A Recap of Thailand (Part 4 of 4)

 

Days 15-17: Bangkok again

After arriving back on the mainland at Don Sak pier again my Russian companion from Ko Phangan, whom I will call Ms Russia, and I got off the ferry and waited for our bus to disembark the ferry as well. After some scrambling about figuring out which bus we were to take, we loaded up our stuff into the luggage hold and boarded the bus. Unfortunately we were seated near the back, where the toilets were. Luckily there weren’t many patrons to the mobile loo and there were only a couple of moments where the waft of ammonia bothered me.

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On le bus to Bangkok

The 12 or so hour journey went by relatively quick with a stop-by at a terminal giving passengers an opportunity to stretch their legs and grab a bite. With a few bouts of sleep on the bus, we arrived in Bangkok in the morning and spent a good 10 minutes figuring out how to get out of the terminal.

Ms Russia was off to stay in Khao San road and I had booked a highly rated hostel on hostelworld.com called Bed Station. After a not so pleasant stay in Khao San road, I was prepared to pay the slightly pricier tag of 450THB per night (200 more than my hostel on KS road). We bid our goodbyes and headed off in our separate directions.

Arriving at the hostel around an hour later, I signed in to the amazing hostel. The decor was modern with a bit of an industrial feel to it. I felt the use of materials made the hostel feel clean and cozy with an emphasis on concrete, exposed bricks and wood (as opposed to vinyl, tiles and so on). I really liked the organization of this hostel with a lift to access all five floors of it and a common shower/bathroom on the fourth floor. The free breakfast consisted of bread and a variety of spreads, nothing fancy but thoughtful. Check-in wasn’t until 2pm so I mulled about for a while, streaming some Suits.

After running out of episodes to watch, I decided to do what I planned the previous day which was to do some more cheap shopping! On my list were MBK, one of the newer, bigger malls in Bangkok and another mall called Terminal 21.

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MBK Shopping centre

MBK wasn’t as fantastic as I had heard it to be, 5 or 6 floors with only 2 of them having good shopping in the Thai style of small shops lined in a grid. I met up with Ms Russia and had some street food right outside the mall and then we headed off to Terminal 21, two or so stations away on the BTS (a skytrain transport line).

Terminal 21 was better, a more boutique style of shopping with greater variety and more unique items for sale. The mall is themed with each floor decorated according to a country. For example, the ground floor was themed Rome and had statues. The other floors were themed Paris, London and some other places I can’t remember. The dresses on the women’s boutique floor were quite pretty though the prices were in the higher range costing at least 800THB but usually around 1500 – 2000THB and above. The men’s level was a bit better for prices but all in all my favourite shopping place in Bangkok is still Platinum mall in the Pratunuam district.

After shopping, we went to Soi Cowboy. A lane filled with strip clubs and bars, it was what was pretty much a red light district of Bangkok. After a couple of beers at a sports bar, my companion returned back to her hostel and I ventured off to experience the place alone. Hearing stories about the ping pong show, I heard that many would not watch it again and I decided to stay clear of that for some self preservation.

Having never been to a strip club, I wandered into one of the curtained doors, being ushered in by presumably the lady of the house. The night was still young, probably around 6pm, and there was only one other patron there. A middle aged Caucasian man in his 40s. A stage was there with three poles, about a metre from the bar with three girls who danced unenthusiastic-ally. The girls rotated every song, with one girl going off and another going on. In total there were around six dancers who would keep rotating.

I sat by the bar with my beer and observed the often talked about rituals of old Caucasian men (or man in this case) and Thai women. The man couldn’t keep his hands to himself and would touch the dancers somewhat inappropriately. I watched the seedy behaviour and appointed myself as interim bodyguard if anything escalated (in my head anyway).

The man then started to leave and the prospect of being alone in what I realized was more likely a Go-Go club, I downed my beer and followed suit. It was a rather awkward and uncomfortable experience to say the least.

I headed over to Khao San Road after dropping my shopping off at the hostel to have dinner with my travel companion on the journey to Bangkok, and her new found Peruvian friend from the hostel. Enjoying the cheap, delicious street food for one last time I got a disappointing Pad Thai but finished off my meal with a good mango sticky rice.

My second day back in Bangkok and the last day of the trip left me in a solemn mood. Not really sure what to do with my last remaining day, I met up once again with Ms Russia.

It was the day my trip would finally end. My flight was at 9pm and so I had one last day in the capital of Thailand. Opting to do my shopping, I returned back to the Pratunuam district with the intention of going to Platinum mall again. An IT mall was on the way there and I wandered into it, buying myself some cheap tech gear including a Powerbank which I wish I had got before embarking on the trip. Following that, I walked one block over to Platinum mall and spent what remaining cash I had on clothes and then returned back to the hostel to chill until my flight time.

Receiving a text from Ms Russia for lunch, we met up and then wanting to maximize my food experience of Bangkok, we went hunting for street food. Finding an alley, we ended up with some chicken noodle thing which was pretty tasty but left us wondering if food poisoning would follow. Luckily, no food poisoning was encountered.

We collectively decided to get a massage following lunch. I had been in Thailand for two weeks but had only taken one massage in that time and thought it would both kill time before my flight and make use of the 200THB, 1 hr massages.  Entering our chosen massage parlour, we picked the 1 hr traditional thai massage. With nothing but a thin curtain separating the three beds used for the massage, along with the old looking flowery sheets and dim lighting it felt like another kind of place.

I was directed to the middle bed with what I gathered to be an elderly lady to my right and Ms Russia to my left. As I sat in darkness waiting for my masseuse, it was a rather uncomfortable predicament as I questioned my life choices. My masseuse showed up soon enough and it was a man and I sheepishly went along with it from my lack of assertiveness. Most of the massage involved me trying not to die as elbows dug into my muscles and some uncomfortably close thigh massages left me feeling violated.

After the massage, which was unexpectedly uncomfortable, we headed off in our different directions as I went back to the hostel to prepare for the airport. The hostel was close to Phaya Thai station and I walked there to take the Airport Rail Link, looking and feeling rather like a fool cradling my duffel bag full of shopping. A straight train costing 45THB, I reached the airport around half an hour later and began my reluctant journey home.

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Sunrise on the flight home

My two weeks in Thailand was one of the most amazing times of my life with so many unforgettable experiences. I met so many other amazing people from a great array of countries and learned about many different cultures and languages. Travelling solo was the best decision I could have made, it pushed me beyond my comfort zone and gave me so many opportunities that would not have come by if I traveled with others. But that will be a whole other post by itself!

From Bangkok, to magical Ko Tao then to party Ko Phangan then back to Bangkok again, Thailand was truly an unforgettable experience!

Below is the dive video of my 14 dives on Ko Tao. Armed with only a GoPro and with bad visibility, I tried my best with my amateur video editing skills to create a highlight reel of my diving experience. I don’t believe this video at all captures the freedom and awe-inspiring moments that I had underwater but alas, it will have to do.

A Recap of Thailand (Part 3 of 4)

Days 12-14: Ko Phangan (or Ko Pha-Ngan)

Ko Phangan is one of the three islands situated in the Gulf of Thailand, the other two being Ko Tao and Ko Samui. Most renowned for its full moon parties which attract crowds of over 30,000 people, this is a tropical party island. I had wanted to see what one of these parties was like but found that in my haste to book my tickets, I would be missing the full moon party by 5 days. Which was all well as most accommodation places require you to book around 5 nights of accommodation if you want to stay on the night of the full moon party. I checked the party schedules and arranged my trip to hit the Jungle Party and Half moon party!

On the 13th morning in Thailand, I departed from Ko Tao on a two hour ferry ride to neighbouring Ko Phangan. After booking the 10:30am Songserm ferry the previous night, the last of us took the 9am taxi from Big Blue back to the pier and said our final goodbyes as we headed in different directions. A wave of sadness washed over me as my adventure on magnificent Ko Tao had come to an end. The last of us left and we were left scattered, leaving the way we came in, apart.

Upon arriving on the party island, I was assaulted by locals looking for business. I took a bicycle taxi with my duffel bag, backpack and camera bag and questioned if I would make it to my hostel alive without a helmet. We headed towards Wanderlust hostel which I found to be one of the better rated hostels on hostelworld.com . A very clean, well-kept hostel with good facilities including a clean shower/ bathroom in each dorm, lockers and air conditioning.

A Serbian man who lived in Italy for a couple of years and his wife ran the place and were very helpful in answering queries. For 200THB/night, it was well worth it and came with a resident puppy name Yucky (or ducky, something-ucky). The hostel itself is a party hostel with the common area being populated with drinking games like battle shots, drinko and an eight player beer pong table that had been completed the day I arrived, to be christened that night.

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Yucky

The hostel was pretty empty during the day so after settling in, I decided to do one of the things for my Thailand bucket list which was to try a Muay Thai training session. I had previously done kickboxing for two years and so Muay Thai was of interest to me. I rented a scooter from a recommended renter by the hostel for 200THB a day, I waited for it to be delivered to the hostel. This would later be a cause of some issues for me.

I drove around 20 minutes, including time spend lost, to one of the multiple Muay Thai gyms on the island and reached just over an hour before training started. With nothing else to do, I just decided to have a gym session before.

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It was an interesting experience training barefoot in a tropical outdoor environment. The 2 hour Muay Thai class cost me a balmy 400THB. Consisting of a 20 minute warm up either skipping or on the elliptical (I chose the latter), followed by shadow boxing and some technical skills and then culminating in a couple of challenging 4 minute rounds. By the end I was covered in a lovely shiny layer of perspiration and panting for my breath, definitely a worthwhile experience and great for fitness.

I then headed back to my hostel to shower and rest up for the Jungle Party. I texted the two Swedes I had met on Ko Tao who had been serendipitous enough to end up on Ko Phangan whilst most of the others ended up at Tonsai in Krabi after Ko Tao. We met up at our hostel and christened the new 8 player beer pong table with a competition where everyone put on 20THB and the winner took all. I was sadly knocked out in the first round by my Swedish friend. Alas it was not for nothing as the other one ended up winning the competition, 300THB richer.

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8 Player beer pong around a round table

Once the match had concluded, a Songthaew (pickup truck taxi) came to the hostel to pick up all the party-goers and we were off for a fun night in the jungle! After about a 15 minute ride, we had arrived and were all pretty lubricated from beer pong and some pre-drinks at the hostel.

Upon entering, we discovered we had to buy “coupons” in order to buy drinks from the bar as they didn’t accept cash. We got a bucket each and then the party was on! Music was trance-y with jungle vibes (appropriate) which was nice but got repetitive. Luckily, the bucket was having its effect on me and I just enjoyed the music and attempted to dance.

The second day on Ko Phangan was spent mostly recovering from the night before, there was a half-moon party that night but was all partied out and it cost a whopping 1000THB for entry. Quite a few of the hostel people also took a miss on the party and we heard back that the music was cut off for a few hours due to technical difficulties and was more or less like the jungle party but with different music and a few more dance floors. I instead opted to go check out Amstardam bar where I heard was a really nice place that was good to watch the sunset from. I took a 15 or so minute scooter ride, a little afraid of driving off somewhere, overseas on an island, by myself but it turned out to be okay and I was quite proud for doing so!

The bar was very chill with a pool on the first “floor” and the actual bar on the top. It had a reggae vibe to it and they were playing music to match said vibe.

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The pool level below

The view was amazing with a nice ambience, the patrons here were slightly on the older side compared to my experiences on the island until then.

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Chilled floor seating

People were openly smoking joints on the balcony area (purchased from the bar for 200THB) and “happy” shakes were also sold but not advertised. It was a bit awkward and uneasy by myself and I didn’t find it a good place to meet other people compared to the ease I had in hostels. Food and drinks were much pricier and not as good and I would eat before if I were to go again. The view was amazing and I stayed until after sunset when they took out bottles of gasoline and lit them like torches along the perimeter which was pretty cool. I left just into twilight as I was a bit afraid to drive back in the dark by myself.

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Sunset
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Bottle torches

I returned to the hostel and hung about in the common area just playing pool and talking with others and went to bed for then next day!

My third day on Ko Phangan, I had wanted to see my Swedish friends once more before who knew when we would meet again, if ever. They had relocated to the North-West of the island to a little stretch of seaside called Salad beach. I took my trusty scooter for about a 25 minute drive up the west coast of the island and turned off on the Haad Salad sign (Haad meaning beach in Thai). It was a nice stretch of beach in a little bay, the water was shallow with it being around knee height for about 50m+. The water had fish and small crabs in it and also some debris, driftwood and other random trash in it. I even found a wooden bedpost in it!

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Haad Salad

The sun was scorching and I had to stay in the water most of the time just not to become fried. I had no idea how the Swedes were tolerating it as I sat around awkwardly as I didn’t bring some sort of towel to lie down on. I tried to minimize the amount of sand that stuck to me with little success and instead went up to lounge in the restaurant with shade and safe from the sand.

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Man selling his trinkets!

I bid my solemn farewell to my favourite Swedes and joined up in the plans of two other Germans who were headed to Amstardam bar.

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Swedes!

I scooter’d down back to Amstardam bar for the second time and stopped for a few viewpoints on the way.20160215_170409.jpg20160215_165744.jpg

I met up with the two German girls who I had met at my hostel and had a drink till sunset.

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My German Cousin

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I was pretty determined to try a happy shake, not having had the experience of psilocybin before. After hearing about the psychedelic experiences of some other travelers on Ko Tao with happy shakes, I was expecting to see some cray cray. I split the 700THB concoction with another and sipped it with caution. Tasting rather fibrous and healthy, I was disappointed when we sat around with no effect from our magic beverage. We then headed back to the hostel and the effect of the shake was to make me real sleepy as I went for a 2 hour nap back in the dorm.

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The esteemd happy shake

Day four on Ko Phangan saw me leaving the party island.  A Russian girl in my dorm was leaving on the same day as me and we decided to head back to Bangkok together. We went to the supermarket to get ready for the 17 or so hour journey back to Bangkok. On the way back to the hostel, just as I was about to pull in with my scooter, disaster hit and a sand patch right outside caused the scooter to slide out underneath me. Just 10 seconds before I was to be done with the scooter, tragedy hit me and the side mirror was left broken with a few scratches on the front fender and undercarriage. When the rental guy came, the repairs were to officially cost 5500THB but he quoted a price of 3000THB, saying half-price. I was then able to talk it down with the help of some of the hostel staff to 2000THB. Needless to say I was pretty pissed and upset.

I’m still ambivalent about scooter rentals on the islands, while they provide a cheap and quick way to get around, the possibility of your trip becoming ruined can become a reality very quickly. On the islands, they charge you for every little scratch and grossly inflate the prices. They don’t charge you for repair costs, they charge you for replacement costs so things can get pricey real quick and almost all places will require a passport as deposit, meaning you will have to fork out a large sum of money. The scooter horror stories are many and are extremely commonplace.

Bandaged mummies are a pretty common sight with a girl on Ko Tao having to stop her diving course and be bed bound for her trip after an accident. Ms Russia also encountering an accident resulting in rental and medical bills and stories of another girl who almost paid 22000THB for replacements but was reduced to 7000THB. Even after treatment, most people would be put on anti-biotics which means no booze. This can be a real pain when you’re on holiday in a country with $2 beers.

I thought I would be okay with over 2 years of motorcycling experience under my belt but I let my pride get the better of me. I still wonder if I would rent a scooter again, while the convenience, freedom and novelty is nice, things can go South very quickly and could almost spell an end to a trip.

After my little incident and getting my passport back, I packed my stuff and chilled out until my 5pm ferry back to the mainland. The hostel owner was very nice and gave Ms Russia and me a ride (on a scooter ironically) to the pier and we were on our grueling journey back to Bangkok!

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Sunset on the ferry

A Recap of Thailand (Part 2.5 of 4)

Days 8 to 11: Second half of Ko Tao

I had to split up Ko Tao into an extra post because there’s just too much to fit into one post! Continuing from part 2, my final advanced dive was the night dive which is by far one of my favourites. We left on the long-tail from shore at 6pm to get onto the dive boat when the sun was close to setting. We were shown the super powerful torch lights we would be using for the dive.

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View from the resort restaurant

We headed for white rock which was a dive site around one to three kilometres from shore. Night diving was absolutely amazing, it was like being a little bubble. Being surrounded by water, darkness and with nothing but our torches to push back the black. The visibility still wasn’t great but I was just excited to be diving at night. It was a whole new experience, being in total darkness with only the sound of your own breathing (in darth vader noises) and your attention being focused by the torches that cut through the blackness.

While we weren’t able to take cameras down for our open water course, as we were un-certified divers and didn’t have to ability to dive and film at the same time, I took my GoPro down for the advanced dives although the footage turned out to be really bad for the night dive. There wasn’t enough light for the sensor to pick up and it ended up being black and anything that was lit up was grainy. It was a bit of a struggle as well, managing the GoPro, torch and dive computer but all in good fun.

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Torch cutting through the darkness

I saw a couple of cool things like big groupers (1-3m long fish), hermit crabs the size of your fist slowly crawling across the floor and plenty of blue spotted stingrays (I think around 2 or 3 for the first night dive and then another 4 or so on my other night dive). Another cool thing we saw was photo-plankton, we dropped to the sea floor and placed the torch to our chests to completely descend into darkness. Waving our hands around like spastics, little green luminescent spots would materialize out of the water as the photo-plankton lit up which was mesmerizing and spellbinding to watch.

When we started ascending to the surface, the five of us pointed our torches to the surface to alert any boats of our presence. It was surreal as we broke the surface of the water to a blanket of stars above us when we had entered the water with the sun still up, albeit barely. We had a lovely swim back to the dive boat, an absolutely amazing experience that cannot be described with words.

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Advanced Adventurers! Canadians, German, Australian and our Scott instructor!

At night we collectively decided to try out the all you can eat pizza buffet on one of the restaurants on the main road of Ko Tao, after having passed it many times and eating almost exclusively at the Big Blue restaurant. While only 220THB, their definition of all you can eat was having a pizza made and then serving a slice to each person. Needless to say, service was slow and it was the first time I had ever seen carrot and corn on a pizza. I would advise to stay away from the large restaurants on the main street which often charge higher prices but not serve higher quality food. In a way this was to be our last supper with all of us together.

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“All you can eat” Pizza

Day six on Ko Tao had come around and I had finally completed my advanced adventurer dive course. 9 dives later, I decided to take a break from diving and have a relaxing day. Sadly Danny, our German girl left for Bangkok to meet her friend. Unfortunately I couldn’t do strenuous exercise or have a massage, one has to wait 12 hours after diving to ensure all the nitrogen has been purged from the body. I decided to go get some souvenirs from Sairee village and did some shopping along the two lane village.

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Sairee Village
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Pretty bird at Sairee Village

After shopping, the Canadians and myself decided to try out some stand up paddling or SUP for short. For 200THB, we rented some SUP boards and went for a paddle. I picked it up straight away (no bragging) and found it funny watching the Canadians, these big football players, stumble and fall into the water. To be fair, I had done other board sports and lots of kayaking experience under my belt so joining the two sports into stand up paddling wasn’t a large stretch.

There was a lot of trying to push other people into the water and some SUP jousting going on as we rammed the boards at each other. At one point we even straddled two boards with one leg on each board and paddled this joined mega board. Definitely worth the 200THB.

After that I chilled out at the resort until yoga class at 5pm at Shambhala yoga on the main street which cost me 300THB for 1.5hrs. It was the first time I had done yoga and it was an interesting experience especially when the instructor started folding her torso over her head. Up for the challenge I attempted to do the same and was surprised I could do it as we performed the shoulder stand and then progressed to fold ourselves in half. The numerous downward dogs did get very repetitive however but glad to have finally been exposed to the world of yoga.

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Day seven on Ko Tao! I heard the visibility in the water was clearing up and I signed up for two afternoon fun dives, also convincing another to join me! A fun dive is… Our first afternoon dive was towards the other side of the island to a place called Laem Thian bay as the visibility on the other side of the island was hoped to be better. Indeed it was, with 7m of visibility for the shallower parts of the dives and going down to 4m as we got deeper. Unique to Laem Thian bay was  the unicorn fish which the other divers saw but I sadly missed.

We also saw a banded boxer shrimp and swam into a cave which was swell. It was incredibly odd watching the bubbles from our regulators flow up to the roof of the cave and get stuck reminding you how amazing the experience of the underwater world is once again.

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Banded Boxer Shrimp
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Inside the underwater cave

Our second dive took us to Hin Wong Pinnacle (an underwater pinnacle) with around the same sort of visibility. We had our recently graduated dive master take us and the challenge was for him to find a swim through. The entrance to the swim through was incredibly small and entirely miss-able and I was left wondering who found it in the first place, a tiny man sized hole between two rocks our dive master had to point it out to us!

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The tiny swim through

 

There was a Muay Thai fight on this fateful Thursday night and I had been wanting to watch one, it was on my list of things to do in Thailand. For 400THB, we watched traditional Thai kickboxing with the first match being two kids fighting each other, second match two women fighting and a match with two men. After watching one of the men get knocked out cold, we were getting bored and decided to head over to Diza bar. Got hammered with my first “bucket”, literally a bucket of vodka and mixer for 200THB. A very quick way to get drunk, partied and then went back to die on my bed.

Day eight, my final day on Ko Tao, I signed up for the morning fun dives (yay 6am wakeups) and the night one as well. The visibility had been slowly improving over the last couple of days and I was determined to get some good dives into this trip. The 6am morning dive was about an hour out on boat to the best dive site around Ko Tao called Chumpon Pinnacle.

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The many coloured Christmas tree worms

This dive alone made up for all the other dives with bad visibility. Although it was still on the lower end with 5-10m, marine life here was so bountiful. I was determined to see huge schools of barracudas on this trip and I was not disappointed as we were surrounded by a large school that circled us at one point. The corals and rocks were splayed with anemones, more than I had seen in all the other dives combines, they were just everywhere and it was beautiful. We saw a pair of moray eels hiding in a crevice, a tiny mantis boxer shrimp and large schools of trevally and fusiliers!

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School of barracudas
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Pair of Moray eels
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So many anemones!!!

The second morning dive we headed back closer to the island to a site called Hin Pee Wee where the Thai navy had donated a ship to be sunk for diving purposes, the HTMS Sattakut. One of the other divers in our group had already seen the wreck 3 times on this trip and our DM (dive master) decided then to just explore the reef areas instead as this site was good for macro life including scorpion fish and nudibranchs. I was a little sad as I had wanted to dive a wreck.

 

The night dive was again to White Rock, this time with slightly better visibility than the last night dive. We saw a heap of blue spotted sting rays, a blotched porcupine fish which was fascinating, same old giant groupers and hermit crabs and my favouritely named marine creature the Pseudobiceros Hancockanus. Yes, you read that right. Hancockanus. Which is just another nudibranch (pretty sea slug) which are incredibly tiny and hard to find.

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Blotched porcupine fish from wikimedia

At night there were only two of the original sixteen of us remaining and we went for dinner at one of the cheaper local places that I wish I knew about before arriving on the island. We met some other travelers after dinner at the restaurant-bar and hung out with them for the rest of the night. Going for a walk along the beach, we headed towards the nightly fire shows which included skillful displays of fire poi and fire staff where the spinners would catch the poi with their feet and do all sorts of amazing tricks. There was also flaming skipping rope that travelers were encouraged to try, which I did after a couple of drinks and singed the hairs of my left knee when I made an embarrassing stack. I had a go at fire poi as well which was fun, I’ve done some LED poi but never fire, and ended up smacking myself with the flaming balls a few times leaving a few carbon marks on various limbs.

The remaining two of us then headed back to our dorms for the somber last night on the beautiful island of Ko Tao and wish we never woke up to leave this island 😦

My experience on Ko Tao was an absolutely amazing one, it is a spellbinding place and everyone was definitely affected by the small island charm. We ate, dived, hung out and partied together for a whole week. Many of us echoed sentiments to come back and do a dive master course as many of the other instructors at the resort had done. I met instructors and dive masters who had given up their teaching and investment banking jobs to come live on Ko Tao! Perhaps that might even be me too in the near future 🙂 Either way, I fully intend to return to Ko Tao in the future, I absolutely loved it there, the island itself is like any other tropical island (viewpoints, hiking etc…) and the beaches sub-par (compared to Australia) but the atmosphere, ambience, people and underwater world are what really make Ko Tao this magical sphere in the Gulf of Thailand.

Note: I was a bit upset that all my footage is incredibly green hued, would definitely consider getting some sort of red filter next time to bring the colour back! Also whilst I was on Ko Tao, two people lost their GoPros to the ocean while diving, make sure you mount it AND tether it to yourself so you still hang on to it in case your mount fails!

 

A Recap of Thailand (Part 2 of 4)

Days 3 to 7: First half of Ko Tao

Ko Tao, the turtle island, is the dive capital of the world (or disputed capital). Certifying the most amount of divers annually, this small island is home to many dive schools and dive sites. I had originally planned to stay six nights on the island to do my Open Water and Advanced Diver certifications for the first five days and explore the island on the last but I ended up staying an extra three days on this magical island for a total of nine days.

Taking the bus from Bangkok down to Donsak pier was about a 12 hour bus journey, leaving at 6pm from the capital it was a grueling trip through the night. I booked the trip with my hostel the previous night for the right price of 950THB for the bus ride, ferry and dinner. I had originally wanted to book with the Lomprayah company as they are one of the major providers in Thailand but my hostel owner pushed me to book with the company that they were affiliated with which I believe was called VIP buses. The price difference was about 200-400THB more for the Lomprayah one, I was persuaded for the cheaper option but I wish I would have followed my instincts as I will explain later.

About halfway through the bus ride, we stopped at an interchange of sorts where we were served our dinners which consisted of rice and an assortment of what dishes including fried sausages with vegetables. It wasn’t particularly appetizing and in hindsight I should have purchased some goodies before embarking on the journey. There were also other foods for sale at the interchange with your regular sausage, fish balls (surimi paste) and assortment of other foods on sticks.

We reached the pier at around 10 in the morning where I mulled about for an hour, waiting for the ferry to leave. The water here was a murky green hue and you couldn’t see much and I was apprehensive as to whether the waters on the islands would be the same. I wasn’t particularly excited to dive in the gross water at this stage.

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Donsak Pier
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The many long-tail boats of Thailand

Leaving on the 11 am ferry, I would have thought to arrive only a couple of hours later but I ended up only reaching my destination at around 4:30pm. I was on the Sea Tran ferry which instead of going straight to Ko Tao, stopped at the two neighboring islands of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan. If I had followed my instinct and instead booked with Lomprayah, I believe I would have reached earlier as they stop by a nearer pier called Chumpon. I sadly found this out only later when I was talking to others on the island and asking them what time they arrived, others arrived anywhere from 11 to 3.

As we got further away from the mainland, the water started to change to a more pleasant blue colour. After a couple of hours on the ferry, it was a delight to see the island!

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Ko Tao!

As we pulled into the pier, it was a surreal feeling to finally be arriving on the island. I had wanted to travel here for a couple of months and was ecstatic to finally be here in person.

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Ko Tao Pier

I had booked my dive courses with Big Blue Diving Resort online before embarking on my trip. I paid a total of 17540THB for the online hot deal to do the Open Water and Advanced Adventurer course which included free accommodation in a fan dorm for the five nights on the course and also a free T-Shirt which other had to end up paying for! I was picked up from the pier by the resort’s taxi service in a pickup truck for a 10-15 minute drive to the resort on Sairee Beach.

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Big Blue Taxi

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For the next week or so, this was to be my home and I could have never anticipated how amazing it would be. After arriving at the resort, I was shown my 6 bed dorm and then had to put my things down and quickly run over to the 5pm orientation for the Open Water dive course. they start a new dive course everyday which gives you a sense of how many people they churn out and there were 16 people in our group. This included sitting in a classroom and watching a whole bunch of videos that were from the last century with terrible music. When we finally got out of the classroom, it was dark already. A few of us hung out together to do the homework for the course which involved filling in the blanks on some worksheets with the diving manual we were to borrow for the course.

We had travelers from all over the world including Germany, Iceland, Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, France, Sweden and Canada. Soooo many Canadians. Over the next couple of days we became really good friends and it was like an international family away from home. The resort was located right off Sairee Beach and though not spectacular (when you live in Australia, you can’t compare the beaches), it was a sight to see all the dive boats and long-tails just hanging off the coast.

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Sairee Beach

Amongst the locals of the resort were a couple of dogs which were absolutely adorable and had mastered the art of begging and one very noisy black and white cat. Most of the time we ate at the resort for convenience sake, the food was good albeit a bit pricier than if we went for street food. This was good for the dogs however, whom we would see for the next week and be suckered into giving them food.

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Fussy girl only ate bacon and chicken
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Sammy, the Goldy who liked to eat sand
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Dogs frequently napped by the beach

On the second day on Ko Tao, we were split up into groups of six to be more manageable for the instructors. It was our confined day where we learnt how to use, set-up and put away the dive equipment and also a practice at using the equipment in the pool with manky water. The day also had an academic session on diving theory and having to sit in the classroom watching more 20th century videos. We were all itching to have our first dive in the ocean the following day and called it an early night after dinner together at the resort.

The third day of the course was to be our official first ocean dive! As we were not yet qualified, we couldn’t bring any GoPros or cameras down which was a shame as our first ocean dive had the best visibility. We had in excess of 10m of clear water and it was an amazing feeling and experience to glide through the water. It was unreal to look up and see the surface of the water and I had to take a moment to think about the fact that I was breathing underwater! We did two dives to a maximum depth of 11m on the second dive to a dive site called Pottery and three rocks. One the first dive, we did skills underwater such as regulator recovery (recovering your mouthpiece), emptying a flooded mask underwater and removing and replacing our weight belts. On our descent, we saw a juvenile bat fish on the buoy line which was apparently really rare to see as our instructor got really excited pointing it out to us.

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Juvenile Bat Fish

On day four, the last day of the open water course, a storm rolled in which was just my luck but we would still be diving as the water was calm under the surface but that meant visibility had been reduced to 5/6m and even as low as 3/4m in some spots. We woke up at 6am for the morning dive and went to a dive site called white rock. We saw different marine life here with my first encounter with Christmas tree worms (think the giant mushrooms in avatar), angel fish, anemones and pink anemone fish (think nemo’s cousins).

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Sunrise over Ko Tao

Because of the storm, we had to dive the sites closer to shore with dives 1 (first dive of the course) and 4 on Sairee reef which was a bit disappointing to visit the same site twice. However, marine life was still abundant and even the common fish such as the butterfly and banner fish were very beautiful to observe.

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Weibei’s Butterfly Fish
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Banner fish

On the fourth night, we celebrated becoming certified Open Water divers! We had dinner together before heading out to party! Our first stop was Diza bar in Sairee Village, a small lane with bars and shops dotted along it.

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Celebratory dinner with the Big Blue Family!

We had a few drinks and had a circle going on the tiny dance floor but sadly my night was cut short after I foolishly decided to join a Frenchman and some others in sharing a spliff on the beach.  This particular spliff was very strong, procured from High bar on the island, and I ended up having to sit down for a solid 15 minutes after losing basic motor functions (I couldn’t walk straight). After a while, everyone ditched me and I was left huddled by a wall for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only 10 minutes, until I could walk again. In my paranoid state, I decided to head back to my dorm somehow managing to stop by for pancakes at one of the street stalls (Banana Nutella, mmmm) as I desperately tried not to tip anyone off. Sadly, I had to empty my stomach contents and the delicious nutrition from the pancake on my walk home. I made it back safely to my bed at the early hour of 11pm and slept it off to start my advanced dive course the following day.

The next day, day four, four of the original six of us on our group continued on to do the Advanced Adventurer dive course. Some in the other groups decided to take a day off then continue to do the Advanced Adventurer. Needless to say, most of us got hooked on diving. The advanced course consisted of higher level skills that would be practice in five more dives which were a buoyancy dive, a navigation dive, a deep dive, a computer dive and a night dive. Because of the bad visibility from the storm, we visited Sairee reef for another two dives to a total of four dives on the same dive site which wasn’t great but we ended up practicing skills for the two advanced dives at Sairee reef. The buoyancy skills  included how to hover over something, an inverted hover (think upside down) and how to turn with one leg.

For our navigation dives, we learnt how to read compass bearings under water and simple navigation techniques such as landmarks, using depth and keeping the reef on your right or left depending on where you’re going. We also had practice at deploying the surface marker buoy or SMB for short, colloquially it was called the safety sausage which was basically an inflatable balloon that shot out to the surface to let boats know there were divers under the water.

Day five was to be the final day of the Advanced Adventurer course. We had two morning dives (6am wake-up), the first was to be the deep dive and the second to be a more fun dive, just enjoying the scenery. I was very much looking forward to the deep dive after being briefed on things to expect. Things behave a bit differently when you’re 30m underwater and under four times the pressure on the surface. Some people get “narced” and can suffer nitrogen narcosis which occurs when too much nitrogen dissolves in the blood due to the increased pressure from the depth. Stories of people getting narced include divers trying to box fish, hysteria and a general sense of euphoria. Other strange things that happen at depth is colour is distorted as low wavelength light such as red light is refracted away, making things seem more green/ blue. Sadly, none of us felt a tinge of nitrogen narcosis.

Our first dive was at a site called No Name Pinnacle, breathing was slightly more difficult when we descended to our maximum depth of 27.1m. We brought an egg down and cracked it to show how the pressure at depth would keep the yolk in a perfect sphere. The red rash guard our instructor brought down became a dark purple, almost black which was really cool as well. To simulate the effects of holding your breath underwater, our instructor brought a plastic bottle down and when she took it the bottle was entirely flat, crushed from the extreme pressure. After putting in a little extra air and some water into the bottle, we would see what would happen when we brought the bottle to the top. Because of the extreme change in pressure, the bottle on the surface was highly pressurized and the water in it had become carbonated and when our instructor released the lid, it shot off like a champagne cork which was really cool!

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A perfectly spherical egg yolk

Our second morning dive we saw a couple of new marine life such as the cleaner wrasse fish which help remove parasites off other fishes and also varicose wart slugs which was the most common nudibranchs we saw, they were about 5-10mm, tiny little things.

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Varicose Wart Slug zoomed in

Our final dive for the course was to be our night dive. We were to go to a site called white rock, one which we had previously visited on another day. The ocean completely changes at night, some fish go to sleep and others come out to hunt and we were treated to a different world. Stingrays, hermit crabs and big grouper fish come out at night. Stay tuned for the rest of Ko Tao, with the night dive, the best dive spot I went to on the fun dives and many more shenanigans in part 2.5 of 4!

 

 

A Recap of Thailand (Part 1 of 4)

I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here in my room, back in Perth again. It seemed like an eternity ago that I was just in Thailand, having the time of my life when in reality it was just yesterday. After travelling solo for the first time for 16 days in the wonderful country of Thailand, I finally understand all the hype around travelling. Over these two weeks, I had the most unforgettable experiences, met amazing people from all over the world and pushed myself way out of my comfort zone.

From visiting temples in Bangkok, exploring the underwater world in Ko Tao and then finally partying on Ko Pha-Ngan, it was a jam packed fortnight but I wish I stayed longer. In this four part series broken up into the different places of travel, I will share my experiences in the country of smiles.

Days 1-2: Bangkok

Day 1:

I started out my journey in Bangkok, reaching the capital of Thailand in the morning and then proceeding to check in to my hostel near the famed Khao San road.

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Khao San Road in the day

I found the easiest and cheapest way to get to Khao San from Suvarnabhumi Airport which was taking the airport rail link (45THB) to Phaya Thai, taking the BTS to Siam Square (22THB) and then finally taking bus 15 (7THB) to Khao San costing a grand total of 74THB.

After putting my things down at my hostel (Feel at home backpackers), I met one of dorm mates. A guy named Nick from the states and we decided to head out to check out the temples of Bangkok. First on the list was the Grand Temple, to get there we took the river taxi which I found to be a unique experience where it was a normal daily mode of transport for the locals to get to schools and work.DSC_0484.JPGDSC_0498.JPG

 

After taking the taxi in the wrong direction and then doubling back, we arrived at the Grand Temple. The visitors numbered well in the thousands with countless Chinese tour groups dominating the crowd. DSC_0505.JPG

The temple grounds were huge and took a solid two hours to explore. With many steeples and structures, one quickly gathers that the Thai love their shiny goods with their golden domes, mosaics lining the walls and many coloured gems cemented into the structures.DSC_0511.JPGDSC_0530.JPGDSC_0549.JPG

After exploring the Grand Temple, we opted to travel to the nearby Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This temple was more pleasant, it was less crowded and a different experience from the crowds of the Grand Temple. Here we found the gigantic golden Buddha. Wat Pho offered a more authentic temple feel and we saw some local children playing in the fountains and with old soccer balls.DSC_0582.JPG

Among the architecture, the painted murals also offered some interesting visuals.With strange creatures and depictions, I feel we would’ve gotten a lot more from the temples with a tour guide as there was no signage or explanations (most of the time) for the significance of the structures, paintings and statues that dotted the temples.DSC_0541.JPGDSC_0591.JPG

After Wat Pho, we headed back to rest for a while and I met up with my cousin at night for street food at Khao San road. At night, the famed road comes to life with all the backpackers out, street food carts and the numerous bars and shops flanking both sides of the road. For 50THB each, we got a delicious Pad Thai, mango sticky rice and coconut ice cream. All were amazingly deliciousDSC_0602.JPGDSC_0605.JPGDSC_0614.JPG

Of the food stores on the roadside, there were also carts selling insects. Tarantulas were on sale for 500THB! I instead opted to try out a small scorpion for 60THB, needless to say my cousin found it repulsive. The crunchy exoskeleton of the scorpion was seasoned with what I presume to be vinegar and wasn’t particularly appetizing but an experience nonetheless! DSC_0598.JPG On sale on the road side shops were some of the most random collection of items you can find, including knives, throwing stars and tazers.DSC_0619.JPG

We settled down for a few cocktails, buy three for the price of two! Drinks are extremely cheap in Thailand and very good as well.DSC_0621.JPG

After that we bid our farewells and I returned to my hostel for the night.

Day 2:

A much less cultural day, I decided to check out the Pratunuam markets to do some cheap shopping. After having difficulty trying to figure out how to get there by bus, I deferred to a taxi and got there around a half hour later in classic South East Asian traffic. The market itself sells a lot of local clothing, large sleeved T-Shirts and the like, at wholesale prices and in search of more western clothing I headed over to Platinum Mall. This six story complex was massive with the floors 1 – 3 for women’s clothing and a single floor for men’s clothing. With over a hundred shops on each level, I was exploring just the men’s level for almost two hours and after getting some cheap goodies I tried the neighboring malls Paladium Mall and Shibuya 19. Although both were quite large, many of the stores seemed to be shut and not as alive as Platinum Mall. If I were to go again, I would skip the other malls and just head straight for Platinum Mall as the many shops cater more to western tastes with the same cheap prices.

After shopping, it was time to head back to the hostel to get my things for the 15 hour journey to the diving island of Ko Tao. Once again I took a river taxi down a khlong (canal) and finished the journey by the famous tuk tuk.DSC_0446.JPGDSC_0454.JPGDSC_0463.JPG

The day was still young and I went to explore the area around my hostel, mainly Khao San and the parallel street to it Soi Rambuttri. Rambuttri was the more chill version of Khao San road, with more roadside stores and massage places. I went for a fish spa at 150THB for 15 mins which was a very odd feeling having hundreds of little fish nibble away at the dead skin on your feet. The fish tended to crowd mostly around me, guess I must have been a tasty treat for them.DSC_0482.JPGDSC_0488.JPG

After that I took a 1 hr massage by the street side which was a good decision after all the walking for the day. The middle aged, short statured woman had a suprising amount of strength and did the spine and neck cracking maneuvers which I will admit was a bit scary.

Following the massage, I gathered my things and waited at the hostel for the bus to take me to Ko Tao which I booked the night before. It was at this time I met another two travelers at my hostel. One of them, a British man named Alfie had some interesting things on him. One of them was an egg timer with a GoPro mount on it to take rotating time lapses which was fascinating. Another was a ball of string he carried around with him which he used to make bracelets for other travelers he met along the way. It was a great way to bring people together and also pass the time, an idea I intend to adopt for my future travels! It was sad to get along with others only to have to say goodbye almost immediately. A Thai man came to collect everyone who was taking a bus down to the islands and we had to stop at a couple of hostels to collect the other travelers. I then hunkered down for the long journey towards Ko Tao, the highlight of my trip in the next part…