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:


Our Sweet Little Bungalow

Check out the bungalow view from our bed:


View from our Bungalow

The inside was spotless and super nice:


Inside our Bungalow

And the bathroom was awesome:


Nice Bungalow Bathroom

The bathroom even had a plant!  I love plants!


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:


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:


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:


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:


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!


We Love Beach Swings!

We also did some rock climbing:


Kevin Rocks

We really like climbing on rocks, apparently:


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:


Salad Beach Sunset

This beach also had a fun swing:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


DONUT LADY at the Thongsala Market

The vanilla-filled goodness:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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!


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.


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:


Ferry Warriors!

There were some pretty great views coming into Donsak Pier:


Beautiful view coming into Donsak Pier

Donsak Pier was a bit, um, worn down:


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.

The Little Island of Koh Chang

Beautiful Koh Chang Sunset

Beautiful Koh Chang Sunset

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

See, it rained when we were leaving!

See? It rained when we were leaving!

Getting to Koh Chang is not easy!

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


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

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

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

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

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

Ticket Booths and Minibusses at Mo Chit

Ticket Booths and Minibusses at Mo Chit

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

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

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

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Welcome to Koh Chang!

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

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

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

So how was Koh Chang, anyway?

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

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


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

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

The Beachfront Infinity Pool with swim-up bar

The Beachfront Infinity Pool with swim-up bar

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

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

Rooftop Infinity Pool

Rooftop Infinity Pool

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

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

Enjoying Beachfront Loungers

Enjoying Beachfront Loungers

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

Breakfast on the Beach!

Breakfast on the Beach!

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

Morning Beach Run in Koh Chang

Morning Beach Run in Koh Chang

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

Kevin swinging on the beach

Kevin swinging on the beach

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

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

Evening beers on our bungalow porch

Evening beers on our bungalow porch

Do we recommend Koh Chang to others?

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

Travelers, Adventurers and Vagabonds We’ve Met in Thailand

One of the best things about traveling is meeting interesting people in interesting places.  Because Thailand is such a popular vacation destination, we’ve met a lot of interesting travelers in our time here.  From eternal drifters to grumpy people to awesome families, we feel like we’ve seen it all.  Here are a few of our favorites.

The Eternal Japanese Drifter Guy Who Will Never Settle Down

I can’t remember this guy’s name, so I have dubbed him “Drifter”.  For about a half hour, this 30-something-year-old guy from Japan sat and chain smoked at a cafe in Pai while he entertained us with stories from his nearly-a-decade-long backpacking trip around Southeast Asia.  He was the classic beach-bum-backpacker type and the ultimate drifter, saying things like, “Yeah, man, you gotta follow your dreams, man…”.  He was sporting the classic backpacker uniform of harem pants and a geometric print muscle tank top.

“Drifter” recommended we visit the Ijen Volcano on Java when we visit Indonesia, telling us it was the most beautiful volcano he has ever seen:

Kawah Ijen -East Java -Indonesia-31July2009.jpg

“Kawah Ijen -East Java -Indonesia-31July2009″ by Jean-Marie Hullot – originally posted to Flickr as Kawah Ijen.

When Kevin asked him the very best place he has ever visited, he picked Kashmir, India because of its stunningly beautiful surroundings:

Nanga parbat, Pakistan by gul791.jpg

“Nanga parbat, Pakistan by gul791″ by Atif Gulzar – http://www.sxc.hu/photo/341372.

“Drifter” told us that the bus ride to Kashmir is dangerous and terrifying.  The mountain road is so narrow, that often times one of the bus’s four rear tires was actually hanging off the side of the road:

The Road to Kashmir

The Terrifying Road to Kashmir

We said our goodbyes as “Drifter” headed out on the long, windy road from Pai to Mae Hong Son on his rented motorbike.  Keep traveling, Drifter!

The Negative Nancy Law Student Volunteers

Negative Nancy

Watch Out

We eat lunch six days a week at Pun Pun, which means we regularly run into the same people.  You probably also know by now that Kevin and I spend about 23.5 hours per day together, which means that we sometimes eavesdrop on people at lunch to entertain ourselves when we just can’t talk about software projects anymore.

Fun Sucks

Fun Sucks

We often run into a group of girls who are law students from the USA, but are currently volunteering here in Chiang Mai.  They never seem to stop complaining about how hard life is.  I suppose living in the “Land of Smiles”, as Thailand is often called, can be pretty rough.  I know it makes me pretty grumpy to be surrounded with such wonderful weather, the amazing culture, the incredibly affordable prices, and the warm and friendly Thai people.  Life is so hard.

The Awesome German Family We Accidentally Stalked in Koh Chang

Most of my stalking nowadays is on the interwebs.  That’s right, friends and family, I’m watching you, following your every electronic move, because I have time for that now.  (Wow, that reads just as creepy as I thought it would.)  Kevin and I accidentally did some real-life stalking on our recent trip to the Thai island of Koh Chang, and luckily it ended up with a warm invitation to visit some new friends at their home in Germany instead of ending in a restraining order and deportation from this country we’ve come to love.

Our new friends and their 1-year-old son were visiting Koh Chang for a week and happened to be staying at the same resort as us.  We saw them our first day at the resort a handful of times, and accidentally set up camp at the pool next to them on our second day.  I’m not sure you all know, but Kevin and I have a weird love of German people.  We’ve just met a lot of really awesome German people on our travels, and in general they’ve been just incredibly friendly and warm.  I’m also a quarter German, so I might be biased.  And their beer is often served by the liter, the LITER, which scores major points with us.  Anyway, Kevin saw that this guy had a book titled “Der Something” with him at the pool.  We sprechen Deutsch just a little bit, enough to know that “Der” in German means “The”.  I know, advanced stuff right there.

Evidence of our love for Germany, taken at Oktoberfest 2012 in Munchen

Conclusive evidence of our love for Germany and German people, taken at Oktoberfest 2012 in Munchen

Kevin struck up a conversation, and he and Alexander were soon having an animated chat about the varieties, prices, and qualities of beers across Germany.  We bonded over booze, and over the course of the next 18 hours we ran into this family no less than eleven times.  This is no small feat at a huge resort with four pools, FOUR.  It started to get ridiculous, but apparently we didn’t scare them off.  We ended up exchanging contact information and plan to visit them if we’re in their neck of the woods during our travels in the next year or two.  Yay for travel friends!

The Bootstrappin’ Bros Obsessed with Pointy Triangles

We used to run into these guys at least three times a week at our favorite little coffee shop.  They were here in Chiang Mai bootstrapping a new online business drop-shipping high-end travel gear, but have since moved on to Bali.  If you combined the personalities of Steve Jobs and a SoCal Beach Bum, it would produce something similar to these two guys.

The Bros had three habits that made me die a little bit inside every time we ran into them:

  1. They regularly played music from their laptops without using headhpones.  If you want to get a taste of Melanie’s knuckle sandwich, follow their lead.
  2. For a couple of bros starting a business together, they sure seemed to hate each other.  The tension in the air was palpable, you could taste it, and it entertained me to no end.
  3. For some reason, one of the bros was absolutely obsessed with the shape of the triangle graphics on their website.  I’ll never forget the day where he spent hours staring at his Macbook Pro screen, hours!  Finally, after a blissful morning of silence because of his complete focus, he turned to his buddy and said, “Hey bro, you know what’s making me crazy?  The triangles on our site, they’re just so… pointy…”

Chiang Mai is quite the scene for expats looking for an inexpensive place to live while working on a startup, inspired largely by the popular Tropical MBA podcast that promotes location independent lifestyles.  We’re a small part of that Digital Nomad scene, and have enjoyed meeting the wide variety of people that are part of that community – it’s funny how we’ve started to see the same people over and over again in Chiang Mai.  We all seem to gravitate towards the coffees shops with really great air conditioning and the street vendors who speak enough English to help us pick out our dinners without accidentally eating pig entrails.

Quick Announcement

Starting today, I’m cutting back to one blog post per week.  I’m planning to start spending more time on personal development and software projects, and a little less time on blog posts.  I’ll keep posting every Friday at 8pm Thailand time, which is 8am Central time and 6am Seattle time.  If anyone objects, I will be happy to resume twice-a-week blogposts if you direct $200 per week into my Paypal Account. Har har har.  Thank you for reading!

We Want to Hear From You!

Who are the most interesting people you’ve met while traveling?  The on-the-run drug dealer?  The eighty year old backpacker?  A guy who travels with three cats?  Leave us a comment and tell us your story!

Overeating in Pai, Part 2: Savory Eats

This is my third post about our recent 3-night trip up to Pai, a slow little mountain town that’s popular with the backpacker crowd and tourists seeking relaxation.  Like I said in my previous post about cakes, pies and coffees in Pai, about the only thing to do in Pai is eat!  I don’t want you to think we only ate sweets and drank coffee while we were in Pai – we had some savory Thai food too!

Our favorite spot in Pai was Charlie and Lek’s, a great little restaurant that also has cooking classes.  We found a dish there that we haven’t seen anywhere else in Thailand – Pad Thai made with shaved green papaya instead of noodles!  If pad thai and som tam got together and had a love child, it would be Green Papaya Pad Thai.  IT WAS SO GOOD, as shown by Kevin’s face in the photo below.

Green Papaya Pad Thai at Charlie & Lek's

Green Papaya Pad Thai at Charlie & Lek’s.  Kevin is bursting with excitement for this food.  Naturally, we returned three days in a row to get this dish.

Red Dragon Fruit Shake and Watermelon + Lime Shake at Charlie & Lek's

A Red Dragonfruit Shake and a Watermelon + Lime Shake at Charlie & Lek’s

Green Papaya Salad at Charlie & Lek's - so so so good.

Close up of the Green Papaya Salad at Charlie & Lek’s – so so so good.

We also enjoyed some delicious Thai food from Na’s Kitchen.  The pad see iew may have been the best we’ve had so far in Thailand.  We also continued our love affair with Som Tam at Na’s – it did not disappoint.

Mango Shake at Na's Kitchen

Mango Shake at Na’s Kitchen

Great Pad See Iew at Na's Kitchen

Great Pad See Iew at Na’s Kitchen

Som Tam on the left, Sticky Rice in the basket on the right, and Pad See Iew in the back.  All for $4.

Som Tam on the left, Sticky Rice in the basket on the right, and Pad See Iew in the back. All for $4.

We splurged and decided to get burgers one night after realizing we hadn’t had any beef for almost 2 months!  We visited Maya’s Burger Queen to satisfy our beef craving.


Maya’s Burger Queen

Hawaiian Burger? Yes please.

Hawaiian Burger? Yes please.

The Hawaiian Burger, check out how big that pineapple slice is.

The Hawaiian Burger, check out how big that pineapple slice is.  Wish the beef patty had been bigger, but it was still super tasty!  And just $3.

Fried Chicken Burger - delicious.

Maya’s Fried Chicken Burger – delicious.

Homemade French Fries

And of course, we got Homemade French Fries

The cheapest meal we had in Pai was at Chew Xin Jai, a Chinese and Thai eatery with vegan and vegetarian food.  You get a plate full of rice with 1 scoop of food for 30 baht, 2 for 35 baht, 3 for 40 baht, or 4 for just 45 baht.  Cheap, filling, and pretty tasty.

Vegetarian food at Chew Xin Jai

Vegetarian food at Chew Xin Jai

No vacation in Thailand would be complete without some street food.  We started at the end of the main road in Pai and ate our way down the street back to our hotel on the last night.  It was fabulous.  Not pictured: an ear of corn on the cob that I scarfed down before we had time to take a photo…

Curry Puffs, 3 for 20 Baht

Curry Puffs, 3 for 20 Baht

We had a chicken BBQ skewer for 20 Baht

We had a chicken BBQ skewer for 20 Baht

We stopped for some Beef Curry and Rice from the Indian Food street vendor for 60 Baht

We stopped for some Beef Curry and Rice from the Indian Food street vendor for 60 Baht

She also had delicious Samosas for just 5 Baht apiece!

She also had delicious Samosas for just 5 Baht apiece!

We capped our street food dinner extravaganza off with a Chang beer at our hotel bar, where we sat and enjoyed some live music.

Chang Beer, what some locals lovingly call "elephant pee"

Chang Beer, what some locals lovingly call “elephant pee”.  WE MISS PACIFIC NORTHWEST MICROBREWS.


We want to hear from you!

What’s the best thing you’ve eaten on your international travels?  My favorite meal is still a cook-your-own-hot-plate meal we ate in a dark alleyway in Hanoi, Vietnam last year. We were sitting on tiny plastic stools at a tiny plastic table in a tiny little alley with motorbikes racing by.  Sometimes it’s more about the surroundings than the food!


Overeating in Pai, Part 1: Cakes, Pies and Coffees

We recently took a little 3-night trip up to Pai, Thailand to get away from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai.  Pai is a slow little mountain town that’s super popular with the backpacker crowd and tourists seeking relaxation.  There’s not a whole lot to do in Pai other than eat and relax, so we did as much eating as possible.  What could be more appropriate than overeating in a town whose name is pronounced “Pie”, anyway?  Also, writing about your overeating burns off some of those excess calories.  Ok, I may have just made that up, but I’m hoping it’s true.  Here are some snapshots of the tasty cakes, pies and coffees we sampled in Pai.  Stay tuned for a second blog post of all the non-sweets we had in Pai.

Cakes and Pies in Pai

First stop for some sweets was All About Coffee, a fun spot we found through some fellow traveler’s blogs online.

All About Coffee

All About Coffee

Kevin had the Binoffi Pai on the left, which was sort of like a banana cream pie with chocolate drizzle.  I had the Mango Cheese Pie on the right, which was pretty much a cheesecake with mangos on top.  Super delicious, but a bit expensive.

Binoffi Pai and Mango Cheese Pie

Binoffi Pai and Mango Cheese Pie

Next, we learned that Thai folks interpret “Ice Cream Sandwich” concept very literally.  We picked up this concoction below for just 10 Baht. It’s literally an ice cream sandwich – a piece of sandwich bread filled with scoops of coconut ice cream, a scoop of sweet sticky rice, sweet coconut drizzle, and peanuts.

The Infamous Thai-Style Ice Cream Sandwich

The Infamous Thai-Style Ice Cream Sandwich

We also made a visit to the Witching Well restaurant, which we’ve read has delicious cakes and desserts.  Their decor is also fun and unique.

Fun Decor at Witching Well

Fun Decor at Witching Well

Menu and Decor at Witching Well

Menu and Decor at Witching Well

Decor at Witching Well

Decor at Witching Well

Kevin ordered the Apple Crisp, and I got the carrot cake.  Both tasty, both cost 70 Baht.

Apple Crisp at Witching Well

Apple Crisp at Witching Well

Carrot Cake at Witching Well

Carrot Cake at Witching Well

We also stumbled onto this street vendor, serving up delicious coconut pancakes.  We got two with coconut + corn, and two with coconut + banana.  SO GOOD.  Don’t miss these if you’re in Pai – it was the best dessert we had there!

Coconut Pancakes

Coconut Pancakes – don’t miss these!


Coffees in Pai

All the cakes and pies made us lethargic.  Naturally, we sought out some high-caffeine high-sugar beverages as a pick me up.  During our visit to All About Coffee, we also snagged some tasty drinks.  Kevin got a Siphon Coffee, black, and I had an Upside Down Coffee, which is a shot of espresso on top of sweetened condensed milk.

Kevin's Siphon Coffee

Kevin’s Siphon Coffee

My Upside Down Coffee

My Upside Down Coffee


News Flash: Melanie is now addicted to coffee

News Flash: Melanie is now addicted to coffee

Kevin kicked back and relaxed at All About Coffee

This is as relaxed as Kevin gets, enjoying some reading at All About Coffee.

We discovered a little cafe called Cafein in the center of Pai with two rocking chairs right by the street.  This cafe is situated right across from a motorbike rental place, so we killed several hours watching brand new motorbike riders come up and shakily ride off on their newly rented motorbikes.  We saw some of them again later with knees and elbows wrapped in gauze!

Our favorite spot in Pai

Our favorite spot in Pai

Green Tea Latte at Cafein

Green Tea Latte at Cafein.  Spoiler alert – all that green coloring is not natural.  My tongue matched the drink after I finished it!

Iced Lattes at Cafein

Iced Lattes at Cafein

Wonderful Cafein

Wonderful Cafein

Another favorite spot was Cafe d’tist, just down the street from our hotel.  They had tasty iced drinks for just 50 baht, and we really liked their Iced Lattes and their fun decor.

Iced Latte at Cafe d'tist

Iced Latte at Cafe d’tist

Cafe d'tist

Cafe d’tist

Cute little rocking swan at Cafe d'tist

Cute little rocking swan at Cafe d’tist

Enjoying some Iced Lattes at Cafe d'tist

Enjoying another round of Iced Lattes at Cafe d’tist

A stray dog hanging out at Cafe d'tist

A stray dog hanging out at Cafe d’tist

Not all our caffeine came from coffee in Pai.  We also stopped by Art in Chai, a little coffee house that’s super popular with backpackers.  Art in Chai is known for their Masala Chai.  For each glass, the barista uses a mortar and pestle to freshly pound up all the spices that go into that cup.  We met a few people at Art in Chai who came to Pai on week-long vacation and are still here two years later.  A lot of people seem to come to Pai and just never leave!

Art in Chai, backpacker's paradise

Art in Chai, backpacker’s paradise

Masala Chais at Art in Chai

Masala Chai Teas at Art in Chai


I’m almost embarrassed to post all of this.  Yes, we were only in Pai for 3 nights, and yes, we really did eat all of these sweets.  If you could win a vacation award for eating cakes, pies and coffees, we definitely won on this trip!  YOLO, right?

We want to hear from you!

Where in the world have you had your best coffee?  There will always be a special place in my heart for Vietnamese coffee, which tastes almost like chocolate.


Getting to Pai from Chiang Mai

Off we go, to Pai!

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to Pai we go!

The Road to Pai

The road to Pai from Chiang Mai is a stomach-churning nausea-inducing blood-pressure-increasing 80-mile-long nightmare.  According to legend, the road has 762 hairpin turns and is one of the most dangerous stretches in all of Thailand.  Zoom in on the map below to see all the twists and turns as the road nears Pai – it’s quite the ride!  In spite of it being just 80 miles, the drive usually takes 3-4 hours unless you’re a crazy daredevil.  Being the idiots that we are, we still wanted to make a trip to the cute little mountain town of Pai, Thailand, but it was harder than we thought it’d be to decide how to get there!  We visited no less than 8 travel agencies here in Chiang Mai to assess all of our options.

Option #1: Fly

The quickest way to get there is to take a half-hour flight with Kan Air, a tiny airline that only serves a handful of towns in North Thailand.  But they only make the trip Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday, and only once per day!  Their flights are close to $60 one way, and were mostly sold out for the next few weeks.  Also, as a former Boeing employee, I tend treat small domestic airlines in foreign countries with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Option #2: Public Bus

The word on the interwebs is that a bus fare to Pai costs 150 Baht, or about $4.60. I’ve read that the “air conditioned” busses don’t have very good air conditioning, so what ends up happening is that you’re just stuck in a hot bus with windows that won’t open!  Non-air-conditioned busses also make the trip to Pai, but  stories of fruit rolling around on the floor and random loose chickens deterred us from bussing it.  We’ve only been in Thailand a month, after all, so we aren’t sure we’re ready yet for that experience.

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Option #3: Motorbike

We were encouraged by several strangers to attempt to motorbike up to Pai.  Now that we’ve seen the road, we are about 95% sure that motorbiking to Pai would’ve killed us.  Neither of us has driven a motorbike before, so a 3-hour trip through the mountains in the rainy season with tons of hairpin turns would have been an absolute disaster.  I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now if we had attempted to motorbike to Pai.  This road is definitely for advanced motor bikers only!

Option #4: Aya Minivans

When we started looking into the Minivan option, we found that the most popular van operator, Aya Service, has a plethora of terrifying reviews online.  Phrases like “don’t use this company if you value your life” and “someone threw up everywhere in the van” were commonplace. Some people’s reviews even said their drivers were acting erratic, like they had used some sort of drugs to stay awake.  More than a few people mentioned that the Aya drivers go way too fast, hustling up to Pai so they can load up a new vanful of passengers and race back down to Chiang Mai.  We even read a post online claiming that the passengers in one Aya van revolted, forced the driver to pull over, put him in the back seat, and a passenger finished out the drive up to Pai!

Before I snapped this photo, I asked Kevin how he felt about our upcoming journey...

Before I snapped this photo, I asked Kevin how he felt about our upcoming journey…

Reading these reviews had us rethinking our trip to Pai altogether.  It made us nervous for the trip no matter how we got there, as shown by Kevin’s face in the photo above.

Option #5: The winner, a Minivan with Terminal Green

Luckily, we found Terminal Green!  This company operates the same style of 16-passenger minivans as Aya Service, and their tickets are the same price.  The fare for a ride up to Pai is 180 Baht (about $5.50) and includes pickup at your hotel/apartment.  The ride back down costs just 150 Baht (about $4.60), and ends in Chiang Mai’s Old City, close enough to our condo that we could just walk home afterwards.  We could hardly find any reviews online for Terminal Green, but we felt “less unconfident” about them just because of the lack of bad reviews online.  It seemed like the least evil of all options.  To book the Chiang Mai to Pai portion, call Terminal Green at 081-960-9283 (and be sure to request seats in the front of van!)  The return journey can be booked at the Terminal Green storefront in Pai.  Seats on the return journey are first come first served for the trip back to Chiang Mai, so you have to arrive early and throw some elbows to sit in the front.

The Journey

We each took some Bonine for motion sickness before leaving the house to head to Pai.  This turned out to be a great idea – highly recommend a Bonine pill or two.  A Terminal Green van picked us up near our condo at 9:45am and drove us over to the Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station to load up into another Terminal Green minivan.  Try to show up with an empty bladder – it costs 3 Baht to use the filthy bathrooms at the bus station.  Do you at least get toilet paper or soap since you paid 3 Baht?  No way, man!

This is the ticket counter at the Arcade Bus Terminal where you can buy tickets to Pai

The Arcade Bus Terminal Ticket Counter

We loaded up into the van, packed like sardines.  One seat even had two passengers – a mom with her 5 year old daughter on her lap!

One last selfie before the drive - hopefully not the last selfie ever...

One last selfie before the drive – hopefully not the last selfie ever…

By 10:30am, we were en route to Pai.  We were probably the only passengers who wore seat belts.  Even the driver didn’t buckle up.  Luckily, the air conditioner worked well and it wasn’t too warm!

Please Expect Seat Belt

We chuckled at this sign in the van: “Please Expect Seat Belt”

We stopped at a rest stop halfway up to Pai. Using the bathrooms at this stop cost 3 Baht, toilets were of the squatting variety, and it did not include toilet paper or soap.  Sigh.

We were glad we brought snacks along – it was a long drive and the food at the rest stop was expensive (and by expensive I mean $3/meal) and it looked like it had been there for more than a few days.  After eating our makeshift egg sandwiches (not egg salad… just a boiled egg wrapped in a piece of bread… we are simple folk), we piled back into the van.

Our trusty van which got us safely up to Pai

The trusty steed which got us safely up to Pai

En route to Pai, we drove through a herd of cows on the road and passed several big semi trucks on the windy road.  We arrived safely at the bus station in Pai at about 2pm, hungry, tired, and with a Bonine hangover.  Luckily, no one threw up in our van.  Success!

If we had to make the trip up to Pai again, we would definitely use Terminal Green.  They were one of the cheapest options for getting to and from Pai, and we never felt unsafe.  We liked both of our drivers – they took their time getting us safely through the mountains and always passed slower cars/motorbikes carefully.  We did spot a few Aya vans that seemed like they were really zooming around other cars on the road – several zoomed passed us on our journey – so we were happy with our choice to use Terminal Green.

We want to hear from you!

Have you ever had a terrifying journey on your travels?  We want to hear all about it!  Please leave us a comment with your story.