Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Koh Samui, Koh Adang, Koh Lipe, and Everything In-Between

Koh Samui

We left Koh Tao and spent our first full day on Koh Samui exploring the best way we knew how: rented a motorbike, and drove (Bob did…not me. I sat on the back and tried not to look too much like the complete antithesis of all the cool chicks who just kind of plop down on the back of a bike, swinging their legs nonchalantly while playing with their fingernails, reading a book, shuffling cards, or whatever else it is that they do while seemingly not worrying about the sharp curves and treacherous traffic speeds that the driver is undertaking while toting them around). Let’s be clear: I am not cool. I can just feel the smirks of all the passer-bys, laughing at my obvious tenseness, my tight grip on the bike, and the intense alertness of a backseat driver written all over my face. As a Thai, you must be able to spot a nervous, uncool foreigner on the back of a motorbike from a mile (or to a Thai / the rest of the world, 1.6 kilometers) away. Anyways, we sped around the East, Southeast, and South-central parts of the island (which is much bigger and busier than Koh Tao). We visited a few Wats (Temples), one of which contained the mummified body of a monk from the 1970’s; it sat in a clear glass case in the entryway of the Wat, wearing sunglasses and wrapped in the traditional orange monk garb. We also hiked up to a waterfall in the middle of the island, where we saw elephants abound! We visited the infamous Hin Ta and Hin Yai (Grandpa Rock and Grandma Rock) formations, and we hung out on Lamai beach. A pretty good day, I’d say.

According to the map, we've only gone about 3 inches....

Hin Ta, Hin Yai (Grandpa & Grandma Rock)

See, told you!

The few days that we spent on Koh Samui marked the end of any semblance of plans that Bob and I had made in Bangkok. Before we left Bangkok initially, we planned on heading to Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui. After that…it was all back to drawing board to think up what other kinds of crazy places we could go explore and experience. This made Koh Samui an interesting point in our trip; we were happy to be on an island in the Gulf of Thailand (no doi), but we were actually a bit sad to be leaving Koh Tao, and also highly aware that it was time to get back to the plan-making phase – this time, making sure to include a visa run to Malaysia so as to extend our stay in Thailand before being able to apply for a worker’s visa once we are actually employed. Since this is all quite foreign to us, we spent a good amount of time on the Internet and in-and-out of immigration offices and tourist visa-run shops trying to figure out what the deal was. Not that exciting, so I am going to cease blogging about that instantly and show you a cool picture instead.

We did, however, manage to meet up again with Aui and Dani for a night of unexpected and quite accidental exploration a seedy and eccentric strip of Koh Samui night-life on our way to Reggae Pub for some hilarious Thai renditions of 90’s American grunge and pop music. How…exciting!

We extended our stay one more day, not for the same reasons that we spent extra time in Koh Tao, but instead, really just to figure out what the heck to do next. So we booked a night at the Hakuna Matata hostel, hit the beach for mine and Bob’s maximum relaxation/regrouping time quota of about 45 minutes (enough for some reading and a swim) before we met Jiggy, an adorable, goofy, and kind travel agent who hooked us up with our taxi --> bus --> ferry --> bus --> minivan --> bus --> car travel itinerary in order to get from one side of the isthmus to the other.

Sometimes this is what our planning looks like.

After a long (looooong) day of all sorts of different kinds of traveling, we made it to Satun (Sa-toon), which is far south on the west coast of Thailand, close to the border of Malaysia. We lucked out big time here. We read that there really isn’t that much to do in Satun, and that it’s more of a stop-over place that you wind up at on your way somewhere else, but Bob and I? We like Satun. We stumbled upon a gem of a hostel, called “Ang Yee’s Guesthouse and Art Gallery.” Very cool. I’ll let Bob elaborate on this for you, because I could tell, even before we actually met the guy, that Bob and the owner, Mr. Chia, had formed a bond:

“Call me when you in Satooooon and I pick up you!” yelled Mr. Chia in his innocent, yet loud tone.

“Well, Mr. Chia, I think I am in Satun I just have no idea where your hostel is,” I said as I walked up and down the aisle of the bus.

Between the 14-hours of travel to get to Satun, falling in and out of sleep on the 4 different vehicles we had been on that day, and the bus driver rambling on in Thai and attempting to figure out where to drop me off in this somewhat spread out city, I honestly thought we’d never make it to Ang Yee’s Guesthouse. We found the place the night before online, but it wasn’t on “Hostel World,” we had no idea how much it cost, and the guy who owns the hostel is saying he’ll come pick us up when we get into town? The only things that were going through my head were: Who is Mr. Chia? and what exactly am I getting myself and my girlfriend into in this region of Thailand to which we both had never been?

The bus driver finally just decided to drop us off in the middle of town, so we got some food and called Mr. Chia again. It was an interesting game of phone tag for a while, but not American Phone Tag where you keep missing each other’s calls – Thai Phone Tag – where the one American on the phone can’t understand the Thai guy, and the Thai guy has no idea where this fast-talking New Yorker is in his city.

Once we finally cleared things up, Mr. Chia showed up within a couple of minutes. He steps out of the car and stands in front of us with his John Lennon-esque round glasses, Hawaiian flowered shirt, no shoes, and a newsboy cap. He looked at us with a blank and goofy stare (one that we found out he has quite often) and there is silence for about 15 seconds.

“Mr. Chia?”

A smile quickly jumped onto his face, he took our bags, and we hopped in his car. We drove to his guesthouse, which ironically was right down the street. When we arrived, we walked through the opening under the “Ang Yee’s Guest and Art House” to find a very tranquil, Zen, and articulate place to hang out for the night. The whole main floor was wide open with all great wood-work, painting and drawings on the walls, a few people lounging around, and a little backyard with a bamboo-kitchen-hut for cooking.

We were completely fried from the journey and although we were very low-maintenance at that particular time, Mr. Chia stopped at nothing to make sure we were beyond comfortable in his place of lodging. He made sure we had enough blankets, a comfortable bed, hot showers, coffee in the morning, all the right information about our bus the next day, and most of all: he made sure we were relaxed. There was no talk of paying for anything or explanation of why we were there; all Mr. Chia cared about was that we were ready to chill out in his guesthouse.

It turns out Mr. Chia had grown up in Satun. He was an artist who left for a while to travel and pursue his art career. Two years ago, he decided that he wanted to move back to his hometown. To his dissatisfaction, his hometown wasn’t a very welcoming town in the hostel category. Since he loved traveling, people, art, and chilling out so much, he decided to open up his own guesthouse for the traveling folk coming through his town. All I can say is that I’ve been to many hostels in my day, and not once has the owner dropped everything to come and pick me up (I found that he was doing that for multiple people throughout our stay).

With all that said, this is a big shout out to Mr. Chia; you are truly a member of the League of Extraordinary Thai Gentlemen. Bravo, sir.

Chia and Trusty Sidekick "UK Gary"

Okay, it's Emily again! Saturday morning, we caught a van and then a tuk-tuk to make it to the pier, only to find that all of the ferryboats to Koh Tarutao are booked. We had done a ton of reading and researching about this island and we were so psyched for this trip. Needless to say, we were feeling a little deflated. It was a whole lot of traveling to have a wrench thrown in the works now, but that seems to be how it always goes. When you are in the midst of one of these dilemmas, it feels like your troubles might register on the scale of a grand catastrophe. We had a PLAN - and now, all of a sudden…once again, we didn’t. Now, when you picture us landing at the pier and discovering that the ferryboats are all booked, I’m guessing you probably picture us walking up to the ticket booth, slap-happy as a bunch of clams, to find a sign in the window that says “Sold Out” – or maybe you envision an official at the counter apologizing and delivering the bad news. But that’s not how it goes at Pak Bara Pier. There is no organized Ticket Booth, or Ferry Ticket Organization, or anything like that. Instead, you get dropped off with all of your bags in the hot, southern Thailand sun, and you make your way around an enormous horse-shoe loop the size of your average high school track field, checking in at each and every tiny ticket shop along the way to see who you can haggle to the lowest price, and to see if ANY of them can get you on a boat. In this case, nobody could.

Hearing “No” that many times in a row is enough to break a girl down. It was my BIRTHDAY weekend. Did none of these people CARE?! I wanted to see turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of this wondrous National Park I read about in my Thailand/Island-Christmas-present- guidebook my parents got me before my trip! Boo-hoo. Poor me, right? That, my friends, is what we call “White Whine.” Looking back at my intense discouragement in that moment is laughable. Basically, the real issue was deciding which incredible and miraculous other island in the Andaman Sea we should go discover instead. What a tough choice, huh. “Bob, I’ve never even HEARD of Koh Adang,” I kept saying, “And my guidebook only mentions it for like a milli-second.” But that is exactly where we went. Eventually.

We ended up waiting at the pier for a couple unexpected additional hours, as our boat went to get gas…we think. We boarded our boat, unsure if it really was our boat or not (this is a common theme in our travels – we are always triple checking if we are on the right bus/boat/tuk-tuk/van-route/unicycle/taxi/dolphin/etc. All of our checking never really comes to any fruitful reassurance though. The truth is, we never - or rarely - really know where we are or where we’re going…but I guess that’s half of the…fun? – Or at least a decent portion of the experience. At least we’re learning a lot, right?  

So, we get on the ferry, slowly but surely - because after an extensive ferry-delay, those nice folks on the pier that you spent time people-watching, exchanging smiles with, or small-talking with, somehow drastically morph into nothing but elbows and suitcases. People. Get. Pushy. And our biggest gripe with that? The fervent intent to avoid eye-contact. I think sometimes people think that not looking at you as they execute these rude maneuvers makes them appear oblivious, like maybe their rudeness will be excused as an accidental "Oops! Didn't see you there." Now, I am a big fan of the common-courtesy merging approach. We all take a little and give a little. We create an organized system. We let the family with two small children stay intact instead of forcing the mom to peer over shoulders and peek through cracks in the crowd to make sure that her girls are still walking behind their dad, holding on to the straps of his backpack in a vain attempt to not get separated. We say excuse me, pardon me, Kor-thod-Ka. We look at each other. But, alas, the world is not that way. Some people want to get on the boat, claim their real estate, and get right back to sitting. But that is all tangential – I want to tell you about our amazing trip!

After the bulk of this chaos, we had time to regroup on the boat. I’d like for Bob to paint you a picture of what that looks like:

On a lot of these ferryboats to and from the islands, you will find a couple of seats on the roof of the ferry, as well as a few plastic chairs laid out on the deck. Other than that, there is usually a VIP room on the main floor and another VIP room on the bottom floor. VIP = Air Conditioning and a seat for an extra 100 Baht or something close to that. There are never any seats available, and being on a budget, you really don’t need to spend an extra 100 Baht on these types of things.

The only things that I want to write about today are the little nuances that make traveling cool. Yes, seeing all the sights and climbing the highest mountains are cool as well, but the humble traveler can appreciate the vehicles that take them to where he needs to go. A majority of the time, traveling first class in these VIP rooms makes you isolated from anybody unique to the area. It is when you take the opportunity to appreciate those travel days and, despite language differences and lack of sleep, make the best of the situation and just smile.

Emily and I found ourselves on the boat to Koh Adang after 36 hours of traveling. We were tired, stinky, and there were no seats anywhere to be found for this 2- hour boat ride. We decided to head below deck where there was another floor full of people, but we noticed a prime location nobody had touched: a huge pile of life-jackets tucked away under the staircase in the far corner of the boat. We took full advantage and set up two mini-life-jacket-bungalows in this corner. We were as happy as pigs in pudding (I’ve never seen a pig in pudding before, but I can’t imagine it being anything but an unbelievable experience for the pig).

Within minutes, a father and son timidly tiptoed over and sat down near us. We saw that they needed some space, so we made sure to hand over a hefty portion of our bungalow to share with them. It turned out, they were from Malaysia and going on holiday to the islands. Within minutes, they were both sleeping; the kind of sleep where your body is just contorted in the oddest position, with generous amounts of drool pouring from the small opening that recently creaked open in your mouth. I couldn’t help, but smile.

Then, one of the Thai workers from the boat came over and joined our bungalow. He didn’t speak English, but he smiled at us and handed Emily and I two bags of “Japanese Seaweed Chips.” There we were: two American travelers, a Malaysian father and son, and a member of the Thai working class hanging out on a home-made life-jacket-bungalow on the way to the islands. We all just met, but within 20 minutes, I was the only one awake. Everybody had fallen into a deep sleep. I sat there with my headphones on, took one look at everyone, put my hands behind my head, and felt the most comfortable and satisfied I have so far during my month here in Thailand.

Although not on the boat, one of Em's many mini-naps throughout our travels!

Thailand: Land of the Free

Taxi Hangout

Land of Smiles

Beautiful, right? Aren’t you glad I had Bob take that one over? Okay, so we stepped off the longtail taxi boat onto the sandy shores of The Unknown: Koh Adang…and made our way to the Visitor’s Center. Here we met our second Mr. Beau (our other Mr. Beau was our jungle trekking guide in Chiang Mai, as some of you may recall). We inquired about lodging, and Mr. Beau smiled coyly and laughed quietly while shaking his head. Another “No.” He said, “We’re booked. No more bungalows.” Bob and I stood there, a little rattled, but not defeated by any means. So we pushed further…. “Is there any other place on the island we can stay? Can we see a map?” He gestured over to the podium in shape of the island that stood in the center of the station; it contained one hand-painted map with somewhat 3-Dimensional cutouts of the whopping seven labels on the map:

1.     Waterfall
2.     Bungalows
3.     Visitor Center
4.     Chado Cliff
5.     Ranger Station
6.     Restaurant

Number seven, you ask?


We looked again at Mr. Beau and asked, hopefully, whether or not we could camp.

He said: “Yes.”

And? He had a tent for us. And? It was already set up. And? It came with sleeping pads, pillows, and sleeping bags from the Ranger Station. And? It was literally right on the beach. Why didn’t you mention all of this in the first place, MR. BEAU? I think he liked watching us squirm. I can only imagine his inner-monologue, as he snickered at our audacity - trouncing up to the visitor’s center on a random island we knew nothing about with our fingers crossed that maybe there would be some available spot to sleep during peak season. But it worked out. For the best. As it often does.

Upon entering Koh Adang....we transformed into Coconut Heads
We set our stuff down and reveled in our success. This was a big win. It turned out to be better than our “plan” (Don’t get me wrong – I am still entirely set on visiting Koh Tarutao. Look it up, you’ll see why). But Koh Adang was just what we needed: nature, peace, quiet, beauty, refreshing waters, a 100% lack of anybody trying to sell you anything, with a dash of hey-Emily-don’t-worry-so-much thrown in. So we immediately jumped in the water to cool off – that was one of the best parts, in the Andaman Sea, you can actually cool off a bit when you go into the water. On the Gulf side I always found myself still hot when I went for a dip to “cool off.” Even though the water here was definitely not cold by any means, it still woke you up a bit and zapped away the lethargy that the sun sometimes tries to smush down on you.

Our neighbor who despite his crabby appearance was very friendly...

We ate dinner at the only restaurant on the island. Typically Thai dishes have a format: They lay out the basics for you of the noodle, rice, or curry dish, and then you add either vegetables/tofu, chicken, or seafood (sometimes pork). When the people of Koh Adang say “seafood,” what they mean to say is “obscene amounts of shrimp and squid.” Literally, I have never come close to eating that much squid in my LIFE. And I think I’m all set for a little while now. There was one particularly enormous tentacle that I’m envisioning now, that I basically ate out of some macho, delirious impulse to impress Bob. As if eating squid is somehow impressive. But I’m sure you can picture my thoughts as I ate – something along the lines of, “Yeah, Bob. I don’t care about the size of those suction cups poking out of my coconut curry between the green beans and ginger root. What? You think I only eat those calamari-esque O-rings you find at TGIFriday’s? (What part of the squid do the circles even come from?) I’ll eat the 2.5 inch-long purple arm pieces; I don’t care.”

You see, I feel like Bob does the same thing, though. But he’s worse about it. Or better? Just more daring, I guess. I weirdly envy it. Every time I think I do something cool, he just one-ups me. Let us reference the Chiang Mai blog post for an example, shall we? Snake Soup. I tried it. Bob tried it. Cool, we ate it – and you were all impressed, right? BOOM! The next day headlines read: Bob Eats Rat. Fast forward to present day: I eat obese squid tentacles, and then BOOM! A day later Bob scoops the weird, unidentifiable gray meat that looks a little bit like elephant and a little bit like tongue out of my soup bowl and takes a bite because I kept eating around it, avoiding it, because I WAS SCARED of it, okay? Geesh, Bob.

I’ll segue here for a moment and elaborate on the tongue-soup story.

We’re down in the south of Thailand now. Things are different down here, as they are in each and every region of Thailand that we’ve visited so far. As I’ve described briefly, it’s less touristy in the places we’ve seen down here so far (maybe with the exception of Koh Lipe, but we’ll get to that later). Generally speaking, we’ve noticed that things are less catered to us (Native English Speakers / Tourists) here in the south of Thailand. Does this mean people are unfriendly or unwilling to help? Absolutely not. But, the language barrier is a bigger divide than we have experienced thus far. I’ll give a shout out to good old Pimsleur’s Thai at this point (the language learning software I purchased and practiced while driving around in The States, in order to prep for our trip. Some of you have even had the pleasure of hearing it while driving around with me). What Thai we have learned has come in handy more-so here than anywhere else so far. As you may know, the Thai language is written in an entirely different script – a script that is completely indecipherable to me and to Bob. Most menus and signs we’ve come across are written in two languages: Thai and English – lucky us. But, down south, that is not typically the case. We have been doing a lot more of just looking at the pictures of food on the wall, pointing, (jumping, in my case, because I’m not always tall enough to reach the exact picture that shows what I want to eat) smiling, and hoping for the best. In this specific case, I’m going to blame the megapixels. The poster on the wall was a little fuzzy; I thought I was getting noodle soup with some Chinese kale with some other stuff tossed in. I did not see the mystery meat in the picture on the wall. But I certainly saw it in my bowl. And I certainly saw it travel from my bowl, across the table in between Bob’s chopsticks, and into his mouth. Yum.

I apologize, this post has been pretty scattered, but there is so much to share with you all! I want to make sure I get the good stuff in, and I know most of you were probably secretly, or not so secretly, hoping for another weird food post anyway. Which brings me to another scatter-brained thought: Let us know what you’d like to hear about! Leave us comments down yonder in the space at the bottom of the page. If there is something you’re curious about, something you’d like to see pictures of, something you’d like to ask our very novice, but warmly-given opinion about – tell us!

Okay, now back to Koh Adang – After the evening we will henceforth regard as Squidfest, Bob and I hung out and played cards and watched a Thai group-retreat ceremony of some sort, which involved some music, some group singing, and lots of unrecognizable (to us) chatter and speeches. It’s fun that way; we get to imagine what kind of group they might be, where they’ve come from, what they’re talking about, who the funny ones are, etc. So we stayed out at the restaurant until well into nighttime, at which point we raced back into the ocean for a midnight swim. The moon was so huge though you could see straight through to the bottom. We could have gone scuba diving right then and there (but my goggles broke). This is a favorite pastime of mine, though. Night swims. Day swims are awesome as well, of course, but we all know that. Usually when you night swim, it feels like the whole ocean is yours. I like that.

We woke up the next morning to the beginnings of a blazing sky visible from our tent at the start of an amazing sunrise. From the shore we promptly watched it, admired it, and went back to bed happily until the heat of the day woke us about an hour later (you can never sleep very late in a tent, can you?). It was time for our nature-adventure day.  

On our way to Chado Cliff, before we even left the campground, we saw a family of monkeys on the prowl for some people food. We had heard about these hilarious and dastardly fellows, who ransack bungalows and swipe up any food they can find. They scamper along the beach, weave through tents, shoot up the trees – I only wish they’d also come for a swim. So we watched the monkeys do their monkey business, and went on our way along the beach and up the mountain. The views! They’re amazing. This, is a beautiful place in the world. Not to mention, after two days of various forms of sitting in different places on different transportation vessels, it feels so good to get outside and move around and, you know, climb mountains and stuff.

View of Koh Lipe from the cliffs of Koh Adang
Birthday Party atop the cliff!

So we hiked and climbed and looked and swam and read and relaxed and ate and….began a new hike! This was ambitious, but we knew it was our last day on Koh Adang and we wanted to see as much as we could.  

It was a little past five when we started, which is daringly close to sundown, but Bob had his trusty headlamp, and I had my flashlight and bug spray, so we went for it. The waterfall hike was nice, absolutely, but we just didn’t have the daylight to climb as high as we would have ideally liked to – so we “settled” for a nice evening hike up to the small-stream-falling-nicely-down-some-big-rocks hike instead. I’m sure in Monsoon Season it’s outrageous. On our trip back down we heard more monkeys, but they were being sneaky, cheeky little guys, and they wouldn’t come out to play. We saw TONS of lizards of a variety of sizes (none quite as big as the dinosaurs we saw at Lumphini Park, though), and saw one obscure creature that looked like something that might occur theoretically if a deer and a rat mated. Bob is convinced it was a mongoose, but I disagree. Again, neither one of us is knowledgeable on the subject, so this is kind of a futile description.

Really vague, unclear photo of the mystery rodent - but it's the best we could do.

We also saw BATS up close and personal for the entirety of our quick jaunt back to the beach in the twilight. Bob had a number of very close bat-to-the-face encounters, but we made it out alive and well and happy in time for dinner, followed by another night swim where Bob, impressively, completed 8 underwater somersaults without coming up for air. Invigorating stuff.

Bob here – Emily is being modest. She completed six somersaults before I did to hold the record. For her safety, we both felt it was appropriate for her to stop somersaulting for the evening. With that said, I hadn’t done any somersaults yet that night. I politely asked if I could attempt to do as many somersaults as I could handle. Emily told me that when she was a kid, she did 13 somersaults; I was intrigued, invigorated, as well as astounded. My 8 is nothing compared to baby Emily’s 13. Back to you, Em.

The next day, as of course you are all well aware, was my Golden Birthday. I turned 25 years old on the 25th of March. In Thailand. And it ruled. I’ll recap briefly:

Sunrise, Breakfast, Monkeys, Boat Taxi, Koh Lipe, Bamboo Hut, Internet Interviews, Jobs, Celebrations, and Desserts. I choose first to elaborate on Desserts. I’m not sure if this counts as dessert in your eyes or not, but it felt like dessert-for-breakfast to me. Bob snuck out and surprised me with a Banana Lassi (yogurt smoothie) for breakfast once we got to Koh Lipe. They are amazing. Usually, back in the States, I tried to refrain from any overzealous candy consumption. Candy bars and the likes were an extreme rarity for me. Ice cream, cookies, etc – bring it on, any time, any place, I’m ready. But candy? Not really. Here, in Thailand, something has switched, and I am teetering on a disconcertingly high Peanut M&M consumption rate. I just love them. And they are everywhere. So they have become a Thai staple in my diet: Rice, Noodles, Curry, Peanut M&Ms. So while Bob kicked off his Skype interview in our Bamboo hut, I walked down to the market to treat myself to a birthday pack. If you’re counting, that’s two birthday desserts thus far. After the successful interviews, Bob and I split a phenomenal Banana Mocha Coffee Shake. Wow. And that’s 3. After dinner, we split our go-to favorite post meal delicacy: Banana, Cinnamon, and Honey Roti – AND a coconut sticky rice with mango. For you math and dessert pros out there, that’s 5 birthday desserts in a day. And we got jobs.

We don’t know exactly where, but the company we’ve been hired by will place us up north. It’s not likely that we will be in Chiang Mai, but probably somewhere near there, the border of Laos, or somewhere else north of Bangkok. We will start in May after a teaching orientation. We are thrilled and relieved to have entered this phase in our trip. Our goal of teaching in Thailand is just within reach – and, we have just over a month left to travel :)


Earlier you saw photos of Koh Lipe from the cliffs of the neighboring island, Koh Adang. We spent one night on Koh Lipe after Koh Adang which is just a short 10-minute boat taxi away. We stayed in my favorite accommodation so far: A Bamboo Hut! If you have heard the song by The Who entitled, "Eminence Front,"then you can sing along to our anthem of the night. "I BEEN LIVIN IN A HUT......C'MON! IN A BAMBOO HUT."

"Livin in a hut"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Thailands: Koh Tao

Koh Tao – Turtle Island

Just a mere 22 square kilometers, the serene and tranquil island of Koh Tao means as much to me as the coveted “Arkenstone” meant to Thorin in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Lying off the east coast of Thailand’s isthmus - above Koh Phangan and Koh Samui – Koh Tao is an ideal place for a relaxing, yet adventurous getaway.

Shark Bay

Being that it was our first “Thaiiiiiiisland” (get it??), we had no idea what to expect. You hear so many different opinions from guidebooks, locals, friends, ex-travelers, etc, that it is hard not to stereotype a place before you experience it for yourself. With that said, we heard that a majority of the islands on the east side were very touristy and frankly a slight disappointment.

From the moment we were approaching Turtle Paradise by ferry, I realized that all the hearsay was nothing but a huge stinky pile of bologna! Koh Tao is paradise! Granted, the port is a bit seedy because everyone is hanging out there yelling at you to come to their dive school, but once you hop in the back of a pick-up truck and high-tail it out of there, it is nothing but crystal clear water, blue sky, and scuba tanks.

As Emily explained in the previous post, it took a while to get there. We flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (2 hours); then took a night train from Bangkok to Chumpon (9 hours); arrived at 5am, waited an hour, then took a bus to the ferry from 6-7; waited another hour for the ferry, then took the ferry from 8-11 to Turtle City (I understand I have referred to Koh Tao by many different names and this post has only just begun, but just go with it).

We stayed at Carabao Dive Resort. Originally, we were going to be there for 3 days to get our Open Water Dive Certifications, but the place was that amazing that we extended our stay for 2 more days. So, let’s start from the beginning (queue the flashback music…)

We arrived at our dive school just before noon by a very unique form of tuk-tuk that is indigenous to Koh Tao and I’m sure many of the smaller, under-developed islands in Thailand – basically, it is a pick-up truck. We cruise on about 7 minutes east of the port and we arrive at our Dive School. Koh Tao is known for scuba diving. Many of their hostels are converted into dive schools, where you pay a set price for your diving certification, dive trips, etc, and that includes your accommodations as well. This is a very cool concept, being that everybody staying at your resort - regardless of their age, shape, or color, is most likely diving. This leads to great conversation and cool stories galore.   

While we were waiting for our room to get cleaned up from the previous divers, Emily and I decided to swim around for a while and get a little island sun. As we were snorkeling around, who do you think decides to show up? None other than Aui and Dani, our German travel buddies. They had trouble deciding which dive school to go with, so we convinced them to hang at Carabao with us!

We learned shortly thereafter that we wouldn’t be in the same scuba group with them, but it was all good – the classes were small groups of 4 and it was cool to meet new people anyway. Day one consisted of a 2-hour scuba movie, so we met up with our class (The Swedish duo known as Nilse and Tom), and the German’s class (Aui, Dani, and two other German girls by the name of Karen and Isabelle). The movie was kind of in the same category as those cheesy public service announcement videos you watch in health class in high school; you know, the ones that are about 15 years out of date, half the class sleeps through, and the other half sort of just watches because they are intrigued and slightly bored at the same time. Needless to say the video was the mellowest portion of the class, but there were better things to come in the near future.

Falling asleep early became quite habitual on this leg of the trip, and the first night was no exception. We were in bed early and up early for our first day of scuba. Here is how the schedule went for our Open Water Diving Certification:

Day 1: Two-hour video
Days 2 & 3:  Class- 9am-11am
                      Diving- 12pm-5pm
Day 4: Diving- 7am-12:30pm

*An Open-Water Certification consists of 5 open water dives, with at least one of those dives taking you to your Maximum Depth of 18 meters (to all of us Americans, that is just about 60 feet).

The person responsible for helping us adventure in the underwater world is Sabrina Si Sadi. Born and raised in Belgium, fluent in 4 languages, and a master of the scuba dive arts, Sabrina is one of the coolest women on the planet. Standing at about 5 foot 6, covered in wild tattoos, with gauges in her ears, and bright blonde curly hair with dreadlocks, Sabrina turned me and Emily into a Merman and a Merlady. Through a series of classroom and underwater exercises and techniques, we were taught to relax. Scuba diving seems complicated, but when all is said and done, breathing as if you were on land in a relaxed state will get you where you need to go.

There are just a few SUPER important parts of diving:

   1) Never hold your breath, especially when you go deeper. The deeper you go, the more pressure there is on your body.
   2)      Chill out; you can breath. Although it is weird at first to be breathing out of a tank under water, you can still breath. Take normal breaths and have some fun – you’re under water and basically have superpowers you gilly little human you!

We started off just a few meters under water doing basic breathing exercises:

-Remove your regulator (the thing you breath out of), let it float away, and then retrieve it with a rainbow-like hand motion.

-Remove your regulator (if you do not know what this is, you clearly did not read exercise one), and locate it by finding the hose closest to your back on your tank.

-FILL YOUR GOGGLES WITH WATER and figure out how to get the water out. This exercise is kind of funny because your instincts tell you that breathing is no longer an option. Little do you know, if you can’t see, you can still breathe. Don’t fret my little scuba noob, just press down right between the eyes and exhale through the nose. The water will go exit the goggles and you can continue diving (and breathing if it was your first time…. Noob).

-Remove your tank and remove your weight belt while under water. I’m not describing how you do this, but I bet it is comical to watch because balance becomes an issue.

Sabrina was making sure none of us would freak out when we were on a deeper dive. Since you can’t talk under water, one of the most important parts of diving is communication. The previous exercises and the following signals were essential for our transition to little mermaids and mermen. There are basic signals (I’m okay, I’m have a problem, breath out, breath in, stay on my level, go up, go down, check your pressure gauge….) that you need to learn in order to have a successful dive. We learned them :)

These exercises were followed by a bunch of awesome dives. The underwater world, to me, is basically outer space; there are species of coral and creatures that one would not see unless under water. The fact that you are in a scuba suit, making Darth-Vader noises and moving at a robotically suave rate, makes it feel like you are an alien. From Blue Spotted Sting Rays, Christmas Tree Fish, Wrasse, Sea Urchins, Sea Cucumbers, SEA TURTLES, Barrel Sponges, Chevron Barracudas, Groupers, Trigger Fish, Crabs, and Eels, to crazy amounts of tropical fish, we saw a fair amount of sea creatures.

Sea Urc
Blue Spotted Ray


After the fourth day, we were supposed to leave and go to Koh Samui, but unfortunately, Emily was feeling a bit under the weather after our last day of the Open Water Course. The ironic thing was, I had a fever as well… a fever that could only be prescribed with more scuba diving. The scuba doctor convinced me to take the advanced course, which consisted of just two more days of diving – a total of 5 more dives. How could I say no? (I regret to say that Emily could not accompany me on this session of scuba, but she will reach her 30 meters in due time, of course).

So, the Swedes, Sabrina and I were out for some more dives. Here is the advanced syllabus:

Deep Dive: For all of you “Beerfest Fans,” the new maximum depth is 30 METERRRRS. Honestly, it doesn’t feel that much deeper, but the whole idea of Nitrogen Narcosis comes into play. This basically means when you get to a certain depth, you can start feeling goofy; when you start feeling goofy, you can start doing funny things; when you start doing funny things, you can regret some of those things. When you have nitrogen narcosis 100 feet under sea level, you don’t want to make a bad decision (Sabrina told us a story of a man who decided to remove his tank and all of his gear because he was feeling so great, he thought he really was a merman). Nitrogen Narcosis has been said to make you feel intoxicated and guess what the solution is: Go up! When you begin to feel funny down deep, ascending is the best solution.

James Bond Entry...

Luckily, none of us had any issues. We had to take a test before we went under and then again at 30 meters. The test went as follows: Sabrina made a boxed chart, numbered 1 through 20. The numbers were out of order and we had to touch our nose, then the numbers in order. We were timed and the time was recorded. We then had to repeat this test at 30 meters (there is a white board that works under water – I thought that was very cool and still do not understand how it works). If the results were drastic, we had Nitrogen Narcosis and hypothetically would be forced to ascend so we would not harm ourselves or anyone else on the dive. Again, nobody had the disease, and to our surprise, my Swedish companion Tom and myself scored 2 seconds faster at 30 meters.

While swimming at this depth, it helps to wear a dive computer and compass. The dive computer is a little watch that gives you all types of fun facts (Current depth, maximum depth, no-decompression limit). A no-decompression limit is basically the time that you are allowed to stay at a certain depth. It has a lot to do with nitrogen levels in the body, but it’s cool to know because all you have to do is ascend a bit and you have more time under water. I guess when in doubt, just go up! Be careful about going up too fast though: too fast = lung overexpansion. That’s another big no-no. So, just add a safety stop to deep dives and your good. At about 5 meters down, you hang out for 3 minutes and when those 3 minutes are up, then you go to the surface. The dive is complete, and everybody still has their lungs. Wooooo hooo!

Check out the School O' Barra

Wreck Dive: We explored a shipwreck for this dive. It was incredibly invigorating, scary, and challenging at the same time. First off, I hadn’t had a dive with worse visibility than this one yet; I couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of me. With visibility this bad, it’s kind of like someone spinning you around in a chair with a blindfold on, then throwing you in the water; it’s very hard to navigate, let alone focus on the cool things around you.

After the chaotic descent, we made it to the ship. There were sea urchins all over the outside walls, cranky boxer shrimp and hermit crabs hanging out in “punk packs” as I call them (picture a bunch of punk high school kids trying to look intimidating outside a 7-11 when in reality, they are just loitering and secretly wishing they were cooler).

I was so invigorated by the cool sights around me that I actually got lost! I looked to my left, then to my right, then behind me. One member of the crew was behind me, but my instructor, as well as the Swedes, were gone. So, just like you are trained, you wait for one minute at the spot you get lost at, then start your emergency ascent. We were in no way in an emergency; we had plenty of air and we probably could have dove for longer and just met up with them later, but it is always good practice to head to the surface to reconvene as soon as possible.

We met up right away at the surface and laughed about the whole thing. When all was said and done, it was great practice to get lost. I just wish I got more time to dive on that one!

Night Dive: Night diving is wild. Have you ever seen the episode of Planet Earth where those giant fish with the flashlights on their heads are dancing around and there are so many lights it kind of looks like there is an underwater rave going on? My night dive was nowhere near that insane, but it was still incredibly cool and life-changing. The one obvious thing about diving you can often forget about is the fact that it is a lot of time to be in your own head. Yes, you are with a group of people who you can make signals to and share memories with, but a lot of the time underwater is spent making decisions and exploring on your own. In a night dive, it’s that, but you can only see what your light is showing you. Everything else is lights out – pitch black.

We did the descent at sunset, which was surreal. You go over a whole new set of signs to do with your flashlights (I’m okay, I need help, etc.) and then you jump in the water and continue your dive just like you would any other. As the sun fully sets, you begin to witness the sea at night – a vast abyss of swaying corals and a few species of fish staying up way past their bedtime. Every crack or crevasse you look in, there is some kind of crab, shrimp, or in some cases, the boisterous and suave Blue Spotted Stingray holding down their turf. As for the floor and craggy rocks below you – be careful a spiky sea urchin doesn’t find his or her way into getting a poke at you.

All you have is the tunnel-vision of your flashlight. This means you bump into a lot of things, you can easily get lost if you lose sight of your crew for too long, and you can freak yourself out if you don’t relax and understand that it’s just dark. We did one really cool thing where we all met at the bottom and stood in a circle. With a slow rotation to the left, all of our flashlights shut off and there was nothing but the Darth Vader sounds and darkness. With quick jerks and slow, jellyfish like movements; we all proceeded to move our limbs and fingertips in groovy, yet awkward motions, creating a bioluminescent light show for our underwater audience. Then, after we were all boogied out, a quick rotation to the right turned our lights back on and we ascended back to the surface.

Navigation Dive: This dive was a good learning experience for me. I was responsible for leading a dive from start to finish. I took the French Divemaster mentor, Luce, with me on a dive around Shark Island. Unfortunately, we saw no sharks, but we did see some other great marine life. Using my compass, I had to take note of the starting coordinates and lead a 40-minute dive. Luckily, I didn’t mess it up and we actually had a little fun along the way. We took our flippers off and did running flips, we found this underwater grave (spooky, but cool), and we weaved through some reefs. Overall, it was a great dive and boosted my navigation confidence a bit.

After all was said and done....Em and I are now certified Scuba Divers! Hipppppity Hooo Higgity Ha!

Upside Down Man

Scuba Diving is the coolest! I'm Certified!

Although we spent a majority of our time diving on Koh Tao, I STRONGLY recommend any traveler heading to Southeast Asia to visit this place. The scenery is beautiful, the people are beyond friendly, and the island is not overrun with tourism. Yes, diving makes up a huge part of their economy, and there are bars and hotels on the island, but the island has a lot to offer. We became great friends with a family who owns a little restaurant there; they cooked us awesome meals for 4 nights (best food on Koh Tao) and their little daughter not only sat and played with us while we ate, but decided to paint my nails once. They had good food, great service, and nail painting; what more could we ask for?

The island is primarily dirt roads, hilly, and I think the road traffic is made up of something like 95% motorbikes. So, when you get there here is a quick itinerary:

Check in at Carabou Dive Resort and request Sabrina Si Sadi as your guide. Get certified to Scuba Dive, or if you already are, go on a fun dive! When you’re done diving, grab a bowl of Fruit Muesli and an iced coffee at the hammock store right past 7-11 (every time we went there, the lady walked down the street to buy fresh fruit to make our breakfast with).

Hammock/Yogurt/Coffee Shop

Then, rent a motorbike and cruise around the island (you can get from one end to the other in about 15-20 minutes). There are great cliffs to overlook and hidden beaches to explore. Finally, take an hour to relax and then head over to “High Bar” with some friends or by yourself for an ice cold Chang. They are being very literal when they call it high bar – it is a 10-minute walk up a giant hill to get there. When you get in, the tree-house vibe will have you relaxed and making new friends in no time.

Overall, Koh Tao is a must see in Thailand and I definitely hope to go back!

Chai yoh!


Here is a link to extra Koh Tao Pictures! If you don't have a Snapfish Account....get one to view them! Copy and paste the link into your browser if it is not clickable.