A Long Layover in Seoul

The Newest South Korean King & Queen

The Newest South Korean King & Queen

There’s nothing I dread more than a really long layover.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, has had the scour-the-airport-for-an-electrical-outlet try-to-sleep-on-the-floor wish-you-could-get-some-fresh-air experience of being in an airport for too long.  So when we were faced with a 12-hour layover in Seoul at the Incheon International Airport, I was a little bit worried.  Fortunately for us, Seoul’s Airport is ridiculously awesome!  Read on for the reasons why it’s so wonderful.

Free City Tours

ICN Airport offers seven different types of tours for passengers with long layovers, varying from 1 to 5 hours in length.  SEVEN TYPES OF TOURS!  They have something for everyone – everything from a Seoul Shopping Tour to an Incheon Temple Tour.  Heck, they will even help you plan your own self-guided tour in the city.  The kicker?  It’s 100% free of charge!  Thank you, South Korean taxpayers, for making my stay so awesome.

Free Transit Tours!  YES!

Free Transit Tours! YES!

We chose to go on the Incheon City Tour – we originally wanted to do the Seoul City Tour, but the immigration lines were SO DARN LONG that we missed it.  Lucky for us, the Incheon City Tour is considered “second best” according to the gal at the tour desk, and we think she was right.

Our guide, Mr. Bae, was great.  His first name was “Sang Beom”, which he told us is essentially the Korean equivalent of “Bob”.  Here he is telling us to hurry up and get on the bus:

Our ICN Transit Tour Bus

Our ICN Transit Tour Bus

First stop was Wolmi Park, which has a nice cultural center we visited.  That’s where we took the photo at the top of this post with us dressed up like Korean Royalty.  We also snapped this gem:

Hopefully we can blame this one on jet lag?

Hopefully we can blame this one on jet lag?

We were SO EXCITED to see evergreen bushes and trees in South Korea:

OMG EVERGREENS!

OMG EVERGREENS!

Wolmi Park is pretty fabulous:

At Wolmi Park, they have great photo opportunities

At Wolmi Park, they have great photo opportunities.

They have beautiful ponds and pagodas and bonsai trees.

They have beautiful ponds and pagodas and bonsai trees.

Wolmi Park has butterfly-shaped flower exhibits.

Wolmi Park has butterfly-shaped flower exhibits.

They also have dinosaur-shaped flower exhibits.

They also have dinosaur-shaped flower exhibits.

One thing I thought was really amazing was the pumpkin and squash vines hanging from a trellis.

One thing I thought was really amazing was the pumpkin and squash vines hanging from a trellis.

There were beautiful cosmos fields.

There were beautiful cosmos fields.

At Wolmi park, Mr. Bae even busted out his hacky sack skills!

At Wolmi park, Mr. Bae even busted out his hacky sack skills!

There were also replicas of traditional Korean houses.

There were also replicas of traditional Korean houses.

Next stop on our Incheon City Tour was Sinpo Market!  Anything involving street food always gets us hyped up, so we were super excited.  We read up a little bit using the free wifi at Incheon Airport before leaving, and knew we had to try the spicy fried chicken Sinpo market is known for.

Sinpo Market in Incheon, South Korea

Sinpo Market in Incheon, South Korea

Pro tip: take some South Koreon Won out of an ATM before leaving the airport!  Otherwise you’ll just have to look at all the good food and won’t get to taste any of it. So sad.

Spicy Fried Chicken.  You won't believe how much you get for 8,000 Won, or $8.

Spicy Fried Chicken.  You won’t believe how much you get for 8,000 Won, or $8.

The chicken was DELICIOUS.

The chicken was DELICIOUS.

We also got a monster sushi roll for 2,000 Won, or $2.  It had ham, shrimp, AND egg!

We also got a monster sushi roll for 2,000 Won, or $2.  It had ham, shrimp, AND egg!

The transit tour verdict?  A MUST DO!  I might even schedule in a super long layover next time we travel through South Korea solely for the purpose of taking another tour.

Free Showers

There are lots of travelers I dread sitting next to on an airplane.  There’s the guy with the cold, who is coughing, sneezing and blowing his nose the entire flight.  There’s the lady who wants to be your new bestie and won’t stop quizzing you on all your life details.  There’s also the guy on his way to a bachelor party, who is determined to single-handedly drink all the beer stocked on the entire airplane.  But there’s probably nothing worse than sitting next to the smelly person, who somehow doesn’t realize they need a shower and also prefers to fly with their shoes and socks taken off.  Fun times.

The only thing worse than sitting next to the smelly person is being the smelly person.  No one wants that.  Lucky for all of us, there are free showers at ICN airport!  And let me tell you, after a warm taxi ride to Chiang Mai Airport, followed by a red-eye flight, followed by a long transit tour, we needed a hot shower.  I would’ve settled for a garden hose at this point.

This is the only photo of the showers I got!  I assure you, they were really nice.

This is the only photo of the showers I got!  I assure you, they were really nice.

I expected a shower room that would evoke thoughts of prison; you know, the sterile white tile, the stained grout lines, the crappy shower head. Fortunately, I was way off.  The shower rooms were each more like a nice hotel bathroom than a prison.  They even had rainwater shower heads!  When we walked in, we were greeted by the guy at the desk who cleans the rooms after each use.  He handed us a towel along with organic shampoo and soap. Nice work, Seoul!

Free Cultural Experiences

ICN Airport scores high for being rich in cultural experiences.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to an airport before where they have craft areas set up where you can make traditional Korean handiworks.  There are also musical performances with traditional Korean musical instruments:

Traditional Musical Instrument performance at ICN Airport.

Traditional Musical Instrument performance at ICN Airport.

There was also a String Quartet performing with a piano accompanist!  These were some talented ladies:

String Quartet in ICN Airport.

String Quartet in ICN Airport.

There is even a Royal Parade several times per day!  A parade!  In the airport!  If that’s not enough for you, they also have “Traditional Cult Rehabilitation”:

Traditional Cult Rehabilitation?

Traditional Cult Rehabilitation?  (See the last line on the sign.)

Ok, only kidding on that last one.  Some smart ass scraped some letters off the sign so instead of saying “Traditional Culture Exhibition” I read it like “Traditional Cult Rehabilitation.”  We can blame that one on jet lag!

Restaurants, Cafes and Duty Free Shopping, Oh My!

If the tours, showers, and cult rehabilitation doesn’t keep you busy, there are tons of places where you can spend some of that extra Won you’ve got in your pockets.  ICN Airport is packed with duty free shopping for everything from rice cookers to liquor to fancy jewelry.  If that doesn’t strike your fancy, there is no shortage of restaurants and cafes.  There is even a Guinness cafe with Guinness on tap (for something like $14/pint)!

I liked the Charlie Brown Cafe:

ICN Airport's Charlie Brown Cafe

ICN Airport’s Charlie Brown Cafe

I also got a kick out of the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Here I am, striking a pose at the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Here I am, striking a pose at the Hello Kitty Cafe.  Can you find me?

There are trees.  INSIDE.

Someone at ICN Airport has a green thumb.  The airport is absolutely filled with nature – there are huge beautiful trees, tons of Orchids, there’s even a huge plant wall inside the smoker’s room.

Trees.  Inside!

Trees.  Inside!

Look at these gorgeous orchids.

Look at these gorgeous orchids.

We snagged some really comfortable leather lounge chairs in the relaxation area and napped.  Nothing makes a nap better than being surrounded by beautiful orchids:

Napping at ICN Airport, surrounded by Orchids.

Napping at ICN Airport, surrounded by Orchids.

Transit Hotel

If you just want to hole up in a nice room and shut the world out, it’s easy to do!  Rooms at the slightly pricey but luxurious Transit Hotel allow travelers to escape the airport madness and get some much needed rest.

We Want to Hear From You!

After having such a great time during our long layover in Seoul, I think it’d be nearly impossible to convince me to fly through Tokyo or Beijing ever again.  (Especially after officials in Beijing almost put me into quarantine.  That was fun.)  Have you had any notable, absurd, or just plain awesome airport experiences?  Please share ‘em – I could use a good laugh!

A Creative Twist on the Staycation

This is the last post of my 3-part series on Travel. In my first post, I revealed we’re no longer in the honeymoon phase in our love affair with Thailand. Last week, I shared some thoughts on Slow Travel. This week, I want to pitch a new idea – the Unconventional Staycation.

Do Vacations Make Us Happier?

Cartoon from liebers.com

Cartoon from liebers.com

Do vacations make us happier?  Shockingly, the answer for most people is no! According to a study performed by researchers in the Netherlands, vacationers were the happiest before their vacations. The researchers found that people derive the most pleasure from the planning, anticipating, and looking forward to their travels. The study found that vacation anticipation boosted happiness levels for eight weeks, but that happiness dropped back to the baseline level for most people as soon as they returned home! The only people who reportedly had higher levels of happiness after returning from vacation described their trips as “very relaxing”.

I don’t know about you, but in a world full of flight delays, lost luggage, car trouble, hurricanes, and broken air conditioners, you just about have to win the lottery to be able to describe your getaway as “very relaxing”. Enter a new hair-brained idea…

The Unconventional Staycation

Cartoon by Chuck Ingwersen of wordsandtoons.com

Cartoon by Chuck Ingwersen of wordsandtoons.com

I’d like to pitch a fun idea to you that Kevin’s genius friend Michael came up with. We’ve all probably heard of the concept of the staycation, where you take paid time off of work but opt to stay home rather than travel. It actually sounds like a pretty relaxing idea. You get to sleep in your own bed, don’t have to pay for hotel rooms, no one is going to try to nickel and dime you, and you get to avoid spending 18+ hours on an airplane.

Here’s the new twist – add a cultural bend to your next Staycation. Instead of just spending your week bumming around the house relaxing, use your week off to immerse yourself in a new culture without even leaving your hometown. The US is full of people who have moved here from all over the world, so it’s easier than ever to experience foreign traditions and foods in most cities and towns across America. Rent foreign films, read books about foreign cultures, go out for foreign food, listen to foreign music, throw a themed party (Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Carnivale, etc…), you get the idea!

She Faked a Trip to SE Asia

Beautiful, right?  This is the Sakya Temple in Seattle!

Beautiful, right? This is the Sakya Temple in Seattle!

One girl in the Netherlands took this idea to the next level. For 42 days, she faked a trip to Southeast Asia, fooling all of her friends and family with her Facebook posts showing her awesome trip. She ate exotic Asian foods at restaurants in her hometown of Amsterdam, visited a temple to talk to Buddhist monks, and even posted pictures of her snorkeling! (Turns out the photo was taken in a pool, and fish were photoshopped in later, but I don’t judge.)

The whole fake trip was a college project to show that posts on Facebook don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of peoples lives. I have to give her credit for her commitment – she even decorated her room to look like a Southeast Asia hotel, and skyped with her family at odd hours of the night. I don’t think it’s necessary to take things that far, but you get the point.

Some Staycation Ideas

I came up with a few staycation ideas, but I think this would be easier to brainstorm if I was in Seattle. The wine aisle at Trader Joes would be fabulous for inspiration – their wines are divided up BY COUNTRY. I don’t know about you, but I really like to let booze help me make creative decisions. Here are some of my ideas:

Bust out your Beret!

Bust out your Beret!

France: Make crepes for breakfast, or have French Toast (I realize that’s probably not actually French, but cut me some slack). Rent the movie Amelie. Pack some baguette sandwiches and go on a lunch picnic. Take up smoking. Buy a beret and wear it around town. Attempt to make croissants (good luck on that one). And, of course, be sure you have a bottle of wine every day. Sounds like a good vacation to me.

Mexico: This one is easy, because almost every town in America has lots of Mexican Food Restaurants where you can eat ALL WEEK LONG. Also, this one means a siesta every afternoon – win! This staycation should end with a bang – grab a piñata from your local party store, put on some mariachi music, throw a fiesta for your friends, and go to town on the margaritas.

Thai Staycation Bonus: You won't get pooped on in the water by an elephant.

Thai Staycation Bonus: You won’t get pooped on in the water by an elephant.

Thailand: This week, you should have noodle or rice soup for breakfast! But no cereal. Splurge a little bit and get a bunch of mangos from Costco this week. Learn to make the heavenly dish that is som tam. If you really want to go all out, hide your hand soap and downgrade to scratchy toilet paper (I still haven’t found anything like Charmin over here). Go to the zoo and look at elephants. Find and visit a Buddhist temple in your area, and try to meet some monks. Go out for as much Thai food as you can handle (spoiler alert: Thai food never, ever gets old).

Bust out your Leiderhosen!

Put on your Leiderhosen!

Germany: Guten tag! The wine of the week is Riesling! Meals this week should be heavy on the meat, potatoes and cheese, and raw vegetables should be scarce. Eat softboiled eggs, prosciutto, brie, and bread rolls for breakfast. BE SURE TO BUY SOME NUTELLA. Bake some homemade pretzels and gingerbread, play lots of Oompah music like you’d hear at Oktoberfest. I will not judge you if you buy a leiderhosen or dirndl and wear it all week long. You should also get your own liter beer mug. Order an imported keg of German beer, and throw your own Oktoberfest party!

England: I don’t care what you do for this one, as long as you talk in a British accent all week.

We Want to Hear from You!

These are just a few of my thoughts – what are your ideas? I get more and more excited about this type of a staycation the more I think about it – how fun would something like this be for kids?!

The Art of Slow Travel

This post is Part 2 of a 3-part series on Travel.  I made a shameful admission last week that Kevin and I have recently discovered we might not like to travel.  (GASP!)  But there’s hope!  A new travel movement called “Slow Travel” is sweeping through the backpacker and digital nomad communities.

What is Slow Travel?

This is how to pack for an extended period of Slow Travel.

This is how to pack for an extended period of Slow Travel.

The Slow Travel movement is something that is quietly becoming a “thang” in our generation.  (I may have made that word up, but I use it all the time, so therefore it is real.  I define a “thang” as a popular trend.  Used in a sentence: “Skinny jeans are a thang now.”)  Slow Travel sprung out of the Slow Food movement, which began in the 1980’s in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonalds in Rome.  Instead of a manic 2-week vacation schedule, packed to the brim with tourist stop after tourist stop, slow travelers try to base their travels in one location and spend their vacation at a much slower pace.  Think about how relaxing it could be to rent a small home in Tuscany and spend your morning at the local farmer’s market, your afternoon reading at your favorite coffee shop, and evenings cooking dinner and enjoying a bottle of wine on your terrace.  In the US, slow travel is manifesting itself as a renewed interest in historic two-lane roads, like Route 66.

Traveling Slowly means you get to make fun trips to immigration.  YAY.

Traveling Slowly means you get to make fun trips to immigration. YAY.

Slow Travel is all about getting to know local people and learning about the culture in a new place instead of checking as many destinations as possible off of a list.  The biggest perk of all?  Slow Travel can be a lot easier on your wallet.  When you rent a place by the week or month, the nightly rates tend to drop dramatically.  Also, traveling slowly tends to mean you get off the tourist trail a little bit.  This can save money in restaurants and shops.  We’ve noticed that in Chiang Mai, a food and groceries tend to cost almost twice as much in the tourist areas compared to the neighborhood where we live.

How Do We Slow Down?

Cartoon from http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au/

Cartoon from http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au/

Did you know that the United States is the only developed country in the whole world that doesn’t require a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday?  According to a USA Today article published in 2013, workers in the US have an average of 16 paid days off per year, while the average in Austria is a whopping 35 days!  I was shocked to read that one in four Americans doesn’t receive a single paid day off.  Here’s a peek at some paid time off statistics from around the world.  Warning, the data in this table may make you feel angry/sad/jaded:

Country Average Paid Days Off Per Year
United States 16
Austria 35
Portugal 35
Germany 34
Spain 34
France 31
Belgium 30
Italy 30
New Zealand 30

I don’t want to hate on our American culture too much here.  I mean, America is the home of so many things I truly love:  Chicago style deep dish pizza, wheel of fortune, Bluegrass music, the Super Bowl, incredibly beautiful National Parks, apple pie, walkable cities, lemonade stands, Thanksgiving, fantastic comedy (Louis C.K., Jon Stewart, Parks & Rec, Saturday Night Live, I could go on and on…), Hamburgers and Hot Dogs, craft beer, and good BBQ.   I just think it’s sort of ironic that having an American passport enables you to travel nearly anywhere in the world, but being American means you probably don’t have the time to do it.

Is There a Solution?

Kevin and I at Seatac Airport in April, leaving for our big adventure.

Here we are at Seatac Airport in April, leaving for our big adventure.

Vacation limitations are a huge part of why Kevin and I quit our jobs and moved abroad.  As my infamous vacation usage spreadsheet grew and grew, we realized that we’d have to wait until our mid-forties to have kids if we wanted to get through our travel list first. We feel so lucky we were able to save up to do this, and even luckier that there are places like Chiang Mai where we can stretch our dollars many times further than we did back home.

Slow Travel Pro Trip: Learn to work from a hammock!

Slow Travel Pro Trip: Learn to work from a hammock!

So is there a solution to the never-having-enough-vacation problem?  Unfortunately, it feels like a cultural shift needs to occur in America for anything to change.  I think there’s hope, though!  More and more companies are shifting towards an “unlimited” vacation model, allowing employees to take as many vacation days as they want as long as they get their work done.  It’s becoming increasingly common at newer companies.  Evernote, a tech company, took things a step further, according to a Forbes article from 2012.  Recognizing that taking time off actually makes employees more productive, Evernote began offering employees $1,000 per year to spend on their vacations!  FullContact, another tech company, calls this new trend “paid paid vacation”, and offers its employees a generous $7,500 per year!  They also stipulate that you must truly unplug, and don’t allow their employees to work remotely while they’re away.  I like it.

We Want to Hear from You!

What do you think about the current vacation policies in America?  Do you think we’re moving in the right direction?  Where do you think things will be in a few decades?

Turns Out We Don’t Like To Travel

Turns Out We Don’t Like To Travel. Oops.

This may surprise you, but Kevin and I have recently realized that we don’t like to travel.

I know I know, what the heck are we doing living over here in Southeast Asia if we don’t like travel? We’ve been asking ourselves the same question, and we are more than a little surprised by this realization.

When we were living and working in Seattle, we would plan these fantastic, action-packed vacations, designed to squeeze every hour out of our accrued vacation we possibly could. I had a ridiculously elaborate spreadsheet that laid out our vacation hours well into the year 2017. Shame on you if you surprised us with a destination wedding, causing me to re-jigger my schedule (now how will we see Machu Picchu in 2016?!)

We looked forward to these vacations all year long, cherished every day of our trip, but were usually exhausted when we got home. We felt trapped by our limited vacation hours, but we were also disappointed at the way vacations wore us out. This is one of the biggest reasons we cooked up this move-to-Southeast-Asia scheme. Don’t get us wrong, we definitely feel lucky to be here. We just want to be honest about the disappointments and share some of our thoughts.

Three Types of Travel

Kevin and I have been having a lot of philosophical conversations lately about travel, and have decided that there three types of travel:

  • First, and most common among working Americans, is the frenetic fast-paced see-it-all-do-it-all trip where you hop from destination to destination in an effort to maximize every last minute of your 2-weeks of vacation. It’s common at the end of these trips to feel like you need a vacation from your vacation, but usually it’s just time to go back to work.
  • Second is the “Slow Travel” movement. More on this next week, but this type of travel tends to be the type where you stay in one place for a month or so, and get acquainted with the local culture. Spoiler alert: I think this style of travel is the most appealing.
  • Third is the “Living Abroad” or “Extreme Slow” style of travel. This is what we’re doing right now, living for 6+ months here in Thailand. The problem with this type of travel is that you’re in one place long enough to get through the “This is awesome” and “I could stay here forever” phases, and run into the jaded “Why can’t they do things like in Amurrrrica” phase.

The Pitfalls of Fast Travel

Fast Travel in Germany.  WE MUST SEE ALL THE CASTLES!

Fast Travel in Germany. WE MUST SEE ALL THE CASTLES!

When is the last time you’ve returned from two weeks of vacation feeling rested? Many of us have experienced a vacation where you try to pack too much sightseeing into a limited amount of time. My parents might remember our family vacation in Southern California when I was 12 years old and wrote out an itinerary designed to maximize our trip by scheduling everything down to the half-hour. I wanted to ensure we got to hit both Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe for meals. This has apparently been a lifelong problem for me.

Let’s face it, fast travel is not super fun. With a tightly packed schedule, a problem like lost luggage blows up into an all-consuming catastrophe. You might end up missing out on an entire beach day because you had to go shopping for a new bikini and sunblock. There’s just hardly any margin for anything to go wrong. Fast travel also usually leaves me with a sense of homelessness from packing up and moving so often, and you can end up spending more time getting to new destinations than actually getting to see them.

This is Kevin's I've-seen-enough-castles-and-churches-to-last-a-lifetime Face.

This is Kevin’s I’ve-seen-enough-castles-and-churches-to-last-a-lifetime Face.

Even though we’re now unemployed, Kevin and I somehow STILL fall into the fast travel trap when we go on little mini-trips here in Southeast Asia. When we were recently in Koh Tao and Koh Phangan, we couldn’t wait to get back “home” to Chiang Mai. When we finally did get back, Kevin had an ear infection, I was having headaches because my sinuses got so dry, we were cut, scratched, bumped and bruised, and we both pulled muscles getting back into our gym routine! Fast travel literally takes a physical toll on us, but we still can’t seem to help ourselves.

Fast Traveling means never recovering from a hangover.  Oktoberfest 2012.

Fast Traveling means never recovering from a hangover. Oktoberfest 2012.

The Fast Travel habit is such a hard one to break, and I think a lot of it stems from America’s fast-paced style of living and the fact that most of us only get two weeks of vacation per year. Naturally, we want to make the most of those precious two weeks. But how do you satisfy the I-want-to-see-the-whole-world mentality without traveling so fast that you miss out on some of the best things a culture has to offer? If you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe, how do you see all the major cities without feeling like you only scratched the surface of each one? How do you “see enough” without “seeing too little”? I don’t know the right answers to those questions. I have a feeling that winning the lottery might help, though.

The Pitfalls of Living Abroad

Kevin and I fall into the Extreme Slow Travel category right now, and some of the cultural differences we used to find “cute” are now just exasperating. For example, I am beyond annoyed at the fact that pedestrians in Chiang Mai never, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER have the right of way. Ever! Even if you’re at a cross walk stoplight, and the light is red for the cars, they’re very likely to run through the light. I’m currently working towards perfecting my New Yorker accent on the phrase “heeeeey, I’m walkin’ heeeere!”  Also, we just spent a ridiculous amount of time lost in the Thai medical system and only have 10 sleeping pills to show for it (see last week’s post).

Budweiser. So sad.

Living abroad means you might pay over $4 for a single can of Budweiser. You’ll be sad about the price, and even sadder when you realize it tastes good compared to what you’ve gotten used to drinking.

I also had an absurd realization today. Kevin and I regularly shout “POOP!” at each other when we’re out and about in Chiang Mai. This is sort of to be expected in a city with so many stray dogs – there is dog poop everywhere, and (understandably) no one cleans it up. I get that – if it’s not my dog, I’m not scooping it. I just think it’s funny that we probably say “POOP!” to each other probably more often than we say “Hello”.

I do want to defend our cultural insensitivity a little bit here by saying that this is not something that only Kevin and I are experiencing. It’s also something that’s not isolated to just Americans or people from Western cultures. We had quite the discussion with a nice Thai woman who has spent a lot of time in England because that’s where her husband is from. As it turns out, she’s super irritated with a lot of things about the British culture (speed limits, the cold weather, the food) and she doesn’t like to visit!

It seems like no matter what country you’re from, it’s tough to adjust to a new culture that differs from the one you’re used to. So that’s a relief – I’m not just an asshole traveler. Phew!

Traveling is like Eating Cake

We saw this "crepe" cake in a coffee shop in Chiang Mai

We saw this “crepe” cake in a coffee shop in Chiang Mai

I love a good cake metaphor. So here’s my thought. Traveling is like eating chocolate cake. If you travel too fast, and only get a taste of a location, it’s like having a tiny slice of cake. You’re left with regret and a desire for more. However, if you move to a new country and stay long enough to get a little bit jaded, it’s kind of like sitting down and eating the whole damn cake. You might never want to have a piece of that cake ever again.  (Unless it’s my Grandma’s Angel Food cake with the heavenly frosting.  I could sit and eat five of those cakes without a drop of remorse.)

We Want to Hear from You!

This is part 1 in a 3-part series I’m planning on the topic of traveling. I’d love to hear your thoughts on travel. Do you like to travel? Which category appeals most to you? Have you regretted any too-short or too-long vacations?

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.