Khao Sok National Park

Having spent the last first couple of months settling back into the routines of teaching, what better way to take a well-deserved break than a weekend away in Khao Sok. This national park is by far one of my favourite places in Asia and is one of the most beautiful reserves in Thailand. It’s covered by heaps of evergreen rainforest, huge limestone mountains, peaceful lakes, exciting caves, wildlife and tranquility.

Heading down after school on Friday allowed us to arrive in good time and enjoy our evening out in the jungle. We spent the first evening in jungle huts and took a boat across the lake the following morning to the lake house. Smiley lake house has expanded since my previous visit last February, with approximately 22 bungalows total, the bungalows stretch a long way across looking out onto a breathtaking view of the lake. Despite the weather and the heavy downpours of rain, the kayaks, rainbows, and storms made for a wonderful cool day. After some really delicious Thai food and a few cold ones in the evening, we initiated a bit of friendly competition by playing card games and a few rounds of beer pong.

Due to the heavy downpour that continued through the night, the cave trek was called off the next day, which actually worked in my favour being my second visit there. Instead we took a long tail boat to explore a waterfall. Waterfalls are notoriously slippery but this one was unusual. The waterfall was made of ‘sticky’ limestone rocks with minimal algae leaving a canvas to climb. The gushing water comes down and you go up. Trekking up through a waterfall surrounded by evergreen and rainforest in the rain was heaps of fun and definitely worth the visit.

The tranquility and beauty that comes with taking a trip to Khao Sok is almost unbeatable in my eyes. It is honestly one of my most memorable trips in Thailand. I hope to return and spend more time than a just a couple of days there on my next visit. Thanks Smiley!

Advertisements

Long Weekends

In this, the first and longest semester, long weekends are very important. They’re important because they allow you to rest and travel a bit outside of Surat as well as for your mental well-being.

This upcoming weekend is a 4 day weekend thanks to her Royal Highness, the Queen’s birthday, which also happens to be mothers’ day. We’ve had a reasonable amount of long weekends this semester but this 4 day weekend is coming at a perfect time and I couldn’t be happier to have a few days out of town.

Everyone has different plans. Some teachers are going diving, some are going to Bangkok, some are even staying home (crazy), but I’m off to Koh Phangan. A few of us are going to explore a new side of the island we have yet to visit and avoid the full moon backpackers.

I’m crossing my fingers for a few days of sunny weather.

Taking Your Bike to Koh Samui

I recently drove my motorbike to Donsak to catch a ferry to Koh Samui. The drive took about an hour and a half, and it’s super easy. Take 401 (in town called Talad Mai) east towards Thida, towards Khanom. After about 45 minutes you will reach HIghway 4142. Take a left on to Highway 4142. There is a nice off ramp on to it, and you should notice a tree lined median on 4142 after you make the left. Continue on Highway 4142 for about 35 minutes. Keep your eyes peeled for a low lying billboard on your right, with white Thai letters stuck in the ground with little posts in front of the billboard. Make a right, where the sign will then be on your left. This road is a residential road, so don’t be worried, you are off the highway. Take that road straight until you reach a large highway. Make a right. You should see a sign almost immediately that says “Seatran Ferry Port 2 Km.” Surely enough, in about two kilometres on your left, you will see a tall Seatran Ferry sign. Make a left and follow the road until you see a toll gate on your left. Go through and go park in front of the building that is on the left. The Seatran desk is on the left inside. The ticket for one person with a motorbike is 200 baht. Get back on your bike and drive to another toll gate towards the right of the building. It will lead right to the ferry’s ramp. Park wherever they tell you to and head upstairs. Seatran ferries have massage rooms, A/C, and a little stand with food and beer. Enjoy.

The boats leave on the hour, every hour from 6 AM to 7 PM, and it takes an hour and a half.

http://www.seatranferry.com/en/services/timetable.php

Ride Once, Pay Twice

As amazing as traveling is, it can be stressful. You have to keep your cool, and you have to watch your back. Also, when you’re making baht, you’re thinking in baht. Unplanned expenses can throw your plans off.

Last weekend, I went to the Phantip office on Talad Mai to get a bus ticket to Aonang. It was easy, 350 baht, no problem. They speak English very well and it seems they have access to every travel destination, by air, land, or sea. The woman gave me a flyer with a picture of the bus I would be taking, and said it would pick me up in front of the Phantip office (where I was at the moment). She also wrote two phone numbers on the flyer, telling me to call them if I didn’t see a bus by 6AM, the pickup time.

When I arrived in front of Phantip at 5:55AM, a woman came over and asked, “Are you going to Phuket?” I said, “No, I’m going to Aonang.” She said, “Okay, follow me.” I figured this was the person who was “picking me up,” and that she was in charge of gathering people for other destinations, as well. I went along.

I got to the bus, which, at least at 5:55AM, looked like the one on the flyer. Before I could get on, however, I was told the ticket I had was a voucher, and that I would need to pay 150 more baht to get my ticket. I was confused and not readily willing to give more money. The woman at Phantip had said I was all set. The bus driver proceeded to scream at me, “TICKET! TICKET! TICKET!” Hey man, I get it. I gave up 150 baht and got my “ticket.”

I hadn’t bothered to ask at Phantip if the bus would take me to a bus station far from Aonang pier, or directly to the Long Tail Office on Aonang pier, where I needed to go. Turns out I wasn’t on the Phantip bus at all, so it wouldn’t have mattered. The bus I got on had sent a person on to Talad Mai, in front of Phantip, to look for travelers. Not that they were doing anything wrong, but I should have showed her my ticket, and asked “Are you picking up persons for this bus company?” Hopefully, she would have said no, and I would have stood my ground waiting for the bus I already paid for. It seems like something fishy is going on, though, if they would make up something about my ticket being a voucher, and needing then to get the ticket, when I had a ticket the whole time. He didn’t let me hold on to the voucher or the “ticket” once I got on that bus.

I went back to the Phantip office to find out why they charged me more, so that’s how I know what happened. She called the bus driver from that day and he said he came to Phantip looking for me that morning, but no one was there. I had already been pulled away towards the other bus.

Again with the drop off point, it is a very important piece of information. Just like when you fly, you know the plane isn’t going to land downtown. Do some research and find out where you will most likely be dropped off, or ask when you are purchasing a ticket. Be prepared for the fare from the airport, bus or train station into town, or if you are on a bus or mini bus, try to specify beforehand or to the driver where it is you would like to be dropped off. Some will, some will not, but it’s worth a try. When I got off the bus, it was at a bus station and not at the pier. I had to pay 300 baht to be brought to the Aonang Long Tail Office.

And again with the ticket, make sure you are accepting a service from the company you have already paid! If not, you’ll pay twice.

*Note: This happened to my boyfriend Charlie, but I wrote it in the first person to make it easier. I was there for most things, and on the phone for the rest.

**Phantip is a travel agency on Talad Mai, in the Talat Kaset “Downtown Transportation Hub” area. It is caddy corner to “King Math.”

Full Moon Party

After living in Thailand for about a year and a half, I’d still not gone to one of its famous Full Moon Parties until last weekend. Why not? Several reasons I guess. I knew I’d need a few days to recover and it was something I wasn’t prepared for on a regular weekend. I didn’t want to return to school an absolute mess of a person from rushing over to Koh Phangan and partying all night and rushing back to Surat for school on Monday. Now that so many of my fellow teachers are leaving Surat in a couple of weeks I decided to join them last weekend. 

 

It was exactly as I had expected in every possible way. For most backpackers it’s probably one of the thins they’re most excited for when visiting Thailand. For me, it was a perfect example of how we’re all animals. It was a perfect example of Thais taking advantage of drunken naive tourists and tourists taking advantage of  and disrespecting a money hungry culture. 

 

The beach was over-crowded. The trash was plentiful. The drunks, hungry for a one-night-stand were aggressive. The thumping techno, puking,  urination, fornication, passing out, fighting, stumbling, body painting,  scheming, slobbering,  and downright binging, felt like a nearly endless sea of debauchery. 

 

For me, I had my fun but it’s ultimately something I’d prefer to avoid in the future. I can’t imagine that I’d ever go out of my way to visit another Full Moon Party.

Visit Songkhla – feed a tiger!

About 20-30 minutes away from Hat Yai is Songkhla, a coastal city with a zoo/water park, an aquarium, and a nice beach too.

A view of Songkla

A view of Songkla from the restaurant at the zoo.

The zoo/water park is classic Thai.  Lots of stuff, very casual, very inexpensive (150 baht entry fee covers both the zoo and the water park) and very friendly.  The whole thing is built on a mountain top, providing a slightly cooler environment and some great views.  The water park was pretty old and the water slides were neither real slides nor did they have any water in them.  They were basically carved out of cement, angled in weird ways, and looked really dangerous.  They were also raised so that you would shoot out 2-3 feet above the water with great speed, rather than directly into the water, as with most water slides.  Of course, you have to try something like that but the slides were bone dry.  I’m not sure if that was intentional or they had just forgotten to turn on the water or enough people had gotten damaged that they figured it might be better to close them.   The water park still had a great lazy river and was a nice reprieve from the zoo.

I've always wanted to visit there!

I’ve always wanted to visit there!

The most interesting part of the zoo is that you can feed pretty much any animal.  Solo fed giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, ostriches, birds and deer.  The door to the anaconda cage was wide open so I’m sure it found something to eat as well.

Impatient zebras in Songkla

Impatient zebras in Songkhla.

Solo wanted to feed the tigers but the way to do it was to tie a juicy piece of raw mystery meat onto a very long bamboo pole and then extend that towards the tiger.  It required a bit more strength than he had, especially when the tiger leaped 5 feet into the air, got hold of the meat and started pulling on it.  It was kind of like playing tug of war with a tiger.  It was so fun I did it twice!

An albino tiger leaps up to grab a tasty morsel

An albino tiger leaps up to grab a tasty morsel.

Sadly, none of the photos from the aquarium turned out well.  It’s worth the visit, though, just to see a diver goad a nurse shark and then two giant sea turtles into slow dancing with him.  http://www.songkhlaaquarium.com/eng/.  Only in Thailand!

Hat Yai, a.k.a mini Hong Kong

Do you like Chinese food?  How about lots and lots of Chinese people?  How about shopping?  And more shopping?  Maybe some western food?  Lots of knock-offs like this:

A bit of Hat Yai gold

A bit of Hat Yai gold

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then Hat Yai is worth a visit!

A partial view of Hat Yai

A partial view of Hat Yai

Solo, Jeab and I recently took a weekend trip to Hat Yai.  The city is one of the largest in Thailand (3rd, I think, after Bangkok and Chiang Mai) and is about 4-5 hours south of Surat.  It has a Surat-like feel to it, in that everything is conveniently located in the center of town, but if you have your own transportation, or if you like to walk, you can venture down hundreds of little side roads and who knows what you’ll discover.  The town is even less organized than Surat, with roads running every which way.  But the center of town is usually where people end up.  There is an older Central department store (complete with Sizzler), lots of hotels, lots of Chinese restaurants, and thousands of stalls selling all kinds of stuff.   It’s a very busy place, usually getting the most active at night.  There are huge crowds of Chinese tourists, as well visitors from Malaysia, so you’ll hear all kinds of languages being spoken.   Nearly everything outside the department stores is knock-offs and pretty cheap.  Solo cleaned up on toys.  

Just a few minutes drive away from downtown is Central Festival Hat Yai, which just opened in mid-December.  It is the largest shopping mall in the South, a distinction the Central Plaza in Surat had until recently.  It’s a big place, complete with ice skating rink, bowling alleys, toys r’ us, movie theater, and lots of other fun stuff.  Right down the street from Central Festival is yet another market, this one only open at night.  This place has stuff that’s even cheaper than the main market downtown.  Also, there is a 3-D museum (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152069582359660.1073741849.276059974659&type=3) at this market.  We’re saving that one for our next visit, along with the Hat Yai Ice Dome.

Overall, Hat Yai reminded me a lot of Hong Kong, although a lot smaller and with things much more centrally located.   And, like HK, it takes a while to get there.  But once you’re in Hat Yai there is lots to do!