I haven’t posted for a few weeks … sorry about that, but I was away on vacation. That’s not entirely a joke. I spent much of the last few weeks in some of my favorite and often-travelled areas of Thailand. Namely, in the southern islands and in northern Thailand. I’ve been to these places quite a few times, so there’s not a ton to write about that’s new or interesting, and much of the time was spent reading books, “thinking”, and just hanging out. But there were some interesting highlights that may or may not be that interesting to you, so here goes…
I had a few days in Bangkok after returning from Myanmar. One day, I got a frantic text message from my friend Andy in Seattle saying he’d just found out that a couple of girls who were mutual friends of ours were also travelling in Bangkok. I knew the girls, Courtney and Gretchen, but really only as acquaintances; I’d never spent a lot of time with them or knew them very well. Nevertheless, we connected on Facebook that day and decided to meet for drinks that night in Bangkok.
It was pretty surreal to be sitting at an outside bar and see the girls walking down the alley to meet me. And after two months of travelling on my own, it was a welcome sight to see some familiar faces from home! We spent a couple hours talking and getting to know each other a lot better. As if being in Bangkok at the same time wasn’t coincidence enough, I was flying to Phuket the next morning, and they were flying there that night. So we made plans to meet again the next night in Phuket!
Patong Beach, Phuket
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand, and is off the southwestern coast in the Andaman Sea. Patong Beach is the largest and most popular beach, and tends to be a bit of a party town. It’s also an area that was hit extremely hard by the 2004 tsunami, but they have since rebuilt the entire beachfront to a state that is much, much better than it was before the tsunami.
I had a couple of fun nights out in Patong with Courtney and Gretchen, as well as a long sunny day on the beach. They then headed off to Phi Phi Island (pronounced “Pee Pee”), and I maintained watch on Patong Beach and the town for a couple more days, and then took the ferry to Phi Phi Island as well.
Phi Phi Island
Phi Phi Island is a small island between Phuket and the west coast of Thailand. There are no roads or cars on the island – you either walk, ride bicycles, or take a longtail boat to get around the island. There are several hotels and high-end resorts dotted around the island, but the majority of the activity is centered in the “village” of Phi Phi. The village is, as one might expect, a small group of buildings that’s very compact with small hotels, bakeries, restaurants, bars, and quite a few dive shops, with a brick pathway that winds around between all of the shops and buildings. It’s in the center of the island, in an area shaped like an hourglass where there’s a beach and a bay on each side (Ton Sai Bay and Loh Dalam Bay). The distance from one beach/bay, across the island to the other beach/bay at the narrowest part of the “hourglass” is probably less than a football field in distance, and the land in between is only a few meters above sea level.
This geography proved fatal during the tsunami, as the waves came directly in one bay, up over the center of the island/village and right back out the other bay. It literally flattened every structure in the center of the island, and I believe the death toll just on that one island was several thousand people. While the village was mostly spared because it’s off to one side on slightly higher ground, much of the center part of the island is still fairly bare, and you can still see the concrete slabs of the floors that used to be hotels, shops and bungalows. Where the village was damaged, it’s been rebuilt and quite a few new hotels have been built in and around the village.
I stayed at a place I hadn’t stayed at before, and I think it was built fairly recently. The hotel was nice, with the rooms having all wood walls, teak wood floors and simple/rustic/”islandy” interiors. Most notable, however, was the gym. It was, hands down, the nicest and most expansive hotel gym I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many). It was on the top floor (only two floors to the building) of the hotel, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on three sides. Looking out one wall, you looked directly out to Ton Sai Bay; looking out another wall, you looked out to the village and the tree-covered hills beyond. The equipment was sparkling new, and a better set of machines and weights than many of the gyms I’ve been to in Seattle. And unlike most of the gyms in Thailand, it was super air-conditioned… I was in heaven!
I was more than a bit stumped as to why the hotel would put in such an expensive gym on this small island. After a bit of mulling it over, I think I figured it out (although I never confirmed my theory with anyone, but I’m pretty dang certain I’m right). I noticed one night several of the people working out were wearing various dive shop t-shirts. There are a lot of good diving spots around Phi Phi, and as such, there are quite a few dive shops in the village. The dive instructors are mostly from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. My theory is that there was a deal made to put in a high quality gym that the dive folks could use to keep in shape. Add this to the list of potential career options for me: I will be a Mystery Solver!
I met up with Courtney and Gretchen, and again had some fun dinners, nights out and days on the beach. One night we went to a place called the Reggae Bar where they have a boxing ring in the middle of the bar. They occasionally have Muay Thai boxers fight, but mostly it’s a gimmick where they get tourists to put on headgear and gloves and fight. It’s mostly drunk Australians and Brits that partake in that little adventure. They just go for three one-minute rounds, with about a 5-minute break in between each round, so it’s pretty tame. For participating, they get a free “bucket”. A bucket is, as the name would imply, a plastic bucket like a small ice cream bucket, that’s filled with ice and your favorite alcohol beverage of choice. It’s generally meant to be shared amongst several people, as they put a handful of straws in them, but most people just order one for themselves. They’re cheap, and you don’t have to keep hassling the waitresses for new drinks.
After a fun couple of days in Phi Phi, I said fairwell to the girls who were heading back to Bangkok and then back to Seattle. I really got to know both of them much, much better than I had in Seattle, and I’m so glad this strange set of circumstances had us travelling in the same places and we could learn more about each other. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them in Seattle! After they left, I stayed another day or two on Phi Phi to make sure all was well on the beaches, and then headed over to Koh Samui island.
Koh Samui Island
Koh Samui Island is the third-largest island in Thailand. It’s in the Gulf of Thailand, off the east coast of the mainland. Sometime in the late-1990’s, a small regional airline called Bangkok Airways decided to build their own private runway and airport on the island. The first time I went there in 2000, it was only large enough for small turbo-prop planes, and you literally landed in a carved out strip of pavement in a coconut tree grove. The tourism business there has boomed since then, thanks largely to the genius of Bangkok Airways for investing in an airport, and there are now more than 30 flights a day there, including international direct flights from Europe, and the airport has been expanded several times to allow jets to land. But you still land in a (slightly larger) carved out strip of pavement in a coconut tree grove.
The first time I went there with my friend Rande in 2000 or 2001, we were walking along the beach one day and stopped in at a random beach bar (among the dozens that lined the beach) and had a beer, or possibly two … but no more than three. It was basically a bamboo shack with grass thatch roof and walls, and a little concrete “bar” out in front with a refrigerator of cold drinks. It was called the Ark Bar. Over the years, we’ve continued to always go back there. For some reason, it was always the busiest bar on the beach, and was filled with mostly British tourists.
The owner is a youngish Swiss guy (I’m guessing late-30’s, but maybe closer to my age, and I’m going to stick with the “youngish” label thank you very much), who has a Thai wife. Every year I’ve gone there, he has continued to slowly but steadily expand the Ark Bar. He’s bought up neighboring shacks, torn them down and added to his place. One year he added a small swimming pool. Another year he had bought the little bunch of about 10 bungalows behind the bar, and added hotel facilities. Another year he tore down the bungalows and built several 2-story hotel buildings. And on, and on, and on, year after year. When I went there in 2010, he had bought/rebuilt an entire new set of hotel buildings about 50 meters up the beach, and built a new Ark Bar Beach Club in front of that. So he now had two Ark Bars, basically.
When I went back in February of this year, he had bought the next set of bungalows, and expanded the Beach Club even further. This trip, I noticed he had completely torn down the original Ark Bar and rebuilt it about twice as big as it used to be, and in the exact same style as the new Ark Bar Beach Club just up the beach. In talking with the girls that work there, he also has now bought the properties in between the two bars (including hotels) and is expanding his empire over the next 2 years to link them all together.
The rest of Koh Samui has undergone a similar transformation over the past 12 years, with many more middle- and high-end hotels being built in place of the old, funky bungalows and bamboo shacks that used to be there. On one hand, it’s sad to see the island modernize like that. On the other hand, it’s certainly good for the Thai economy; the Ark Bar alone probably employs well over 100 people now. Oh, and the Swiss owner now drives a beautiful, pearl white Lambourghini. I’m pretty certain it’s the only one on the island…
I have to give huge props to the owner, as he’s earned every bit of his success. The food served is some of the best I’ve had in Thailand, and the food, drinks and hotel prices are cheaper than most places along the beach. He really has built and run a place that is genuinely fun to go to, stay at, and return to. Case in point: he started doing “beach parties” every Wednesday a few years ago. He brought in DJs, had huge speakers in the sand, put out a huge spread of barbecue, salads, and various Thai dishes that were FREE for anyone on the beach that wanted any. With 2 Ark Bars, he’s now expanded it so he has a beach party at one of them on Wednesdays, and at the other one on Fridays. At night there are fire dancers/jugglers, belly dancers, and fireworks periodically to keep people entertained. Although it was still technically the “low season” for tourists when I was there, there was hardly an empty seat on the beach or in the bar/restaurant.
Despite all of this growth, many of the same girls that worked there 12 years ago are still working there today and are as happy and love their job as much as always. It’s always a highlight of my Thailand trips to go there, because I know as soon as I walk into the beach bar, several of the girls I’m friends with light up with smiles and yell, “Mr. Gary, you’re back!! Welcome back!”.
This trip I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before. The clientele is very different from what it was 12 years ago, or even a few years ago. Back then the vast majority of the people were 20-somethings, and mostly backpackers taking 6 to 12 months off after finishing university and before going into the workforce. Needless to say, things had a tendency to get pretty wild at night there. Now, there are no backpackers, and it’s mostly 30- and 40-somethings, a fair number of which have small children with them. In talking with some of them, though, they have been going there since they were backpackers in their 20’s… they still like the beach parties and will have a bucket or two, but they’re a bit more subdued than they used to be.
Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand (population between 500,000 and 1 million, depending on how you measure), in the northern part of the country. It once was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom in the years roughly between 1200 and 1700. Countless times when I’ve gone to Thailand, various local people will ask me “Have you been to Chiang Mai yet?!”. That’s apparently a very common question they ask tourists. Why? Because the Thais have a very deep love and adoration for Chiang Mai. It has a very strong foundation in their culture and heritage. I didn’t go to Chiang Mai until probably my 5th or 6th trip to Thailand. And mainly I went because I kept feeling bad when I answered “No” to the Thais asking me if I’d been there, and then seeing the dejected and sad faces on them.
I fell in love with it after the first time going there. I can’t explain why, because there’s not a whole lot there, but it just has a very different, laid-back “vibe” that’s hard to describe. Virtually everyone that I’ve talked to that’s been there has had nothing but good things to say about it, and commonly they can’t really articulate why they liked it so much, but it seems to be a fairly universal feeling.
Chiang Mai is divided into the “old town” and the “new town”. The old town is square-shaped, and is the part of town that is surrounded by a brick wall several hundred years old. Outside the brick wall is a moat that goes all around the entire wall, with a bridge and gate on each side to get into the old town. If I ever have the opportunity in life to own my own town, I’m going to have it surrounded by a brick wall and a moat. Because frankly, that’s kind of cool.
One main goal of mine in going there was to go to this elephant sanctuary. I had heard about it when I was there in February, but didn’t hear about it until the day before I was leaving so didn’t have time to go to it. When I met up with Courtney and Gretchen in Bangkok, they had just come from Chiang Mai and had raved about going to the elephant sanctuary, so I was even more determined to go this trip.
The sanctuary is run by an organization that, as I understand it, helps rehabilitate injured elephants and elephants that have been mistreated or abused (often from other elephant tourist attractions). The woman that started it is named Lek, and she also runs a great vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Mai (which is where I originally heard about the sanctuary). When you go to the sanctuary, rather than just riding on a chair on the back of the elephant like most places, you get to actually be the “driver”. You learn the Thai command words to get the elephant to lift you up onto its head, commands to go, stop, turn, etc. You help feed the elephants, and then later take them down to the river and help bathe them. I was so excited to go there on this trip, but alas it wasn’t to be. I was only in Chiang Mai for a few days, and the trips were booked for all the days that I was there. Even some sweet talking with Lek at her restaurant didn’t help my cause. I must be losing my touch…the sweet talking has almost always worked in the past.
Despite not getting to go to the sanctuary, I still had a great time in Chiang Mai. They have a large night market in the streets every night, and on Sunday nights (the night I got there) they have a second night market in the old part of the city. Much of the silk products, as well as wood and metal items, souvenirs and trinkets that are sold throughout Thailand are made by hill tribes around Chiang Mai. They sell their wares at the Chiang Mai markets, often times much cheaper than elsewhere in the country. It’s a fun experience to see, and even though it’s a bit touristy, there are a lot of locals shopping there as well so it’s a fun and mixed crowd.
Most of my time in Chiang Mai was spent just chilling, walking along the quiet roads, and reading. Since it’s in the hills, the weather is a bit cooler and far less humid than Bangkok or southern Thailand, so it was a nice break from the heat and humidity (although it was still in the upper-80s during the day).
One thing I hadn’t noticed on previous trips to Chiang Mai was how many foreigners go there specifically to learn Muay Thai boxing. I met and/or overheard dozens of guys (and a couple girls) that were there for extended periods, training at various boxing schools/camps there. There’s a boxing ring in one area of town surrounded by little bars, and I stopped in there one night to watch some fights. One British girl at the table next to me was an absolute firecracker, yelling out commands to the boxers, etc. Then she asked if I wanted to start betting on the fights with her, so I did. She kicked my ass. I always picked the guy that looked the most muscular. And he usually was the one to lose. Lean and fast wins out over big and bulky in Muay Thai fighting! It turns out she was also at a boxing camp there for women, and she was fighting at a different place the following night. I meant to go watch her fight the next night, but ended up not making it. I hope she won though!
One of the funniest things I saw was about half way thru the fights, they do kind of an “intermission” thing. They get one guy from the audience (a tourist, who was in very good shape) and put him in the ring with 3 other Thai fighters. If that seems unfair, well wait, there’s more. All four of them are blindfolded! The bell rings and they’re all stumbling around swinging at anything and everything, including the referee. It really was hilarious. I talked with the tourist guy afterwards – he was from the UK and said he had a ball doing it, even though he took a few hard blows (that of course were purely lucky shots).
And with that, I wrapped up most of my Thailand adventure for this trip, save for a final ~week in Bangkok at the end after a return trip to Bali…. Which is the subject of the next blog installment to come.