoyed in several marine national parks. If you're hoping to traverse rugged mountain trails, relax on near empty beaches, meander mangrove forests and sea-caves by kayak, be pestered by monkeys rather than touts and doze off to the sound of waves instead of beach parties, these islands are for you.
In late July of this year, a Dutch woman, on the way home from celebrating her 19th birthday at a bar in Ao Nang Krabi, was allegedly beaten and raped by a Thai tour guide. When she later arrived at hospital, the medical team treating her assumed she had been in a motorcycle accident because of the severity of her injuries. The assailant, whom she identified and who initially confessed to the crime when arrested -- a month later -- is now out on bail, and denying guilt.
Thailand is known for its beautiful beaches, and Ko Samui is no exception. Being one of Thailand's most popular tourist locations, Samui's beaches may no longer be as secluded as those of the smaller islands. For some, this is not a negative; but those still opting for isolation or authenticity need not worry, as this can still be found with a little help.
Pick up any guidebook, leaf to the Phuket Town section and I guarantee you'll see the words "Sino-Portuguese architecture". To dig a bit more deeply than a guidebook does into what this actually means, I spent a half day with Kritchaya (Chaya) Na Takuathung of Phuket Heritage Trails and discovered that there's a lot more to Phuket's history than a bunch of pretty shopfronts.
When you've finished sunbathing and splashing about on the beaches of Phuket, you'll likely want to shower off the sand and see what else the island has to offer after dark. A lot of what's on offer is sleaze — though officials would deny this — but here's a selection of some of the better, family-friendly stuff on offer.
Chawadee Nualkhair has just released a new book, Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls, profiling the top 50 street food stalls (plus a few stragglers) in Bangkok. The Thai-born, American raised food lover reveals to Travelfish.org some of her favoured spots, advises what adventurous eaters to the capital should try, and tells us the most far-out thing she ate in the name of research that saw meals devoured across 150-plus stalls.
If you find yourself in Thailand's tourist hub Phuket, we'd recommend a visit to Patong beach ... if we hated you. Every year squillions of tourists descend on the once glorious two-kilometre sandy expanse, and it shows: the beach is dirty, touts are relentless, the water's plagued by jet skis, the sand by dune buggies and if you aren't careful a parasailer may just knock you out from above. Yes, you can endure this dystopian nightmare, or read on to get the skinny on some of Phuket's secret beaches.
Former food writer Jarrett Wrisley opened his first restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, in Bangkok last year to rave reviews. We ask the American restaurateur about his food philosophy and tease out his tips for hungry travellers to Thailand.
One of the very common questions we see on Travelfish.org is "What is the fastest way to get down south?" Down south referring generally to one of the three Gulf islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao, or to the west coast Andaman islands out from Krabi, Phuket and Trang. You can fly, get an overnight bus or a train, but before that, take a breath, slow down and think about what you might be missing. With a sly week or so up your sleeve, here are five spots we'd venture are worth a look in and hey, you may like them so much you'll never make it to the islands!
Like most mass-transit rail systems in big cities, Bangkok's skytrain (aka BTS), which opened in 1999, can be confusing when you first use it. But with a bit of research, it will all become as clear as the capital's air was 100 years ago. Better still, before you know it you'll be whizzing above Bangkok's traffic-snarled streets without a care in the world.
Update: As at early June 2010, all warnings for travel to Bangkok have been lifted, the city has largely returned to its old self. We still suggest you work to keep abreast of developments.The street fighting in Bangkok, primarily between the UDD (better known as the red shirts) and the Thai authorities, has escalated considerably over the last few days. Since April 10, there have been over 66 fatalities and at least 1,700 people injured, including a number of foreign journalists. While the violence is fairly localised to a few areas of Bangkok, the situation is extremely volatile and could spread quickly and without warning. Travelfish.org advises travellers to avoid all travel to Bangkok.
Questions relating to Thai visas are some of the most common ones popping up on the Visa and Border Crossings section of the Travelfish.org forum. Given the Thai authorities change the rules so often it is no surprise that people get confused regarding both the need for a visa and how they can get one. So what follows is a brief summary of the rules and regulations regarding Thai visas along with some background information that may help.
Located along Thailand's east coast, the differences between the sands of Pattaya and Ko Samet are intriguing. Both are tourist destinations in their own right, packed with guesthouses and late-night bars, but it seems the clientele of each is reflected by the very beach itself. Oddly enough, to some capacity these two places of excess -- only 100km apart -- are virtually opposites.
Somehow I found myself on a street corner, eating some sort of ground-meat pseudo-sushi on-a-stick. At well past midnight, with the neon glow of 7-Eleven glaring over me, another glorious Thai day was coming to a close. But before all that can be explained, perhaps the day should be put in proper perspective.
Two opposite worlds exist within Thailand's capital, depending on the presence of the sun. Busy yet relaxed, this city is bustling at all hours. I didn't quite realise the extent of it until I spent 24 hours awake in a city that lacks the desire to sleep. The day began by cruising through the city in the modern, comfortable, affordable (40 baht), and delightfully air-conditioned Bangkok SkyTrain. Thanks to our guesthouse'send-of-the-line location, we were even guaranteed seats, a luxury no longer available at further stops.
Many first time visitors to Thailand travel between Bangkok and Thailand's northern capital Chiang Mai with barely a thought for the intervening territory, but if you've got a bit of time up your sleeve, there are a load of attractions between the two cities. Be it national parks, temple towns, or just nice-for-chilling-out traveller centres, there is no shortage of destinations to be waylaid at. Also as regular Travelfishers will know, we're big fans of taking scenic indirect routes so while you can shuttle between the two on an overnight train, you can just as easily spend a month getting from one to the other.
I have made Thailand my home, I live on a small island called Ko Tao off the east coast and teach travellers to scuba dive. Many people comment on how lucky I am but luck really has nothing to do with it. My response is always the same, you can do it too, and it's true.
It seems barely a week passes without some new ghastly story hitting the airwaves about corruption in Thailand. Be it beer mat nabbing mums in Phuket, tourists being extorted at the airport or the old tried and tested gem scam story it seems Thailand should be slapped with a "buyer beware" sticker. Over the last year, and far more seriously in Travelfish's humble opinion, we've seen ongoing political uncertainties, street protests in Bangkok, border clashes with Cambodia and the neverending shifting sands of visa regulations. More and more often I wake wondering: Does Thailand really want tourists to come at all?
It seems for now that the red-shirt protests that gripped first Pattaya and then Bangkok over the last few days are over. Services, including trains, buses and flights, are running as normal. A heavy military presence remains in some parts of the city, but aside from that it is largely back to business as usual. So here's a round-up of what happened, with some links for further reading and suggestions for those who'd really prefer to avoid Bangkok altogether.
Many first-time visitors to Thailand just assume that Chiang Mai is where it's at when it comes to trekking. It was -- about 30 years ago. Today it's possible to go trekking from over a dozen different locations throughout Thailand and there's all manner of add ons, from elephant riding and rafting through to language and cooking tuition. While it's easy to think all treks are made equal, that's rarely the case and different locations offer different pros and cons. Read on for the Travelfish wrap on 10 trekking spots excluding Chiang Mai.
For some of us, the lure of living abroad is irresistible, and often, teaching the ever-marketable English is the easiest route there. For me -- already a teacher in the US -- it was an obvious means to an end. But for others, the transition isn't as natural. Here's my story -- and a bit about what to expect from yours -- should you decide to give it a go.
With the islands off Krabi growing more and more crowded, Trang offers an ideal alternative for those wanting to find some quieter beaches. With at least a half dozen inhabited islands dangling along the shore, Trang would seem ideal for a week of island hopping. Unfortunately, the truth is that transfers between the islands are expensive, and travelling in the region can be time consuming. To make the most out of your tropical getaway, it's better to simply pick one or two islands, and allow yourself a few days on each. But with six possible island getaways, how do you choose which one is right for you? Each island has a distinct personality and vibe, and each is designed to fit different interests and budgets. So to help you pick, I pose a simple question: what are you looking to do on your island holiday?
To truly get inside the mind of an accomplished scammer you must first serve yourself up as a delectable juicy morsel. So thorough is my ability to get served, I now have a list of warnings and common scams operating in South East Asia to share with you. Please do not feel pity. My intentions were always noble and I have done a fine job in redistributing my wealth to others.
You're passing through Bangkok and need just a few hours sleep in a cheap guesthouse not far from the airport, but when you Google "accommodation near Bangkok airport" all you get are listings for hotels that cost per night what you budget per week. Don't fret! There's no need to sleep at the airport or on the street, nor to pull an all-nighter at the closest karaoke parlour you can find. You can find a cheap bed close to each of Bangkok's airports -- here's Travelfish's pick.
With the 2007 opening of the Prek Chak / Xa Xia border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam it's now possible to travel from Ko Chang in Thailand all the way along the Cambodian coastline and into Vietnam. For beach and boat lovers, this is a great trip as from Ko Chang you're able to visit Ko S'dach, Sihanoukville, Ko Russei, Kampot, Kep, Ko Tonsay, Ha Tien and Rach Gia, before finishing off on the glorious Phu Quoc Island. Here's a step by step guide taking you through the entire trip, commencing in Trat and finishing on Phu Quoc.
A lot of people show up on Phi Phi Island ready to spend like drunken sailors, and the prices have been rigged accordingly. One way for budget travellers to save money is to simply not go there! But it's definitely worth seeing, so we've come up with some ways to visit the island without emptying your bank account.
Phuket calls itself the diving capital of Thailand -- and it hosts about hundred dive shops to back up the claim. Competition for customers has resulted in some good deals on offer, but also some over-packed trips of reduced quality, so be careful when selecting an operator. Ironically, many of the dive sites on offer are actually in other provinces, but all the daytrips are reachable within 2 hour by speedboat. Two-dive trips are usually offered for about 3,000B -- add about 500B for each additional dive site. Live-aboards typically run about 2,000B per day per diver.
Most travellers come to Ranong for exactly one reason and one reason alone -- to get that passport stamped so they can legally stay in Thailand for another 30 days. While doing the border run isn't particularly pleasant, it is straightforward -- particularly when you've got a Travelfish Howto guide on hand.
The Bangkok to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao route is one of the most common paths taken by travellers and tourists on their holidays in Thailand. Here's a blow by blow summary of the ins and outs of getting to and from Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand islands.
Did you know that to drive a car into the Czech Republic you need to have a warning triangle, a fluorescent jacket, a spare set of glasses (if you wear them), a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and a replacement bulb for every light in the vehicle? I didn't and nor did Jo Huxster and Antonia (Ants) Bolingbroke-Kent of Tuk to the Road. For Jo and Ants, two British 27 year-old women from Brighton and Norfolk these are the vital snippets of intelligence they've been collecting this year in preparation for a 10,000 mile epic trip from Bangkok to Brighton raising money for the UK mental health outfit Mind... oh and did I mention they're doing it in a bright pink tuk tuk called Ting Tong?
Thailand is famous for its tropical islands. From Phuket to Ko Lipe, Ko Samui to Ko Tao and from one Ko Chang to another, there's an island for every month, a beach for every week, and a new palm tree to lay under for every day. But the question begs, "What is the best island in Thailand?"
Sala Daeng station is number S2 on the Silom line, two stops away from Siam, the main interchange station. It hovers above Silom Road in Bangrak, close to the intersection of Rama IV and parallel to Surawong Road. Simply put, this is one of the liveliest, busiest, most interesting and eclectic areas in the whole city. While it's happening during the day, Silom especially comes to life after dark -- expect a mix of locals, expats and travellers vying for space with makeshift clothing stalls, potent scents wafting from a healthy array of street food carts and music blaring from both pirated CD stalls and upcountry musicians trying to earn a few baht.
Station number S1 on the Silom Line and only one stop away from Siam, the main interchange station, Ratchadamri BTS is one of only a few stations on the Skytrain line that doesn't really offer all that much in terms of exploring. The station is within easy walking distance to several important points of interest, but there are other stations that are even closer.
The best way to get a good guesthouse for the full moon party is to get there early. By early we mean 4-5 days before the party -- not a day or two. This will give you time to find a flophouse to crash in and then spend time triping around Haad Rin and or the island to find the place you want. Remember ALL beaches on Ko Pha Ngan will organise transport to get to the party -- you do not have to stay on Haad Rin to party -- in fact an increasing number of people trip over from Ko Samui just for the night. Also, remember a LOT of people leave before the party.
Phaya Thai station is number N2 on the Phaya Thai line, sitting above the intersection of Phaya Thai Road and Si Ayutthaya Road, two stops away from Siam, the main interchange station. Phaya Thai station belongs to a very exclusive club with only a few members, that being a BTS station that has nary an interesting site or attraction anywhere near it.
Ratchathewi station is number N1 on the Phayathai line and one stop north of Siam, the main Skytrain interchange station. It sits on Phayathai Road. There are a few interesting things to see if you're here, but most of them are clustered directly around the station - stray too far away and you're unlikely to find anything of particular interest.
Sanam Pao station is number N4 on the Sukhumvit line, four stops away from Siam, the main interchange station. It sits on top of Phahon Yothin Road. It also belongs to the small yet exclusive group of BTS stations whose only membership requirement is that they have nothing to offer the traveler looking for anything of cultural interest.
Number S6 on the Silom Line, Saphan Taksin station is named after the bridge on which it shares space with multiple lanes of car and truck traffic. Saphan Taksin bridge spans the Chao Phraya river, and directly beneath the bridge is the largest passenger boat pier on the river. This station is also a gateway to some excellent food, shopping, sightseeing and some of the swankiest hotels in Bangkok.
Number E5 on the Sukhumvit line, Phrom Phong is in the heart of an area known as 'Farang Alley' to some. Countless Western-oriented restaurants, pubs, shops and hotels are found here, and the area's large Japanese community is evidenced by dozens of hole-in-the-wall eateries serving sushi, ramen and katsu don. While it won't satisfy those seeking a 'local' Thai-style Bangkok neighbourhood, this is a lively area area notable for great English-language book shops, English- and Irish-style pubs and a very eclectic mix of outstanding food.
Number S5 on the Silom line, Surasak station doesn't have a great deal to offer in terms of tourist attractions or nightlife, but it does boast a low-key atmosphere and is only one stop from the central express boat pier along the Chao Phraya River. The station is located near the west end of Sathorn Road and borders the financial and business district of Bangkok which is mostly occupied by corporate offices and schools.
Phloen Chit station is number E2 on the Bangkok Skytrain line, which means that it's two stops East of the main skytrain station, Siam. Situated at the point where Sukhumvit road becomes Phloen Chit road, it's close to some fairly important Bangkok landmarks.
Chong Nonsi, station S3 on the Silom line, lies smack in between the high-rise office buildings of Sathorn Road and the hotels, nightlife and dining of Silom Road. The station itself is situated on Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Rd (usually shortened to just 'Naradhiwas'), and the area sees a good mix of businesspeople in power suits and tourists in shorts and flip-flops. While not as vibrant as the area surrounding nearby Sala Daeng (S2) station, Chong Nonsi has plenty to offer.
Chid Lom skytrain station is close to some very big shopping complexes and landmarks where you can snap up everything from captive birds -- release them and get good karma-- to gold plated BVLGARI watches (if that $10 Rolex you bought stops working). The station is number E1 on the Sukhumvit skytrain line, one stop from Siam, the chief interchange station. The main road underneath the station is called Phloen Chit, and this is where most of the interesting things to see are located, particularly to the west. This area is quite farang-heavy and a bit upscale.
Soi Thong Lo is quickly becoming one of the more interesting areas in Bangkok, with high-rise condos and funky stores, enticing restaurants and eclectic art galleries flinging open their doors. An afternoon stroll here will leave you highly caffeinated, very full and possibly even a little bit cultured.
The first in our series of "Exploring Bangkok by Skytrain" series -- with a new station to be added every Friday afternoon (just in time for the weekend). We cover everything from restaurant and bars to little-known art-cafes, and they're all walking distance from Bangkok's BTS Skytrain.
As Friday beckons, the minds of many a desk-chained Bangkokian wanders to where one might escape for some relaxation and rejuvenation... Ko Si Chang -- too close; Ko Samet -- been there, done that; Ko Chang -- just that bit too far away; Ko Kut -- way too farflung. So what's one to do with a free weekend and a desire for a bit of sand, sea and socialising? What about Ko Mun Nork?
The vast majority of the roads in northern Thailand are paved and 99 times out of a 100 a Honda Dream will be more than sufficient (as long as you don't mind the occasion sections spent permanently in first gear). A very interesting and little trafficked route is the Chiang Rai Loop -- a fun and beautiful ride with dozens of kilometres of stunning scenery and next to no traffic.
Nearly all first-time travellers to Thailand choose to embark on a hilltribe trek in the mountainous area surrounding Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in Thailand's north. While the majority will have a great trip, a substantial minority will have a very poor experience, either due to sub-standard operators or unrealistic expectations. Here are a few pointers that newbie trekkers should keep in mind when selecting a trek. We're focusing on Thailand, but the essence remains mostly true elsewhere in the region too.
With a rapidly developing range of accommodation from ultra-basic thatch bungalows for 80B a night through to totally decadent luxury suites for 5,000B a night, Ko Pha Ngan truly offers something for everyone. If the choice doesn't leave you floundering to make a decision, you'll also have to choose the atmosphere you like best for a holiday: there's well over a dozen beaches with characters spanning hedonist-haven to party-animal to secluded strips of sand that no guidebook has ever mentioned. Here's a cheat sheet to some of Ko Pha Ngan's better beachside options -- we'll leave the accommodation choices for another time.
I'm reclining in the front passenger seat of a 40-year-old Mercedes 200 series as we pull up to the 10th military checkpoint in 20 kilometres en route to Hala Bala National Park in Thailand's strife-torn Narathiwat province. One of the soldiers, surprised to see a farang smiling at him, waves us through without a thought. My Yawi-speaking driver guns the car and goes back to yabbering about the price of cigarettes, still in shock at my revelation that a pack of Marlboro cost over 400B in Australia. Checkpoints aside, the violence of the far south couldn't be further out of mind.
Thailand's strife-torn far south is a region largely under siege, with 9pm curfews and a heavy military presence throughout. But when I backpacked through the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla in June, I also found time and time again genuine Thai hospitality that has become somewhat of a rarity in other parts of the more heavily-touristed south.
With over a dozen beaches and bays and hundreds of accommodation choices from deluxe hotels and luxury spas to thatch huts and cheap bungalows, Ko Samui has a wealth of options for the discerning traveller. But how to pick the right spot? As hotel propaganda neglects phrases like "under the flight path", "disco next door", "no beach at low tide" and "30 minute walk to beach", you'll need a bit more research -- the following pointers may help.
The first time I stayed on Khao San Road was after a trip through Nepal and India in the early 1990's. I remember arriving late at night, new to Thailand and climbing out of the cab, dazed and confused straight into the arms of a tout who led me to a flophouse in the back of KSR. Windowless with cardboard walls, a filthy mattress and a never-ending racket from the rooms that surrounded mine, from memory it cost about 50B -- in those days about US$2 -- what a bargain I remember thinking.
Thailand is slowly recovering from the tsunami that devastated the region on Boxing Day 2004 -- some areas far quicker than others. We were in Sri Lanka at the time of the tsunami and heard shocking reports of the devastation as we remained in the most affected Sri Lankan areas. Around the one month anniversary of the tsunami, we decided to follow-up on these reports and visited the three worst affected areas in Thailand -- Phuket, Khao Lak and Ko Phi Phi to see how the cleanup and reconstruction was going. Beach to beach the damage varied considerably as did the stages of reconstruction (if any). What we found were tremendous levels of destruction, matched only by the spirit of those affected to get back on their feet.
Ko Tao grants more PADI certificates than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Cairns, Australia and every year thousands of people visit the Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao to either get a PADI certificate or just do some recreational diving. Although many say that the best diving is on Thailand's western coast at the Similan and Surin Island groups, the diving on the east coast is still described by many as world class.
During my first two-month trip to Thailand I had at least 20 massages in which I was prodded, twisted, crippled and then repaired by some of the best masseuses and worst hacks in the country. At 200B for a beach massage (back when the baht was 25B to a $1), they weren't cheap, but I just couldn't help myself.
I burst into bitter tears the evening we arrive, a day of eating raw food behind me. I want a hot shower, a pina colada at sunset and white-linen sheets to snooze under -- a blissful week of indulgence. But the bathroom door is jammed open to the menacing jungle, a toad hopping by is eyeing me as I douse myself in cold water and I won't be eating solid food for the next seven days.
"You are a very lucky man. A very happy man. You are a lucky man. Do you know why you are a lucky man? Show me your palm. How is it that I can tell you the name of your mother and your girlfriend? How is that I can tell you your age and how many brothers and sisters do you have? How is it that I can tell you what work that you do? Come with me to my place. Come."
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- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
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- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
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