Thailand 2014: Phi Phi Islands, Bangkok, Chanthaburi, and Kao Laem National Park

Our trip to Thailand 2014: The Phi Phi Islands, Bangkok, Chanthaburi, and a floating lake house safari in Kao Laem National Park

Thailand was the first country in Asia that we visited, and we loved it. Getting there from the United States is a pretty expensive and brutal affair (23 hours of travelling minimum each way for most Americans), but definitely worth it. However, once you get there, everything is very inexpensive for American standards (if you stay away from the mega resorts).

If you’re planning on traveling to Thailand, here are a few things to know:

1. Keep up to date on the current political situation. We went during a lot of protests and were able to stay away from them and have a great trip, but as I write this Thailand is in a military coup, with enforced curfews and travel alerts.

2. Either have your carrier unlock your phone and get a Thai SIM card at the airport when you arrive, or put your phone in airplane mode and use free wifi signals at your hotel and the airport to access the internet. You don’t want to come home to crazy international phone bills. Some cell phone carriers offer international plans now, check with your carrier to see what they offer.

3. Things we’d strongly recommend carrying around with you in a small daypack: Toilet paper, tissues, or wet wipes, hand sanitizer, bottled water, extra sunscreen, and a map. Many public restrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap.

4. Thai plumbing isn’t set up for you to flush your toilet paper. This is really common in many countries. Yes, this means throwing poopy toilet paper in the trash can. The alternative is to get good at using the butt-washing hose attached to most toilets.

5. Don’t look at a map on a street corner. We totally did this (it’s hard not to) and were immediately approached by touts looking to “help.” This is the best way to attract unwanted attention and scam artists. A good alternative is a phone app called City Maps 2 Go that lets you download a city map and pin your destinations. It’s downloaded in your phone, so you don’t need a wifi signal. If you have a good international plan or a Thai SIM card in your phone, Google maps is even better because it tells you where you are.

6. Don’t get mad or show anger or frustration in public. In Thai culture, getting angry is “losing face” and a good way to really embarrass yourself.

7. Don’t touch anyone’s head, as the head is the highest part of the body. If you’re a woman, don’t touch or sit next to a monk. If you’re a woman and need to give something to a monk, set it on the ground in front of him or have a man hand it to him. Don’t point your feet at any Buddha figure and always remove your shoes before entering a temple or someone’s home.

8. Use your debit card at banks to get cash, and pay cash everywhere you go. Don’t use a stand alone ATM or pay with your debit card in shops and restaurants. Credit card number theft is very common. Don’t worry, bank ATMs or at least ATMs built into walls are everywhere. We used our credit card to pay at hotels. Remember to tell your bank of your travel plans so they don’t block your transactions!

9. Drink bottled water only, and brush your teeth with it as well. Don’t open your mouth in the shower. On that note, be prepared for traveler’s intestinal distress. This may be diarrhea or constipation. Or both.

 

We found the most direct flight to Bangkok from Seattle to be with EVA Air, which offers service direct from Seattle to Taipei, then Taipei to Bangkok. They also offer a “premium economy” class for about double what economy costs (and significantly lower than first class) with larger seats that recline farther with footrest. For 13.5 hours, we splurged on the premium economy. It was definitely a big splurge, but we ended up spending less than we thought we would while in Thailand, and overall it was worth it. As for first class with the full flat bed seating at $6K-$10K a seat, I don’t know who can afford that. Nobody I know, that’s for sure.

We packed light with just hiking backpacks and one small carry-on each, and I still think I packed too much. I probably didn’t need that extra pair of sandals or a third bathing suit. Pack light and bring Tide packs travel detergent for laundry in the hotel sink–you’ll thank yourself, trust us.

Day 1:

Our friends Heather and Stephen came along on this trip with us, which made it much more fun. Our flight left Seattle at 1:00 AM Thursday morning, with a 3 hour layover in Taipei, and then a 3.5 hour flight fromTaipei to Bangkok, arriving Friday at 11:00 AM. We basically didn’t get a Thursday that week. Thursday just disappeared. Eva Air served us dinner and breakfast (alcohol is also free of charge). The food wasn’t bad for the most part. The breakfast had an option of American style or Chinese style. I opted for Chinese style and it was good. It was a savory breakfast porridge with scallops, and it came with fruit, a pork appetizer, and….fish floss.

Fish Floss
Fish Floss

Fish floss is something that must have been lost in translation. it was a powder that was about the same smell and consistency of fish food, but it wasn’t bad sprinkled as flavoring on the porridge. I’m not exactly sure how they got floss as the translated English word.

The Taipei airport is relatively entertaining. There are a lot of shops and displays to look at, as well as different themed gates. They have an entire gate dedicated to Hello Kitty. They even have Hello Kitty planes, although we didn’t see any.

There are no ATMs inside the terminal, and no bars (unless you qualify for the fancy Airline lounges, which we didn’t qualify for). If you need a drink, they do sell beer at most of counter-service cafes.

Bangkok:

Finally, we arrived in Bangkok tired but wired, sweaty, sticky, and ready to get to our hotel. We got a taxi at the public taxi stand at the airport (ignore all the other people offering you a taxi, just go to the public metered taxi. The person at the taxi stand will write your hotel address in Thai for the driver, and tell you how much the ride will cost).

After about 40 minutes squished in the taxi through Bangkok traffic, I was entering “If I don’t get a shower soon I’m going to strangle someone with my backpack strap” mode.  I think we were all about at our travel threshold.

Fortunately, we arrived at the Navalai River Resort, and were greeted with cold juice and cold wet washcloths to cool down with. It was a very nice way to check in.

Navalai River Resort Bangkok
Navalai River Resort

The rooms were very nice, with balconies overlooking the river. There was a window to the bathroom from the bedroom, so that you could view whatever was going on in the bathroom from the bedroom, or vice versa. Kind of weird. The person in the bedroom has control of the blinds, so I guess they get to decide whether or not what is going on in the bathroom is worth viewing or not.

We chose the Navalai River Resort due to it’s location on the river directly in front of the river taxi stop, and it’s walking proximity to the popular Khao San Road backpacker area. We only had two nights in Bangkok before our next destination, so we figured this was a good location to see the Grand Palace, Khao San Road, and other nearby attractions.

We weren’t hungry but were anxious to get out and see something. After showers, sunscreen, and a little rest in the air contitioning, Paddy and I went down to the river front restaurant to have some Thai iced coffee. It was really good.

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Above: Paddy at the Navalai restaurant

Below: Koi fish and a Buddhist shrine at the Navalai entrance area

Navalai River Resort Bangkok Thailand
Navalai River Resort
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Navalai River Resort
shrine Navalai River Resort Bangkok Thailand
Navalai River Resort

Heather and Stephen met up with us, and we walked over to the Khao San Road area. It was full of European hippies and backpackers, lots of food stalls, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stands, and massage parlors. The streets seem like they should be pedestrian only, but taxis, cars, and tuk tuks were contantly going down the tiny streets forcing people to move out of the way for them.

Bangkok can be really overwhelming for many westerners at first, and Stephen quickly reached his fill of crowds, touts, and having to yield to taxis on the narrowest streets ever. We walked him back to the hotel and then decided it best to go sit somewhere and have a beer for a few. We found an ambiant little spot with ice cold Chang beer and parked it for awhile, taking it in. We could tell this would be a lively area when the sun went down.

Khao San Road Bangkok
Bar on Khao San Road

We were pretty tired, so we eventually made it back to the hotel and decided just to have a drink on the river front and order some food to share. The food was all very good. I ordered a drink that was very pretty, but tasted like a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen. It sounded like a good idea when I ordered it. We called it a night pretty early.

Navalai River Resort Bangkok Thailand
Navalai River Resort

 

Day 2:

The next day was our only full day in Bangkok, so we opted to get up early (this wasn’t a problem, jet lag had us up at 5:00 AM) and get to the Grand Palace when it opened to avoid the crowds and heat. Breakfast was included in our room rate, and the buffet offered a variety of western and Thai options.

When we were ready to go, we waited at the Chao Phraya river ferry stop for the next boat. Our guidebook did a pretty good job of mapping out the different ferry lines and stops, and it’s pretty easy to figure out where to go. Fare was about 20 Baht, which is about $0.63 USD.

Bangkok river taxi Thailand
River taxi
River taxi Bangkok Thailand
River taxi–photo by Heather Smith

We got off at the N9 stop for the Grand Palace and walked a short ways through souvenir stalls and food stalls to the palace entrance. It was surrounded by a large group of tourists waiting to enter. So much for beating the crowds.

**Note: There is a strict dress code at the Grand Palace and temples. No shorts or tank tops are allowed, women must have their shoulders covered. Closed toed shoes are also required. Heather and I wore some long flowy skirts (we wore sandals but our long skirts covered them, and no one said anything) and lightweight t-shirt tops. Paddy wore linen pants and closed toed fisherman sandals, which he said were perfect for the weather).

We paid our $15/person entry fee and began our tour. We were able to lose the crowds for a short period of time. The Palace is a sight to behold. Gold and glittering mirrors everywhere, the detail and design is extremely impressive.

**Note: There is a common scam where touts will stand outside the Grand Palace and other attractions and tell you that it is closed for the day but that they can take you on a tour. He will take you to a jewelry store or tailor shop, where there is usually another scam. The Grand Palace is always open, every day. Don’t buy it.

Our feet were already getting sore, and the heat was intense. We persisted on to neighboring Wat Po. Paddy purchased a $3.00 pair of sunglasses along the way at a sidewalk stall, only to have them disintigrate apart 30 minutes later. Live and learn.

Wat Po is a traditional Thai Massage school and buddhist temple. It is also an impressive temple to tour. Cost is 100 Baht per person (about $3.00 USD), cash/exact change only.

The biggest attraction here is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a massively large gold statue of a reclining Buddha that is 43 meters long.

Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha

 

Temple of the Reclining Buddha Wat Po Thailand
Temple of the Reclining Buddha

The plan after this had been to catch the ferry across the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn), the most picturesque temple in Bangkok, but we were pretty exhausted, hot, and thirsty at this point. The midday heat in Thailand can be pretty brutal if you’re not used to it. Instead we walked across the street to the N8 ferry stop and hopped on the ferry back to our hotel. We did get a photo from the ferry dock, though.

Below: pungent dried fish and chilis for sale by the ferry dock

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Dried fish at the market

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Below: Wat Arun

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Wat Arun

Back at the hotel, we returned to the air conditioned oasis of our rooms for a little while to cool down. We were a little hungry, so we headed up to the rooftop pool which also has a bar that serves food. There was barely anyone there. After some ice cold Singha beers, shrimp cake, fried rice, and a spicy yum woon sen seafood and glass noodle salad, we were feeling much better.

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woonsen seafood noodle salad, rice, and fish cake Thailand 009

The pool was almost empty when we arrived, but quickly filled up with Germans by the time we were ready to take a dip. All the shaded lounge chairs were taken, so Paddy headed back to the room to read while I took a quick dip.

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Navalai River Resort pool

Once the sun was on it’s way down, we were ready to go back out to Khao San Road for the evening.

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Above: Brightly  colored taxi cabs in Bangkok

Below: Khao San Road

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We ran into a lady selling fried scorpions on a stick to tourists. Eating fried insects on a stick was on our checklist for this adventure, so Paddy and Stephen paid her the $1.60 each and went for it. I wasn’t quite so brave.

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Fried scorpions

 

fried scorpions Khao San Road Bangkok Thailand
Photo by Heather Smith

They said it was crunchy and didn’t taste like much. When they got to the body, it got chewy and not so pleasant. The pincher cut Stephen’s lip. But they lived to tell the tale.

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Fried scorpions

We continued on and decided we were ready for some food and beers. We found a huge open air bar and restaurant with funky lanterns and couches and a giant stone statue in the back courtyard. It was funky and a good place to people watch.

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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
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Khao San Road

After dinner, we moved on. The street was getting pretty busy now, full of food vendors and European tourists.

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Khao San Road Bangkok Thailand 424
Khao San Road
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Khao San Road
Khao San Road Bangkok Thailand
Lantern stand on Khao San Road–photo by Heather Smith

And we ran into the fried bugs again. This time, I knew I couldn’t chicken out.

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I knew I needed something smaller and mostly crunchy. The crickets were the smallest, but I’d had those before. The giant cockroaches were by far the worst. I opted for a grasshopper (large pile).

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Me with a fried grasshopper
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Fried grasshopper on Khao San Road

The lady put some sort of soy sauce dressing on it, but it really didn’t taste much like anything. It was the consistency of a fried shrimp tail. Crunchy, but not much else going on.

Paddy and Stephen decided to take the plunge and try grubs. They thought the experience would be horrendous, but they said it was more flavorful than the scorpion. More chewy like meat, not squishy. You never know until you try it.

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Eating a grub
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Eating grubs

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The guys went to the same bar we were at the night before to get some beers, and Heather and I decided to try one of the foot massage stalls on the street. We had a choice of a regular foot massage, or a “fish spa” where you put your feet in a tank of fish and they eat the dead skin off. We went with the regular foot massages. They were $4.00 for 30 minutes. I told Paddy that we need to go more places with cheap foot massages.

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Fish spa
fish spa Khao San Road Bangkok
Fish spa–photo by Heather Smith

After some more drinks and a little t-shirt shopping, we went back to the hotel as we had an early flight the next morning.

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View from Navalai Resort at night

 

The Phi Phi Islands:

 

Day 3:

The next day we got up early to catch our 7:30 flight to Krabi. The Navalai made us to-go breakfast boxes, which had little croissant sandwiches, coleslaw, juice boxes, and bananas. It was a perfect little breakfast. We caught a taxi to Don Mueang Airport and eventually packed in like sardines onto a small Air Asia commuter plane to Krabi, which was about an hour and a half plane ride.

Once in Krabi, we got a taxi to the Klong Jilard Pier on the outskirts of Krabi town, and had a little time to grab some sandwiches at a food stall before the 10:30 AM ferry. When you walk in to the terminal, you are greeted by a tourist guide selling tickets, who we purchased tickets from. When we went to get on the boat, we passed a ticket window around the corner where some locals were buying tickets from and realized that was the real ticket window. Our tickets were valid, but more expensive. I think we overpaid about $10.00 total. Oh well, live and learn.

We boarded the boat and were instructed to put our large backpacks in a pile on the boat deck. The boat was air conditioned, and there is a deck where you can sit in the sun if you want to. The sun was too hot even in the breeze, so we sat down below.

ferry to Phi Phi Don Thailand
ferry photo by Heather Smith
Phi Phi ferry ride Thailand
Phi Phi ferry

**Note: I read that in the spring and summer the southern Islands have rougher weather and sea, so the best time to visit the islands in the Southern part of Thailand is November through March.

We arrived Phi Phi Don at noon, and a man from our hotel was waiting at the ferry to show us the way there. He grabbed a big metal hand cart off the side of the road and instructed us to put our bags in it, and we followed him through a maze of little streets in Tonsai Village to the JJ Bungalow, which we booked through Booking.com.

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Tonsai Village

JJ Bungalow had decent enough reviews, and was about $75.00 a night. The attraction here was that it had AC, a pool, and was reported to be far away from the party scene on Phi Phi, so a quiet night could be expected.

The downside to JJ Bungalow, was the three flights of stairs up the hillside to the bungalows and pool. In the stifling afternoon heat, this wasn’t so pleasant. Fortunately, our super in-shape and used-to-the-heat bag carrier carried my backpack up for me. I was super thankful.

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JJ Bungalow

There was a fridge with waters in it, and a little convenience store in the office downstairs that sold more beverages until late at night, which was very convenient. We cranked up the AC in our rooms and waited to cool down.

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JJ Bungalow
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JJ Bungalow

After a little while, I went and took a dip in the pool near our rooms, which had some nice shady areas and no one in it.

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JJ Bungalow pool

After a rest and a cool-down, we were getting hungry. We walked a short ways down the road from our hotel, and took a right down a beach road to Loh Dalum Bay beach. We were starving, and the beach was nice and quiet this late in the afternoon, so we just sat down at the first place we saw, Woody’s. There was barely anyone there, and after ordering some food we realized that we were in a popular nighttime party spot. There was a giant wood penis sticking out of the sand in front of the place, and next to it was another bar called the Slinky Bar, which also had a giant penis sticking out of the sand, although theirs was more….realistic. The food wasn’t bad, my pad see ew was actually really tasty. It’s always a little dicey eating somewhere that isn’t known for its food, though.

Below: Loh Dalum Bay

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Loh Dalum Bay
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Loh Dalum Bay
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Loh Dalum Bay

After some food, we did a little walking around, and then went back to rest a little more. The jet lag was catching up with us.

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Interesting graffiti on the street near our hotel

Below: a typical Thai clusterfuck of low-hanging power lines.

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Later that evening, Heather was tired, but Stephen, Paddy, and I were curious about the nightlife. We decided to walk back to the beach and check it out. On the way we grabbed some snacks from a stand selling all kinds of barbequed meats on skewers. Paddy got a chicken skewer and Stephen and I ordered squid. It was tasty.

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When we got to the beach, Woody’s and the Slinky Bar were having competing fire shows with equally competing loud techno music. It was entertaining for about 15 minutes. At Woody’s, one of the fire jugglers seemed to be an 8 year old boy. I wonder how his mother feels about his profession.

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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Woody’s fire show Phi Phi
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Slinky Bar fire show Phi Phi
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Slinky Bar Phi Phi

The crowd was growing on the beach and in the streets of the village. Mostly Europeans and Australians wearing next to nothing and looking to party. Street stands were selling “buckets” which were comprised of some sort of do-it-yourself cocktail. It was all a little obnoxious. Maybe we’re just old.

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We decided to get another snack before we ended our evening, and I’d read great things about Papaya Restaurant in Tonsai Village. We found it, a little place at the end of a short alley next to a Middle Eastern restaurant, with a few tables inside and outside.

We decided not to let the pregnant cat lounging on the counter of the restaurant next door discourage us, and ordered up some noodles. Stephen ordered their signature papaya salad. He said it was one of the best things he’s ever eaten. Our noodles were mediocre. Definitely come here for the papaya salad. It tends to be served nuclear spicy, so ask for not spicy if you want it milder.

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Papaya salad at Papaya Restaurant Phi Phi Thailand 456
Best papaya salad on Phi Phi

 

Day 4:

The next day we were anxious to check out the beach. We weren’t so keen on the party beach (Loh Dalum Bay), and our guidebook recommended a beach just a 10 minute long tail boat ride away called Long Beach. We packed up our gear and headed into the village for breakfast at Anna’s Restaurant, as also recommended by our guidebook. It was a European owned place and the breakfast was probably the best one we had in Thailand. It tends to open late for the hangover crowd, and the next two days we tried going there and it wasn’t open yet.

After breakfast, we easily located a longtail driver waiting to be hired. For 100 Baht each ($3.00) he drove us over to Long Beach.

Long Beach has several accommodations, and would be a good choice for people wanting to stay far away from the party scene in Tonsai. There is one resort restaurant and bar there on the beach, and one ATM. The beach itself was gorgeous, and offered great views of Phi Phi Leh, the neighboring national park island where where the movie The Beach was filmed.

My guidebook told us there was great snorkeling just off the beach, but there wasn’t a ton of coral (good for swimming, however).  I saw a few fish and a big squishy sea cucumber. Not the best snorkeling, but there is a little to see. Maybe I wasn’t in the right spot.

Long Beach Phi Phi Don Thailand

sea cucumber Long Beach Phi Phi Don Thailand
Sea cucumber

Heather and Stephen had lunch at the Phi Phi Paradise Pearl Resort restaurant on the beach. Paddy and I weren’t hungry, so we enjoyed the beach and read for awhile. When we were all ready to go, we easily located a longtail driver again to take us back to town.

We went back to our bungalows to shower and clean up. The stairs and the midday heat got to me when we reached our bungalow, I was overheated and trying to get my wet bathing suit top over my head so I could jump in the cold shower and cool down. I got stuck and had a small over-heated freakout moment that resulted in a bathing suit top being violently flung across the room. The AC kicked on, and eventually all was well again.

After we’d cooled down and got dressed, Paddy and I went into the village by ourselves to get a light lunch and do a little souvenir shopping. We went back to Papaya and had the papaya salad and some spring rolls. Afterwards, we walked around a little bit and had a haggled with a few vendors over some souvenirs. Paddy bought a pair of sunglasses that didn’t disintegrate.

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Tonsai Village Phi Phi Thailand 460

Above: Fruit stands in Tonsai Village

We ended the afternoon with hour long foot massages at a little place near Loh Dahlum beach for $8.00 each. They were nice. They also included some stretching and bending of the neck at weird angles at the end. I’m not sure if that was good for me or not…but “buy the ticket take the ride,” right? Our feet sure did feel better though.

Below: Loh Dalum Bay at sunset

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Loh Dalum Beach sunset Phi Ph Thailand 458

Loh Dalum Beach sunset Phi Phi Thailand 457

We split up from Heather and Stephen and did our own thing for dinner that night. Our guidebook raved about Tonsai Seafood down on the beach near the ferry, so we decided to check it out. I don’t know what the guidebook was talking about. I recently looked it up on Tripadvisor and it sounds like we were lucky not to get food poisoning.

it is on the beach, and the seafood looks really fresh, on ice right near the sidewalk and you can see the cooks working in the open air kitchen.

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Tonsai Seafood

While the location was nice, the plastic tables and chairs were dirty, the cocktails mediocre and expensive, and the service was terrible. Paddy ordered a steak, which he said was alright. I ordered a seafood salad-not too spicy. I got a tasty seafood salad but it was nuclear and I couldn’t finish it. My whole fried fish was chosen out of the fresh fish on ice, and it was okay. Not great. We made it out without food poisoning (it sounds like some others weren’t so lucky) but not the best dining experience. Skip this place.

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Tonsai Seafood
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Tonsai Seafood

 

Day 5:

We wanted to see the famous Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, the beach made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. We were also well aware that every other tourist in the Andaman Sea island area has the same agenda. Therefore, we wanted to get up early and try and get there before the crowds.

We got up and headed into Tonsai Village around 7:30, and found some breakfast at a European style cafe called Capu Latte, which serves espresso, baked goods to go, and a full breakfast menu.

Our plan was to go negotiate a day tour with a longtail driver down on the beach, but we ended up going with a tour operator who booked us a full day with a driver including a fried rice and fresh pineapple lunch for $100 total. We might have gotten a better deal without lunch on our own, but $100 for a personal boat driver for the day with lunch was a reasonable price so we went with it. We were able to rent snorkel fins for $2.00 from a man around the corner from the tour desk.

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Longtail boats Phi Phi Don Thailand 465
Longtail boats waiting for hire in the morning

We found our driver and boat and set off to our first stop on Phi Phi Leh.

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I had taken a Drammamine, but the channel between the two islands was pretty rough and when we arrived I was beginning to doubt my ability to make it to the other locations on our agenda. I doubled up with another motion sickness medication called Bonine when we got to the beach, hoping that would work.

Phi Phi Leh is a national park protected island with no inhabitants or accommodations. We arrived at around 9:30 AM and the beach was already busy. The amount of tourism the island receives each day hasn’t had a great impact on the environment, and it’s unfortunate. Blame Hollywood.

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Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh
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Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh

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All that being said, Maya Bay really is a spectacular site to see.

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The crowds were growing, so after an hour we got back in the boat and moved on north towards Phi Phi Don. The sea wasn’t so rough after we got past the channel to the west side of Phi Phi Don.

Our next stop was Monkey Beach. We had read some disturbing things about Monkey Beach: Monkeys being fed potato chips, candy, and soda by tourists, monkeys chasing and attacking tourists, tourists being bit by monkeys and having to get rabies shots. So we were all a bit wary of visiting this beach.

We arrived at monkey beach and there were several other tour groups there….but not one monkey in site. It was kind of a let down.

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Monkey Beach, Koh Phi Phi

Also a let down was the disgusting amount of garbage left on the beach by tourists. I can’t believe people. Why would anyone think that it is okay to leave your trash on a beach? Tourism really saddens me sometimes.

Trash piles and rabid monkeys in hiding aside, it was a really beautiful beach. If you go here, don’t get close to monkeys, (maybe they’re around in the afternoon only?) don’t feed them, and keep all of your belongings on your person. They steal stuff, and you don’t want to try to get your camera back from a monkey. Also, pack it in, pack it out. Littering is a seriously shitty thing to do.

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Monkey Beach
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Monkey Beach
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Monkey Beach, Koh Phi Phi

After monkey beach, Heather and Stephen decided they had enough for the day and we dropped them off at nearby Loh Dalum Bay.

We were stoked on snorkeling and seeing our final destination, Bamboo Island, so we continued on with our driver.

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After a few minutes, our driver pulled into a small cove with a few other boats and told us that this was the best snorkeling spot. He was right–the water was deep and clear and like swimming in an aquarium. The fish were beautiful and we were having a great time for about 10 minutes.

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snorkeling koh phi phi Thailand 048

Then I saw a huge clear jellyfish the size of a trashcan lid. I quickly paddled back towards the boat, hoping that was the only one. We snorkeled for a minute in the other direction, and then I saw another jellyfish the size of a basketball. There were a lot of other people snorkeling and no one seemed to be getting stung by anything, but we weren’t going to chance it. We got out of the water and ate our packed veggie fried rice and fresh pineapple in the boat with our guide. It was kind of a bummer, because the snorkeling was really amazing.

Moving on, we headed north to Bamboo Island, a small national park island off the north coast of Phi Phi Don. There were tour groups here as well, but the island was large and the tourists were fewer. It was beautiful, and definitely worth the trip.

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Bamboo Island
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Bamboo Island

There was a little stand selling beers so we had a couple cold Singhas on the beach and then went for a swim. It was nice.

Finally, we headed back to Tonsai Bay and went back to the hotel to cool down and relax for a few.

For dinner we had read great things about Le Grand Bleu, a French-Thai fusion restaurant in Tonsai near the ferry pier, so we checked it out. The atmosphere and food were outstanding, as well as the service. It was a little more expensive than many other restaurants on Phi Phi, but worth the splurge. Don’t miss this place.

After dinner, we were all tired except Paddy, who really wanted to go see some live rock music advertised at the Rolling Stoned bar in Tonsai Village. He went out and had a crazy evening involving a hilarious massage parlor experience, partying with some guys from Spain, and getting up on stage singing AC/DC songs with the Thai cover band at the Rolling Stoned Bar. His story is best told by him over a few beers. Maybe if you have some beers with us sometime, he’ll tell it to you.

 

Day 6:

Our last day on Phi Phi, and in retrospect I think we would have had a better time going back to Krabi instead of staying our fourth night in Phi Phi. Three nights of European spring break was plenty. Paddy was having some stomach issues so he decided that he was fine spending a day in the room reading in the air conditioning. Heather and Stephen were doing some shopping, and I felt like I should go to the beach at least one more time.

I went down to Loh Dalum Bay with a book, and paid $5.00 for a beach chair in front of Woody’s with an umbrella. The sun was scorching hot, and when I tried to walk on the sand without sandals, it burned my feet. The tide was out really far, so to cool off I had to walk way out there to get to knee deep water where I could try to dunk myself.

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Loh Dalum Bay Phi Phi Don Thailand 066

I went back to my beach chair to read a book in the shade. Two British girls in their early 20’s sat down in the chairs behind me, and were so hungover that one of them was vomiting bile into a puddle in the sand next to her chair. Then she got on Skype on her tablet and began chatting with some dude in London about all the partying they were doing. And that was enough beach for me.

That evening, Paddy wasn’t feeling so great, so Heather, Stephen and I went out without him. We went to Banana Sombrero, a Mexican restaurant in Tonsai Village. We ordered some ceviche, which wasn’t bad…but it wasn’t ceviche. I think it had a little mayonnaise in it. After we ate we climbed the precarious spiral staircase to the Banana Bar on the roof, which was a laid back little hippie bar with lots of lounge seating and wafting marijuana smoke in the air.

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Banana Sombrero

Another climb up a ladder to a higher platform gets you to a viewing deck and more seating. The view isn’t great, but it’s worth a peak.

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View from Banana Sombrero bar
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View from Banana Sombrero bar

We sat at the bar and had some drinks. I had a very tasty mango daquiri.

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Banana Bar

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They were clearly setting up for a party that night, and we decided to move on. We went down to the waterfront near the ferry and sat in an open air bar and restaurant for another drink. The service was terrible, and 20 minutes after ordering our drinks and not receiving them we were getting up to leave, but a waiter rushed over and told us our drinks were on the way and told us to sit back down. We eventually got our drinks.

**Tip: Don’t order a bloody mary in Thailand. Just don’t.

Overall, I’d recommend avoiding all open-air tourist restaurants on the beach on Phi Phi. The food and service is much better in the village.

 

Day 7:

Krabi Town

We were ready to leave Phi Phi. We packed up our packs, had breakfast in the village, and got on the 10:30 AM ferry back to Krabi. This ferry was making stops at Ao Nang as well, so it was very full and a little confusing. Our stop was first, and our backpacks were in a giant pile of luggage which was a complete clusterfuck to sort out. We were able to dig them out eventually.

Tonsai Village Phi Phi Don Thailand
Leaving Phi Phi– photo by Heather Smith

In Krabi, we got a taxi from the taxi desk at the ferry terminal. (It was just a guy in a regular car–don’t be alarmed). A very short ride got us to the Dee Andaman Hotel in Krabi town. The Dee Andaman ended up being one of our favorite hotels in Thailand, and we wished we’d stayed there last night instead of Phi Phi. At $50.00 a night with a very nice room and a pool, it was a great deal.

Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman lobby –photo by Heather Smith
No durians Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand
No durians
Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman Hotel
Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman Hotel
Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman Hotel

Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand

Dee Andaman Hotel Krabi Thailand

After check in we got some lunch in the restaurant downstairs, and then took a very nice dip in the shady, uncrowded pool.

Dee Andaman Hotel pool Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman Hotel Pool–photo by Heather Smith
Dee Andaman Hotel pool Krabi Thailand
Dee Andaman Hotel

I’d read that there wasn’t much to see in Krabi town, and most tourists go to nearby Ao Nang beach which is full of resorts. We actually really enjoyed Krabi town. We took the free hotel shuttle into town and spent the evening walking around the night market and shops, and had dinner at a little cafe called Mr. Krab-i. It was owned by an Italian expat and his Thai wife, and had a lot of Italian and European options on the menu. Paddy highly recommends the carbonara. I had a very good fish dish with potatoes.

Mr. Krab-i restauratn Krabi Thailand
MR Krab-i photo by Heather Smith

Mr. Krab-i restauratn Krabi Thailand

Mr. Krab-i restauratn Krabi Thailand

Pineapples at the night market Krabi Thailand
Pineapples at the night market–photo by Heather Smith

We had an early flight the next morning, so we ended our evening with a drink at the rooftop bar at the hotel. Heather got the most festive dirty martini I’ve ever seen.

Dee Andaman Hotel Bar Krabi Thailand

 

Day 8:

Bangkok

Paddy and I split up from Heather and Stephen for a few days and headed back to Bangkok on an early flight the next morning.

Flying out of Krabi

We had had booked one night at the HI Hostel Sukhumvit near the Ekkamai Eastern bus station as we were taking a bus to Chanthaburi early the next morning. It was $35.00 a night for a private room with a bathroom and AC, and it ended up being a great location for getting around Bangkok well as getting to the bus terminal.

The hostel has a secure main entrance, coin laundry, a free breakfast of cereal, toast, and instant coffee or tea, a kitchen, lockers, and several hang-out areas to meet other travelers. It is right next to the Thong Lo (E6) BTS skytrain stop, so it is super easy to navigate the city from the hostel.

After getting settled, we crossed Sukhumvit via the skytrain bridge and had lunch at a little restaurant. I had some sort of curried mackerel dish in a banana leaf. It was pretty good.

We’d had plans to spend the day exploring Bangkok, but the midday heat was a bit overwhelming. We took a nap for a little while, and then headed back out around 5:00 when the sun was on its way down.

We took the BTS Skytrain to the Metro subway intersection. The skytrain and the subway in Bangkok are very modern and pretty much just like the subway in New York or Chicago: Buy ticket or token from a machine, insert ticket or token into turnstile, wait for next train. They come very frequently.

We rode the MRT subway to the end at Hua Lamphong station in Chinatown, and walked around. We looked at our map in public, which is the easiest way to attract attention. Within a minute we were “bumped into” by a very friendly man who said he was a school teacher, and told us we should go on a boat tour on the river to watch the sunset. Within minutes a tuk tuk was pulling up along side us–there was clearly a well-played long con going on here. We said no thanks and moved on towards Chinatown.

We arrived in Chinatown at the worst possible time of day. The shops and temples all close at 5:00 PM, and the street market food stalls open at 6:00 and become busy later in the evening. We couldn’t go to any of the temples but we got a few photos.

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Chinatown, Bangkok

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Chinatown, Bangkok

We continued around some streets, seeing food vendors just beginning to set up for the night.

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Chinatown, Bangkok
Chinatown, Bangkok Thailand 531
Chinatown, Bangkok
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Chinatown, Bangkok

We were disappointed to see so many restaurants advertising shark fin soup. Sharks are becoming endangered, and the shark finners catch the sharks, cut their fins off, and throw them back in the ocean to drown. All for a soup that is supposed to be a sign of wealth, and isn’t even that great. Such a waste of life. More about this from the Sea Shepherd here.

We turned down another main street and every restaurant had shark fin soup signs, many with giant cartilage fins in the windows. Saddened, we decided to find our way back to the Metro station and head back to Sukhumvit.

The evening took a positive turn upwards when we went to Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, which is right off of Sukhumvit. Cabbages and Condoms is a restaurant whose proceeds go to the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) in Thailand and propgates education on birth control and disease prevention. The food and atmosphere are great, and there are a lot of fun photo opportunities. Condoms come with the dinner check instead of mints.

The restaurant also has a gift shop where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs, including t-shirts, postcards, magnets, hats, etc. All proceeds go to a good cause.

After dinner, we ducked into The King & I Spa just down the street and got some very nice one hour foot massages for $12 each. Paddy fell asleep and drooled for a few minutes. This place was much nicer than the places on Phi Phi and if back in Bangkok, I would stay in this area just to go back there for another massage.

We hopped back on the skytrain back to our hostel, which had a night market going on in front of it with some good looking food. If only we had another night.

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We purchased a couple beers from the reception desk and went up to the roof top hoping to socialize a bit, but no one was around. We hung out for a few and then went to bed.

Bangkok HI Hostel Sukhumvit Thailand 555

 

Day 9:

Chanthaburi

In the morning, we took the skytrain down one stop to the Ekkamai Eastern Bus Station and purchased tickets on the 8:30 bus to Chanthaburi. The bus was nice, air conditioned, and had a toilet. I think the tickets were $3.00 each and included a bottled water and a small snack of crackers.

Bus to Chanthaburi
bus to Chanthaburi

We were headed to Chanthaburi to visit Saisuporn, a friend of mine from my exchange student days in Denmark during my junior year of high school. She is Thai, and was an exchange student from Thailand to Denmark on the same program with AFS. I’d last seen her in Denmark in 1998, when we were 17.

Chanthaburi is definitely off the beaten path for western tourists. It is very popular with Thai tourists, however–especially Chao Lao Beach.

When we arrived in Chanthaburi (a 3 hour bus ride that was actually a 4 hour bus ride), the driver thought we were getting off at the wrong stop. That’s how few westerners travel here, apparently. We collected our bags, and I successfully used a Thai pay phone and a squat toilet.

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Squat toilet

If you travel to a small town in Thailand or anywhere off the beaten western tourist path, you’ll eventually encounter a squat toilet. This one was the first of several throughout our Thailand travels. Ladies, I know it looks a little intimidating. In case you are super confused right now, I’m going to tell you what to do:

1. Face the back of the stall (don’t turn around like you would with a western toilet, I tried that and things got a little…splashy).

2. Put your feet on the flat sides that look like maxipad wings

3. Gather up all your skirts into a wad (this is where long flowy hippy skirts can be a help or hinderance, depending on how you look at it), pull down your underwear and squat. Hold your underwear out of the way so it doesn’t get sprayed.

4. Do your business. Hopefully you brought your own toilet paper–don’t expect any in Thai public restrooms. Some restrooms have someone selling it for 5 baht outside the bathroom.

5. Flush manually by dipping the bucket into the water trough next to the toilet and pouring it into the toilet until it is clear.

6. Wash your hands…there might not be soap so a travel size hand sanitizer is also a recommendation for your purse.

It got easy after a few times. Just imagine peeing in the woods but aiming in a very specific spot.

Anyhoo……..Saisuporn and her husband picked us up and took us to lunch at one of their favorite local restaurants. Lunch was outstanding, including fish stew, fish salad, Chanthaburi style pork curry, coconut tapioca custard, and a sweet tea drink made from a flower that changes from blue to purple when lime is added. It was all delicious.

After lunch we walked around Chanthaburi with Saisuporn. Chanthaburi is known for its gem markets–particularly sapphires. We walked past a gem market where people were sitting with special magnifying glasses and purchasing gems.

After that we walked past the old town with 100 year old buildings dating back to a brief French colonial period from 1895 to 1905.

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Chanthaburi Thailand
Chanthaburi Thailand
Chanthaburi town
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Chanthaburi town

We visited an historical museum, and then walked to the Catholic church in town where Saisuporn and her husband Golf were married. They actually had two weddings–a Buddhist ceremomy with her family and a Catholic ceremony with Golf’s family.

Saisuporn took us back to her house where we met the rest of her family and her two children. They have a very nice house.

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Golf and Saisuporn at their house in Chanthaburi
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The street in front of Saisuporn’s house

Saisuporn had to feed her baby, so Golf took us to a local market to do some shopping. He introduced us to durian chips, which were quite tasty. They don’t smell like the fruit. When we told him we liked them, he drove us to the house of some people who make them and we bought a couple bags of their homemade chips to take home.

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tiny dried fish at the market
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dried squid at the market

It was getting late in the afternoon and Saisuporn drove us to her family’s resort on Chao Lao Beach, Baan Imm Sook Resort. Her mother-in-law built the resort five years ago, and you can see the love that went into it. The guests are usually Thai tourists–Saisuporn said that we were the first Americans to ever visit their resort. We were honored.

Baan Imm Sook Resort Chanthaburi Thailand 603
Baan Imm Sook Resort Chanthaburi Thailand

The resort has a series of small and large bungalows for families and couples. We had a very cute and modest bungalow with AC, a fridge, bathroom, and full size bed. There was a computer for guest internet use in the lobby, but we were able to get a wifi signal on our phones in the lobby area.

Once we were settled, we said goodnight to Saisuporn and went looking for dinner. There was another resort next door on the beach that had a rooftop restaurant. It was busy, and we decided to check it out. We had a very spicy papaya salad with salted eggs, and some fried curry soft shell crabs. Both were amazing. The papaya salad reminded us to remember tell the server to make it mild, it was really spicy.

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Soft shell crab

 

Day 10:

The next morning we got up and went to breakfast at the breakfast area near the beach. Breakfast was included in the rate and had a bunch of options. The eggs in the shape of hearts and stars were especially cute. There were also Thai breakfast options like jok (a savory rice porridge), stir fry, and coconut doughnuts. Everything was great.

Saisuporn picked us up late morning and we made a stop back at her house to pick up her mother who was visiting from Bangkok, Golf, her daughter Imm, and her nephew. We set out on a drive out of town a ways to an estuary where we got in a small boat that ferried people to a restaurant. We passed many shellfish farms and fishing shacks along the way.

We arrived at the restaurant, which was full of Thai tourists eating delicious-looking seafood. The name of the restaurant was in Thai, but Saisuporn told us it translates to “Soft Shell Crab Farm” in English.

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Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant, Chanthaburi

We were seated and we told Saisuporn and her family to order whatever they thought was good. We eat all things seafood. While food was on order, I took a little walk to the bathroom and snuck a peak behind the scenes. The kitchen looked like no restaurant kitchen I’d ever seen. Don’t let the disorganization freak you out, the food coming out of that kitchen was nothing short of fresh and amazing.

So many dishes were served. We had fried soft shell crab, curried soft shell crab, raw oysters, shrimp and squid, fish stew, squid fried rice and a whole fried fish with garlic. It was the best meal on our whole trip to Thailand.

After lunch Saisuporn took us to the nearby Namtok Phliu National Park to see the Phliu Waterfall. On arrival, there were many vendors selling drinks, snacks, and the longest green beans I’d ever seen. Saisuporn bought some, she said they were for feeding the fish.

Namtok Phliu National Park Chanthaburi Thailand 635
Giant green beans for feeding fish

The park was busy with families. We visited another waterfall park later in our trip, and it appears that these parks are very popular with Thai families as kids can swim in the shallow water, and picnic facilities are available. There were lots of people feeding the fish the giant green beans. I’m not so sure the fish needed that much food, but Saisuporn said it’s not always this busy. One can only hope that the fish wouldn’t overeat themselves to death on all the green beans.

The waterfall hike wasn’t very far at all, but the heat and humidity were intense. We headed back to Chanthaburi and then Golf drove us back to the resort.

For dinner that night, we walked up the road to a little local restaurant. There were several little stores and restaurants in walking distance from the resort.

We picked a place that was busy but not too busy, and to our relief they had a menu in English as well as Thai. We had a fried papaya salad (the papaya is deep fried before tossed with the salad) and a squid dish. It was nice and light after a such a huge lunch.

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Fried papaya salad

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There were geckos everywhere. Don’t fear the geckos. They eat mosquitos and other bugs. And they’re cute and they chirp.

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Geckos

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That night it began pouring rain with thunder and lightning. We enjoyed listening to the storm while reading in bed. At around midnight we were woken up to a thunder clap so loud it shook the bungalow. It must have been directly above us.

 

Day 11:

The next morning we went and waited for breakfast to open as we had an early bus to catch back to Bangkok. While waiting on the beach, some monks walked by on a morning beach stroll.

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Baan Imm Sook Resort Beach
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Baan Imm Sook Resort Beach
Monks on a morning beach walk Thailand
Monks on a morning beach walk

We had planned on going back to the bus station we arrived in on, but Saisuporn took us to a different bus station that she said her mother recommends as she travels from Bangkok often. She said it was safer because the drivers go slower. The cost was the same, and the bus station was a little nicer. Our bus arrived and we thanked Saisuporn for a great tour of Chanthaburi.

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Then we got on the bus. While the bus station was nice, the bus was another story. The bus looked about 20 years older than the one we came in on. This wasn’t really a big deal as the seats were still comfortable. However, 10 minutes into our journey the bus started bouncing up and down. The driver pulled over, did a looksee around the bus and tires, and continued on. The bus bounced along. The driver got on his cell phone, which we knew wasn’t a good sign. Finally, he pulled over at a tire store and went over and talked to the guys that worked there. They gave him a newspaper, and he took off his shirt and scooted under the bus. A few minutes later, he came back and talked to the guys again, who gave him a piece of wire. He climbed back under the bus for a few minutes, and then we were back on our way. The bouncing was lessened, but there was now something rattling around under the bus the whole way back to Bangkok.

Miraculously, we made it to the outskirts of Bangkok in record time (I think the driver was going as fast as possible because he figured the wire would give out at any moment). He pulled over on the freeway where some shuttles were parked and directed everyone into the shuttles. Some enterprising taxi cabs began swooping in like vultures to pick off the passengers of the dying bus carcass, and we opted to get in one of those instead.

Bangkok

Back in Bangkok, we had one night booked at the Shangri-La Hotel on the river, where Heather and Stephen had been staying. It was NICE. At $200.00 a night, it was the biggest splurge on our trip and only for one night. It was a shame we didn’t have more time to enjoy the beautiful swimming pool.

After we settled in to the hotel, we were hungry so we ventured out to find something to eat. We were getting a little burnt out on Thai food, and we knew we’d be eating it for the next few days on our Lake Safari, so we looked for some non-local food. The neighborhood the Shangri-La is in is a pretty touristy area, and within a few minutes of walking we stumbled upon Jameson’s Irish Pub. It was St. Paddy’s Day, so it seemed perfect. We had a couple pints of Guinness and some burgers. I had a chicken burger and Paddy had a cheeseburger. Both were pretty good. No one else was in the restaurant, which is usually a bad sign, but it was pretty late in the afternoon. (We later learned that we should have heeded that warning)

St. Paddy's Day Guinness at Jameson's Irish Pub, Bangkok, Thailand 669
St. Paddy’s Day Guinness at Jameson’s Irish Pub, Bangkok
St. Paddy's Day Guinness at Jameson's Irish Pub, Bangkok, Thailand 670
St. Paddy’s Day Guinness at Jameson’s Irish Pub, Bangkok

After lunch we did a little shopping. The Silom/Bang Rak neighborhood has tons of touristy shops (and touristy prices). We still found some good gifts and souvenirs to take home.

Below: Tuk Tuks and monks on Silom Rd.

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Monks in Bangkok

We met up with Heather and Stephen that evening and decided to go to Patpong, as there was a night market there and a few Irish pubs. Patpong is also the oldest red light district in Bangkok. It is also the most dangerous–stories of tourists going to sex shows in upstairs bars and being given an outrageous bar tab that they had to pay or face a couple threatening bouncers are plentiful online.

Patpong, Bangkok Thailand
Patpong, Bangkok, Thailand
Patpong, Bangkok Thailand
The gay/ladyboy section of Patpong
Super Pussy Patpong, Bangkok Thailand
This bar gets right to the point

We made our way through the go-go bars and touts asking us if we wanted to see a “ping pong show” every few feet down the street. (If you don’t know what a ping pong show is, and are afraid of what a Google search might bring, watch the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert for a PG-13 explanation).

We did a little shopping in the night market, and then made our way to Molly Malone’s Irish Pub. We were not surprised to find it packed with Americans and Europeans celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in Thailand. We stopped in for a few drinks in honor of Paddy’s favorite holiday.

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Irish-style map of Thailand at Molly Malone’s, Bangkok

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After a few beers and listening to a Thai band cover U2 for an hour or so, we headed back to the hotel. Heather and Stephen had been staying here for a few days and found a little tiny bar on a dock on the river next to the Shangri-La called Jack’s Bar. It wasn’t a bar so much as a little food stand and a cooler with beers in it on a dock, but it was a great place for some inexpensive food and drinks. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, so I ordered some Pad See Ew. It was great.

Pad See Ew at Jack's Bar
Pad See Ew at Jack’s Bar
View from our room at night
View from our room at night

Unfortunately, the cheeseburger Paddy at at the Irish Pub for lunch turned out to be a bad call, and he was up all night running to the toilet.

**Tip: It’s always the western food you should watch out for.

 

Day 12:

We had filled out the breakfast card the night before for room service breakfast delivery due to being short on time in the morning, and as a splurge in our one night luxury accommodations.

Unfortunately, my stomach was a little funky and Paddy was having all sorts of intestinal troubles, so by the time our $60.00 beautiful room service breakfast arrived, we were barely able to eat any of it.

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Shangri-La room service

Considering that we’d spent an average of $35.00/night on accommodations the last three nights, we decided it all evens out somehow, and didn’t dwell on it. Still, we hate wasting food.

Lake Safari in Khao Laem National Park

Paddy popped some immodium which fortunately helped his intestinal situation. We checked out and were picked up by our Lake Safari shuttle, along with a Danish woman named Susanne who was traveling alone. I was excited to be able to practice my Danish.

The four day Lake Safari tour we were headed on was a tour on a two story floating lake house towed by a boat down Lake Khao Laem in Khao Laem National Park. The house and tour were started by another Thai friend of mine who I was an exchange student with in Denmark, who now lives in Denmark running their website while her family members and hired tour guides do the tour in Thailand. Unfortuantely she wasn’t able to visit Thailand while we were on the tour, but the tour was the biggest highlight of our trip and we greatly recommend it. Our guide’s name was Puddi, and he gave us a great tour.

We began our tour with a two hour or so drive to the town of Kachanaburi to visit the Kachanaburi War Cememtery, Thailand’s resting place for over 7,000 World War II POWs who perished during the construction of the famous Death Railway. We also visited  the Thai-Burma Railway Centre Museum, which gives detailed accounts of the horrors of the POW railway camps run by the Japanese.

Kachanaburi War Cemetery Thailand
Kachanaburi War Cemetery
Kachanaburi War Cemetery Thailand
Kachanaburi War Cemetery

The cemetery and museum is funded by the Thai government. The majority of the soldiers laid to rest here are British, with a few Americans and Australians. It was a very informative museum, and a sombering experience.

We also witnessed possibly the most disrespectful tourist display we have ever seen: Young Japanese tourist girls taking selfies in the cemetery. It was appalling.

After the musuem, we moved on to the Bridge over the River Kwai, part of the 250 mile long Death Railway from Thailand to Burma.

We stopped for lunch at a little open air roadside restaurant with a buffet, it seemed to be a place that tour groups stop often. We continued our long drive, making one last stop at a little town for a tour of their market.

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Thai market
Ducks at the market

Thai market

Thai market

Thai market chilis

Thai market

We continued driving and at long last, arrived at the Lake House. It was gorgeous.

floating lake house safari, Thailand
Our home for the next three days

It had six bedrooms on the top floor, a kitchen and two bathrooms with flush toilets and showers on the main floor, and an open air dining area. The front had four lounge chairs on a sizeable deck.

The boat was parked in a floating fishing village of the native Mon people. They had lots of floating cabins and fishing traps set up on the lake.

Mon fishing village Thailand
Mon fishing village
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Mon fishing village

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Our driver got in the boat and we were moving. We grabbed some beers and enjoyed the view as we floated down the lake.

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After about an hour, we arrived in a little cove and tied up for the night. It was still afternoon, and our guide Puddi told us it was time to swim. It was hot, and the lake water was perfect. There were a couple of kayaks and one inner-tube that we could use.

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floating-lake-house-safari-Thailand

floating-lake-house-safari-Thailand

floating-lake-house-safari-Thailand

For dinner we had Tom Kha soup and a chicken stir fry, made by the on-board cook, a sweet little old lady named Auntie Orr. It was fantastic.

Floating lake house safari Thailand
Dinner
floating lake house safari Thailand
Dinner

We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and talking, and getting to know Susanne from Denmark.

floating lake house safari Thailand

floating lake house safari Thailand

That night it was hot. We kept our windows open and didn’t even use the blankets provided in our room. We eventually got to sleep but Heather and Stephen spent part of the night sleeping on the loungers on the deck.

Day 13:

The next morning we woke up and found ourselves moving. It was kind of nice to wake up and be going somewhere, without having to actually get out of bed.

floating lake house safari Thailand

Breakfast was eggs, hot dogs, white toast, and orange juice. Instant coffee and tea were also available. Breakfast was pretty much the same each morning, and wasn’t super awesome. The delicious home cooked Thai dinners more than compensated, however.

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Breakfast

Soon after breakfast, we arrived at “Coconut Island.” This is an island in the lake with a very small coconut plantation which grows and harvests coconuts specifically for coconut ice cream.

floating lake house safari Thailand
Trip to Coconut Island

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Thai chilis growing on the island

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Puddi gave us a tour of the coconut trees and showed us how the workers get the coconuts down from the trees–with a bamboo pole. Kind of a dangerous job, as you have to keep out of the way of coconuts falling on your head.

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metal sleeve around the coconut trees keeps animals from climbing up and eating the coconuts
Coconut Island, floating lake house safari Thailand
Puddi showing us how to get coconuts down with a bamboo pole. Dangerous job.

coconut island floating lake house safari Thailand

Sometimes the coconuts are too high up in the tree for the pole to reach. That’s where this guy comes in:

monkey who picks coconuts, floating lake house safari Thailand
Coconut picking monkey
coconut monkey floating lake house safari Thailand
Monkey trained to pick coconuts

This poor monkey is trained to get coconuts down from the trees. When he’s not working, he spends his day tied to this pole in the shade. Not such a great life. We were told to keep our distance, as he was a “very crazy monkey.”

Puddi gave us a tour of the rest of the farm, including the workers’ houses, the kitchen/eating area, coconut husking production, and a pet pig. The workers were very busy husking coconuts as fast as they could for the shipment going out that afternoon. We felt kind of bad gawking at them while they were trying to work, but they seemed used to it.

Puddi told us the workers here make $5.00 a day, and all food and board is included. He said they would make $15.00 a day in the city, but they would have to pay for food and rent so this job is actually a better deal. Except for that whole isolation thing.

Puddi explained that the coconut was a human-made hybrid of a regular coconut and a fruit called a macapuno coconut. About 80% of the coconuts on the trees are macapuno, and the farmers can tell by knocking on them. The more meat in the coconut, the more valuable it is. The meat is soft and juicy, not hard like regular coconut. Puddi scooped some out for us and we ate it with sugar sprinkled on it. It was really good.

macapuno coconut plantation Thailand

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Macapuno coconuts

Puddi also showed us cashews and giant limes that grow on the island. We had no idea that cashews were actually a fruit.

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Giant limes
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Cashews
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view of our lakehouse from the coconut island

We headed back to the boat and Auntie Orr cooked us lunch. We had chicken balls, fresh pineapple, and papaya salad. It was delicious.

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand
Lunch

After lunch, we started moving again, and then spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and relaxing.

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand
Stephen kayaking near an old abandoned lake resort

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand

We began moving one more time and finally tied up at another cove near some bat caves. Stephen, Susanne and I took the kayaks to the caves and they were creepy, but no bats.

Photo by Heather Smith

There were wild water buffalo on the banks of the lake. We kept our distance, but they were interesting to watch. Paddy and Heather saw one swim from one bank to the other while we were gone, he said they swim really fast.

water buffalo floating lake safari Thailand

water buffalo floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand
Puddi fishing. He didn’t catch anything

That evening for dinner, Heather had Puddi ask Auntie Orr if she would show her how to cook the meal that night. Auntie Orr didn’t speak any English, so Puddi translated from the kitchen window. Auntie Orr had a giant wood chopping block on the kitchen floor, and prepped the ingredients for cashew chicken. She showed Heather how to make a small batch.

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand
Auntie Orr chopping veggies

We had green curry, soup, and cashew chicken. It was the best cashew chicken I’ve ever had.

dinner, floating lake safari Thailand
Dinner

The sky was hazy, and the sun was a bright red orb in the sky. After the sun set, we realized what was causing the haze–there was a wildfire across the lake in the jungle. Puddi assured us that we were fine (we did have an entire lake between us and the fire). It was scary to watch.

floating lake safari Thailand

floating lake safari Thailand

jungle fire thailand
Jungle fire. It was really hard to get a good picture.

We spent the evening drinking, talking, and watching the fire across the lake. The bamboo burning exploded and sounded like gunshots.

 

Day 14:

Songkhlaburi

The next day was adventure day. We took the boat across the lake to the town of Songkhlaburi and visited a Buddhist temple of the Mon people.

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Songkhlaburi
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Temple in Songkhlaburi

After Puddi gave us a tour of the temple, we walked down the road and up a hill to the town, passing the monks’ living quarters.

Buddhist monks in Songkhlaburi Thailand

Buddhist monks in Songkhlaburi Thailand

Buddhist monk house in Songkhlaburi Thailand

Buddhist monk house in Songkhlaburi Thailand

Buddhist monk house in Songkhlaburi Thailand

We arrived at another temple

Temple in Songkhlaburi Thailand

Temple in Songkhlaburi Thailand
Thai baht donations to the temple

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Puddi lead the way through the town quite a ways through the blazing afternoon heat. We stopped at a small store for some water and were told we had 100 to 300 meters more to go.

upper class Thai house in Songkhlaburi Thailand
Upper class Thai house
traditional Thai house in Songkhlaburi Thailand
Traditional Thai house

We made our way to the Mon Bridge, which was missing a big chunk and out of commission. We crossed on a makeshift floating bamboo foot bridge. It crunched as we walked, I was wary of punching my foot through the bamboo.

Bamboo foot bridge next to the crumbling Mon Bridge
Bamboo foot bridge next to the crumbling Mon Bridge
Crossing the bamboo bridge Songkhlaburi Thailand
Crossing the bamboo bridge
Mon village from top of the hill Songkhlaburi Thailand
Mon village from top of the hill

Finally, we made it to the other side where a man with a converted pick up truck was waiting to take us to the elephant camp. The ride was bumpy, and I spent it craning my neck at an uncomfortable angle to see through the back window to the road so I wouldn’t get carsick.

We passed many farms and farm workers’ homes.

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People doing laundry in the river at the elephant camp
People doing laundry in the river at the elephant camp

 Elephants

Everyone wants to ride an elephant in Thailand. It was on my bucket list, and we did it. However, before you go riding elephants in Thailand, there are some things you need to know.

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First of all, there are many abusive and bad elephant camps. Most elephants in Thailand were rescued from working in the logging industry. Rescued probably isn’t the right word for many of them. They are trained in abusive and torturous ways, and taught to associate disobeying humans with pain. Beatings, starvation, and overwork are common. Baby elephants are taken from their mothers, who agonize and mourn the loss of their children.

Many elephant camps in touristy areas force the elephants to carry tourists non stop all day with no breaks, wearing metal seats that dig into their backs and cause blisters. Elephants need a lot of rest, food, and water. The mahouts (elephant trainers) beat the elephants with bull hooks when they don’t obey their orders.

There are some humane elephant camps out there, however. Some people say that riding elephants should be boycotted. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t black and white. Elephants need care–food, water, and veterinary services are all expensive for such large animals. And people will never stop wanting to see and ride elephants in Thailand. So, tourism dollars are needed and in abundant supply to sustain their care. Also, people having interaction with such amazing creatures helps people care about them and want to protect them. I believe that supporting reputable elephant camps and rescues is important.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot about the elephant camp we visited. Here is what I know and observed:

* The elephants had an expansive property for their habitat, including forests, a river, and acres and acres of land.

* The tour was booked by a friend of mine who owns the Lake Safari Tour, who I trust to choose an ethical company

* We were the only tourists there going on rides that I saw. It was not in a high tourist-traffic area

* There were many elephants resting and eating grass and plants throughout the expansive property

* The mahouts shouted things at the elephants, but we didn’t see any bull hooks or abuse. The elephants often stopped and bent down or lifted their legs to let the mahouts on them

* The elephants appeared healthy, well-fed, and seemed happy (almost bashful)

* The seats we were in were made of bamboo, with big heavy burlap/fiber pads underneath for the elephant’s comfort

I have no idea how the elephants are trained or what their life is like. I can only hope that all the positive things I saw means that they are well cared for and not abused. I’m not an expert in elephant care though, and I really can’t say for sure.

Here is an article on how to choose an ethical elephant encounter when you visit Thailand: http://takingtotheopenroad.com/choosing-an-ethical-elephant-encounter/ It has recommendations on certain parks and camps. I strongly encourage you to do the research and make sure that you support a company that treats the elephants humanely.

We arrived at the elephant camp and were given a fried rice lunch served in a plastic bag. While we were finishing our lunch, three elephants arrived to where we were sitting. They flapped their ears and batted their eyelashes and looked a little bashful. It was endearing and intimidating.

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Immediately we were ushered over to the elephants, who laid down on their bellies and made a step with their legs for us to climb onto. It was intimidating to be near such large creatures. I wanted to ask the elephant’s name who we were riding, but the mahouts didn’t speak English. She was a sweetheart.

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When riding an elephant, you have to hang on. The seat sways from side to side, and when the elephant goes down or up a hill, you have to lean back or forward and really hold onto the seat. You don’t want to fall off. One of the men from the camp took our cameras and ran ahead the whole time to take photos. We were very thankful for such great photos and gave him a good tip.

We ventured into the property for about a 30 minute ride. It was incredible.

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Puddi and Susanne

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We arrived at a spot on the edge of the river and disembarked from the elephants. There is no graceful way to disembark from an elephant.

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Eeeek!

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A woman was at the river bank with chunks of raw sugar cane, which we bought from her and fed to the elephants. Heather and Stephen’s elephant kept poking Heather in the shoulder with her trunk for more.

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Eating sugar cane

The mahouts climbed back on the elephants and lead them back to wherever they needed to be. We continued on foot for a ways. The heat was intense, and I was losing steam. Finally, we arrived at another part of the river where some men were waiting with bamboo rafts. We were told to wear life jackets, which was kind of ridiculous considering that the river was between knee to ankle deep.

Stephen and Paddy got in front and helped guide and steer the raft down the river back to the camp.

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The rafting was fun, but it was really hot, and we’d just run out of water. Paddy thought he was going to die before we got back to the camp and got a drink.

We returned to Songkhlaburi in the same bumpy truck, and were met by a small boat to take us back to the lake house. It had been a long, hot, but fun day. We were ready for a beer and a dip in the lake.

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Dinner that night was curry, a really wonderful soup, and a whole fried fish. It was the best meal yet.

The fire in the jungle across the lake raged on and glowed and flickered after sunset. It came closer to the lake and we could see larger flames.

 

Day 15:

Road trip back to Bangkok

The next morning, we had breakfast and said goodbye to our drivers and Auntie Orr and the beautiful lake house. It was hard to leave.

We took the boat back over to Songkhlaburi where our van waited for us. We drove for a short while, and reached the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thailand/Myanmar border. They were having a Sunday Market, but the Sunday Market only happens on Fridays. Don’t ask for an explanation.

Three Pagodas Pass Thai/Myanmar border
Three Pagodas Pass Thai/Myanmar border
Three Pagodas Pass Thai/Myanmar border
Thai/Myanmar border
The Three Pagodas--Thai/Myanmar border
The Three Pagodas–Thai/Myanmar border
"Sunday" market, Thai/Myanmar border
“Sunday” market, Thai/Myanmar border
"Sunday" market, Thai/Myanmar border
“Sunday” market, Thai/Myanmar border
"Sunday" market, Thai/Myanmar border
“Sunday” market, Thai/Myanmar border
"Sunday" market, Thai/Myanmar border
“Sunday” market, Thai/Myanmar border

I don’t think this area gets many tourists, because people were gawking at us. The market was a mix between “farmers’ market” and flea market–there were a lot of different things for sale.

After the market, we got back in the van for a long, winding, nauseating drive. After a couple hours, we arrived at a waterfall–a lot like the one we visited in Chanthaburi but smaller. There were lots of families picnicking with kids playing in the water, and a restored train monument to the Death Railroad.

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We continued towards Bangkok for about another half hour, and stopped for lunch at the same place we ate at on the way to the lake. There was a pretty embarrassing tour group leaving when we got there, I think they were German. One of them was a man with no shirt on, tiny little shorts that weren’t buttoned up all the way due to his enormous gut, and black socks with sandals. I’m kind of kicking myself for not sneaking a photo of him.

After lunch we continued the home stretch to Bangkok for about two more hours. It was a long day. We arrived in Bangkok at around 5:00 PM and thanked Puddi  for an amazing tour. We all agreed that the Lake Safari had been the highlight of our entire trip to Thailand.

This was our last night in Bangkok, and we had gotten a good deal on one-bedroom suites at the Lebua State Tower Hotel due to the protests driving prices down. The Lebua State Tower is famous for its 64th floor Sky Bar with a breathtaking view of Bangkok at night while sipping $18.00 martinis. It is also famous for being the filming location of the movie The Hangover II.

The service was outstanding to the point of annoyance (I think we know how to use an elevator, we don’t need an elevator chaperone). Some people might enjoy that kind of thing. We felt a little out of place.

The room was fantastic. We had a one-bedroom suite on the 58th floor with a deck. The view was stunning and terrifying at the same time. The room rate was $144.00 a night–definitely a deal for the quality.

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Heather and I met up to do some last minute souvenir shopping. We were in the same neighborhood as the Shangri-La hotel, so we were familiar with where to go. We stumbled into a local night market that was pretty interesting.

It was late, and we were starving. We consulted our guidebook for a non-Thai dinner recommendation in the area and decided on Scoozi, a little Italian chain restaurant just off of Silom. The atmosphere was casual, the prices were very good, and the food was excellent.

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They even had an affordable wine selection (wine is very expensive in Thailand). We were all burnt out on Thai food (except Stephen, who can eat Thai food forever), and pasta tasted really good.

After dinner, we were ready to see what this Sky Bar hype was all about. We had read that there is a dress code in the Sky Bar and all of the upper level Lebua restaurants that excludes shorts, tank tops on men, and open toed shoes that aren’t womens fashion sandals. Stephen and Paddy both had black leather fisherman sandals on which were closed toe, and they wore black socks underneath. You couldn’t tell they weren’t wearing dress shoes unless you looked really close. They were also dressed nicely–slacks and button down short sleeved shirts.

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We entered the Sky Bar floor and Heather and I were directed out to the bar on the balcony and we got out and turned around to realize that Paddy and Stephen weren’t behind us. We went back and they told us they weren’t allowed in because of their sandals. Meanwhile, people in jeans and beat up Chuck Taylor sneakers were allowed to go out to the bar. It was really ridiculous. You couldn’t see one single inch of skin on their feet and from afar it looked like they were wearing black leather dress shoes.

Stephen and Paddy went back to their rooms super pissed off. Heather and I went back out, snapped a few photos, and left. Honestly though, we were on the 58th floor already and the view really wasn’t any different from our rooms.

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Sky Bar
Tourists cramming onto the ledge of the Sky Bar

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Paddy and I went down to the very nice lounge on the 13th floor next to the pool, which was almost deserted. We had the “Hangovertini” and lounged on a big comfy cabana chair. The Hangovertinis were still $18.00 each, same price as upstairs, but we just had to do it.

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Day 16:

The next morning we woke up (without hangovers) and headed downstairs for breakfast. The breakfast buffet was the most amazing breakfast buffet we’d ever seen, and it was included in the price of the room. There was a whole room dedicated to fruit, an entire display of different kinds of fresh baked breads, and breakfast foods from all regions of the world. Sushi, hummus, Chinese porridge, European cheeses and breads, Middle Eastern dishes, eggs made to order, it just went on and on.

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Yogurt selection
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Breakfast
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Bread selection

While our experience at the Sky Bar was really off-putting, I’d recommend staying at the Lebua one night if you can get a good rate in an upper floor room, for the view and the breakfast buffet. The view from the room was just as good from our room as it was from the Sky Bar, and we got a daytime view as well as a night time view (Sky Bar doesn’t open until 8:00 PM). If you want to go to the Sky Bar–bring some goddamn fancy ass shoes.

We flew out at noon back to Seattle, arriving back the same day we left (basically gaining an entire day back). The customs officer in Seattle apologetically took away my dried kaffir lime leaves that I had purchased in the Bangkok airport. Boohiss.

Our trip to Thailand was one of our most memorable trips yet. We definitely want to go back and see more of Asia. The Lake Safari was the highlight of our trip, as well as seeing my old friend and getting off the beaten path in Chanthaburi, dinner at Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok, and visiting Maya Bay and Bamboo Island in the Phi Phi Islands. If we go back to Thailand, we’d like to visit Chang Mai in the north and some of the lesser visited islands in the South. We would definitely stay at the HI Hostel Sukhumvit in Bangkok again, the location was ideal and the price was excellent for a private room. If you go to Thailand, don’t miss the Lake Safari. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

5 thoughts on “Thailand 2014: Phi Phi Islands, Bangkok, Chanthaburi, and Kao Laem National Park”

  1. Well done! I read the entire Thailand 2014, made me want to cry I miss it so bad over there.

    If you ever go back I have an awesome list of to do’s for you.

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