Jan 20 -25 - Koh Samui, Thailand
Wow, if you ever have the chance to fly Bangkok Airways, you really should. We hopped over to Bangkok, and then down to Koh Samui Island. Neither of our flights lasted much more than an hour, but the stewardesses managed to serve us good meals and a couple of beverages both times. By early afternoon we were holed up in a bungalow just off the beach, sipping pineapple shakes and happy to have made it through Laos and Cambodia in one piece.
For days after that (I'm writing this from Bangkok two weeks later), my memory has gotten sketchy and I'm not going to try to pull out too many details. Maybe the pictures will explain everything! Needless to say we enjoyed ourselves and had a little down time from the intensity of traveling through foreign cultures. The beach was just a few feet down the path, the water was warm, and a whole strip of restaurants and shops lined the main road on our other side.
Koh Samui is a pretty big island, maybe 50 kilometers all the way around by road, so on a moped, we made a day trip of it and went searching for other cool beaches. We were staying on Hat Lamai beach on the SE side, which was quieter than the main drag near the airport, but on our moped we explored a little of everything, except the hills in the center. Our map showed that there were roads up to some great overlooks, but when we tried to find them, we got hopelesly confused, and finally concluded that the roads were nothing more than dusty unpaved tracks. The thought of fruit shakes and fried fish for supper made it easy to give up and head back to our beach.
The shopping road close to our hotel was lined with tailor shops manned by very convincing salesman. After a very persistent sales pitch, I finally gave in to one of them and had a suit and jacket made for me, which might come in handy for that interview and job again someday, I hope. I went back several times for fittings, and after a couple of days and some hard bargaining, the final product was ready.
Being back in Thailand again was an interesting change after our time in Laos and Cambodia. There was a 7-Eleven on every corner and a McDonald's down the street. But it still wasn't quite like life as you guys know it, and although we found a huge store on Samui resembling a small Sam's Club, there was nothing even close to a normal supermarket. Most of our snacks that weren't street food came from the corner 'Marts, and it was interesting to see the trends across the whole region on available goods. It was always easy to find Oreos, Lay's Potato Chips, and about ten flavors of Mentos (yup, ten!), plus the five kinds of soda; Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange, Fanta Green, and Fanta Red. But chocolate, diet soda, and most other snack items were hard to find, disproportionately expensive, and usually not worth buying (unless in the throes of a chocolate fetish).
Jan 26-31 - Koh Tao island
When we could bring ourselves to get motivated again, we hopped the slow boat for Koh Tao, an even smaller island a couple of hours north of Samui. It rained on us during the boat ride, for the first time in about a month, sending us scurrying inside from our seats out on the deck. We switched boats in the rain on Ko Pha Ngan (home of the famous full moon party), amid a vast confusion of moving bags, people, and various other items between vessels. On the ride over several people were passing around flyers for Scuba Diving Resorts, and one of them looked interesting, so after docking we hopped in the back of their company pickup truck and headed to the resort.
Koh Tao is known as one of the premier locations to learn how to scuba dive, mostly because of the beautiful clear waters but also because it is absolutely the cheapest place in the world to get PADI Open Water Dive certified. Which is what I did, starting just hours after arriving at Big Blue Dive Resort. My instructor and two fellow students were from Sweden, and the other student was from Holland, but lucky me, the class was conducted mostly in English. The course lasted about 3 days, with some classroom instruction in the mornings, and then lots of practice in the afternoons. Our first time out, we learned how to put together all of the equipment we would need, including the air tank, regulator, and vest, and then walked out into the shallow bay to practice. Our equipment must have weighed almost 50 pounds, including 15 pounds of weights to make us sink, but once in the water we couldn't feel it at all. Mostly the learning was very fun, but taking my mask off underwater, and then putting it back on again (still underwater), involved some water getting up my nose and a slight moment of panic. But, all four of us figured it out, and practiced all sorts of other safeguards like buddy breathing, ascending, descending, etc. I tried to pay attention but the fish swimming around me were fun to watch as well.
Our second time in the water, we packed up our gear and went out on a big boat to a couple of real dive sites, where we repeated our safety practices, and then swam around and checked out some amazing coral and tropical fish. I was curiously confounded by how hard it was to keep my bearings or even know which direction I was going in three dimensions. The snorkeling around the island was very good as well, and Rob was content to stay on top of the water for his fish viewing, avoiding the homework and time demands of the PADI course. He came out on the boat with us the second day and snorkeled where we were diving, and the water was clear enough he could still see us down at the bottom.
For our final morning, we visited a dive site called the Chumporn Pinnacles, and descended to 18 meters, where we played some more and saw a lot of incredible fish, including a Moray Eel. I took my fins off for a minute, and felt incredible weighless, able to do spins in mid-water without any sense of gravity. A diving camerawoman followed us around the last day, and took videos of our small group, and that final evening we gathered back together to watch the video. It was also Rob's chance to see from under the water, instead of on top. Both the video and the life we had seen underwater were incredible.
After all the diving, when I graduated the course I was ready for a break, so we rented a scooter and explored the island. Koh Tao is much smaller than the two others, shaped like a lumpy half moon and very hilly, only a couple of kilometers long. The only paved road in town runs along parallel to the main bay, although there are small resorts spread around other isolated bays around the island. Getting to them is somewhat of a challenge, and many people just use long-tail boats for transport. There were few cars around, but mostly just scooters, dirt bikes, and ATVs. I took a couple of hours and rode around by myself, finding plenty of steep, rutted, dusty roads leading to beautiful quiet beaches. My scooter was equiped with knobby tires, so it handled the terrain pretty well, and I made it back down to the water and did some snorkeling in a small bay filled with clear shallow water.
Later on, I picked up Rob, and really challenged the machine with the weight of two people. We did find that on some of the steepest hills, Rob would actually have to get off and walk up (sorry, Rob), as the 125 cc scooter just didn't have the power to take both of us. Coming back down was easier, although I was stomping on both brakes to keep us from hurtling all the way to the bottom. We did find one hill too steep and rutted for me to want to go up or down it, even by myself, and we left Mango bay for the boats, but Ao Hin Wong bay was easier to get down, and it was great snorkeling. There was no beach at all, which made the deep water crystal clear, and swimming around the granite submerged rocks was like jumping into an aquarium. It was so fun we actually came back again the next morning to see it in better light.
Since the beach by our hotel faced to the West, it set itself up perfectly for sunset strolling, and every evening we managed to be out on the water to see the sun almost dip all the way to the horizon before disappearing into a smear of red sky. The tides on the Gulf of Thailand varied by at least a couple of feet, and while we were there it was always low tide during the supper hour, which the restaurants took full advantage of. As the water receded; tables, chairs, plants, bean bag chairs, cushions, lights, and grills made their way onto the sand, and opened for business. Each one seemed to be better decorated than the last, with bonfires, lanterns, fire dancers, and Christmas lights strung in the palm trees. We sampled quite a few of them as the evenings darkened into night, and found that the food was just as good as the atmosphere.
On our last morning, I rented a single kayak and paddled my way out to Nang Yuan Island, which is really three islands connected by very narrow strips of sand, and surrounded by great dive and snorkel sites. Rob was recovering from an ear infection and had said that sleeping sounded better than anything else. Once there, I tied the kayak to my ankle and did some amazing snorkeling. I paddled back just in time for my last dive on Koh Tao that afternoon.
Each month, the dive resort organizes an ocean clean-up dive in a place that they notice has the most trash. The dive is free to all certified divers, and it was worth staying a day longer than planned to help give back to the island and pick up trash, underwater style. We headed out on the boat on of the southern beaches where a bunch of fisherman had holed up in a recent storm (said fisherman being known to toss what they don't want over the side of their boats), and got ready to dive. I was paired with a divemaster and another rookie, and we set out with mesh bags hoping to find trash. It went slowly at first, as we worked to free an old fishing net; but soon our bags filled up with glass bottles, wire, dinner plates, shoes, tin cans, and an old snorkeling set. The car tires we left where they lay, and also the fishing nets since they were hopelessly caught up in the coral, but we did free a fish that had been caught in a discarded net. When our bags were stuffed, we could barely haul them to the surface, and a long-tail boat came around to empty them into baskets. Picking stuff up off the bottom and then swimming around with it was very good practice for my buoyancy control, and fun besides!
Feb 1- 3 - Bangkok
Since I convinced Rob to stay longer on the islands, it compressed our time in Bangkok to just a couple of days, and we spent most of the first one just traveling there. It took a couple of hours on the fast boat to get back to the mainland city of Chumporn, and from there we took a VIP bus (it was actually nice this time!) the 7 hours up to Bangkok. And finally we were here to see the city, unlike the previous 3 times we had passed through and not stayed to visit.
But by the time we arrived here, after a month and a half in SE Asia, all of the Wats were starting to look alike, and the big city was just that, a really big city. Rob enjoys the cities more than I do, and spent the day wandering around until his feet were tired, but returned with the thought that the place was just too big to explore properly. I walked out into the streets filled with food vendors hawking everything from fried cockroaches to fruit shakes, and thought if I smelled another greasy banana pancake that I might have to throw up. I think we were just ready to move on to India.
For our last meal in Thailand, we decided that we couldn't live without eating sticky rice one more time. We went and found a street vendor, and began pointing things out with abandon; a piece of chicken, a grilled fish, a piece of fried fish, some sticky rice, and a couple of sodas. We even accidentally ended up with some sort of salad, which Rob was willing to eat, and the whole bill came out to less than $4.
Our flight wasn't until 11:30 at night, so we wandered around the city for the last time before heading to the airport. On to India!
***Ok, after this you should jump over to the India page***