Our Guide to Koh Lanta, the Happiest Place on Earth

Koh Lanta is Beautiful

A Beautiful Koh Lanta Sunset

We did it! We found the happiest place on earth. After visiting Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Ko Chang, we found the island that will forever hold the torch with us as the best beach destination in Thailand: Koh Lanta. It’s a small island in the Andaman Sea south of Krabi, and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to, which I think keeps the crowds at bay. Koh Lanta has a low-key vibe, not a ton of tourists (even in the high season), amazing food (see my post from last week) and beautiful beaches. It truly is an island paradise – seriously, go book your tickets to visit now!

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta is unique because it hasn’t been overdeveloped like so many of Thailand’s other islands. There are building codes that prevent properties on the beach from being more than 1 story tall, which helps avoid the overly resorty feeling. The lush green hills cascading down the center of the island are mostly undeveloped, and whole sections of the island’s coastline are just wild forested areas. It’s amazing!

Don't Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn't Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

Don’t Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn’t Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

We spent a lot of time motorbiking around the island, devoting an entire day to beach hopping. There were times when we had entire beaches all to ourselves! Even the more touristy “Lanta Old Town” wasn’t crowded. The island has a National Park on its southern tip, and as you get closer and closer to it, it becomes more common to see monkeys running around in the road!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going.

Because it hasn’t yet been overdeveloped, Koh Lanta’s waters seemed clearer, and the beaches seemed cleaner than others we’ve seen around Thailand. There was far less trash littering the roads and walking paths than we’ve gotten used to, which was such a breath of fresh air. It also seemed like fewer people were burning garbage than on Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.

Beachcombing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

Beach Combing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

The very best thing about Koh Lanta, however, is the people who live there. Thailand is often called the “Land of Smiles”, and no place lives up to that nickname like Koh Lanta. People on the island are incredibly warm and friendly, are always willing to help you out, and want nothing more than to meet you and say hello. Sadly, this isn’t the case at some of the other more heavily visited islands in Thailand. I’m not certain why this is, but I have a hunch it has to do with the fact that Koh Lanta is a bit lower on the tourist radar. Maybe the locals haven’t had a chance to get tired of all of us tourists yet?

Or maybe they’re all so friendly because it’s so easy to find a Magic Mushroom Shake, or because you can buy a joint at your friendly neighborhood beach bar.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Whatever the reason, we loved our week on Koh Lanta, and highly recommend it to anyone headed to Thailand. We put together this little Guide to Koh Lanta to try to convince you to visit the island we’ve dubbed the Happiest Place on Earth.

Some of Our Favorite Koh Lanta Experiences

Blue Moon Bar

Be sure you visit Blue Moon Bar on Klong Nin beach. You can use their beach mats and lounge chairs as long as you order food or drinks. The Fried Glass Noodles dish is delicious, as is their Papaya Curry!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar.

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle Down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Visit the local market

The local market is in a different place each day, so you’re bound to be near it at least once during your stay:

Veggies at the Local Market

Veggies at the Local Market

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

Sunset Cocktails

All of Koh Lanta’s beaches are on the west coast. Find yourself a bar, order up a cocktail, and enjoy the beautiful sunset:

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

If You're Lucky, You'll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

If You’re Lucky, You’ll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

Hammock House

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

If you have lots of time, motorbike on over to the Hammock House in Lanta Old Town. We had fun trying out all the hammocks:

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Do You See Kevin in This Photo? We Were Excited They Had a Huskies Colors Hammock!

Do you see Kevin in this photo? We were excited they had a Purple and Gold Huskies colors hammock! This one is made out of parachute material.

If you’re lucky, you might just catch the cat napping in a hammock of his own:

A Cat Hammock!

A Cat Hammock!

Relax and Enjoy the Sun and the Sand

There are some talented people lurking around Koh Lanta. Check out some of these sand creations:

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer?

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer? The text in the background says “Merry Christmas”.

Beach combing is exciting here, where tourists are probably outnumbered by hermit crabs:

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta's Beaches!

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta’s Beaches!

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

Two Words: Fresh Coconut

I have a two-coconut-per-day quota on beach vacations, and did my best to meet it in Koh Lanta. Almost everyone sells them (for just 40 Baht!), but the best one I had was at the Indian Bar on Klong Dao. YUM.

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

Getting Around

Motorbike is the most efficient (and most fun!) way to get around Koh Lanta. Thailand must be one of the only countries in the world where you can rent a motor vehicle without proving you have a drivers license and without having any car insurance. If you have the cash, they’ll give you the keys. (They’ll also hold your passport hostage while you have the motorbike, and won’t give it back unless you pay for any damages you might incur during your rental period. This is pretty much standard practice all over Thailand.)

Everyone in Koh Lanta seems to rent out motorbikes, from the barber to the restaurant owners to all the hotels and resorts, and the going rate everywhere is 250 Baht per day. Make sure you’re safe, and be sure you get a helmet when they give you a bike!

We used the Koh Lanta Biker Map to find our way around the island:

The Lanta Biker Map

Out Guide to Koh Lanta, the Lanta Biker Map

When you need gas, it’s cheapest to find a petrol station, but you can buy fuel sold in used whiskey bottles from almost any roadside establishment. The bottle-style purchasing is also a fun way to meet some of the locals – we met a nice guy and his family in a hillside stilt home on our way to Lanta Old Town, and he gave us some fun tips on places to see around the island.

If you don’t want to rent a motorbike, you can always use the local taxis:

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, but Are Definitely More Expensive than Motorbiking.

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, too.

It’ll be more expensive, but if you’re not confident motorbiking or if you have luggage with you, it’s well worth the money.

Where to Stay

We spent a few nights at the Ananda Lanta Resort and loved it. At over $50/night, it was definitely a splurge, but who wouldn’t splurge for a balcony with an ocean view:

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

It’s located very close to the beautiful Klong Dao Beach, is within walking distance of Long Beach, and is near tons of shops and restaurants. Every single staff member we encountered was super friendly, and the front desk folks are happy to help you book tours at very fair prices. They also have a great pool area we used a lot:

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

Getting There

If I’ve convinced you to visit Koh Lanta, you first need to get to Bangkok. From there, we recommend booking the flight + island transfer with Nok Air. Nok has some great rates if you watch for hot deals, and you get free checked bags! (PRO TIP: checked baggage is definitely necessary, because you should bring a LOT of sunscreen in with you. It costs an arm and a leg everywhere in Thailand!) Nok flies you from DMK to Trang, busses you to the nearby ferry terminal, then transfer you to Koh Lanta via high speed ferry.

If you’re more adventurous, you can fly into Krabi (Air Asia has some really low fares on the Bangkok to Krabi route, but you have to pay to check your bag) and take a 3+ hour minibus to Koh Lanta. While this option is pretty cheap (the minibus will only run you 300-400 Baht), we’ve grown to hate minibusses. They are always cramped, the aircon never seems to work, and carsickness is almost guaranteed unless you’re in the front of the van.

We Want to Hear From You!

What’s your favorite island? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here's a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here’s a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

A Saga to Find Good, Cheap Food in Koh Lanta

For the most part, the food scene on Thailand’s islands is a barren wasteland full of overpriced and under-flavored foods that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I don’t know what causes this phenomenon, but I think it has something to do with the fact that a lot of Thai people keep trying to feed us spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti! We stayed for two nights with a Thai Woman in Chiang Rai, and she cooked us macaroni with meat sauce on the first night. Only after spending a lot of time convincing her that we wanted to eat what she likes to eat did she relent and make a delicious stir fry for our second dinner.

The food in most of Thailand’s most touristy areas just tends to taste subpar to me. I’m not sure who to blame, the locals or the tourists. Is it the tourists fault for always asking for “Mai Ped” (Thai for not spicy)? Or do Thai people water down the food because they think all we want to eat is spaghetti? I think the answer lies in the latest crackpot theory Kevin and I cooked up: The TripAdvisor One Third Rule.

In this post, I’ll explain our TripAdvisor One Third Rule, our Golden Rule for eating in Thailand, and I’ll tell you where to find the absolute BEST cheap food in Koh Lanta. We found a gem that serves up some of the best curries we’ve had in Thailand, at prices that rival the ones we’re used to in Chiang Mai.

The TripAdvisor One Third Rule

We came up with The TripAdvisor One Third Rule when we were in Koh Lanta for a week, and it states that “When traveling in countries where the locals do not use TripAdvisor, one should automatically disregard the top one third of TripAdvisor Ranked Restaurants, and take all reviews with a grain of salt.”

I don’t want to offend my fellow tourists out there, but I think some tourists might have a skewed idea of what Thai food is supposed to taste like. I blame Thai food restaurants in our home countries. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bad Thai food restaurants in countries where TripAdvisor is popular. I can vouch for a handful of bad Thai places in Seattle alone, and I know there are a lot of less than stellar spots in Europe. I think this sets the bar for Thai food really low with a lot of people, so when they come to Thailand, even a mediocre restaurant seems fantastic.

This is the problem with TripAdvisor – people making the ratings may have this skewed idea of what Thai food tastes like. Also, some of the best places I’ve eaten don’t have an English name, so they’re less likely to be on TripAdvisor. That’s why we like to disregard the top third restaurants and focus on those in the middle of the pack.

As a specific example, we tried Jai-Dee’s, the #16 ranked restaurant in Koh Lanta (out of 203 total restaurants). The staff was really nice and we met the lovely owner, but the Pad Thai was just awful and their Panang curry was not good. Several doors down, Blue Moon Bar (Ranked #96) serves up far superior noodle dishes and had a really delicious Papaya curry. The One Third Rule in action, people! (Blue moon is beach front, so it has fairly high prices; 80 Baht for noodles, 120 Baht for curries, and a whopping 40 Baht per serving of rice, ouch! But the view is probably worth it, and the waiter Ken is awesome!)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

The Golden Rule for Eating in Thailand

Stop looking on the internet for good restaurants! Most spots with a good internet presence will be more expensive, more crowded, and often times if they get more popular the food quality gets watered down. I suggest completely ignoring Trip Advisor. Instead, search for good food with your eyes! Walk around and look for restaurants that are packed with locals. Go outside of the touristy areas. The number of motorbikes parked outside the food stall directly correlates with how good the food will taste!

The golden rule of traveling is to eat where the locals eat. Someone once explained it to me like this – if you eat like the locals, it will be tastier (obviously), but it will also reduce your chances of getting food poisoning. Why? Because local people know the right way to cook local food, and might not be as good with foreign food. I’ve heard multiple stories about people getting food poisoning in Thailand from deli meat. We think it’s because refrigeration isn’t as important here since most food here is so fresh. Lack of refrigeration with fresh food is fine, but with deli meat it can be dangerous.

If you MUST look on the internet before you go, I don’t blame you. I am one of those people who like to plan ahead, too. The very best source of info in Thailand for us has been travel blogs! Sometimes you have to dig deep into the interwebs (page 4 or 5 on Google search results, PHEW) to find the best posts, but it’s worth the effort to get a blogger’s perspective. Some of our favorite spots in Chiang Mai were found that way.

Finally, the Good Cheap Food in Koh Lanta!

We found it. The holy grail. Delicious food on one of Thailand’s Islands. We’ve been to Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Ko Chang, and never found anything that even comes close to this place. The best part?! Prices are similar to the ones you’d find in Chiang Mai, and the portions are big!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

Located near Klong Dao beach, this awesome little food stall nearly blends into the noise around it. The restaurant doesn’t have a name, but loyal customers have nicknamed it “Pad Thai Like”. It’s run by a wonderful couple (The husband, Part, and his wife, Oou) that serves up some of the best curries I’ve had in our entire 8-month stay in Thailand.

Here we are, enjoying our first meal at Pad Thai Like:

Pad Thai Like - So Delicious!

Pad Thai Like – So Delicious!

It even impressed my brother-in-law Albert, who probably loves eating more than anyone I’ve ever met:

Here's Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here’s Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here's Albert with Chef Part.

And here’s Albert with Chef Part at Pad Thai Like.

They served the best Green Curry I’ve ever had in Thailand (50 Baht), and also the best Tom Kha Kai (coconut soup with chicken) I’ve had in the 8 months we’ve been here:

Tom Kha Gai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

Tom Kha Kai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

The Muslim-style curry (50 baht) was stellar:

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

The Savory Curry (50 baht) was even better:

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Becca and Albert enjoyed the Pad Thai with Shrimp (50 Baht):

Pad Thai with Shrimp

Pad Thai with Shrimp

And don’t miss the shakes. I would swim across the ocean to reach Koh Lanta if it meant I could have their pineapple shake (30 Baht) one more time. The Mango shake with yogurt (60 Baht) was also delicious:

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

So how do you find this mythical, magical, wonderful restaurant? It’s on the main road near Klong Dao beach, across the road from the Ananda Lanta Resort where we stayed. It’s just south of Salad House:

IMG_1556

Here’s a view of the storefront:

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

Once you see this sign, your saga to find delicious, cheap Thai food in Koh Lanta is over:

Look for this Sign!

Look for this Sign!

Be warned that if you go after 7pm, they might be starting to run out of food. It’s a small place with only a handful of tables, so do yourself a solid and just go early.

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you ever discovered a little known gem of a restaurant during your travels? If you have, leave us a comment and let us know! Who knows, maybe we’ll travel there and give it a try. Stranger things have happened!

Surviving Bangkok (Our Guide to Bangkok on a Budget)

I won’t lie, I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok. I’m a small-town girl at heart, so I tend to avoid huge cities unless I have a very specific reason to visit. I dare you to plan a trip to Bangkok and not get overwhelmed with its sheer size and array of things to do. CAN. NOT. HANDLE.

Aside from being so huge and intimidating, Bangkok is also a full-on assault on your senses. The sights, sounds, and smells are intense. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world where you can be awoken by a rooster outside your hotel room window at five in the morning when you’re in the middle of an urban metropolis with a population of over 6 million people. They filmed a Hangover sequel here for a reason, guys.

But in the midst of the craziness, we managed to find a few things to do that we really enjoyed. We put together a few tips to help travelers survive a trip to Bangkok on a Budget. Safe travels, friends!

Visit the Grand Palace As Soon as it Opens

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

We made a huge mistake. We went to visit the Grand Palace, one of Bangkok’s most popular attractions, but we didn’t arrive until after 11am. DO NOT DO THIS. If I had to imagine Hell, it would’ve been close to what we encountered when we arrived. The tourist busses had shown up in full force, and the crowds were thicker than molasses on a cold evening during a harsh Canadian Winter. Women were walking around everywhere with umbrellas to shade them from the burning sun, paying no attention to whose eyes they were poking (spoiler alert: it was mine and Kevin’s).

THIS IS MY WORST NIGHTMARE.

THIS IS MY WORST NIGHTMARE.

It was so damn hot I almost couldn’t handle life. To add insult to injury, I had planned to cover my arms with a scarf to abide by the strict dress code, but that’s not allowed. I had to rent a scratchy, extremely flattering button-up shirt, which was really fun.

How Awesome Is This Button up Shirt? Right? Right???!

How Awesome Is This Button up Shirt? Right? Right???!

All jokes aside, the Grand Palace, though expensive at 500 Baht (or about $15) per person, is a must-see in Bangkok. It’s super fancy since it has been the official residence of the Kings of Thailand for over 200 years. The palace is ornate, opulent, sparkly, magnificent, glamorous, ostentatious, palatial, even gaudy. (Isn’t thesaurus.com great?!)

These Statues Were Really Holding down (or up?) the Fort at the Grand Palace

These Statues Were Really Holding down (or up?) the Fort at the Grand Palace.

So Much Sparkle in One Place!

So Much Sparkle in One Place!

It’s really beautiful, you should totally go, please just visit early in the morning.

Pro Tip: Don't Aggravate the Guys with the Bayonets.

Pro Tip: Don’t Aggravate the Guys with the Bayonets.

Avoid Scams

We almost fell for one of the oldest scams in the Thailand tourist book. We had heard that near the Grand Palace, tourists are regularly approached by helpful people who inform them that the Grand Palace is closed for a special event, and kindly help them find some other attraction to spend their money on until it reopens. (I think these people must get a commission if you spend money on a tour or something.) This scam is so common that an audio loop is played over the loud speakers outside the Grand Palace saying that it ALWAYS open daily from 8:30am to 3:30pm.

We were headed to the BTS Skytrain station to head up to the Grand Palace all the way out in the Silom neighborhood when a “policeman” struck up a conversation with us. He told us the Grand Palace was closed for prayers today, suggested we take a private canal tour, and even showed us his “badge”. He helped us grab a Tuk Tuk to the pier for just 30 Baht. We accepted, thinking it would take us to the same pier the water taxi uses, plus that’s a cheaper Tuk Tuk ride than we could ever negotiate. Alas, we were fools.

Our Scammy Tuk Tuk Ride. SUCH a Bummer.

Our Scammy Tuk Tuk Ride. SUCH a Bummer.

The Tuk Tuk driver took us to a private pier for private boat charters, and they wanted $75 for a 1-hour ride! If we didn’t already know that the tourist boat pier was only a block away, we wouldn’t have known what to do. And that’s how we nearly got scammed in Bangkok. It’s a shame, too, because I really don’t want to be one of those tourists who think everyone’s out to get them. It’s sad that these types of things happen so often.

Use the Water Taxi

There are two types of water taxis in Bangkok, the tourist boats with a blue flag (40 Baht per ride, or 150 Baht for a day pass), and the local boats with an orange flag (15 Baht per ride) that run up and down the Chao Phraya River. (Pro tip: at each pier, there are also usually actual Tour Boats that are a lot more expensive! Look around and ask multiple people for directions to make sure you get to the right place!)

Here We Are, Enjoying the Water Taxi Boat

Here We Are, Enjoying the Water Taxi Boat. It gets pretty busy at about 11am!

We liked the tourist boat because, well, we are tourists, and there was a “guide” pointing out various attractions as we passed them. It’s also nice to have someone announcing “If you’re going to the Grand Palace, get off here”. I always enjoy when things are idiot proof, especially because the pier names have nothing to do with the attractions near them.

The Bangkok Tourist Water Taxi Boat

The Bangkok Tourist Water Taxi Boat

Here’s what we recommend to Bangkok tourists. On your first day, make your way down to any tourist boat pier, and just spend a couple hours riding the whole route. It’ll help you get oriented to many of Bangkok’s sights, and it’s just fun to be out on the water. I’m not sure if they kick you off and make you buy a ticket at each end of the boat route, but at 40 Baht/ride, it seems like a steal to me for a river tour.

Go on a Yok Yor Dinner Cruise

The View from Our Yok Yor Dinner Cruise Boat

The View from Our Yok Yor Dinner Cruise Boat

It’s no secret that we now fall into the budget-traveler category. When you’re traveling as long as we are, there are no more splurges to be had. Your dollar just needs to stretch further. So when I discovered that most Bangkok dinner cruises cost upwards of $50/person for a buffet dinner that didn’t include alcohol, I was sadder than a kid on Christmas morning who only got a lump of coal.

Enter Yok Yor Dinner Cruise! I found this little gem on another traveler’s blog. Yok Yor is a local seafood restaurant which recently started running cruises, too. They serve food from their regular menu, and you just order a la carte. A 160 Baht/person boat fee is tacked onto your food bill. While still a bit expensive (we blew about $28 for a big beer, a curry dish, pad thai, rice, and water, plus boat fees), it’s the cheapest dinner cruise you can find, and the food was actually pretty tasty!

The Cruise Boat Docks by the Yok Yor Marina & Restaurant

The Cruise Boat Docks by the Yok Yor Marina & Restaurant

Be warned, though, if you’re averse to Thai Karaoke, this is not the cruise for you! Most of the other folks onboard were local Thai people out celebrating something; there were two birthdays on our boat!

A Birthday on the Yok Yor Dinner Cruise!

A Birthday on the Yok Yor Dinner Cruise!

To get to the Yok Yor Boat, we took the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin station, then walked down to the ferry pier. A Yok Yor employee was standing at the pier with a sign around his neck that read “Yok Yor Dinner Cruise”. Let him know you’re here to take the free ferry to the cruise, and he’ll radio for their boat to come whisk you away. They ask that you arrive at their restaurant no later than 7pm, so we showed up to the ferry pier at about 6:30pm. The cruise begins at 8 and goes until almost 10pm.

Here's Kevin on the Free River Ferry to the Yok Yor Cruise Boat

Here’s Kevin on the Free River Ferry to the Yok Yor Cruise Boat

Reservations are advised; we recommend calling the number on the Yok Yor website to reserve a table. Don’t even try the online form, you’ll only be met with sad, bitter silence.

Get a Hotel with a Pool

Trust Me. You'll Want a Pool.

Trust Me. You’ll Want a Pool.

Bangkok is HOT. Now that it’s “Winter” in Chiang Mai and temperatures usually don’t climb out of the 80s, I forgot what it feels like to be drenched in sweat ALL OF THE TIME. Bangkok is quite a bit further South than Chiang Mai, but I think part of the intense heat is just all of the cement soaking up the sun all day. I was miserable. We recommend getting a hotel with a pool so you can see the sights in the morning and lay by the pool in the afternoon. Trust us, it’s worth splurging for, it may just save your friendship/marriage/familial relationships some undue stress.

Go to Cloud47 Rooftop Bar

If you’re like us, the only shoes you bring when you travel to hot climates is a pair of flip flops. If someone tells you to wear “business casual”, you just laugh and walk away. We have three dress styles now: casual, swim suit, and gym clothes. We are simple people.

So when we started looking for rooftop bars in Bangkok, we were sad to see most places require “smart casual” (whatever that means, is the opposite stupid casual?). Luckily, there’s a rooftop bar called Cloud47 in the Silom neighborhood that caters to the flip-flop crowd and has no official dress code (though we can’t promise you that the hostess won’t look at you with a hefty dose of judgement in her eyes…)

Cloud47: A Rooftop Bar in the Upper Middle Price Range...

Cloud47: A Rooftop Bar Which Is a Modest Splurge. I’d Say it Falls Into the Upper Middle, or Maybe Even Lower Upper Price Range.

Cocktails start at just $10, which is far, far less than most other places. Beer is cheaper, but we were feeling fancy, in spite of our casual quick-dry clothing and flip flops. It’s worth a visit if you haven’t been to a rooftop bar before. Skip it if it’s raining or if you’re short on time in Bangkok.

Pro Tip: Cloud47 is nearly impossible to find. It’s at the top of the United Center office tower. Once you’re facing the United Center, walk down the alley on the left-hand side until you see a big glass-windowed lobby in the back on your right that looks like it is maybe the lobby of an apartment building. There may or may not be a cardboard cutout by the window that says Cloud47. Walk in, tell the person at the desk you’re looking for Cloud47, and they will help you the rest of the way. Helpful hint: walk through the same turnstile they take you through, or you’ll set off a series of aural alarms. I did this and it was embarrassing. Sigh.

It’s a good idea to call and make a reservation if you’re going after 9pm or on a weekend.

Pick your Neighborhood Carefully

We stayed in the Silom neighborhood, which is the business district. We liked this area for two reasons:

  1. It wasn’t Khao San Road, the backpacker mecca of Bangkok. Backpackers on “gap year” after graduating from high school or college make me feel SO OLD now. We are too old to be surrounded for so long by so many youngsters; it upsets my 10pm bedtime. Plus, I tire easily of a man chasing us around yelling, “I MAKE YOU A SUIT!”. The tailors are aggressive near Khao San.
  2. Easy access to the BTS Skytrain. We took that puppy over to the water taxi pier every day. You can even take it to the airport (though taxi cabs are probably cheaper unless you’re traveling alone).

Know How To Use the Taxis

  • Repeat after me, always ask the taxi to use the meter. If they refuse, take a different taxi. Clear this up before you start rolling.
  • Before leaving the airport, hit an ATM or currency exchange to get some Thai Baht, then buy something small at an Airport store to break down those 1000-Baht bills. Don’t rely on your driver to be able to give you change.
  • You need to know where you’re going. The cab driver will likely not know exactly where your hotel is unless it’s the Four Seasons or something.
  • If you’re taking the taxi FROM either of Bangkok’s airports, a 50 Baht Airport surcharge will be added to your meter fee once you arrive at your destination. This is not a scam, everyone pays it.
  • They should not charge you an extra “passenger fee” if there’s more than one person.
  • If you take toll roads, you are responsible for the tolls. You can ask them to avoid them, but we usually just go for it.
  • A taxi from Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport to most places in Bangkok will run 300-400 Baht, depending on traffic.
  • A taxi from Don Mueang (DMK) Airport to most places in Bangkok will run 250-350 Baht, depending on traffic. At 12:30pm last week, a taxi from the Silom neighborhood to DMK cost us just 250 Baht total!
  • Tipping is not necessary, but it is appreciated. I like to just round up the bill to the nearest 10 or 20 Baht.

Visit Bangkok with Friends!

Travels are always best shared with friends, especially when you spend 24 hours a day with your spouse, which means shiny new conversation topics are harder to come by. (Imagine a world where you always know the answer to “How was your day?” before asking. This is a constant problem and is a running joke in our house!) We planned our trip to Bangkok to coincide with a trip our friends Paul and Amy from Seattle were making to Thailand.

SO Fun to See Friends in Bangkok!

Paul and Amy, visiting Thailand from Seattle!

It was great to see friends, especially so close to Thanksgiving!

We Want to Hear From You!

See, people DO visit us! And you should too. Check out our upcoming travel itinerary in the right hand sidebar (look for “View My Travel Itinerary”, which I always keep updated. If you’re going to be in our area, let us know! Happy Holidays, everyone!

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai

Lanterns floating over Thapae Gate during Loy Krathong

Lanterns floating over Chiang Mai’s Thapae Gate during Loy Krathong

Everyone knows Kevin and I love celebrating the Fourth of July in Seattle. I love a good excuse to use my red, white and blue food coloring on festive goodies like popcorn or elaborately frosted sugar cookies. I also never pass up an opportunity to carve a boat out of a watermelon. I did grow up in Kansas, after all – watermelon boats are a food staple there. Just ask my mom, the best watermelon carver I know.

Proof of my over-festive tendencies on 4th of July.

Proof of my over-festive tendencies on 4th of July.

But our favorite thing about the Fourth of July is probably just the general excitement everyone has about blowing shit up. (Be honest, you know that’s your favorite part of the Fourth of July, too. I’m talking to you, DAD.) So we were understandably delighted to learn that there is an annual festival here in Thailand where people set off fireworks for DAYS.

I am both excited and terrified to report that there seem to be ZERO rules about setting off fireworks inside city limits, along with a complete disregard for personal safety. In my opinion, that is a winning combo. People set off bottle rockets at all hours. Kids are lighting firecrackers dangerously close to cars. Motorbikes are zooming through showers of sparks. We even saw a toddler who could barely walk throwing down Snap ‘n’ Pops. The whole city reeked of gunpowder. It was awesome.

What is Loy Krathong?

Contrary to what you might think at this point, Loy Krathong (sometimes spelled Loi Kratong) is about more than just setting off fireworks. For the last 150 years or so, Loy Krathong has been celebrated as a religious holiday to honor the Buddha. Before that, it is believed that Loy Krathong was a Brahmanic or Indic festival held to honor several different gods.

Loy Krathong is held each year on the full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai Lunar Calendar. This year, the full moon fell on Thursday, November 6th, but there were festive events being held every day for a full week! You can’t go wrong celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai because of all the fun events, and also due to the fact that Yi Peng is typically celebrated around the same time here as Loy Krathong.  (See my previous post about Yi Peng.) People come from all over Thailand, and from all over the World, to celebrate this colorful holiday in Chiang Mai!

Sending Away our Misfortunes during Loy Krathong

Krathongs are made from with banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.

Krathongs are made with banana tree wood, banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.

Unlike Yi Peng, which is mainly a Northern Thailand holiday, Loy Krathong is celebrated all over the country. Throughout the Loy Krathong festival, people say prayers and make wishes for better luck in the year to come. Many people release small “Krathongs” into rivers, lakes and ponds. Krathongs are small floating boats made of mostly biodegradable materials (they used to be made from styrofoam, yuck!) with incense and candles. Releasing these lighted boats into the river is meant to symbolize the release of bad luck and misfortune to float away from you and out of your life.

Floating Krathongs in Chiang Mai's Ping River

Floating Krathongs in Chiang Mai’s Ping River.

We released a floating Krathong of our own for good luck. It floated so far down the river that we couldn’t see it anymore – I think that’s a good sign!

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang May by releasing a Krathong into the Ping River

About to release our troubles and worries into the Ping River with our Krathong.

Throughout Loy Krathong week, people are also continuously releasing floating lanterns into the sky, another symbolic gesture to send away bad luck and misfortune. At night, the Chiang Mai skyline is just FULL of these lanterns. It’s beautiful!

Tourists releasing a floating lantern by the Ping River

Tourists releasing a floating lantern by the Ping River. Some people attach fireworks to their lanterns, like the one in the sky in the background!

We’re lucky to have a top floor apartment with huge windows facing the city, so we just pulled our sofa up to the sliding door and watched the lanterns float by for a few hours.

We sat and watched hundreds and hundreds of lanterns floating in the sky, and fireworks going off all over the city skyline!

We sat and watched hundreds and hundreds of lanterns floating in the sky, and fireworks going off all over the city skyline!

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai in style!

Chiang Mai really dresses itself up for this colorful holiday. Lanterns are everywhere!

Lanterns outside of a Wat (Buddhist Temple) in Chiang Mai's Old City

Lanterns outside of a Wat (Buddhist Temple) in Chiang Mai’s Old City

I'm so artsy. A lantern in front of a Wat (Buddhist Temple), with floating lanterns in the sky.

I’m so artsy. Here’s a photo of a lantern in front of a Wat (Buddhist Temple), with floating lanterns in the sky.

Lanterns in our neighborhood.

Lanterns in our neighborhood.

Giant Krathongs and inflatable dragons appear at each of the entrances to the Old City.

Dragons at Suan Dok Gate, the Western entrance to the Old City

Dragons at Suan Dok Gate, the Western entrance to the Old City

A Giant Krathong at Suan Dok Gate

A Giant Krathong at Suan Dok Gate

Suan Dok Gate is pretty festive during Loy Krathong. Here are some folks releasing floating lanterns into the sky.

Suan Dok Gate is pretty festive during Loy Krathong. Here are some folks releasing floating lanterns into the sky.

On the night of the full moon, people put tons of candles outside their homes and businesses.

Beautiful candles in front of  one of our neighbor's homes on the night of the full moon.

Beautiful candles in front of one of our neighbor’s homes on the night of the full moon.

The entire city has a warm glow, and lanterns are floating throughout the sky. It was so neat to be here to see it.

Check out this huge crowd after one of the parades!

Check out this huge crowd after one of the parades!

There are TWO parades during the week, because one would clearly be insufficient. There are also two beauty pageants – one for women, and one for men. I’ve never seen a male beauty pageant before, but we lucked out and happened to pass by during what I can only assume was the swimsuit competition (see photo below). Score!

The Male Beauty Pageant near Thapae Gate

The Male Beauty Pageant near Thapae Gate

FIREWORKS YEAH!

Finally, the fireworks! I’m pretty sure everyone in Chiang Mai is a pyromaniac.

We were walking down a PACKED street after a parade, and people had to scramble when one hooligan set off this spark shower!

We were walking down a PACKED street after a parade, and people had to scramble when one hooligan set off this spark shower! KIDS TODAY…

During Loy Krathong, it’s easier to locate and purchase bottled rockets than it is to buy beer. (Sidenote: did you know you can only buy beer in Thailand between 11am-2pm, and after 5pm?) In fact, it’s easier to find and purchase fireworks than LOTS of everyday things I used to buy in the States all the time: all purpose flour, baking soda, soft toilet paper, dark chocolate, good wine, decent quality closet hangers, unscented laundry detergent, tampons (overshare?), coffee beans, chocolate chips, canned pumpkin, reasonably priced sunblock, bagels, cheddar cheese, I could go on and on…

Our neighbors set off their fair share of fireworks!

Our neighbors set off their fair share of fireworks!

Since we live outside Chiang Mai’s tourist area, we got to see this holiday through the eyes of our Thai neighbors. We watched families setting off fireworks on the small street we walk down each day. We watched a toddler throwing snap ‘n’ pops everywhere. We even saw our fruit lady’s husband setting off bottled rockets.

Many of our neighbors put out lanterns and flowers for Loy Krathong.

Many of our neighbors put out lanterns and flowers for Loy Krathong.

The entire city smelled like gunpowder, and a cloud of smoke settled down over everything, giving all of Chiang Mai an eerie glow.

The smoke blanket that settled over Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong.

The smoke blanket that settled over Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong.

There’s a reason people travel from all over the world to be here for this holiday!

 

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you been a part of any huge celebrations around the world? Carnival in Rio? Oktoberfest in Munich? New Years in Times Square? Burning Man in the Nevada desert? Leave us a note to let us know!

The Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai

We recently realized that the single biggest driver behind the locations we choose for vacations is the local cuisine. We visited Vietnam last December because of our deep love of Pho. We travelled to Germany for the beer. We made a trip to Southern Thailand mostly so we could order a peanut sauce and noodles dish that we remembered from a different visit last year. We recently nixed Laos from our travel list because we realized we probably wouldn’t like the food. So it should come as no surprise to you that we’re mainly living in Thailand because we love the food here.

We have a lot of people coming to visit us here in Chiang Mai in the next two months (Miles, Jenn and Lindsey, Pio, Becca and Albert, I’m talking to you!), so I thought it would be appropriate to post about what we think are the best restaurants in Chiang Mai. Most of them are out west in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood where we spend most of our time.  But I also think that food in the Old City (the area more popular with tourists) tends to be more expensive and less delicious. That combination makes me shudder and want to cry. If you prefer to pay more money for worse food, you are never allowed to visit me. Ever.

We narrowed our list of the Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai down to just 8 restaurants, all shown on the map below.  Read on for details!

 

The 40 Baht Spot (a.k.a. Organic Vegetables or O-Veg)

The Scoop: Consistently delicious food for a bargain! We eat dinner here almost every night, and we almost moved away from Chiang Mai forever when they were closed for a whole week. An English menu is available. (Note that this place isn’t actually called The 40 Baht Spot. Rather, we gave it that nickname because all chicken/pork/tofu dishes are just 40 Baht. We don’t know the real name.)

The Hours: Open for Lunch & Dinner daily except Sunday

The Best Dishes: Red Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht), Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht), Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht), Fried Mixed Vegetables with Pork (40 Baht).

The Location Hints: Look for the sign with “Organic Vegetables” on it, or for the blue and white umbrella. It’s a few doors west of the Burmese Restaurant and Library, before you reach Anchan.

Look for this Sign and the Blue and White Umbrella!

Look for this Sign and the Blue and White Umbrella!

Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork and Vegetables (40 Baht)

Chili Paste Fried Rice with Pork and Vegetables (40 Baht)

Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht)

Yellow Curry Fried Rice with Pork (40 Baht)

Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht)

Fried Glass Noodles with Egg, Vegetables and Pork (40 Baht)

Pun Pun Vegetarian

The Scoop: Delicious, beautifully presented food for a moderate price tag. Beware, sometimes it really lives up to it’s “Slow Food” label. We avoid this place whenever it’s busy – it’s best to arrive before 11:45am if you want speedy service. Menus are available in English and Chinese (and obviously also Thai).

The Hours: Daily 8am-5pm, closed Wednesdays. They often close early because they are “out of food” too.

The Best Dishes: Any Curry, but mostly we love Massaman Curry, Yellow Curry and Penang Curry (all are 60 Baht), Som Tam Thai (40 Baht), Salad Pak Polamai (70 Baht).

Som Tam Thai (40 Baht)

Som Tam Thai (40 Baht)

Salad Pak Polamai (70 Baht)

Salad Pak Polamai, a great way to sample fresh tropical fruits! (70 Baht)

Massaman Curry (60 Baht)

Massaman Curry (60 Baht)

Cherng Doi Chicken

The Scoop: Widest variety of Som Tam available in all of Chiang Mai – not to be missed if you’re a Som Tam fanatic like me. An English menu with tons of photos is available.

The Hours: Daily 11am-8:30pm, closed Mondays.

The Best Dishes: Roast Chicken (60 Baht), Steak Jaew (60 Baht), Tam Khao Pod (corn Som Tam, 40 Baht), Tam Pol La Mai (cucumber Som Tam, 50 Baht). Don’t forget sticky rice (10 Baht)!

Kai Yang Nung Krob, or Roast Chicken (60 Baht)

Kai Yang Nung Krob, or Roast Chicken (60 Baht)

Steak Jaew or Pork Steak (60 Baht)

Steak Jaew or Pork Steak (60 Baht)

Left: Tam Khao Pod or Corn Som Tam (40 Baht) and Right: Tam Pol La Mai or Cucumber Som Tam (50 Baht)

Left: Tam Khao Pod or Corn Som Tam (40 Baht) and Right: Tam Pol La Mai or Cucumber Som Tam (50 Baht)

Pad Thai Family

The Scoop: An awesome family serving awesome pad thai for an awesome price. All you need to do is walk up and say “One, please!”

The Hours: Open most days at 6pm until they’re out of noodles. It seems like they are closed one day per week, but it’s entirely unpredictable which day. I have a hunch it’s usually a Saturday or Sunday, but I’ve been bitten on weekdays too.

The Location Hints: These folks set up every night on the South side of Suthep Road, right next to the pedestrian stoplight a block or two west of Wat Suan Dok. See the map above for exact location.

Look for this food stall!

Look for this food stall!

You can eat-in or take-out, it's 30 Baht either way. Here's a peek at eat-in Pad Thai.

You can eat-in or take-out, it’s 30 Baht either way. Here’s a peek at eat-in Pad Thai.

Anchan

The Scoop: Arguably the healthiest food you can find in Chiang Mai, this vegetarian restaurant is always changing their menu to serve what’s in season. This is my favorite spot to take out of town guests willing to spend more than $2 on a meal. Excellent English spoken here.

The Hours: Open Tues-Sat 11:30am-8:30pm

The Best Dishes: Their menu is always changing, but we loved the Pumpkin Red Curry (95 Baht) and Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht) during our last visit.

The Website: Facebook

Look for this sign to find Anchan

Look for this sign to find Anchan. The restaurant is up the flight of stairs right by this sign.

Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht)

Fried Rice Anchan (95 Baht)

Pumpkin Red Curry, possibly the best curry I've ever had (95 Baht)

Pumpkin Red Curry, possibly the best curry I’ve ever had (95 Baht)

Siri Mankalajarn Food Stall

The Scoop: We call this place the “Siri Mankalajarn Dive” for a reason. I’m pretty sure the people running this food stop hate us, or are just not nice to any foreigners, but DAMN they make a delicious Pad See Iew. They don’t speak a lot of English here, but they have an English menu with pictures.

The Hours: Open daily from around 10:30am until 8pm or so.

The Best Dishes: Pad See Iew (30 Baht) and Kao Soi Kai (30 Baht)

The Location Hints: This is the first food spot South of Kaweh Cafe on the West side of Siri Mankalajarn.

We call it a dive for a reason, here's a look at the interior!

We call it a dive for a reason, here’s a look at the interior!

Pad See Iew Moo (Moo means pork, 30 Baht)

Pad See Iew Moo (Moo means pork, 30 Baht)

Kao Soi Kai (Kai means chicken, 30 Baht)

Kao Soi Kai (Kai means chicken, 30 Baht)

The Suthep Soup Spot

The Scoop: These folks serve up the best bowl of soup in Chiang Mai! Everyone who works here is super friendly, and they always have someone around who speaks English.

The Hours: Open daily for dinner, but they seem to start closing up at about 7 or 7:30pm. (I’m not sure about lunch, we’re never over there during that time.)

The Best Dishes: Order the soup from the photo below, just point at the picture on the menu that looks like the photo below. It’s 30 Baht.

The Location Hints: We’re not sure what this place is actually called. See the map for the exact location. It’s on Suthep Road, and it’s the 2nd place down from the corner.

Best Soup Ever, comes with Pork and Rice Noodles (30 Baht)

Best Soup Ever, comes with Pork and Rice Noodles (30 Baht)

Why Not?

The Scoop: For those times when you just NEED to have pizza, this spot is a good choice. We walked all over Chiang Mai and did the math for you – if you order the large pizza, you’re getting the best price per square inch you can find. We prefer pepperoni.

The Hours: Open Daily from 5-11pm.

The Best Dishes: Pepperoni Pizza!  With Tip, we usually blow 400 Baht here on a large pepperoni pizza and a large Chang beer.

The Location Hints: Why Not? has a big footprint. You can find it from both Nimman Soi 11 or Nimman Soi 13.

The Website: Facebook

CHECK OUT THE SIZE OF THIS PIZZA.  Large Pepperoni Pizza and Large Chang Beer runs about 400 Baht

CHECK OUT THE SIZE OF THIS PIZZA. A large Pepperoni Pizza and Large Chang Beer runs about 400 Baht

We Want to Hear From You!

Did we leave any of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai off of our list? Do you have any suggestions for additions? Leave us a comment if you do!

Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival

Yi Peng 2014 in Chiang Mai

Yi Peng 2014 in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s annual lantern festival is a truly magical event. I figured it would be a pretty “neat” experience based on photos and videos I had seen online, but “neat” definitely didn’t do it justice. Attending Yi Peng changes you in some imperceptible way, sort of like seeing the ocean for the first time. It marks you somehow emotionally, or in my case, it left a small mark on me physically (see my note about safety below). We were fortunate enough to be in Chiang Mai for this year’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival, and managed to make our way up to Mae Jo to experience the magic.

What is Yi Peng?

Yi Peng (or Yee Peng) is a Lanna (Northern Thai) Festival of Lights that is usually held each year in November. Yi Peng literally translates to 2nd Month, and is always held on or near the full moon of the 2nd month of the Lanna Calendar. During Yi Peng, Sky Lanterns called Khom Loi are released to pay respect to Buddha. Launching one of these lanterns is believed to send a person’s bad luck and misfortunes away into the air, especially if it disappears from your view before the fire goes out.

We Released Two Lanterns

We Released Two Lanterns

The Yi Peng festival is held each year on the grounds of the Lanna Dhutanka Temple behind Mae Jo University. Usually, it’s about a 25-minute drive North of Chiang Mai, but the drive can take nearly three times as long before and after the festivities. People start to crowd into the grounds as early as 2pm to snag a primo spot, but the ceremony preceding the lantern release actually doesn’t begin until 6:30pm. Lantern release starts at about 8pm, and is followed by fireworks!

Check out these crowds!

Check out these crowds!

It’s a good idea to arrive early (by 3 or 4pm) to stake out a spot, because it gets ridiculously crowded.

When is Yi Peng?

Two separate Yi Peng lantern release events are held each year. The first event has no admission charge, and is primarily attended by local Thai people, expats, and tourists-in-the-know. Because it’s free, this first event is typically VERY crowded. A second event is held a week or two later specifically for tourists, and a limited number of tickets are sold for about $100 each to keep crowding down. The ticket price includes transportation to and from Mae Jo, dinner, a lantern, and even a seating mat and scarf. Plus you won’t have to contort yourself into strange positions in order to fit into the small space you staked out on the temple grounds.

There is a Ceremony happening up there somewhere!

There is a Ceremony happening up there somewhere!

The date of the free lantern release is typically kept under wraps until last minute in an attempt to limit the number of tourists who flock to Chiang Mai to attend. I can understand why they want to limit the number of tourists at the event, because I saw some people being pretty darn disrespectful while we were there (see my note about respect below).

For 2014, the free event was held on Saturday, October 24. The paid event is scheduled for Saturday, November 8 (get tickets here).

The Best Way to Experience Yi Peng

Kevin Holding our Lantern

Kevin Holding our Lantern

We opted to attend the free event because it’s so darn hard for us to stomach paying $100/ticket. That’s like 100 dinners for us here. CAN. NOT. HANDLE. Plus, I like to experience local traditions with the locals. I think it just means more to experience this Buddhist festival with people who actually know about the religious customs and traditions.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

We’ve learned an important lesson here in Thailand, based loosely on the 80/20 Pareto Principle. In Thailand, you can usually spend just an extra 20% and increase your comfort level by 80%. We decided to splurge on a 500 Baht/person (about $15) round-trip air conditioned van ride to Mae Jo. And let me tell you, it was a HOT day, there was a TON of traffic, and we were thrilled to have aircon. We could have saved $3 each by booking round-trip in a Songathew. (A Songathew is a pickup truck taxi with bench seating in the covered truck bed.  Definitely no aircon, but plenty of dust and exhaust.) We could have saved $10 each by just flagging down a Songathew and haggling over price, but that would involve walking a few miles in the heat and haggling, two things guaranteed to turn me into a monster. We could have saved even more money by borrowing our landlord’s scooter, but I’m fairly certain I’d be making this post from a hospital bed right now if we had done that! Do yourself a favor, just pay up front for the round trip air-conditioned transport. You can thank me later.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

Booking round-trip transport for Yi Peng is easy – any hotel reception desk or tour company can do it for you. We walked into a hotel near our condo the day before the festival and asked them to book it for us. The real trick is finding out the date – we would’ve missed it were it not for the ridiculous number of Chiang Mai Facebook groups I’ve joined.

A Note about Safety

Lantern Lighting 101

Lantern Lighting 101

If you’re skiddish about being in huge crowds, this event is not for you. If you’re afraid of fire, this event is definitely not for you. Each year for Yi Peng, people pack into the temple grounds nearly shoulder to shoulder. At some point after everyone crams in, hundreds of torches all throughout the crowd are set on fire, and people start to light their lanterns on these torches and send them floating, on fire, into the air. Some lanterns catch on fire, like the one in this video, which landed right next to us:

There are a very limited number of small exit points, and no one announces an emergency evacuation plan. In fact, the exits are so insufficiently sized that it took us about an hour just to get out of the temple grounds after the ceremony ended. To top things off, I even got burned at Yi Peng this year! Some people get torch wax on their lanterns before releasing them, so hot fiery flaming wax rains down as the lantern floats off into the air. I’m sporting a nice red burn on my arm this week, so that’s fun. At least I was consoled by fireworks:

So let’s recap: huge crowds + open flames everywhere + floating fiery lanterns + hot flaming wax raining down from the sky = SIGN ME UP, AMIRITE?! Crowd control and liability are treated a bit more loosely here. It’s good and bad; you just have to be sure you’re watching out for yourself. In spite of the crowds and the fiery wax falling from the sky, Yi Peng is still definitely worth attending. It’s truly magical – I just might recommend wearing a hat and long sleeves, or bringing a small fire extinguisher.

A Note about Respect

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng is a wonderful, spectacular experience, one I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, a lot of the tourists who attend either don’t know or don’t care that it’s a religious ceremony. It’s hard to enjoy the experience when the guy next to you is playing games on his iPad during the ceremony, with the sound on. It’s pretty annoying when everyone is standing up to take photos in spite of the announcer’s repeated attempts to get people to sit down.

Yi Peng 2014

Yi Peng 2014

We even saw a couple girls whose clothes were so skimpy that I was afraid I would see some boobs if they so much as sneezed or coughed. I can’t wait for the day when I’m an old, spunky grandma that can walk up to girls wearing shorty shorts and say, “You know I can see your ass cheeks, right?” Luckily, there are students stationed at the entrances who will turn you away if you’re not dressed appropriately. Shoulders and knees should be covered, but you get bonus points if you go traditional Lanna style and wear all white.

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you had any experiences on your travels that are must-dos? Leave us a comment and let us know!

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 

(This isn’t my video, credit to Elizabeth Lauwerys who posted it on YouTube.)

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!