Sunday, February 20, 2011

Koh Chang & Koh Kood - A Tale of Two Islands

Is it possible to “get away from it all” on a Thai island? The answer is “yes” with a small disclaimer. As with anywhere you travel, you don’t get to choose your fellow tourists and there-in lies the problem, especially at a small, relatively secluded resort...

Greg and I did a fair amount of research before deciding where to spend our Thai island “vacation” after our first six months of RTW travel. I, for one, needed more than a day or two break from the planning, sightseeing, and overall travel routine. I found this article particularly helpful for choosing the “right” islands for us and this website provides lots of detailed info about Koh Chang.

Our target accommodation price was around $40 per night for two people including breakfast. Although you can spend less, you have to give up some creature comforts (like hot water showers, free wifi and onsite restaurant) that we weren’t willing to sacrifice. What we did NOT want was an overly crowded, party-centric beach which has been damaged by overdevelopment and where it’s hard to find anything still locally-owned. This immediately excluded Phuket, Koh Samui and many other popular Thai island destinations. We eventually settled on Koh Chang and, after spending a full week there, decided to continue on to Koh Kood for our second week of island bliss.
the simple beauty of island life
Due to the Lunar New Year as well as a flower festival in Chiang Mai, all of the overnight trains to Bangkok were fully booked for our desired travel dates. We ended up buying one way tickets from Chiang Mai to Trat (via Bangkok) on Bangkok Airways for $161 per person (two 1 hour flights plus a 3 hour connection at BKK) versus $30 each for 2nd class train seats from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (taking 12 hours) plus $8 each for the 1st class bus from Bangkok to Trat (taking 5+ hours). We had a great experience on Bangkok Airways and I was particularly impressed by their prompt response to an email inquiry, the complimentary lounge access (with food, beverages and free wifi) for all passengers, and the friendly and efficient service by all staff we encountered. I also enjoyed our arrival at tiny Trat airport, which was built by the airline solely for its use, where we were transferred from the tarmac to the open air arrivals terminal via trolleys. From there we took a shared minivan (operated by Krungthep Limousine Co.) directly to our resort. This cost 470 baht ($15) per person and included the 30 minute ferry crossing.
deplaning at Trat airport
We spent eight nights at Penny’s Bungalow Resort on Pearl Beach, Koh Chang. For the dates we requested, they only had a “luxury double bungalow” available for a rate of 1500 baht per night, although we did get a 10% discount for booking at least seven nights. Thus our nightly rate came to $44 including breakfast. Many of the highest rated boutique resorts in desirable beach areas like Khlong Prao were well over $50 per night. Here’s my TripAdvisor review of the resort.
view to the north from the beach at Penny's
We did virtually nothing the entire week except reading books on the beach and making beer runs to the local market (a 30 minute round-trip walk to the main road). We were also able to watch the SuperBowl live streaming on our netbooks with VIP Stand. I think that’s the first American football match I’ve watched since last year’s SuperBowl! When we tallied up our expenses at the end of the week, we had only spent $29 per person per day on Koh Chang including all meals, drinks and accommodation.
sunset view from my usual reading spot at Penny's
Here's the link to all of my Koh Chang photos.

Ready for a change of scenery, we took a speedboat to Koh Kood. It took a full hour from the time we were picked up by a truck taxi at Penny’s, with multiple stops to pick up a total of eight more people, to drive the length of the east coast of the island to reach Bang Bao pier. Then we had to carry all of our bags (no porters) what seemed to be an entire kilometer to the end of the pier where we climbed into the awaiting boat. We stopped multiple times but very briefly at various islands including Koh Wai and Koh Mak to drop off or pick up other passengers on the way to Koh Kood. The boat ride lasted one hour. I rode in the back (sheltered) area for the first half then the front for the remainder. It was a bit “bumpy” at times but overall was an enjoyable and scenic ride.
our transport from Koh Chang to Koh Kood
We stayed six nights at Koh Kood Resort. Here’s my TripAdvisor review. All-inclusive packages are offered at most of the resorts we looked at on Koh Kood. Priced per person, these usually include round-trip transfers, deluxe accommodations (with A/C), three meals daily, unlimited coffee/tea and sodas, one or two excursions (full day snorkeling trip, night cruise, hike to Klong Chao waterfall, etc.) and a one hour Thai massage. However, the average daily price per person was at least $75 (or $150 for two people). This is much higher than the $44 per person per day we’ve been spending throughout Southeast Asia, so we were confident we could save money by paying a la carte. We had originally booked a bungalow with air conditioning for 1800 baht ($59) per night but after the first night decided that was an unnecessary luxury and switched to a fan room for 1200 baht ($39) per night including breakfast.
our bungalow (B8) at Koh Kood Resort
There are three resorts nestled in the same small bay but they are separated by forested areas. On our first afternoon we took a walk in the direction we thought was to a small convenience store, but after walking for over 30 minutes and not seeing a single building much less another person, we turned back. All we were trying to do was find a cheaper place to buy beer! Anyway, it gave us an excuse to have a look around the other two resorts (The Beach Natural and Siam Beach Resort) with the resulting opinion that we had definitely picked the “best” of the three. We did eventually locate the market, where beer was indeed cheaper, but quickly determined it was not worth the effort to walk there daily in the heat as we did not have a mini-fridge in our room to keep our purchases cold.
a beer from the neighboring resort
As on Koh Chang, we spent the entire week just reading on the beach with the added diversions of snorkeling and kayaking in the bay. We ended up spending only $30 per person per day on Koh Kood, including all meals, drinks and accommodation.
a commercial fishing boat leaving the bay at sunset
Here's the link to all of my Koh Kood photos

We were sad to leave our little island paradise but had to get back up to Bangkok for our scheduled flight to India. This time we traveled as cheaply as possible which meant a 1.5 hour speedboat ride from Koh Kood to the mainland (600 baht or $20 per person), where we took a free taxi (12 adults, 1 baby, 1 driver in a small pickup truck) to the Trat bus station. Our timing was perfect and we quickly bought tickets (only 241 baht/$8 per person) and boarded the 11:00AM first class CherdChai bus to Bangkok. We were greeted by Thai pop music blasting from the speakers throughout the bus (and when that disc was over, it was followed by two movies - neither in English, then more music). An attendant frequently offered cups of iced Pepsi from a tray and gave us wafer snacks, bottled water and wet towels. We were the only non-Thai passengers during the entire 5.5 hour bus journey to Ekamai (Bangkok‘s Eastern Bus Terminal). Other than quick stops to pick up or drop off other passengers, we only had two opportunities to get off the bus, at Chanthaburi bus station (where I quickly bought a pork sausage and some dumplings from a street vendor), and at the 2.5 hour mark where we were given 10 minutes to stretch our legs (and buy beer and chips!). A friendly passenger also gave us bags of dried shrimp and rice to snack on. Overall the bus trip was quite pleasant, with comfortable seating and enough leg room for us tall Westerners, plus a clean onboard toilet. Eliminate the loud music/movie soundtracks and it would be perfect!
the bus we took from Trat to Bangkok
provisions for a long bus ride
One final note:  As I alluded to at the beginning of this post (and in my TripAdvisor reviews), our time on the beaches would have been much more enjoyable if it wasn't for the other guests. It's not that there were too many of them -- both resorts are fairly small, with only around 28 bungalows each. However, as there weren't any real rules at either resort, that meant everyone pretty much did what they wanted. This included smoking anywhere and everywhere; littering on the property/beach by leaving cigarette butts on the ground and not disposing of water bottles and soda cans; adopting some form of topless sunbathing (which I don't have a problem with except that the resorts are Thai-owned and frequently have Thai or other Asian guests so it's not very culturally sensitive); letting their numerous kids run around undisciplined, screaming and crying; and doing petty things like “reserving” a lounge chair by throwing a towel on it but then not using it for hours nor removing the towels when finished so it appears still occupied. I think a little more oversight by the resort staff or doing simple things like having a designated smoking area would go a long way towards making all guests more comfortable.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Travel Literature

Prior to arriving in Southeast Asia, I had not had the time nor the inclination to do much reading apart from trip research (online travel blogs, magazines, etc.). When my mom & step-dad met us in Turkey in late October, they brought my last subscription issue of Vanity Fair plus a couple of travel magazines and "To Asia With Love," a book I had ordered prior to leaving the U.S. It wasn’t until we were in Hanoi, Vietnam that I purchased my first non-travel-related book, "The Help." I was hoping to find something more relevant to our trip (i.e. fiction or non-fiction set in a place we had visited or would be visiting), but I have already read a lot of popular travel writing and couldn’t find any of the books on my trip reading list. We went into multiple bookstores in Hanoi and had one particularly amusing conversation with a Vietnamese store owner who had ordered 30-some-odd copies of Sarah Palin’s book “Going Rogue” but she had only managed to sell two copies in the past two years!
Greg tries to keep a straight face while looking at a "New Moon" book in a Hanoi bookstore
I actually enjoyed reading "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett, which is about black domestic servants working in white Southern households in the early 1960s. By the time we reached Hoi An, I had finished the 464 page book and traded it for "Wild Swans." I also picked up "Phra Farang" which was on my Thailand reading list.

I wish I had read "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang before we visited China on our RTW trip. It proved to be an excellent primer on China’s recent history, covering 1909-1978 and three generations of women in one family (the author’s). While I’m sure the author is biased, as the book is an autobiography of sorts, I think her depiction of events in China during those years is quite accurate. More important, the book increased my awareness of the horrors of war and government oppression endured by generations of Chinese, and thus helped me to better understand the toughness of the people that I mention in my multiple China blog posts.
Greg reading "Wild Swans" on the beach in Koh Chang, Thailand
Now that we are on a beach in Thailand, I have more time for leisurely reading. After finishing "Wild Swans," which I passed on to Greg, I read "The Great Railway Bazaar" in just over 24 hours. Paul Theroux’s classic & brilliant chronicle of his 4-month journey by train from London, across Europe and Asia, and back via Soviet Russia is still relevant despite first being published in 1975. His descriptions of many of the same places Greg & I have traveled on our RTW trip are both witty & thought-provoking. I found the book imminently quotable and wished I had read it a bit earlier during our trip so I could have made a few comparative references to it in my blog posts.
the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, Vietnam
My next literary conquest was "Phra Farang" which is a true story about a middle-aged English man (the auther, Peter Pannapadipo) who became a Buddhist monk and lived at various wats in Thailand for ten years. While he eventually disrobed to focus running a charitable organization called The SET Foundation (which he started as a result of his experiences as a monk), the book is fairly enlightening on many aspects of life as a monk in Thailand.
novice monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I had then run out of books and unfortunately found the used bookstore near our resort on Koh Chang a bit pricey (average book was 250 baht or over $8), so I snagged the ONLY English language book from the resort’s collection (everything else was in German or one of the Scandinavian languages). "Faceless" by Martina Cole was not exactly my preferred type of novel, nor was it in any way relevant to our travels, but I was desperate! I also gave in and purchased one book at the used bookstore called "A Brief History of the Great Moghuls" which is about India’s rulers in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries and therefore relevant to our next destination.

When we reached our resort on Koh Kood, I traded "Phra Farang" for one of the few English language books on their bookshelf, "Geisha" by Liza Dalby. Dalby is an anthropologist who, in the pursuit of material for her Ph.D. dissertation, apprenticed as a geisha in Kyoto in the mid-1970's. This is a scholarly work filled with Japanese history and cultural observations. As we visited Japan for a few weeks in September, I found this book to be both interesting & useful for appreciating the differences in our cultures, even though we are months removed from our travels there.
a geisha in Gion, Kyoto
Ultimately, good travel writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, can enhance any trip you take. Even if you are not leaving the U.S., but simply traveling to another state or region, a book set in that area or whose subject is specific to that part of the country can reveal something about the landscape or people that you may have missed otherwise.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Please "vote" for my photo so I can win the Hostelbooker's contest

Hello again everyone,
Today is a busy day for internet activities! I just found out the photo I submitted to on Facebook was chosen as a Top 10 finalist for their Valentine's contest. All you have to do is LIKE their home page on Facebook (click the link above) and then LIKE MY PHOTO by clicking this link: My contest entry. Please be sure to CLICK LIKE below the photo of Greg & I being dropped from a 45 meter tall tree near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The photo with the most LIKES wins 150 euros towards hostel accommodations.
Thanks in advance!

My guest post on GoBackpacking

Finally! The guest post I wrote as part of my application for a Featured Blogger position on GoBackpacking is now live. You can read it by clicking the title of this post or this link: Let Social Media be your Travel Guide.

I will find out within the next week whether I've been chosen for the minimum 6-month paid position. To be compensated for my travel writing would be a dream come true and might even help me extend our current trip!

I would love to hear your comments on the article. Please feel free to leave feedback here or on the GoBackpacking website.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Adventures in Northern Thailand

When we took the overnight train (2nd class sleeper) to Chiang Mai, we had initially only booked three nights accommodations as we weren’t sure what sort of activities we might try to do once we got there. After our first few days exploring the Old City and the area just north of Tha Phae Gate to the Mae Ping River, I knew we could easily spend a week just relaxing at our guesthouse Baan Nud-Kun and wandering the alleyways, temples and markets. Of course, I was also tempted by the many activities on offer… We ultimately spent nine nights in Chiang Mai.
pretty flowers along the footbridge over the Mae Ping River
Only 751km by rail from Bangkok, or a short one hour flight, Chiang Mai is a world away on so many levels. It is still a busy city but instead of being overwhelmed by skyscrapers, crazy traffic and 12+ million people, you can easily find peace and quiet just by stepping into one of the Old City’s sois (an alley or lane off a primary road). Food and drink is more affordable, as are simple luxuries like massages, and entrance to all the temples or wats is free (donations gladly accepted). There are a variety of markets and a few modern malls to fulfill all your shopping desires, from bustling Warorot to the open-every-Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Rd and the once-weekly Sunday Walking Street (Ratchadamnoen Rd).
monks feeding pigeons & fish near Tha Phae Gate
Entertainment options are only limited by your budget. You can watch muay thai (boxing), hear live music, or step into a bar on Kotchasan or Loi Kroh Rd and gain the attention of a beautiful Thai “bar girl.” Or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can book an all day or multi-day whitewater rafting trip, jungle canopy adventure, or cooking class. As Greg and I don’t usually go to bars looking for companionship, we chose the latter three options. :)
rafting on the Mae Taeng River
Here are the photos from our outings with Siam River Adventures, A Lot of Thai, and Flight of the Gibbon. As you can tell, we had fun throughout, although I think Greg is probably done with cooking classes until we get back to the U.S. and he can take some more beginner-oriented lessons.
Whitewater rafting
Cooking class

One activity we did not do despite our best intentions, was to get a massage at the Women’s Prison. Inmates are rehabilitated by learning job skills (like waitressing or how to be a masseuse) and get to work in the prison’s café or massage parlor prior to their release. Apparently the massages are quite popular (and affordable at 150-200THB/hr), as Greg attempted to get one on our last day in Chiang Mai and they were fully booked. Fortunately, we had eaten at the café for lunch one day, so we can still say we were “served by inmates.”
entrance to the Women's Prison Cafe
Speaking of food, we ate some pretty good meals in Chiang Mai. Some of my favorite Thai dishes were the sour pork at Aroon, red curry at Ratana, Burmese curry at Ratchadamnoen Café and khao soi at The Riverside. Food prices averaged 60THB per entree for Thai food (in a non-touristy restaurant) and 70-80THB for a 640ml bottle of Chang beer. To save money, we usually drank our own bottled water with meals then bought beer at one of the ubiquitous 7-11’s for only 45THB/bottle and took it back to the guesthouse. We also splurged a few times to eat non-Thai food: burritos at El Diablo’s, burgers at Duke’s, and pizza at Stefano. Note that the usual chain restaurants (Burger King, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut) have a presence in Chiang Mai, but thankfully none are within the Old City walls.
Burmese curry
super-size burritos at El Diablo's
As mentioned before, I enjoyed roaming around Chiang Mai on foot and especially found the wats to be interesting and photogenic. While we did not participate, there are many opportunities for “monk chat” where you can talk openly with novice monks. Sadly, I lost all of my pictures of Wat Phan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang (they were some of my favorites) due to a memory card malfunction. I had taken one photo in particular of a monk at Wat Phan Tao who was reading a book called “Good Questions Good Answers.” I had asked him what it was about and then he posed for a picture. Later in the week, we did go back by those wats, but I wasn’t in the mood to take any more photos.
I also particularly enjoyed the Sunday Walking Street which was conveniently located on the main road near our guesthouse. It was definitely more authentic than the Night Bazaar and prices were crazy cheap! After months of eyeing all sorts of Asian handicrafts, I finally broke down and bought some beautiful handmade greeting cards and two pairs of earrings. I still spent less than $5 total! I also bought bacon-wrapped mini-hotdogs and Chinese greens-filled dumplings for breakfast the next morning as we had to get up early and would miss the guesthouse’s complimentary breakfast. The total cost for six hotdogs and two large dumplings was less than $1.
monks shopping at the Sunday market
Overall, I highly recommended adding Chiang Mai to your itinerary if you are planning a trip to Thailand.

** The link to the rest of my Chiang Mai photos is embedded in the title of this post.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A special post for my best friend

As I enjoy the peaceful & beautiful morning of February 5th on the island of Koh Chang, I am thinking about my best friend, Amy, halfway around the world in Clarksville, TN. She is probably trying her best to keep a smile on her face as she spends her last evening with her husband for the next six months. She will get to see him for a brief two weeks when he gets R&R midway through his deployment and then will have to say goodbye again for another six months.

Amy's husband, Eric Johnston, is in the U.S. Army. He is a CW4 maintenance test pilot. Eric has been in the Army for almost 18 years. This is his third deployment to the Middle East in the past eight years and his second to Afghanistan. He & Amy also lived in South Korea while Eric was stationed at Camp Humphreys from 2003-06.
Eric & one of his MEDEVAC Blackhawks at Camp Humphreys - April '05
Amy & I grew up together. We were neighbors from the time I was four until we graduated from high school. We went to the same church and were in the same Girl Scout troop, amongst other things. Even though I eventually moved out-of-state, Amy & I always kept in touch and visited each other as often as possible. I sometimes think that Amy knows me better than I know myself!
Amy & I after a hot air balloon ride near Taos, New Mexico - March '09
Eric & Amy have two beautiful daughters, Delaney Mae (8) and Riley Jo (6). They're smart, funny & full of life. I enjoy spending time with them wherever they may be. I visited them in Korea, we've roamed the streets of NYC together, and we've traveled together to & from Eric's parents' house near Charlotte, NC. We've also had some fun times closer to home when I've been able to spend a few days with them in Clarksville.
Riley & Delaney in downtown Clarksville - July '10
As I consider Amy, Eric & the girls part of my family, and am close to both of their parents, it is always hard for me to stand helplessly by when they are dealing with something like this. Luckily, Amy has a large& very supportive network of friends & family in TN & beyond that she can turn to when she needs help. And, much different than Eric's first deployment to Iraq, he is able to take a laptop computer and can stay in touch with everyone on a fairly regular basis.
L to R: Amy's parents Ronnie & Barbara Cowherd; Amy, Eric, Riley & Delaney; Eric's parents Hewitt & Cynthia Johnston; this pic (borrowed from Amy) was taken on 02FEB11 at Eric's promotion to CW4
I hope that in the coming days, weeks & months, no matter what your religious affiliation or beliefs or you're feelings about the war, you will keep this special family in your thoughts & prayers. And, if you want to better understand what it's like to have your family torn apart by war, please subscribe to Amy’s blog: Amy's Annals.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Has it really been six months already?!?!

Yes, today, 02FEB2011 officially marks six months to the day that we arrived in Sydney, Australia, the first destination on our round-the-world trip. We have covered some significant ground in the past 185 days including 16 countries on four continents.

At this point, I'm very thankful that we started expensive. Meaning, while Australia & New Zealand ate up a fair amount of our trip budget, as did the Egypt tour and the East African safari, I am glad we spent that money in the beginning and are now traveling in Southeast Asia where our dollar stretches much, much further. If we had done the reverse, I'm afraid we'd be so stressed about counting every penny we wouldn't enjoy the destinations as much and we might be compelled to skip places, like Kangaroo Island, that ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.
awww, aren't they cute?!?!
Of course, I also can't fail to mention the volatile situation in Egypt, where we spent almost two weeks just three months ago. To be honest, it already ranked as the #1 place I would have expected something like this (the mass protests) to happen, simply by virtue of it being incredibly overpopulated and with the majority of people living in poverty. It was certainly one of the most challenging places we've visited and we were on a private tour! I can only hope that the government finds an effective way to rectify the situation, although it is really years (decades) in the making and cannot be fixed overnight.
view of Cairo from a felucca on the Nile River
On a more positive note, Greg & I continue to stay healthy and, after a brief (and free) consultation with a pharmacist in Bangkok, Greg's athlete's foot has now healed almost 100%. It turns out that we were treating the symptoms wrong; i.e., the skin irritation was actually eczema while the fungus is only in the nails. So, armed with the proper medications, he is on the way to a full recovery.
no, this is not how you cure athlete's foot!
Finally, in honor of the official start of the Lunar New Year tomorrow, February 3rd, I would also like to wish everyone a Happy Year of the Rabbit! I am turning over a new leaf, so to speak, by making a valiant effort to get paid for my travel writing. Just today I submitted a guest blog to GoBackpacking as part of my application for a job as a Featured Blogger. No matter what happens, I know it's a step in the right direction!
live bunnies (in outfits!) at Chatuchak market in Bangkok