A Saga to get Sleeping Pills in Chiang Mai

Caption

Hanging out with the pill statue at our neighborhood pharmacy.

Did you know that Zolpidem (off brand Ambien) is a highly regulated, government controlled substance in Thailand?  Neither did I.  Being from a country where many doctors hand this stuff out like candy let me a little bit ill-prepared for our foray into the Thai Medical system to try to obtain some sleeping pills.

I definitely am not a habitual sleeping pill user.  In fact, I regularly fall asleep while still holding my Kindle when all the lights are on. However, I am highly open to using one of these magical pills to sleep soundly on a 13-hour flight.  I also have been known to use it for one night at my travel destination to get over the jetlag hump.

So Riddle me this – how many hospital visits does it take to procure some sleeping pills in Chiang Mai?  The way we did it, it unfortunately (and infuriatingly), it took FOUR visits, which ended up costing us about eight hours out of our lives, and we only have ten pills to show for it!  Read on for the tale of our epic journey…

Hospital Visit #1

First we stopped by Chiang Mai Ram Hospital on a whim on the way from the Khao Kha Moo lady who serves delicious tender-cooked pork with rice. We usually follow up Khao Kha Moo lady with a trip to the cake woman, who makes the most divine coconut cake on this planet.  Sadly, she wasn’t there that night, which we should’ve realized was a sign of the struggle to come.  We popped into Chiang Mai Ram, where we learned that a doctor must be a Psychiatrist in order to subscribe sleeping pills.  The Psychiatrist was not currently in, which didn’t surprise us at 8pm on a Sunday night, so we headed home.

Hospital Visit #2

After doing some research, I learned that Sriphat Medical Center (part of Maharaj Hospital complex) is supposed to be cheaper than Chiang Mai Ram. You know we can’t resist a bargain, so we headed to Sriphat to scope things out on a Friday morning.  We walked in, realized there wasn’t a single sign in English, and realized we were probably the only non-Thai people in the entire building.  Luckily, a super nice man who spoke English took pity on us and pointed us up to the 13th floor.

We packed into a hot, steamy elevator with about 15 other people and slowly made our way up to the 13th floor. When we got there, we were met by a nice lady in a pink jacket who spoke English and escorted us around, and we were super excited that this floor had pretty good aircon.  The lady in the pink jacket helped us register, snapped my photo for my hospital record, and walked us in to the nurse’s desk.

This is when things started to head south.  They said we should come back at 2pm to see “Dr. Aneesa.”  I wasn’t mad yet, so we said okay and happily went about our day.

Hospital Visit #3

We came back to Sriphat at 2pm, headed to the nurse’s station, and no one knew who this mysterious “Dr. Aneesa” is.  So that was weird.  The nurse was so puzzled about why I thought we had an appointment, but set us up for a 9am appointment on Monday.  In spite of the appointment time, she advised us that it’s first come first serve.  Frustration began to set in…

Hospital Visit #4

We showed up to Sriphat right on time at 9am Monday morning, headed up to the 13th floor again, and were so sad at what the nurse’s station told us. Sure, my “appointment” is for 9am, but I’m number four in the queue, and the psychiatrist won’t be here until 10:30am.  Awesome!  SO FAR SO GOOD, right?!  Luckily, Kevin and I brought our Kindles and iPhones, so we were able to stay occupied.  Maybe this is part of the visit with the psychiatrist – they try to see if they can push you to snap.  Good one, guys!  On the plus side, we were on the 13th floor, so there was a pretty nice view:

The Nice View that kept me sane!  There's a golf course in the middle, and the airport in the back right.

The Nice View that kept me sane at Sriphat! There’s a golf course in the middle, and the airport in the back right.

Finally, at about 11am, after over two hours of waiting, we got to visit with the Psychiatrist. She was nice enough, but seemed extremely suspicious that I was asking for sleeping pills.  She grilled me about why I wanted them, asked if I’ve ever seen a psychiatrist in the U.S., and wanted to know if I had taken them before and in what dosage.  It was kind of an ordeal.

So, Did We Ever Get the Pills?

We spent 8 hours at 4 hospital visits and all we got were these 10 measly pills!

We spent 8 hours at 4 hospital visits and all we got were these 10 measly pills!

Yes, we did.  But in the end, we learned that Thai laws limit a prescription for Zolpidem to just TEN pills.  TEN!  Or at least that’s what the hospital told us.  I spent 8 hours in hospitals, spent 1,230 Baht ($38 US), and all I got was ten measly sleeping pills.  Would I do it again?  Never!  Am I glad we did it?  Not at all!

Luckily, one good thing came out of this ordeal – we sort of had an epiphany while we were waiting for the doctor in the hospital.  The whole reason we went to Sriphat was to try to save a little money – maybe five dollars, at the most ten dollars.

We realized that if you’re willing to spend maybe 25% extra, no matter where you are in the world, things are generally much more pleasant.  If we spent just a little bit more and went to Chiang Mai Ram (the more upscale private hospital) we’re sure things would’ve gone much more smoothly.

This holds for so many things we’ve encountered in Thailand.  Spend an extra dollar on dinner and it can save you from a rough day of stomach problems.  Fork out an extra $5 for the first class overnight bus and you’ll actually get a decent night’s sleep.  Better yet, spend an extra $35 to fly instead of bus, and you can save yourself ten hours of traveling.

We Want To Hear From You!

Have you had any crazy medical experiences in foreign countries?  Everyone loves the we-don’t-speak-the-same-language game of charades when body parts and medical problems are involved.  Please share your stories with us!

Scuba Diving in Koh Tao

Mr. & Mrs. SCUBA, with our instructor Jack

Mr. & Mrs. SCUBA, with our dive instructor Jack

Last month, we went on an adventure a lifetime in the making – Kevin and I traveled down to the Southern Thai island of Koh Tao and got Scuba Certified!  Both of us have wanted to do this for years, and the warm, crystal clear waters and low price tag finally enticed us to get ‘er done.

Why Koh Tao?

Koh Tao Dive Map

Koh Tao Dive Map

It’s easy to argue that there’s no better place to get scuba certified than Koh Tao, Thailand.  During the dry months when the visibility is at its best, you can see as far as 30 meters underwater.  Koh Tao is surrounded by over a dozen awesome dive sites, and the sunny weather means the water is so warm you don’t even need to wear a wetsuit.  The biggest draw to us, however, was the bargain basement price tag to get scuba certified.  For less than 10,000 Baht (about $310), you can get your open water certification, and that price includes accommodations!  As a comparison, the same course in Seattle would cost at least $430, doesn’t include accommodations, and you’d freeze your tush off in the cold Pacific Northwest Waters.  No thank you.

Which Dive Shop?

Roctopus Dive Shop

Roctopus Dive Shop

We chose Roctopus, a small Dive Shop with fantastic ratings on Trip Advisor.  We were drawn in by the reviews describing the small intimate class sizes and the high quality of instruction.  We’d definitely recommend this place to friends.

The Roctopus Truck for trips to/from the Pier

The Roctopus Truck for trips to/from the Pier

Sometimes the truck was pretty packed!

Sometimes the truck was pretty packed!

All the Roctopus instructors we met were super friendly, incredibly patient, and very professional while also being fun.  They seem like a great crew – if we ever go scuba diving in Koh Tao again, we’ll definitely go with Roctopus.

Our Roctopus Hotel Room

Our Roctopus Hotel Room

During our week of diving, we stayed at the new Roctopus Hotel.  We knew going in that it wasn’t going to have air conditioning before we got there – anything to save a buck, right?  The first two nights, I felt like I was sleeping in the 7th circle of Hell.  After that, I’m not sure if the weather cooled off or if I just died a little bit inside, but things got better.  The room was actually really big, pretty clean, had a comfy bed, and was in a quiet area.  I have but one major complaint – for our entire 6-night stay, we were only given ONE ROLL OF TOILET PAPER.  One!  I dare you to try to make a single roll of toilet paper last for an entire week, especially if it’s the one-ply loosely rolled joke of a toilet paper roll that is so common over here.  It’s possible that I stole a couple rolls of toilet paper from the Roctopus Dive Shop.  Seems fair, right?  If you’re reading this, Roctopus, you reduced me to stealing toilet paper.  #rockbottomatroctopus  #rockingacleanbuttatroctopus

We Are Apparently Super Old

Jack being responsible and teaching us dive things on the boat

Jack being responsible and teaching us dive things on the boat

Somewhere over the course of our week with Roctopus, Kevin and I learned that our dive instructor Jack was born in 1992.  I had the same kind of heart palpitation I usually get when I see the latest “You must be born before this date to buy cigarettes” signs in stores in the United States.  You know which sign I’m talking about, that pesky sign which always makes me think “Wait what decade is it?!”

Over the next day and a half, we kept finding ourselves muttering things like “OMG we’re so old” and “kids these days…” and I couldn’t stop looking for new face wrinkles.  Sigh.  The problem only intensified when we discovered that a couple other folks (or should I say “kids”?) in our dive class were in their very early 20s.  This is becoming a thing with us – for the first time in our lives, we are regularly finding ourselves to be the oldest people in various tour groups.  I AM NOT READY FOR THIS.

My Husband, the Master Scubadiver

My Old Husband, now a Master Scubadiver

Anyway, all age jokes aside, Jack was a superb instructor, and we way overestimated his age because of his scuba skills and level of professionalism.  In fact, Jack exhibited extreme restraint by not killing the incredibly annoying guy in our class.  Let’s call this incredibly annoying guy “Frank” (not his real name). Frank was a solo traveler and is the type of person who has only three stories to tell, but keeps telling them over and over and over and over.  Frank also managed to somehow show up everywhere – Kevin and I are out at a bar for happy hour cocktails?  Frank shows up!  We head to the 7-11 Store for a couple beers?  There’s Frank.  Frank was also not good at diving and held us all back, which was a bummer.  Everyone in our class wanted to get rid of him.  And somehow, Jack made it through the 4-day course without killing him.  If THAT doesn’t speak volumes about the patience of the Roctopus dive instructors, I’m not sure what does.

If you’re not sold on Roctopus already, this next fact will do it.  They have this seemingly bottomless ginormous tin of delicious cookies onboard their boat at all times.  Go ahead, book your trip to Koh Tao right now…

Open Water Certification

Jack jumping in, Kevin and I in the water

Jack jumping in, Kevin and I in the water

Open Water Certification at Roctopus takes 4 days and consists of two morning academic sessions and three half-days of diving.  One of these half days is either in a pool or in shallow water near a beach.  At the end of the Open Water program, you’re certified to dive as deep as 18 meters.

Our Dive Gear Onboard the Roctopus Boat

Our Dive Gear Onboard the Roctopus Boat

During Open Water Certification, you have to learn and practice a handful of skills that can save your life by keeping you calm in tough situations.  Underwater, we practiced removing our air regulators and recovering them two different ways, we learned what to do if our buddy runs out of air, we removed our entire buoyancy compensator vest and then put it back on, and we learned the most terrifying skill of all – removing our mask COMPLETELY from our heads underwater, putting it back on, and clearing the water from it, all at a depth of 18 meters.  Learning to clear water from your mask underwater an important and scary skill to practice, but I’m happy to say we’re pretty much masters at it now.  My eyes are still burning from the salt water.

Dive Buddies!  Doing our pre-dive buddy check.

Dive Buddies! Doing our pre-dive buddy check.

We also mastered the pre-dive buddy check, as seen above.  Kevin and I feel pretty confident that we can go on other dive adventures around Southeast Asia now, so that will be fun!

Advanced Adventurer Certification

The Roctopus Boat

The Roctopus Boat

We definitely didn’t plan to get our Advanced Certification when we headed down to Koh Tao.  But as soon as someone mentioned diving a Shipwreck, I was sold.  With Advanced Adventurer Certification, you get to try out five specialties, and at the end you’ll be certified to dive as deep as 30 meters.  We picked Deep Diving, Wreck Diving, Navigation, Perfect Buoyancy, and Night Diving.

On the Roctopus Dive Belt

On the Roctopus Dive Boat

Dive Sites

We went diving 6 days in a row, so we were able to hit quite a few of Koh Tao’s dive sites.  Some of the sites we visited were:

Buoyancy World

The Cement Octopus at Buoyancy World

The Cement Octopus at Buoyancy World

This is basically an undewater obstacle course!  We swam through cages, under cement octopus legs, along a fake shipwreck, and through hoops to prove our perfect buoyancy skills.  I knew before diving that controlling your breathing underwater was probably somewhat important, but I didn’t realize it was crucial to your buoyancy.  Breathing is one of the biggest things that controls whether you go up or down in the water.  I kept finding myself floating upwards when I saw something cool because I forgot to breathe out!

HTMS Sattakut Shipwreck 

My favorite dive BY FAR was the HTMS Sattakut.  We actually got to swim through the ship down one of the galleyways, which was just unreal.  The gun turret is still there, and it was just a super eerie experience.

Japanese Gardens

This dive site is right off the eastern side of Koh Nang Yuan, an idyllic tiny island just next door to Koh Tao. We actually spent some time snorkeling here last year, but never knew we’d get a chance to come back!  We hit this site several times, and our last dive there was our Navigation Dive, which meant Jack outfitted us with compasses and sent us out by ourselves!  We only got slightly lost.

Pottery Night Dive

Sunset right before our Night Dive at Pottery

Sunset right before our Night Dive at Pottery

Night diving wasn’t even close to as terrifying as I thought it might be.  I had imagined getting separated from the group in the darkness and dragged away by a pack of great white sharks, never to be seen or heard from ever again.  Luckily, Jack issued us flashlights for the dive, so getting lost wasn’t really a problem.  Also, there aren’t really great white sharks around here.  The scariest thing about night diving for me turned out to be the Sea Urchins, which puff up at night and are even MORE POINTY than in the daytime.  Leave it to Melanie to be terrified of something that is completely immobile, right?

Shark Island

This is Shark Island

This is Shark Island

We dived one afternoon at Shark Island, which is named for its shark fin shape, not because it’s a haven for sharks.  We never got a chance to see any whale sharks during our diving, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.  Whale sharks are not aggressive towards divers, but I still don’t think I’d enjoy encountering ANYTHING underwater that bears the name “shark”.  Thanks, Mom and Dad, for letting me watch the movie Jaws at such an early age.

We also visited Chumpon Pinnacle, Southwest Pinnacle, Twins, and White Rock.

Underwater Critters

We saw a ridiculous amount of sea creatures during our diving days on Koh Tao.  Snorkeling is effectively ruined for us now, which I think is going to cost us a lot of money in the future.  But I think it’s worth it because you get to see so much more diving than you do snorkeling!  Here are a few of the things we saw around Koh Tao:

The Poisonous Banded Sea Snake

The Poisonous Banded Sea Snake

We saw a Banded Sea Snake, which was scary and awesome.  After the dive, in which Jack pulled each of to within 3 feet of this snake to have a good look, he told us it’s one of the most poisonous snakes in the world.  Luckily it’s not aggressive towards divers – crisis averted.  Thanks, Jack.

Blue Spotted Ribbontail Ray

Blue Spotted Ribbontail Ray

We saw a handful of these blue spotted ribbontail rays, which are so beautiful!  We saw several hiding during our daytime dives, but actually got to see one swimming around during our night dive!

Jenkins Stingray - we saw this one on our solo Navigation dive!

Jenkins Stingray – we saw this one on our solo Navigation dive!

Triggerfish - in Koh Tao, these are everywhere!

Triggerfish – in Koh Tao, these are everywhere!

When Triggerfish feel threatened, they pop up a “trigger” spine on the top of their head that they can use as a weapon.  Upon hearing that, I decided to call this fish the “Unicorn of the Sea”.  It was magical.

A White Eyed Moray Eel

A White Eyed Moray Eel

If there’s one thing that’ll make you pee your wetsuit underwater, it’s the Moray Eel.  We saw a handful of these creepy creatures lurking in the coral during our dives.  They definitely are accomplished starers – their eyes eerily follow you everywhere you swim underwater.

Yellow Boxfish - can you guess why it's called a Boxfish?!

Yellow Boxfish – can you guess why it’s called a Boxfish?!

The Beautiful Blue Ringed Angelfish

The Beautiful Blue Ringed Angelfish

Adorable Goby Shrimp!

Adorable Goby Shrimp on the right, and his bodyguard on the left!

Goby Shrimp are an under-appreciated species in the sea.  (Never thought I’d hear myself say something like that.)  These shrimp essentially have a fish bodyguard!  If you swim up to the shrimp, he retreats into his seafloor home and the bodyguard fish retreats into the hole behind him.  Seafloor BFFs!

Red Hairy Hermit Crab - we saw a bunch of these bad boys on our night dive!

Red Hairy Hermit Crab – we saw a bunch of these bad boys on our night dive!

We also saw Yellowtail Barracuda, Chevron Barracuda, Great Barracuda, Longfin Batfish, huge Grouper, Parrotfish and Butterfly Fish.  It was a wild week!

Thoughts on Diving

Our Awesome Dive Class!

Our Awesome Dive Class!

As I mentioned before, I think I watched Jaws at too early an age.  That movie, in combination with my landlocked Kansas upbringing, ingrained in me a deep fear of the ocean.  I know it’s absurd to think that a shark can singlehandedly sink a moderately sized boat, but we all know logic doesn’t always win out with me – if it happened on TV it can happen to me!  In my early days of snorkeling, I used to hyperventilate when I tried to breathe through the snorkel, and refused to swim around without a life jacket or a pool noodle.  Luckily, that all went away after spending enough time in the ocean in the last few years.  With all that in mind, my advice is this: be sure you’re very comfortable with snorkeling in the ocean before you try diving.  Of the nine people who started open water courses the same day as us, three dropped out.  It’s important to be comfortable in the ocean before you try to spend time down at 30 meters.  No one wants to have a panic attack that far underwater!

Some dive companies offer free “try dives” in a pool before signing up for a course, and many offer very generous refund policies.  If you’re on the fence at all, it’s a great idea to check those options out before you sign up for a class.

We Want to Hear From You!

Diving!

Getting ready for a Dive!

Are you a diver?  Where did you get certified?  Any diving recommendations in Southeast Asia would be VERY GREATLY APPRECIATED!

A Getaway to Koh Phangan

Heaven is a Mai Tai and Coconut on the beach!

Heaven is a Mai Tai and Coconut on the beach!

We’re smack dab in the middle of rainy season here in Chiang Mai, which means several things:

  1. Mosquitos are everywhere (along with the usual rainy season reports of Japanese Encephalitis cases.  JE is a rare mosquito bourne illness that scares the living daylights out of me.)
  2. Unpredictable downpours and associated flooded roadways.  If you’re read my previous posts with comments about the dog poop everywhere, you can imagine that floating dog poop is right up there in my list of things I dislike.
  3. Inexplicably slow internet speeds, everywhere.  Word on the Chiang Mai Facebook groups is that this is a regular occurrence during rainy season.  If anyone can explain this mystery to me, I’ll bring you $5 worth of dried mango next time I see you.
  4. Sidewalk gushers!  The main road we walk has square sidewalk tiles that are laid poorly, so they get little reservoirs of dirty water underneath them.  When you step on some of these tiles, they’ll tilt and the water shoots up at you!

All of these things combined to give us the rainy season blues, so we decided to head down to the beautiful islands of Koh Tao and Koh Phangan to soak up some sun!  I’ll post about Koh Tao once I get a hold of some photos a travel friend took during our scuba classes, but wanted to sing Koh Phangan’s praises as soon as I could.

Beautiful Koh Phangan, an Island Paradise

My Artsy Sand Photo

My Artsy Sand Photo

Koh Phangan is perhaps best known for its Full Moon Parties.  These monthly shindigs are probably best described as drunken festivals where drug use runs rampant, from what I’ve read and heard online.  We’re old souls who enjoy going to bed at 10pm, and who think it’s absolutely absurd when a hotel breakfast doesn’t open until 8am, so the Full Moon Party is clearly SO not our scene.  Also, accommodations all over the islands charge double or sometimes triple their normal rates during Full Moon Party week, which definitely doesn’t mesh well with our new frugal lifestyle.  We’re basically crotchety cheap old people now.  Luckily, we weren’t there for the full moon.

In spite of the full moon party, Koh Phangan is a great island for inexpensive beach getaways for couples, families, and solo travelers.  Its great-value accommodations, beautiful beaches, and cheap motorbike rentals make it my favorite island I’ve visited so far in Thailand.

Koh Phangan Accommodations

One of the best things about Koh Phangan is its reasonably priced accommodations.  In general, prices are much lower than its island neighbors Koh Samui and Koh Tao.  A bed in a hostel dorm without aircon can be found for under $5 US, and “rustic” beachfront bungalows can be had for as little as $12 US/night.  After spending six nights in Koh Tao without aircon, we decided to splurge in Koh Phangan.

The Baan Manali Resort

We spent our first two nights in Koh Phangan in a little slice of heaven called the Baan Manali Resort.  Our aircon seaview bungalow came out to $35/night, a splurge for us.  Unfortunately, it didn’t include breakfast, but we took full advantage of the beachfront infinity pool, the beach lounge chairs, and our own personal hammock.  It’s a small resort with less than 15 bungalows, and felt more like we were guests at someone’s home than a resort.  This homey feeling isn’t for everyone, especially if you don’t enjoy someone else’s kids running around naked outside your bungalow.  It was a little weird sometimes, but totally worth it for the awesome bungalow:

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Our Sweet Little Bungalow

Check out the bungalow view from our bed:

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View from our Bungalow

The inside was spotless and super nice:

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Inside our Bungalow

And the bathroom was awesome:

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Nice Bungalow Bathroom

The bathroom even had a plant!  I love plants!

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Our Bungalow House Plant

Kevin spent a lot of time working in the hammock:

Hammock Driven Development

Hammock Driven Development

It had a pretty great breakfast area too:

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Baan Manali Breakfast Area

The Baan Manali is about a 15-minute walk from Thong Sala, the shopping/restaurants/ferry hub of Koh Phangan, but it’s still far enough away to be a quiet retreat.  We’d definitely recommend this spot for couples as well as for families.  It’s not located on a great swimming beach, so a motorbike is a MUST if you plan to hit the beaches.

Salad Beach Resort

Sometimes you walk into a resort and know immediately that they’re going to nickel and dime you for everything.  The Salad Beach Resort is definitely one of these places.  The front desk is plastered with signs threatening guests with fees for checking out late or for not returning borrowed beach towels.  In our room, we found a long list of how much each item in our room costs, including the travel-sized bottles of shampoo (that’ll cost you 100 Baht!).

I didn’t take many photos at the resort, but I will say this – at the bargain basement price of $27/night for a huge room with aircon and breakfast included, we would definitely stay again!  Salad Beach Resort is located on the Northwest side of Koh Phangan, situated on one of the best beaches on the island.  It’s about a half hour drive north of the ferry terminals.  The hotel offers a shuttle to/from the ferry terminal for a fee (of course!) of 150-200 Baht per person one-way depending on the time of day.

Their pool was really pretty and clean:

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Salad Beach Resort Pool

And because the resort is located on one of the best beaches, it’s surrounded by lots of other nice resorts.  We decided to live life on the edge, and pool hopped resort to resort.  Here was our fave, a three-tiered infinity pool right on the beach at the Salad Buri Resort:

The Salad Buri Resort pool we snuck into!

The Salad Buri Resort pool we snuck into!

Koh Phangan Spa Treatments

A relaxing beach getaway isn’t complete without a trip to the spa.  We visited Relax Spa, the highest rated spa on the island, which was just down the road from the Baan Manali Resort.  We each got an hour-long foot massage for 300 Baht ($9.35), and it was the best massage of our lives.  We went up to a private 2-person room with the aircon cranked up high, and these ladies knew exactly what they were doing.  Here’s a peek at the room:

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Pure Relax Spa – amaaaaaazing!

It’s possible we may return to Koh Phangan specifically to go to this spa again… it was that good…

Koh Phangan Transportation Scams

Google “Koh Phangan Motorbike Rentals” and you’ll be assailed with many a horror story about tourists being scammed out of thousands of Baht for motorbike scratches that they swear they didn’t make.  All across Thailand, the common practice for motorbike renters is to hold your passport until the bike is returned safe and sound, even though this practice is technically illegal.  The best way to avoid a bad situation is to do your homework – get a rental company recommendation from a friend or from your hotel.  If that’s not possible, stake out a rental shop and see how closely they look at motorbikes when renters return them.  I’ve seen other tourists take video walk-arounds of their motorbikes before riding them off of the property.  It definitely pays to be proactive.

We rented from Kate’s Motorbike Rentals in Koh Phangan for just 150 Baht per day and didn’t have any problems.  A motorbike is definitely the best and cheapest way to explore Koh Phangan:

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Gotta love motorbiking!

Another way to get around Koh Phangan is via Songathew Taxis.  On the islands in Thailand, these taxis are a total racket!  The prices are generally fixed at 200 Baht per person no matter where you’re going in Koh Phangan (that’s 10x the price we pay in Chiang Mai!).  If the taxi is empty, they’ll try to get 400 Baht out of you!  A wise traveler once told me never to seek out a taxi without first figuring out the fair price – ask your hotel reception, ask a waiter or a barista, and don’t be afraid to walk away if they quote a higher price.  There’s always another taxi down the road.

Koh Phangan Beaches

Beach Selfie!

Beach Selfie!

Ao Nai Wok Beach

Our trip started out at Ao Nai Wok beach, where the Baan Manali Resort is located.  This beach is super shallow, terrible for swimming, and a bit dirty because it’s so close to the ferry terminal.  However, it’s a prime location to catch a great sunset, and there’s a swing!

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We Love Beach Swings!

We also did some rock climbing:

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Kevin Rocks

We really like climbing on rocks, apparently:

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Melanie Rocks Too

Haad Salad

Haad Salad, aka Salad Beach, is where we spent most of our time.  Its fine white sand and deeper waters made a great spot for swimming and frolicking.  It’s also a great spot to catch a beautiful sunset:

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Salad Beach Sunset

This beach also had a fun swing:

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Salad Beach Swing

Unfortunately, there were some jellyfish warnings on our last day.  That didn’t really stop us from swimming, but several of these big ugly guys were washing up on the beach:

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Salad Beach Jellyfish!

Mae Haad and Koh Ma

We motorbiked one morning over to Mae Haad, another beach on the Northwest part of Koh Phangan.  This beach has a lot more reef areas, so it didn’t seem like the best spot for swimming, but is supposed to be a great snorkel location during high tide.  It’s also a good spot for beach combing – I saw a lot of great seashells here:

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Mae Haad Beach

The cool thing about Mae Haad is that the tiny island of Koh Ma which lies just offshore is only accessible over a sand bar during low tide.  We went early in the morning during low tide to take a peek:

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Sand Bar to Koh Ma during low tide

Also, they had an awesome toy I’ve never heard of before.  It’s a water tricycle!  Check this out – you pedal and can bike through the water.  Mind blown:

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Water Tricycle at Mae Haad Beach

Koh Phangan Food

Most of the food we had on Koh Phangan was disappointing.  We really only ate grossly overpriced western food and slightly overpriced greasy street food at the night market:

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Koh Phangan Night Market in Thongsala

We did have three good food experiences on the island, though.  The shining star of the street market was the donut lady.  I’m not even a donut person, but I have had dreams of her vanilla-custard-filled masterpieces.  They’re dusted with what can only be a mixture of fine bakers sugar, powdered sugar, and crack.  It’s so good we visited her three times during our four days on the island:

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DONUT LADY at the Thongsala Market

The vanilla-filled goodness:

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Vanilla Cream Donut Delight

If you’ve visited Thailand, you’ll know it’s a bit tricky to find a great sandwich.  A lot of places will serve you a slice of ham and a processed piece of “American Cheese” on wonder bread with the crusts cut off.  In fact, that’s what our hotel gave us when we had to check out super early to get to our ferry.  It was such a sad meal:

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Sad, sad ham and cheese sandwich on the ferry ride. :(

We stumbled onto a little gem called Nira’s Bakery, which served fabulous sandwiches.  They were chock full of veggies and served with POTATO CHIPS, which I haven’t had since before April!  Highly recommend:

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Delicious Chicken Salad and Veggie Delight Sandwiches at Nira’s Bakery!

The best Thai food we’ve had in Southern Thailand so far was a small restaurant we stumbled upon on Salad Beach called Jang’s Thai Kitchen.  It’s run by a friendly Australian expat and his Thai wife, and they serve fabulous food and enormous portions.  We sat at a table on the beach after sunset with the sand between our toes and enjoyed the Panang Curry and Peanut Sauce Stir Fry.  They also offer cooking classes!  It was dark so I didn’t get a great photo, but this sort of catches the ambiance:

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Beachfront dinner at Jang’s Thai Kitchen on Salad Beach

Getting to Koh Phangan

Our travels to and from Koh Phangan were interesting this time around.  On the way there, we saw this guy at the ferry pier carrying a bunny around on his shoulder:

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Man with a Bunny

And on the way home, a woman was washing her cat in the Surat Thani airport bathroom sink, so that was strange:

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Airport Bathroom Cat…

We also noted that at DMK Airport in Bangkok, there’s a golf course right on the airport grounds, with no fence separating it from the runway.  Never seen that before!

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No big deal, just a golf course next to the runway…

The best way to get from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan is to fly to DMK Airport on Air Asia or Nok Air, then travel onward on Air Asia or Nok to Koh Phangan.  For some reason, you can’t book these two legs together, so you have to leave enough time at DMK to pick up any checked bags and re-check-in with your airline.  Leg number two from DMK to Koh Phangan takes awhile – with Air Asia you fly to Surat Thani Airport (1+ hour), bus to Donsak Pier (under 2hrs), then take a rustic ferry to Koh Phangan (about 2hrs).  The one-way trip from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan should run just under $100 per person.  It’s a full day of traveling.  The ferry part was interesting – we were booked with Air Asia which uses Raja Ferry Service.

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Raja Ferry from Koh Phangan to Donsak Pier

The inside wasn’t air-conditioned, which was fine because it was morning.  The chairs were sort of old and rickety, but they did have a convenience store for snacks.  The bathroom was a nightmare with an inch of standing water on the floor.  Sigh.  But we made the best of it:

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Ferry Warriors!

There were some pretty great views coming into Donsak Pier:

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Beautiful view coming into Donsak Pier

Donsak Pier was a bit, um, worn down:

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Donsak Pier is just a bit rusty…

It’s also possible to fly Bangkok Airways directly to Koh Samui from Chiang Mai for $170 one-way, take a taxi to a ferry terminal (maybe $10), then ferry to Koh Phangan (abour $8), but the stars have to align for you to avoid an overnight stay in Koh Samui which could run you over $50.

We Want to Hear From You!

What do you look for in a good beach vacation?  Can you offer up any suggestions for us of Thailand’s western seaboard – next on our list is the Phuket and Krabi areas.  The things we value in a good beach vacation are: reasonable price/value ratio, nice clean white sand beaches, and apparently good donuts.

Prices of Everyday Living in Thailand

Sunsets in Thailand are free

Sunsets in Thailand are free

People are always asking us how much things cost in Thailand.  You’ve probably noticed in some of my posts that Kevin and I have become much more frugal since moving over here (I thought we were frugal in Seattle, but now I kick myself if we spend more than $10 at a meal!).  Aside from being unemployed, the other big reason behind our frugality is that the prices of everyday living in Thailand are incredibly low, especially in Chiang Mai where we’re based.  In an attempt to offer up an excuse for being so cheap now, and to hopefully get a free pass for making some of the “Omigod how can anyone afford that” comments that I know will slip out once we’re back home, I’ve pulled together a list of the prices of common things we buy here.

Prices of Everyday Living in Thailand

Accommodations

What: A beautiful top floor 1-bedroom apartment (41 sq. m)
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 14,000 Baht/month
Cost (US): $438/month
We have free access to the onsite gym and pool.  Our water bill each month runs about 200 Baht ($6.27) and electric is usually around 1400 Baht ($43.87).

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What: Midrange hotel room in Thailand with aircon, pool, and breakfast
Where: Sakulchai Place Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 838 Baht/night (includes taxes and fees)
Cost (US): $26/night (includes taxes and fees)

Groceries

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What: Bananas, Mangos, and Papaya
Where: Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): Bananas are 20 Baht/bunch, Mangos are 30-45 Baht/kilo, half a sliced papaya is 15 Baht
Cost (US): Bananas are $0.63/bunch, Mangos are $0.94-$1.45 for 2.2 pounds, half a sliced papaya is $0.47
The Ton Payom Market is out west of Chiang Mai, and is frequented mostly by locals and expats living in Chiang Mai.  Because of that, prices are probably lower in general than they might be for fruit in the Old City where tourists tend to stay.  We don’t bargain at all for our food at the market – when we first moved here we got hung up on paying the list price for produce, but bargaining is stressful and just doesn’t save enough money to justify it, in our opinion.  We happily pay the listed price for anything at the Ton Payom Market nowadays.  As you can see, it’s pretty much a bargain even at full price!

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What: Lychees
Where: Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 20-100 Baht/kilo
Cost (US): $0.60-$3.13 for 2.2 pounds
Yesterday’s lychees are always the deeply discounted ones; the freshest fruit is always the most expensive.  We like to go for the cheap bag, and try to eat it within two days.  If you let them go too long, sometimes they can start to smell and taste like dirty socks.  Then it’s just time to bite the bullet and toss ‘em out.

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What: 1 Kilogram of Rambutan
Where: Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht per Kilogram
Cost (US): $0.94 per 2.2 pounds

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What: 10 Large Eggs
Where: Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 36 Baht
Cost (US): $1.13

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What: Goldfish Crackers!
Where: Rimping Supermarket (importer of almost everything!), Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 90 Baht
Cost (US): $2.82
We buy these for special occasions and emergence goldfish cravings.

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What: Bag of 8 Persimmons
Where: Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht
Cost (US): $0.94

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What: Small jar of Nutella
Where: Rimping Supermarket, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 99 Baht
Cost (US): $3.10

Drinks

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What: Bubble Tea
Where: Mont Blanc, Nimman Neighborhood, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 35 Baht
Cost (US): $1.10

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What: Iced Latte or Iced Mocha
Where: Kaweh Cafe, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 50 Baht for any drink between 8-11am
Cost (US): $1.57 for any drink between 8-11am

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What: Typical Iced Coffee in a sit-down aircon cafe
WhereAnywhere near Nimman in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 55-70 Baht
Cost (US): $1.72-$2.19

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What: Lychee Smoothie
Where: Doi Coffee, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 70 Baht
Cost (US): $2.19

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What: Water Delivery Service
Where: Polestar Water Delivery Company, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 20 Baht per giant 50L jug
Cost (US): $0.63
“Nice Jugs”

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What: Leo Beer (the best Thai beer we’ve found), Imported Cooper’s Pale Ale from Australia, Imported Budweiser
Where: Rimping Supermarket, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 53 Baht for Leo, 80 Baht for the Pale Ale, 99 Baht for the Budweiser
Cost (US): $1.66 for Leo, $2.51 for the Pale Ale, $3.10 for the Budweiser (crazy, right?)

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What: Ben More Scotch Whiskey (740 ml)
Where: Any 7-11 Store in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 389 Baht
Cost (US): $12.19

Lunches and Dinners

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What: Som Tam (shredded papaya salad with lime, beans, carrots, peanuts and fish sauce)
Where: Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 40 Baht
Cost (US): $1.25

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What: Salad Pak Palomai (leafy green salad with tons of fruits, and pumpkin dressing)
Where: Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 70 Baht
Cost (US): $2.19

IMG_4655What: Vegetarian Massuman Curry with Brown Rice
Where: Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 60 Baht
Cost (US): $1.88

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What: Yogurt, Fruit and Muesli
Where: Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 60 Baht
Cost (US): $1.88

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What: Avocado Cream Salad
Where: Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 100 Baht
Cost (US): $3.13

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What: Whole Grilled Chicken
Where: The Chicken Shack in Chiang Mai (Not sure of the real name, see map in my previous post.)
Cost (Thai): 140-150 Baht per chicken
Cost (US): $4.39-$4.70 per chicken

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What: Pad Thai
Where: The Pad Thai Family street food stall near Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand (see this post for map)
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht per plate
Cost (US): $0.94 per plate

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What: Kanom Krok coconut dessert
Where: Street food on Suthep Road in front of Bangkok Bank west of Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 20 Baht for 8 pairs of Kanom Krok
Cost (US): $0.63 for 8 pairs of Kanom Krok

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What: Indian Food – two meat entrees with naan and rice
Where: Taj Mahal Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 320 Baht
Cost (US): $10.03
This Indian food was nowhere as good as Taste of India in Seattle… oh how we miss Taste of India.

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What: Rice Noodle Soup with Pork and a Wonton
Where: A little place we call the Suthep Soup Spot, east of Wat Suan Dok but West of Sriphat Hospital, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht
Cost (US): $0.94

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What: Any meal with tofu, chicken or pork
Where: The Organic Vegetable Restaurant, which we call the 40 Baht Spot
Cost (Thai): 40 Baht for any dish with chicken, pork or tofu
Cost (US): $1.25 for any dish chicken, pork or tofu

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What: Pad See Iew with Pork
Where: The first food stall south of Kaweh Cafe on Siri Mankalajarn Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht
Cost (US): $0.94

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What: Tea Leaf Salad, Braised Pork, Bean Soup, and 2 servings of Steamed Rice
Where: Burmese Restaurant and Library, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 120 Baht
Cost (US): $3.76

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What: Large Pepperoni Pizza, Large Chang Beer, and Tip
Where: Why Not? Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 400 Baht
Cost (US): $12.54
This is our splurge restaurant.  Spending over $10 for a meal is a rarity for us here!

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What: A plate of Khao Kha Moo (pulled pork), rice, egg and sauce
Where: The famous Cowboy Hat Lady at Chang Phuak Gate, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 30 Baht per plate
Cost (US): $0.94 per plate

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What: Six pieces of Grade A Tuna Sashimi drizzled with sesame, soy, pickled ginger and wasabi sauce
Where: Barracuda Restaurant, Koh Tao, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 180 Baht
Cost (US): $5.64

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What: Hawaiian Burger
Where: Burger Queen, Pai, thailand
Cost (Thai): 95 Baht
Cost (US): $2.98

 

Transportation

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What: Minibus to Pai, a 4-hour drive (for transport details, see this post)
Where: Terminal Green Minibus Service, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 180 Baht/person
Cost (US): $5.64/person

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What: 24-hour Motorbike Rental
Where: Pai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 120 Baht
Cost (US): $3.76

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What: Overnight 10-hour bus ride on a First Class Bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok
Where: Green Bus Company, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 426 Baht/person
Cost (US): $13.35/person

 

Miscellaneous

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What: ATM fees
Where: Anywhere in Chiang Mai
Cost (Thai): 180 Baht per transaction
Cost (US): $5.64/transaction
Crazy, right?  It costs over $5 every time you take out money.  To combat this problem, we use the Charles Schwab Investor Checking card, because they refund all ATM fees!  Bangkok Bank is a bit cheaper, only charging 150 Baht/transaction, but that’s still $4.70.

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What: Monthly storage pod for all our worldly belongings (except our sofa, which is in Katie & Erik’s basement… thanks guys!)
Where: Hansen Brothers Storage in Seattle, WA
Cost (US): $39/month for 1 box

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What: SSI Open Water Scuba Certification
Where: Roctopus Dive School, Koh Tao, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 9800 Baht per person.  With 2 people doing the class, they included 4 nights of accommodations!
Cost (US): $307/person.
Open Water Certification consists of three half-day classroom sessions, one afternoon of shallow water training, and 4 Scuba Dives up to 18m deep.

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What: Traditional Thai Massage
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): About 200 Baht/hour
Cost (US): About $6.27/hour
The photo above was post-massage, which is why I look slightly unhinged.  At almost all massage places, they issue you these baggy pants and a cotton button-up top for traditional Thai massages.

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What: Dental checkup and cleaning
Where: Mukmai Dental Clinic, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cost (Thai): 800 Baht
Cost (US): $25.07

 

Our Monthly Budget

Curious what it costs to live in Chiang Mai for a month?  Check out this post for details about our monthly budget.

 

We Want to Hear From You!

Do these prices surprise you?  Are you curious about the cost of other things in Chiang Mai?  If so, leave me a comment and I’ll add it to the post!

Going to the Dentist in Chiang Mai

Mukmai Dental Clinic in Chiang Mai

Mukmai Dental Clinic in Chiang Mai

Going to the dentist can be an adventure no matter where you are in the world, but it is extra intimidating when you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with social norms.  When I was a kid, my parents were only able to get me to go to the dentist by promising we’d walk next door to the toy store after I was done.  To this day, I expect someone to buy me something every time I exit a dental office.  (Mom and Dad, I’m watching the mail for some sort of package to arrive…  hint hint… send dark chocolate!)

Which Dentist in Chiang Mai Did I Pick?

Mukmai Dental Clinic

Mukmai Dental Clinic

I decided to make a visit to a Dentist in Chiang Mai, Thailand because it’s time for my 6-month checkup, and I’ve been a little freaked out about my teeth since I basically sit around drinking sugary coffees all day…

I did a little research and found Mukmai Dental Clinic, a small dental practice in the Old City neighborhood of Chiang Mai that belongs to Dr. Suttipong Soontaracharn (say that name five times fast…).  This dentist comes highly recommended by fellow expats online.  Rumor has it he has many plaques.  I hear this guy deserves a crown.

Anyway, all dental puns aside, I called the receptionist (tel: 053-416328) and managed to schedule a cleaning and checkup without any problems.  They even got me in within a few days of my phone call.

How Did It Go?

I hate to disappoint you, but it was not much different from a dental visit in the US.  It was a nice, immaculately clean office with air conditioning.  The equipment wasn’t as new as what you might find at a dentist in Seattle, but I’m pretty sure Dr. Suttipong charges fair rates as opposed to the exorbitant rates many dentists in the US charge.

The waiting room was great:

Comfy Waiting Room Chairs

Comfy Waiting Room Chairs

The receptionist desk sported a wooden elephant sculpture, which I thought was great:

Receptionist Desk

Receptionist Desk

I happened to use their ladies’ room before my appointment, and noted that they have hand soap, paper towels, and a ton of toilet paper.  If that’s not an indicator of a classy facility, I don’t know what is.

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Dr. Suttipong spoke perfect English and was super nice.  He explained everything he was doing and gave really thorough answers to all of my questions.  In most dental offices in Seattle, you spend all your time with the dental hygenist and only get a 2-minute visit from the dentist.  At Mukmai, however, Dr. Suttipong did the whole checkup and cleaning himself.  He definitely went to town with the scraping – my gums felt quite violated when I left, but they were plaque-free and clean.  Here’s a peek at the actual dental chair:

The Dental Chair

The Dental Chair

There were a few small surprises during my visit:

  • Instead of giving me sunglasses, they just laid a tissue over my eyes during the cleaning.
  • My cleaning was, um, intense.  My gums definitely took a beating and bled accordingly.  I’m pretty sure that most peoples’ gums bleed at the dentist, but in the US the hygienist usually squirts water in your mouth and suctions it out during the cleaning so you don’t see all the gore.  Here, they had me rinse and spit, so that was fun to see…
  • I was not issued a free toothbrush or given dental floss or toothpaste samples before I left!  Such a bummer!  If you’re anything like me, you tend to load up at dental visits.  I heart freebies.
  • Dr. Suttipong never recommends unnecessary treatments/procedures.  I asked about x-rays, but he said my teeth looked so good it wasn’t necessary.  I asked if I should consider coming back in three months for a checkup before we leave Thailand, but he encouraged me to wait until next Spring.  In the US, I feel like most dental offices treat their patients as potential sources of revenue and try to squeeze every dollar out of them that they can.  It’s not like that at all with Dr. Suttipong.

How Much Does a Visit to a Dentist in Chiang Mai Cost?

This is the best part of the whole visit!  I only have coverage for dental emergencies, which means I pay for a routine cleaning like this completely out of pocket.  I think a routine dental visit at my old Dentist in Seattle billed something like $250-$300 to insurance.  My cleaning at Mukmai Dental Clinic cost just 800 Baht, or about $25 USD.

Back home, I recently had three cavities filled.  I had full dental coverage through Boeing, but between the deductible, co-insurance, and having to pay the extra cost to get white composite fillings instead of silver fillings, it cost me about $280 out of pocket.  At Mukmai, it costs about 1000 Baht for a single filling, which is about $33 USD.  What a deal!

This inexpensive dental care has led to the popularity of “Dental Tourism” here in Thailand.  For some Americans or Europeans facing costly dental procedures, it can be cheaper to fly to Thailand, have a vacation, and get the dental work done here than it would be to do it in their home country.  What a way to fund a vacation, right?!

Would I Go Back?

Definitely!  I probably wouldn’t travel for 24 hours just to get here, but I’d recommend Mukmai Dental Clinic to anyone living in Chiang Mai looking for quality dental care.  I’ll be sending Kevin to get his teeth cleaned there very soon…

We Want to Hear From You!

Do you have any dental adventure stories from your travels?  Any dental emergencies or strange dental experiences you’ve had in foreign countries?

Top 5 Things We Miss Most While Living in Thailand

Let's start this post with a beautiful photo in Chiang Mai - this is from Wat Suan Dok, the temple 50 yards from our apartment.

Let’s start this post with a beautiful Chiang Mai photo.  This is taken at Wat Suan Dok, the temple 50 yards from our apartment.

We’ve been living abroad for over three months now, and spent some time this week reflecting on what we miss most about the good ol’ US of A.  The thing we miss the most is definitely seeing our friends and family; it was so sad to spend 4th of July this year without our annual gathering of friends in our backyard.  It’s also tough to be over here so far from home when so many of our loved ones have babies who are growing up so quickly!  When we left, the newest baby in the group was the size of a small chicken.  We just skyped with those friends a couple weeks ago, and now he’s the size of a butterball turkey.  HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!  Aside from our friends and family, we came up with a list of the top 5 things we miss from the USA.

The Top 5 Things We Miss:

#1: Good Public Bathrooms

My general frustration with the toilet situation in Southeast Asia has undoubtedly been apparent in some of my previous blog posts.  To get an idea of the despair I feel when I walk into a bathroom that is completely devoid of toilet paper and hand soap, please follow this link and press the blue button.  We’ve lived here long enough that we have a short list of public bathrooms which stock what we call the “Triple Crown”: hand soap, toilet paper and paper towels.

We’ve racked up quite a list of weird bathroom experiences since we got here.  To name a few: I nearly tipped over a toilet that was not bolted to the ground which caused all the water to flood out onto the bathroom floor, Kevin accidentally used a broken urinal that essentially just drains everything right out onto the floor, and I almost wiped out when my foot slipped on a wet “squat toilet” at a sketchy rest stop on the way to Pai (also, a cat was watching me in that bathroom, which I find to be extra weird).

#2: Regular Business Hours

In Thailand, there’s no such a thing as regular business hours.  If business isn’t hoppin’, it’s fairly common that a restaurant or shop will just close up for the day.  Most businesses here are family run, which means that staff are pretty single-threaded.  So if someone is sick, or if the family has other things going on, they just post a sign in the window saying they’re closed for 1 day.  This has bitten us a lot here since our favorite coffee shop only has one barista!  Even in the finance world, hours are really short – the bank we use regularly is open from just 10am-3pm.  We’ve tried to get used to this and roll with it, but it’s hard to be patient when you walk to your favorite coffee shop in 90+ degree weather, looking forward to their awesome aircon and iced drinks, only to find that they’re closed.  HULK SO MAD.

#3: Cleanliness

While cleanliness isn’t a huge issue here in Thailand, it’s enough of a problem that it might be slowly driving me crazy.  In Seattle, your neighbors will shun you if you leave put out your garbage bins when it’s not trash day.  In Chiang Mai, it’s pretty normal to walk past a big bin or pile of trash every hundred hards or so.  I have also become an absolute nut job about watching out for dog poop.  There are tons of stray dogs in Chiang Mai, so there is poop everywhere.  It reminds me of this video clip:

There are also just a lot more smells associated with a tropical climate – hot weather enhances the smell of everything, from the smell of durian fruit to the smell of the squid vendor.  And let’s be honest here, we don’t exactly smell awesome all the time in 90+ degree weather, either.  One thing is for sure, your cleanliness standards definitely adjust quickly when they have to – I am 100% ok with using bar soap in a public restroom now.  This is happening.

#4: Reliable Infrastructure

I miss strict electrical regulations.  We’ve become fairly accustomed to power outages, and we are unfazed at this point when we hear the familiar crackling and see electrical arcing in Chiang Mai’s electrical wire connections.  The electrical system here is a mess – in the old city I could reach up and grab electrical wires with hardly any effort.  Traffic was stopped outside a cafe one day because a live wire had fallen into the road.  And then there was the day we saw the electrical workers in the photo below run out into moving traffic with their bamboo ladder to work on a wire:

Don't mind me, just climbing on my ladder in the road...

Don’t mind me, just climbing on my ladder in the road…

I’m also getting tired of blocked or nonexistent sidewalks.  Pedestrians don’t get any respect here.  If you were in a wheel chair or on crutches, don’t even bother visiting Chiang Mai.  When did sidewalks become appropriate places to park motorbikes, anyway?!  It’s so tricky to walk around here – even if you’re in a crosswalk and the light is red, cars still won’t voluntarily stop for you to cross!  You have to force them to stop by bravely walking out into the road!

#5: Beer

Budweiser. So sad.

Budweiser. So sad.

The main beer brands in Thailand are Leo, Chang and Singha, and they are woefully inferior to the fantastic craft beer selection we took for granted in Seattle.  Nowadays we drink our beers on ice to take out some of the “slap-you-in-the-face-bad-taste”.  The situation is so dire that we picked up a can of Budweiser for the 4th of July and it tasted GOOD.  What is this madness?!

We want to hear from you!

Are you surprised at some of the things that made our list?  Are you shocked at something we left off?  What do you think you’d miss if you moved abroad?  Cheese? Peanut butter?  Bounty paper towels and Charmin toilet paper?  I thought I’d miss cheese more than I do (good cheese here is outrageously expensive and reasonably priced cheese is outrageously gross) but I’m fine without it.

The Little Island of Koh Chang

Beautiful Koh Chang Sunset

Beautiful Koh Chang Sunset

We recently returned from a quick trip down to the beautiful island of Koh Chang, Thailand.  Koh Chang is situated in the Gulf of Thailand, not far from Cambodia.  We decided to make the trip there in low season (i.e. “rainy season”) to take advantage of the bargain-basement resort prices.  We lucked out and won the weather lottery, and it only seemed to rain at times when we weren’t at the beach or pool – jackpot!  As an added bonus, it was raining when we left – I LOVE when it’s raining on the day you’re forced to leave the beach!

See, it rained when we were leaving!

See? It rained when we were leaving!

Getting to Koh Chang is not easy!

In fact, it’s damn near impossible.  The map below shows the route we took to get from Chiang Mai to Koh Chang.  We do not recommend it for the faint hearted – if you spend just forty extra US dollars, you can shave over 10 hours off of the journey!  Unfortunately for us, we have an overinflated sense of adventure, and an under-inflated travel budget.  Let’s be honest here, that’s usually a terrible combination.

 

We decided to try our hand at traveling the “cheap route” to Koh Chang, figuring that at the very least it would be an adventure.  We didn’t realize it would be a neverending saga that would leave us feeling nickeled and dimed.  There’s really nothing worse than feeling like people are taking advantage of you – I do not enjoy being charged double the rate charged for locals.  Kevin and I call it the “tourist tax”.  It sucks, but it’s really just life here, and it’s easier to pay the extra couple of dollars than try to argue with someone in a language you don’t speak.

Anyway, our disaster of a journey down to Koh Chang went something like this:

Leg #1: We started with a Songathaew ride from our apartment to the Arcade Bus Station.  Songathaews in Chiang Mai are essentially just organized hitchhiking.  You flag down one of these red pickup trucks, tell the driver where you’re going, and if he agrees to your destination, you hop into the covered truck bed with bench seating.  Cost: 40 Baht (US$1.25) per person.  Time: 30-minutes.

Leg #2: Next, we grabbed a 10-hour overnight bus to Bangkok’s Northernmost bus terminal, Mo Chit.  Our bus left at 8pm and arrived at 6am.  It was surprisingly not that bad!  Everyone gets a blanket and head pillow, the seats recline nearly flat, and they give you tons of snacks and a bottle of water.  For $14/person, it’s not a bad deal!  If it weren’t for the strange 2am stop at a bus station, it would’ve been fairly normal.  We didn’t take a “VIP” bus, but noticed there was a buffet at the bus stop for VIP customers.  There’s nothing like hitting a Thai Buffet at two in the morning, amirite?!  I was glad for the stop even without getting to go to the buffet – I only used the onboard bus bathroom once on our trip, and it was a harrowing experience.  I don’t know about you, but a bathroom with water sloshing all over the place in a moving vehicle is not my cup of tea.  Cost: 463 Baht (US$14.40) per person.  Time: 10-hours.

Leg #3: After arriving to Bangkok’s noisy, dusty Mo Chit bus station at 6am, we wandered around in a complete daze trying to find some coffee.  We eventually stumbled upon the booths selling minibus fares to Trat and snagged two tickets for a 7:30am departure.  This is where things started to get sketchy.  Minibus drivers in Thailand are absolutely insane – did you know that red lights are just guidelines, and that it’s perfectly ok to drive on the shoulder?  Cost 270 Baht (US$8.40) per person.  Time: 5 hours.

Ticket Booths and Minibusses at Mo Chit

Ticket Booths and Minibusses at Mo Chit

Leg #4: After our 5-hour white-knuckle drive from Bangkok to Trat, we were dropped off at what seemed like someone’s front porch, and told we had to pay 130 Baht/person more for our next minibus and the ferry.  We didn’t really have any other options, so we paid up even though it felt like a scam – it’s just $4, right?  I also had to pay 5 Baht to use their bathroom, which didn’t flush, had no toilet paper, and didn’t have a sink to wash my hands.  Sigh.  We hopped on a 20-minute minibus ride to Ao Thammachat Ferry Terminal.  Cost: 130 Baht (US$4) per person.  Time: 20 minutes.

Leg #5: Ferries in Thailand are not quite like Washington State Ferries.  The paint on our ferry to Koh Chang was peeling, everything metal was rusted, most windows didn’t close, and it was rocking and rolling so much that I was looking around for the nearest exit and life jackets.  Luckily, we made the 30-minute ferry trip safely to Koh Chang.  Cost: Included in Leg #4 fee.  Time: 30 minutes.

Leg #6: Upon arrival in Koh Chang, we were absolutely bombarded by Songathaew drivers hoping to take us to our hotel.  Based on my previous research, we were again hit with the tourist tax – they charged us double the usual rate, but it was raining and I didn’t feel like we had much of a choice.  Cost: 100 Baht (US$3.10) per person.  Time: 15 minutes.

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Welcome to Koh Chang!

The Total: 30-minute songathew + 10-hour bus + 5-hour minibus + 20-minute minibus + 30-minute ferry + 15-minute songathew = nearly 20 hours of traveling for the bargain price of just 1003 Baht ($31) per person.

The Verdict:  We do not recommend that you do what I just described – it was not fun.  For our trip back home to Chiang Mai, we did something MUCH smarter.  We paid 650 Baht (US$20) per person for a minibus that picked us up right at our hotel in Koh Chang and took us straight to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, then we flew to Chiang Mai on Bangkok Air for 1590 Baht (US$50) per person.  It cost over twice as much to travel home, but we got there in less than half the time.  I also absolutely love Bangkok Air and will fly with them any chance I get – they have free checked bags, a lounge with free snacks, drinks and Wifi at BKK Airport, and they always serve a meal on their flights whether it’s 40-minutes or 5-hours.  I’m pretty sure we ate enough free cookies, muffins, and sandwiches at their Airport lounge to make up the extra money we spent flying, anyway.

A note on Koh Chang weather:  We really lucked out and got some sun in Koh Chang.  However, if you’re flying all the way over from the USA to visit Thailand, we recommend you just suck it up and pay the higher prices to go somewhere that is not currently experiencing its rainy season.  Because the wet seasons vary depending on which of Thailand’s coasts you visit, there’s always somewhere with guaranteed sunshine – spend the money to make your vacation worthwhile!

So how was Koh Chang, anyway?

It was actually fabulous once we finally got there.  Because it was low season, it was nearly deserted.  We scored a pretty good deal on a wonderful little beachfront bungalow at the KC Grande Resort right at the North end of Koh Chang’s popular White Sand Beach.

The KC Grande is the kind of place where they fold swans and elephants out of your towels and sprinkle flower petals on your bed:

 

This resort is also the kind of place where you get a free glass of juice on check-in, and get to hit up the lobby bar for a free welcome cocktail:

Our resort had four pools.  That is not a typo.  They have a beach-front infinity pool where you can swim while you watch the sunset:

The Beachfront Infinity Pool with swim-up bar

The Beachfront Infinity Pool with swim-up bar

There was a rooftop infinity pool which was absolutely deserted during lunch one day – we felt like celebrities up there all by ourselves!  We ordered some lunch and coffees and ate them poolside – we felt like we owned the place:

I couldn’t help but get a rooftop panoramic photo:

Rooftop Infinity Pool

Rooftop Infinity Pool

They also had a pool with an insanely fast water slide that should not be allowed to be used by kids.  It was way too fast, but we loved it.  You should definitely click on the photos below to see them bigger – the look on Kevin’s face is amazing:

There was also a small pool about 20 feet from our bungalow, but I don’t have photos.  They also have a row of lounge chairs right on the beach:

Enjoying Beachfront Loungers

Enjoying Beachfront Loungers

The colossal KC Grande breakfast buffet at the resort was included in our room rate, so we hit it really hard every morning.  They had pancakes, waffles, french toast, pastries, toast, soups, noodle dishes, eggs at least 5 ways every day, sausages, bacon, ham, salad, four kinds of jams, syrup, honey, yogurt and granola, fruits, five kinds of juice, coffee, tea, and an array of cheeses.  We did our best to consume a normal day’s worth of calories at breakfast, and I think we succeeded.  I’m talking three plates per person at breakfast.  The seating next to the beach wasn’t bad, either:

Breakfast on the Beach!

Breakfast on the Beach!

We did go for a barefoot run on the beach one day to try to make up for that buffet breakfast.  I was going to wear my red one-piece swimsuit and let my hair down and run around Baywatch style, but common sense prevailed and I wore actual running clothes:

Morning Beach Run in Koh Chang

Morning Beach Run in Koh Chang

We also found a swing on the beach while we were exploring!

Kevin swinging on the beach

Kevin swinging on the beach

And Kevin made one of his lifelong dreams come true – after we woke up, he immediately put on his swim trunks, ran out to the beach, and went into the ocean for a morning swim.  This was before coffee, people!  It was everything he dreamed it would be and more:

We ended up spending most of our time in Koh Chang just hanging around at our resort.  With a view like this one, who wouldn’t, right?

Evening beers on our bungalow porch

Evening beers on our bungalow porch

Do we recommend Koh Chang to others?

If you’re on a really long vacation and you are not crunched for time, we think it’s worth the effort to get there!  However, if you only get two weeks of vacation per year, we would recommend hitting a different Thai beach destination that doesn’t require so much effort to travel to.  Phuket, Krabi, and Koh Samui are a bit more touristy and crowded for a reason – you don’t have to jump through five thousand hoops to get to those destinations.  If you do decide to go to Koh Chang, be sure you book a minibus from Bangkok that will take you all the way across the ferry to the island and deliver you directly to your hotel.  If you have a big travel budget, Bangkok Air operates somewhat pricey flights from Bangkok to Trat, where you can get a minibus and ferry ride over to Koh Chang.