We were excited to get a taste of Southern Thai culture and relax on the beach. We'd had our introduction to Thailand in Bangkok and we were ready for the full immersion course. Unfortunately, we didn't find it on the beaches of Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, or Koh Lanta. Instead, we found lots of neon signs, Irish pubs, hilarious karaoke, and tons and tons of sunburned 18 to 25 year olds from the West drinking way too much booze strewn across beaches that were once beautiful and are now over developed and covered in trash.
We arrived in Krabi Airport, hopped on a bus, and headed to Ao Nang for one night before taking the ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Arriving just before sunset, we checked in to Zavaba Guest House, dropped our stuff, and headed out for a walk down the beach. Sunset was pretty, and I frolicked in the warm water as it washed over my feet, happy to be in a tropical setting and thinking back fondly on how cold I was in Galway, Ireland, just months before. The disappointing thing was how much trash there was washing up on shore - water bottles, wrappers, tires. I reconsidered going for a quick swim as we stepped over sopping napkins and other yucky bits. The little town was pretty cute and actually reminded me of parts of Waikiki, only a little dirtier - small beach front shops sold sandals, swim suits, crocheted dresses, and man tanks. All kinds of food could be found in the small restaurants on the strand - Indian, Italian, American, Thai, Chinese…anything you could want! Instead of ABC Stores on every corner there were 7-Elevens. For dinner, we wandered away from the beach - the farther we walked, the cheaper the food got, and the less touristy the eateries seemed. We found a family run restaurant, aptly named Family Restaurant, and enjoyed a great meal of pad Thai, papaya salad, and fried morning glory, washed down with Leo and Singha beers. For breakfast the next morning, we found a lady selling pre packed meals of rice, fried eggs, and spicy basil chicken. Delicious! Ao Nang, though we only spent one night and didn't explore, can't be as bad as Lonely Planet says it is. And it certainly can't be worse than what we experienced next on Koh Phi Phi!
Oh Koh Phi Phi.
I wanted to love this island. I wanted it to be the island paradise that I had read about. I wanted it to be laid back and beautiful. I wanted to lay out on the beach and watch the long tail boats zoom by. I wanted something, I learned, that was not at all what Koh Phi Phi had to offer. I thought the island would be relaxing, but what we found when we stepped off the crowded ferry onto the even more crowded pier, was a party island, full of 18 (at least I hope they were 18) to 25 year olds running around with buckets (literally) of alcohol, tons of bars with loud music and laser lights, men with monkeys asking me if I want to take a picture with their pet, and construction - a shopping center is being built right in the middle of the once peaceful sandy isthmus that connected the two bays (capitalism gone wrong, if you ask us). As we walked through the streets taking it all in, I wondered to myself, "What have I done?". Just as I was starting to get anxious about making the wrong choice (exactly what I had anguished over in Bangkok), I reminded myself, "if we hate it, we can leave." At that moment we heard a jovial British voice, "Do you need any directions, guys?" Without thinking we waived him off, "No thanks". Steps later, we thought better about it - we didn't have a guest house booked yet, and this place is way crazier than we expected, maybe some guidance would be a good idea. So back we went to the nice guy, who was sitting out front of Sea Frog Dive Shop, and asked for some help. Chris gave us recommendations for places to eat, places to look at staying ("Whatever you do, don't swim in the party beach. Gross."), and then asked if we were going to be doing any diving while on the island. "We're not certified. We were thinking of doing that on Koh Tao." Chris explained to us that Koh Tao does have great diving, and cheap certification classes, "but the diving here is better. On Koh Tao there's no chance of seeing sharks. Here, we see sharks almost every day." He told us that, just before moving to Phi Phi, he taught certification classes for a dive shop on Koh Tao and he much prefers Phi Phi. "The reason why Koh Tao is also so cheap is because the classes are bigger. If you do it here, it would just be you guys with me." Well shoot. We really hadn't even thought of getting dive certified on Phi Phi, and we had really just toyed around with the idea in regards to Koh Tao, but Chris was gave us lots to think about. We thanked him for all of the information and went on our way to find a place to stay. By dinner time we had decided to go for it - we were going to get SCUBA certified! We let Chris know that we were all in, and got all the paperwork ready to begin in the morning.
Finding a place to stay was just as easy as everyone had told us it would be. Since we have nothing but time, we can patiently walk to several different guest houses, take a look at the rooms available, and negotiate prices. Many friends told us not to book more than one night in advance, in any place in South East Asia, because we would easily be able to find cheaper accommodations on foot, and they were right. After touring five different spots, we landed at the Garden Home Bungalow with a small room hidden under lots of trees, and a private bathroom (complete with spray hose for the toilet) where the shower was actually separated from the rest of it (I didn't have to shower with the toilet!). We were comfortable in our dark, cool room, away from the noise and chaos of party beach - good thing because we stayed for six nights!
In order to save about $70 per person on our dive certification, we opted to do all of our SCUBA theory online, something most tourists don't do because it takes 4-5 hours. Since we have the time and the computers to spend a few hours leaning, we didn't mind. By morning, we were full of knowledge about hand signals, gear, and no-decompression dives, and eager to get in the water! Up first - learning our skills in confined water. Chris, such a jolly guy, was eager to get us in the water too. We learned how to put our gear together, suited up, and walked down to the ocean. On our walk through the village, I explained to him my fairly intense fear of things under water, how I tend to hyperventilate for a few minutes when I go snorkeling, and how I'm afraid I won't be able to clear my ears. None of this phased him -Chris was always cool and calm. And, when we got in the water, he was nothing but patient with me. It took me a few minutes to get used to breathing through the regulator, and I was a bit scared to actually drop under the surface at first, but he kept explaining how everything worked, giving me knowledge to replace the fear, and never once rushed me. Soon the three of us were kneeling on the sandy bottom, just 2 meters underwater, learning how to clear a flooded mask, take out our regulator and put it back in, breathe from a leaky regulator, etc. All the while he checked on both of us and made us feel safe and at ease. He is a fantastic teacher. As we walked back to Sea Frog Dive Shop I was ecstatic! We did it! We completed the first phase of our SCUBA certification! I couldn't believe how calm I was under water, or how excited I was to get out and do our first day of real diving!
Because Chris had to go get his visa extended the next day and thus wouldn't be on the island, we postponed our first official dive day. We took the opportunity to explore the island with a short hike through the jungle to another beach, Loh Bagao. Armed with water bottles and sunscreen, we set out in the late afternoon. As we took in the gorgeous views of the party beach next to the bright turquoise water, we also noticed the ominous, dark clouds blowing our way. "It looks like rain!" I said to Jake. "Do you want to turn around?" he asked me. "No, it's just a little rain! It'll pass!" We continued on, just hitting the cover of the jungle as the storm hit the island. It wasn’t just a little rain - it was POURING. But we were already half way to the other beach, we just had to cross over the ridge at the top and then descend on the other side. I don't remember when we went from slightly damp to completely soaked through, but it must have happened quickly! The scenery was awesome - bright green trees and bushes surrounded us, tall vines climbed every trunk and surface it could find, limestone beneath us gave us a firm foothold, but every once in a while the hillside seemed to disappear and, if we weren't careful, would have sent us sliding down into the prickly bushes below. We finally made it to Loh Bagao, and it was dead quiet. Either the giant resort on the beach was closed, or not many people were staying there. The wind was blowing hard, and the rain drops were falling steadily. I was starting to get cold (something I didn't think would happen in Thailand!), and it was starting to get late. If we were going to walk back to Ton Sai beach before it got dark, we would need to get moving. Since that didn't seem like a very fun idea, we decided to see what sings of life we could find around the resort and try to hire a long tail boat to take us back. Sure enough, we found a bar with a super nice, super helpful bartender who ordered a long tail boat for us. Within 10 minutes we were on our way back to a hot shower, thankful for the help of our new friend! Too bad the weather was so terrible, that beach really was spectacular - clean, quiet, secluded. I would have loved to lay out all day long, drinking smoothies.
That evening we grabbed a quick dinner at the Snack Shack, a fast food looking stand that was closer to the party beach and attracted the young, wild, and crazy crowd. We plopped down on stools at the counter and ordered pad Thai, fried rice, and spring rolls. I gotta say, it was all delicious! Thai food in general, even the greasy fast food kind at the Snack Shack, just tastes so good! We enjoyed chatting with the owner, listening to his stories about the 2004 tsunami that destroyed the island. He told us how lucky he was, that he randomly decided to go to the mainland the day before the tsunami hit, and was able to get to safety when the water hit Krabi. He said he was happy to return to the island, but picking up the mess left behind, and dealing with the pain of losing loved ones to the ocean was, and will always be, hard to deal with.
Chris was due back from his visa run that evening, so after dinner Jake and I popped over to the dive shop to take our 50 multiple choice question exam. Thankfully, it was pretty easy, and we passed with no problem. It wouldn't have mattered though, because if we hadn't passed we could just keep taking it until we did! With full tummies and a passing grade, we relaxed for the rest of the night - we had an early call for our first official dives in the morning and I wanted to be well rested!
But we couldn't go. That delicious, greasy dinner we had didn't like me as much as I liked it, and at 5am I was in the bathroom dealing with a nasty case of food poisoning or Traveler's Diarrhea. Whatever it was, I was incapacitated. Every part of me hurt, especially my stomach. I had to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes (thankfully I only threw up the one time), and was tired and dehydrated. When our alarm went off at 6:30 to get up for our 7:20 boat, I said to Jake as he woke up, "I can't SCUBA today. I'm sick." Jake went down to the shop to break the news to Chris that we had to reschedule. Chris, ever the patient teacher, said we could reschedule anytime, and maybe I'd feel better in the afternoon. Jake promised to check in with him later.
I was in bed all day (except when I was in the bathroom), sleeping, moaning and groaning, and just generally feeling like garbage. I wasn't hungry for anything. In fact, the thought of food made me feel sick. I couldn’t even eat a bite of the banana pancake Jake got later in the day. (Terrible!) After drinking a few Gatorades and forcing myself to eat some saltine crackers that Jake miraculously found on the island, I was starting to feel a little better, but I was unsure about breathing through a regulator - what if I barfed under water? Gross. And scary. Our dive would have to wait.
By morning I was feeling like a new person. Sleeping all day long and remaining mostly horizontal was, apparently, exactly what my body needed to fight whatever bacteria had attacked me. After being able to eat a bowl of plain chicken noodle soup for breakfast, I decided I would be ready to go underwater later that day. We popped by Sea Frog and everyone asked how I was feeling. "Better! Let's go diving!" And with that, we were scheduled for a 1pm departure!
Feeling well enough to take on this adventure but not quite 100%, we boarded the boat that afternoon. Chris handed us our gear bags and told us to get ready before our pre-dive briefing. We donned our wetsuits, attached our BCDs to our oxygen tanks, checked our air supply, and loaded up our weight belts, and then listened to Chris tell us all that we would do under the surface, what skills we would practice, and what we might see down there. I was nervous, but so excited to finally be achieving a lifelong goal of mine! The boat reached our destination, Bida Nok, we put on our gear, and with one giant stride we were in the water! Moments later we deflated our BCDs and floated down, 10 meters below the surface.
My first thought was how calm it was down there. Small fish floated around our heads. Fan coral swayed gently back and forth on the nearby reef. Giant clams closed with the wave of a hand. I cleared my ears with no problem and kept my breathing under control. I was calm and comfortable and really, really excited! The feeling of the water instantly made me feel better - any sickness I felt disappeared as soon as the water washed over me. I won't bore you with the minute by minute playback of each of the four dives over two days, but I will say that they were all really fun, and we got more and more comfortable with each dive, and saw more and more fish and beauty beneath the surface the deeper we went. Dive Day # 2 was much more clear (visibility up to about 12 meters at Bida Nok and Mahlong) than the first day (about 8 meters at Bida Nok and Viking). We saw moray eels, small sharks, giant schools of yellow snapper and silvery tuna, tiny dragon nudibranch, puffer fish, box fish…the list goes on and on. I loved the incredible feeling of weightlessness. One of the most amazing sensations, the closest I've come to feeling like I'm flying, was when I descended several meters, head first, along a reef wall. I wasn’t swimming, I wasn't falling. I was gliding through the water and it was just an unreal feeling. Chris was a fantastic guide (sure helps to go diving with a guy who has a Masters in marine biology), pointing out all kinds of creatures along the way, and made us both feel comfortable and safe beneath the surface. Thanks to his flexibility, patience, and great teaching style, I was able to check this off my bucket list. I've wanted to get SCUBA certified for as long as I can remember, but have always been too afraid to do it. Thank you to my husband for encouraging me to go for it, and to Chris for being the perfect teacher for my nervous self!
Once we were done with our SCUBA course, we decided it was time to get the heck off of party island. We wanted to go find a peaceful, quiet beach to relax and do nothing for a few days. Chris mentioned Koh Lanta might be exactly what we were looking for. After a quick Google Image search, we agreed - Koh Lanta would be our next destination.
Once we were done with our SCUBA course, we decided it was time to get the heck off of party island. We wanted to go find a peaceful, quiet beach to relax and do nothing for a few days. Chris mentioned Koh Lanta might be exactly what we were looking for. After a quick Google Image search, we agreed - Koh Lanta would be our next destination. We watched the sun go down from the cleverly named outlook called "Viewpoint #2" with about 50 other sun worshipers. After a quick hike back down the mountain through the jungle, we went off to find dinner. All week, two British girls have stood outside a restaurant, trying to entice people in to the brightly colored place. "Mexican food tonight, guys?" they would ask, practically every time we walked by. And each time we smile, wave, and politely say "no thank you." When Jake was on the hunt for saltines and Gatorade for me, they started to recognize him. "We won't bother you again, sorry!" they told him. We started to feel bad for them, their job really didn't look like fun - stand around all day in the super hot sun and ask people if they want Mexican food, just to get denied 90% of the time. We decided to give them a break and go have some Mexican food. And bonus, all I wanted to eat when I was starting to feel better was chips and salsa! "You won us over! We want Mexican food!" we told them when we arrived. They gave us big smiles and ushered us right in to a table, giving us recommendations on the way. We enjoyed our chips and salsa, carne asada fajitas, and rice and bean burrito. Sure, it wasn't like the Mexican food we're used to, but it wasn't bad and it certainly satisfied our craving!
The next morning we packed our bags and hopped on the ferry to the serene island of Koh Lanta, and headed to the beautiful beach of Khlong Nin. We had read that the island was much more relaxed than the rest, and that beach life was much more quiet than life on Phi Phi. We had no idea just how much more quiet it really was, especially in the off season! When we arrived at our guest house, Lanta Intanin, only one other room in the place was occupied. Most of the restaurants and coffee shops that we'd read about along the beach were closed for the season. Even full resorts were boarded up!. We wanted quiet, and we found it! While we would have enjoyed a little bit more activity (I know, we can't get no satisfaction), we still enjoyed a relaxing visit. Did we go hiking in the national park? No. Did we rent kayaks and explore the other beaches? No. Did we rent scooters and see the rest of the island? No. And we didn't want to. While most people would probably think that we wasted our time there, we were perfectly happy lounging around doing nothing. We had our meals at the same four restaurants that were open near our place - Cook-Kai, Miami Resort Restaurant, Chill House, and White Rock Restaurant - and laid by the pool at the Miami Resort (the sister hotel to the Intanin). We enjoyed fruit smoothies, great (though overpriced) food, and ice cold Chang beers. And bonus, we caught one of the most spectacular sunsets either of us have ever seen - the whole sky was orange and red, the water below also reflecting the stunning color. We were paralyzed by its beauty and stood silently, taking pictures of course, as the sky turned dark.
The most interesting aspect of Koh Lanta was the large Muslim presence among the locals. Buddhism is the national religion of Thailand, but most people that we interacted with were Muslim. Men and boys wore traditional tunics and hats, women and girls wore long dresses and hijabs. We listened several times a day to the Call to Prayer sung by a man on a loud speaker. As we interacted with more ladies who were covered from head to toe, I couldn't help but think how hot they must be under all of those layers. But then again, their clothes probably breathed better than my cotton t-shirt and shorts. Each place we have seen has its own personality, but one thing has remained true in everywhere - people are SO nice!
We'd been in Thailand for almost two weeks, but we didn't really feel like we'd seen the Thailand that everyone raves about. We saw the outskirts of Bangkok and experienced a small amount of cultural immersion there with the night market and street food. We saw the party beaches of Koh Phi Phi where we were surrounded by drunk British teenagers. We saw a sleepy town beach town that is still catered toward tourists, even in the off season. Where are the stunning beaches that everyone went on and on about? These were beautiful, but I honestly think some of the beaches of Hawaii are just as pretty, if not even more beautiful. Sure, the water is more clear over here, but at least Hawaiian beaches aren't covered with garbage. Where is the cultural experience we were yearning for? So far, we'd mostly experienced the touristy side of the country. We want more out of our Thailand trip. We want to see how locals live, eat what locals eat, and appreciate the monuments and architecture that is important to them. We could have done that in Bangkok, but we were only there for two nights so we could figure out where to go next (and I think I was too overwhelmed by Bangkok at first to really explore). Perhaps we need to give Bangkok more time to really see what life is like there. But for now, we're heading to a place that shows up on many "Best Places in the World' lists, a place that has been recommended by basically everyone we've talked to about Thailand, a place that promises culture and life and local activity. We're heading to the 2nd largest city in Thailand - Chiang Mai. I just hope we don't find it as overrated as the beaches.