Our trip to Thailand
Nov. 15-30, 2002
We planned the entire agenda ourselves and made all the arrangements over the internet. I’d say we were quite pleased with this method and were not disappointed with any of our choices. (You could save a bit of money by shopping for accommodation after arriving in each destination, but of course that would take extra time.)
Thailand has 60 million people and is more than twice the size of Great Britain. It’s 1025 miles from top to bottom. The southern area where we went is completely tropical. The main crops are oil palm trees, rubber trees, and fruits such as mangoes, papaya, watermelons and pineapple. The coasts have white sand beaches edged with palm trees.
Our journey to Phuket:
After work on the evening of Friday, Nov. 15, we flew from Heathrow direct to Bangkok on a Thai Airways 747. It’s a popular destination so the plane was full. Flew over Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Burma and Thailand. Going there didn’t seem to take too long. Louise remembers seeing thousands of rivers in Bangladesh.
Thailand is 7 hours ahead of the UK. The most surprising thing was landing in Bangkok and seeing golfers playing on a nicely landscaped golf course right beside the runway!
On arrival at Bangkok, we switched to another flight on a Thai Airways 737 to the island of Phuket, 500 miles south. That was a nice short flight with views of rice paddies. We were met at the little Phuket airport by both a taxi driver and the manager of our hotel from Nai Thon beach which was a 10-minute drive away. This was about 7 PM on Saturday. It was about 90 deg. out and very humid as it had just rained. The taxi was air conditioned, so when we got out, our glasses fogged up. Our first order of the day was to go for dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was open air with dogs running in and out. It was a beautiful spot with waves crashing in on the beach directly opposite.
Where we stayed:
Our room at Nai Thon beach was in a very small, quiet motel. It cost $29 Cdn. a night. A salt-water marsh right behind our room was full of frogs and crickets that started singing at sundown. It was near a row of local people’s tin houses. They had 1 TV set between 6 houses which they all got together to watch every evening. The one water tap was near our room, and they used it all day long to wash their clothes, dishes and themselves.
In Krabi town, we stayed on the 6th floor of a big commercial hotel. It overlooked mangrove swamps, the tidal river and local markets. People started their day about 6 AM so we could see (and hear) this out the window.
Our favourite hotel was the Peace Laguna Resort in Ao Nang. It was a 5-minute walk inland from the sea but was built around a big fresh-water pond. We had a wooden cabin which they call a bungalow, for $53 a night. The resort had a beautiful swimming pool decorated by big cement seahorses, an open-air restaurant overlooking it, plus a tailor shop and massage studio. We both went for Thai massages there and the ladies found all kinds of kinks and sore muscles. It cost $7.20 each for 1 hour.
On Phi Phi Island, we stayed in another wooden bungalow at the beach resort. It was up a hill at the back of extensive grounds and overlooked banana trees and the ocean. The room was quite big with refrigerator, verandah and balcony.
In Bangkok, we stayed at the Belaire Princess hotel on a nice quiet side street. It was a proper big-city hotel with lots of English and American tourists and a nice outdoor swimming pool on the 3rd floor. We had a huge room on the 12th floor overlooking office blocks and stores. And it had a TV set!
Sun, sand and sightseeing:
Nai Thon was a very small and quiet beach resort, just ideal as a first stop. It had just one two-lane road through it with very little traffic, just scooters. The town consisted of two motels and 4 restaurant/bars and a school. The beach was super. Louise didn’t like the big roller waves but I did, although they were awfully powerful one day when it was windy.
We had hoped to do some bicycling, but in most areas, it was either too hilly or the traffic was too busy. So we walked instead.
We hired a young fellow with a car for one day through our motel in Nai Thon. It was his first week on the job. We went to Phuket town and the zoo. Two animal shows in the zoo featured baby elephants and monkeys. The cutest part of the elephant show had 3 elephants; one of them banged on a drum and the other 2 played mouth organs with their trunks. Saw toucans and a really cute 4-week old tiger cub which was running free with one of the keepers. Also went to the Phuket historical museum and to see the gibbons – this was at an animal sanctuary where they kept the small monkeys before releasing them into the wild. A French Canadian girl who was volunteering there told us about the program.
The taxi driver took us back through Patong, the major tourist centre on Phuket. The beach takes second place to all the hotels, bars and T-shirt stores, so we didn’t think we’d go there for our vacation.
Krabi is near more sheltered water that’s good for snorkelling, so we hired a long-tail boat (described below) for a day ($16 each). We went to 3 islands, plus the boat anchored in deep water so I could jump in to snorkel. It was just Louise and me plus the boat driver and his 2 sons. At the first beach, the coral had all been bleached due to global warming. On the whole, the coral wasn’t as good as I remember it being in the Bahamas 25 years ago, but maybe that’s the case elsewhere. We did see some good coral and tropical fish while snorkelling in only a foot of water off the beach in Phi Phi. The tropical fish are quite tame and swim around you in big swarms. All in all, we thought the swimming conditions and beaches here were better than anywhere we’ve been.
Rather than cope with the local buses and our suitcases, we took a taxi van from Ao Nang to Krabi airport ($16).
The chief attraction of Thailand is the incredibly beautiful scenery:
The monsoon season lasts from June to October and is very humid. The hot season lasts from March to July – you can fry an egg on the street. We were there in the “cool” season; it was about 32 deg. every day and extremely humid after it rained. It took us a while to get used to the heat, and we sweated alot at the start of the trip. The heat and humidity seemed to vary throughout the day for no apparent reason.
When we were at Nai Thon, we got caught in a monsoon-style rain storm on one of our afternoon walks (we took refuge in a hotel lobby). We saw heat lightning most evenings, but no rain.
Getting around on the water:
We took an old ferry from Phuket to Phi Phi. The ride was very inexpensive. The boat was full of European young people. We sat on the top deck and talked to a Norwegian man who was travelling around Thailand for a month. At the dock, they tie the boats to each other. You board the first one, then depending on your destination, you cross over until you reach the boat you’re supposed to be on, along with carrying your suitcases, sometimes jumping over a big gap with water below, and of course cooperating (or sometimes competing) with hordes of other people doing the same thing and in an equal quandary. It helps to travel light!
It started raining when we were on the top deck, so we had to go down to the inside lounge which was air conditioned but at least comfortable and dry. The rain lasted for 8 hours, but the monsoon season ended and it was nice after that.
If the big boat couldn’t get to port, it would be met by long-tail motor boats. The final transfer from the long-tail boat is done using a tractor and cart. The tractor drives into 2 ft. of water, and the cart is above the level of the water. It was hilarious seeing a group of tourists standing up in the cart, looking like refugees rescued from the sea. I suspect that one of my suitcases got dumped in the water (I didn’t see it) because everything in it was damp afterwards.
The above picture shows a long-tail boat, a contraption used throughout Asia (this one is on the main river in Bangkok). The boat had a gas motor mounted on 2 poles which sat on a turntable at the back of the boat. The motors varied from small 2-cylinder ones to big V8 car engines. The drive shaft was connected to a 12-foot long cylinder with a propeller at the end. The boat driver held onto a bar connected to the engine such that the propeller was in the water. He pulled on the throttle and away we went – they got a good speed up. Most of the engines had no mufflers so were very loud. Louise called these boats egg beaters, because the motor and propeller worked like her hand-held blender.
At the popular resorts, the long-tail boat drivers are all free-lancers, so they employ rustlers (touts) to drum up business. We decided a smarter idea was to ignore them and head for a boat that had people in it – that one was certain to leave sooner, whereas if you went with a tout, he’d make you wait until he got more customers, which could be a while.
We visited a rubber plantation and saw how latex is harvested and processed. They cut strips of bark from the tree and then white sap runs out. It is sticky like white glue but becomes like silicone sealant when it hardens. It’s a good cash crop, and there are thousands of acres of rubber trees all over southern Thailand.
We went swimming in a thermal river, and also at a place called the emerald pool. It had hot spring and river water mixed together, completely clear, and beautiful for swimming. Louise loved the emerald pool; it was like nowhere else.
Our big climb in the heat:
Our one-day tour from Krabi in Jeeps took us to a Buddhist temple which is at the top of a big hill. There are 1,250 steps to climb to the top. Because it was so hot and humid, Louise and I only made it up 700 steps. We were disappointed because all the Germans (even the ones who smoked) charged up to the top where they could see the countryside spreading out below. I figure 700 steps is like climbing a 50-storey building, so we did pretty well.
Louise was pleased that she was taller than almost everyone she met. The Thai people are very gentle, courteous and friendly. They are taught not to confront or be aggressive. They show respect, like if you give them a tip, by holding their 2 hands together below the chin and bowing. We found they were genuinely glad to see you and eager to serve.
The Indonesian girls in the south are quite pretty, with dark skin, big eyes and long hair. Western men like the demure and submissive Thai women; they do all the service work, while men run the machines and do all the driving. Women are mainly subservient but we did meet a few who owned businesses. The Thais are hard workers; they never pass up an opportunity to make money. Their English was sufficient that you could make yourself understood by keeping it simple.
On the part of Phi Phi island where we stayed, there were 3 modern resorts, but the local people lived on one part of the beach called the gypsy village. They ran some small stores where you could buy beer or fruit cheaply. The women all sat in a circle on the verandah and played cards. I went into a store to buy a beer. The son was running the cash register but had to ask his father, who was lying in a hammock watching TV, how much one cost (72 cents a can).
A few people were trying to sell silk scarves or cotton shirts on the beach; the other favourite was Thai massages. They did not pester you very much. One of the men told us that the police had raided a big beach party the night before and arrested 5 tourists for smoking funny cigarettes. He indicated this in pidgin English and miming how the police put handcuffs on the suspects. (The first signs you see at the airport are warnings about drugs.)
One of the most popular beaches in Krabi is accessible only by long-tail boat ($1.80 per person each way). Within a few hundred yards is a real study in contrasts. One resort, the Rayavadee Premier Resort, costs $800 a night – we saw a older American couple arriving in a private motor launch. Further along, there are big piles of rubbish and the sea is dirty, then you come to a squalid hippy settlement where you can stay for $5 a night, complete with mud and bedbugs. It may not have been too bad, as we met 3 young Europeans who said they worked all summer, then spent the whole winter in this community doing very little.
We were lucky to witness the full moon festival, a Buddhist tradition which occurs in June and November. Each person buys or makes a small raft about the size of a hard-cover book, decorated with flowers and a little candle. In the evening when the moon is overhead, you light the candle and set your raft afloat in a lagoon or pond (the sea will do but it’s not as good). You then watch it until the candle burns out or the thing capsizes, at which time all your sorrows and troubles are drowned, or at least symbolically.
There was a funny diagram in the bathroom in our hotel in Krabi. It showed the right and wrong way to use the toilet and had a cartoon of a Japanese-looking man. The wrong way is to put your 2 feet on the sides of the bowl.
Employers there go by the philosophy “why use 3 workers when 30 will do?” We were constantly amazed to see how big the work crews were. For example, a big hotel restaurant had at least 15 waiters. The jewellery section in a department store had over 30 girls working in it. They can get things done quickly because there are plenty of staff. Of course, the wages are only $216 a month, but at least people are employed.
Everyone raves about the food in Thailand. Not only is it very tasty (imagine noodle soup that actually tastes good), but a 3-course dinner for 2 with drinks costs $18. Louise liked corn soup with crab meat and also the hot and sour soup which is quite popular. We ate cashew nuts for snacks, also peanut brittle.
One of the common ploys by restaurants is to offer fresh fish at so much per 100 grams. I thought this seemed like a good way to get hosed, but we gambled and had a couple of excellent meals. We had four 6-inch long jumbo shrimp (tiger prawns) with steamed rice and morning glory stems as a vegetable. Another time, I picked out a whole sea bass and it cost $5.40. The waiter brought it to us in a metal fish dish, warmed by pieces of burning charcoal below. It was delicious and cost less than a meal at McDonald’s in England.
The local people’s restaurants had quite acceptable food at incredibly cheap prices. You could get a plate of rice with chicken topping for 72 cents. Some of the restaurants looked like they’d never been cleaned, but the dishes, cutlery and food was clean. We did not run into anyone who had been sick.
Another way of eating is to patronize the many noodle stands which people set up on the sidewalks. These are usually run from a cart. Cooking is done on either charcoal or with a propane gas burner. If there’s enough space on the sidewalk, some of them set up temporary restaurants complete with tables, chairs and a TV set showing an action video to attract customers.
We usually didn’t want that much to eat because of the heat; just 1 small course of rice, a bit of meat and veg was sufficient. For dessert, we usually had a fruit plate which always comprised slices of watermelon, pineapple and mango. Later in our trip, I got tired of drinking beer and switched to milkshakes, so the bill was even less. Some days we drank like camels. I was relaxing in our hotel room one evening and must have drank 2 litres of water.
There were two main brands of local beer, Singha and Castle, both of which are fine. One time, I ordered lemonade, but it came loaded with saccharine and tasted horrible, so after that, I stuck to bottled water.
As recommended, we drank only bottled water. The Thai people avoid the tap water too. At every gas station, there are 2 big pallets full of bottled water so you can load up when you get gas. (As a side note, we saw something you don’t often see any more: uniformed gas station attendants who will actually put gas in your car for you. None of the stations seemed very busy. Gas cost 50 cents a litre.)
We bought lots of clothes: Louise bought 2 nice blue tops for $17.50 and a couple of purses. I bought brown leather hiking boots and a new pair of running shoes ($75 for both), plus 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants. Our biggest purchase was an 18-carat gold necklace and Chinese pendant for Louise.
We got our pictures developed there – they turned out quite nicely and it cost about $7 a roll for one-hour service. They even put the pictures into a small plastic album for you.
We’d no sooner got settled in on the remote island of Phi Phi when Louise managed to get one ear plugged up with wax. She couldn’t hear anything in one ear for almost a day. We walked down to the Holiday Inn which had a first aid room and a Thai nurse, but she wasn’t able to do very much. By a stroke of pure luck, we ran into an American couple on the beach the next afternoon – he was an emergency room doctor from San Diego and said the procedure for removing ear wax was quite simple, but he’d need the right equipment. So he went to the Holiday Inn clinic with Louise and his wife who was a nurse and got her all fixed up in 20 minutes. This saved us an enormous amount of grief and expense plus the time we would have wasted at the hospital. You can always count on the Americans to come to your rescue! He said he’d tell his coworkers that he’d been a jungle doctor on his holidays.
I figure anyone in Thailand can get their drivers license for $1.99 and 2 cereal box tops. The biggest vehicle rules the road and lane markings don’t mean anything. The roads are in very good condition, with separate lanes at the side for scooters. We couldn’t make out any of the road signs because they were all in Thai.
In Krabi town, most of the vehicles on the road were pickup trucks.
None of the Thai people walk anywhere; everyone drives scooters, starting at about the age of 13. No one wears a helmet. We wondered why there aren’t more accidents, but the taxi driver told us that scooters are very dangerous because you can skid easily, especially when the road is wet.
Some of the old and new customs:
The main street of Ao Nang (pictured above) is full of shops selling clothes and beach stuff plus travel agents, where you can book diving, boating and sightseeing tours. Most of the resort (not shown in the picture) was heaving with construction work in preparation for the coming hordes of Australian holidayers. Several hotels and stores were being built, and this made the whole place dusty like a wild west town. Plus they were digging up all the sidewalks to lay new tiles. We were very glad the Peace Laguna Resort was 2 blocks away from this mess, but some people in other hotels had rooms right in the midst of it.
Our most expensive day tour ($54 each) involved kayaking in the mangrove swamps about 30 miles north of Ao Nang. We got there on an open-sided bus. The driver looked like Otto on “The Simpsons” and wore a toque, although he was careful and steady on the roads. I soon learned the disadvantage of open-sided buses – the dust gets in your eyes. We went with 3 Germans, 2 Swedes and a Norwegian. The guide was really good and spoke excellent English. Saw beautiful limestone hills, fields of pineapples and palm oil palms. The river was salt water and tidal for 6 kms. Saw oysters being farmed in the river and the guide explained a lot about the native plants. We had a fabulous time seeing 5,000-year-old drawings in caves, mudskippers, wild monkeys and iguanas. On the way back to Ao Nang, we stopped at a fresh-water river for a swim. It was about 3 feet deep and 10 feet wide with a really fast current, so the Germans had upstream swimming races. The water was crystal clear and we could see tiny pipe fish about 1” long. It was a nice spot that had been made into a township swimming hole, complete with wooden boardwalk through the jungle.
Kayaking through a cave
A huge praying mantis came nearby our dinner table one time. Saw a bug that was perfectly camouflaged like a piece of wood. Saw some toads on the street – they’d figured out that the best bugs (flying insects about an inch long) were dazed by the street lights so they sat near the lamp post and ate as many as they wanted.
There were quite a few small mosquitoes in Ao Nang because the resort was built around a pond. The left small red marks that didn’t itch and went away after a day.
Saw a few Canadians but very few Americans. Met a Canadian guy from Toronto at Nai Thon. He had noodle soup and beer for breakfast. Met lots of Swedish and German tourists, plus dozens of Australians who were travelling back from their jobs in England. At breakfast one morning, we sat beside a retired Swedish couple - the man had been an airline pilot with Scandinavian Airlines.
When planning our trip, I was thinking of giving Bangkok a miss, but several people advised spending at least a couple of days there. We’re glad we left it to the end, as we were then more accustomed to the way things work.
Bangkok was established as Thailand’s capital in 1782. It’s now home to 10 million people. It has all the modern amenities: McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, and some new megastores like Tesco with all the franchise chains inside; this is worrying the mom & pop store owners who don’t know how they’ll compete. Bangkok was originally labelled “Venice of the East” because of the river and canals, but most of the canals have since been filled in to make roads.
Looking around Bangkok:
The city is noted for:
People often approach you and get into a friendly conversation, but then ask what you are looking to buy so they can recommend a particular store. The guide books are full of advice on how not to get railroaded. The worst are tuk-tuk drivers who say they’ll take you anywhere for 72 cents, but this is just a come-on. We always said we weren’t looking to buy anything and were just walking around.
There were lots of “clubs” for men (some of them restricted to Japanese only, etc.). They employed lots of pretty hostesses who made instant friends. We were also surprised to see a boy leading a fairly young elephant around the busy side streets in the hopes of charging people to take its picture.
Bangkok tourist attractions:
We went to the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Ko Buddhist temple - saw lots of Chinese people on bus tours there. It was crammed with tourists. Went to the Thailand National Museum; it consisted of 20 buildings (each one was not very big), very interesting collections of artefacts such as the carriage used to carry the coffin for royal funerals. The other museum we liked had a collection of seven 2-storey teak houses moved there from elsewhere in the country. One of the royal houses was decorated with gold pictures painted on black lacquer.
At the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Getting around Bangkok:
We had visions that Bangkok would be noisy, crowded and polluted. Crowded and noisy on the busy streets, but we were lucky to have nice warm weather, blue skies and sunshine. It’s not like that in the hot season, though.
The city is laid out on a grid system, so is easier to navigate than I’d expected. I thought it would be a confusing labyrinth like Marrakech but it’s not. We didn’t get lost once.
The roads are laid out in a similar fashion to Toronto, with small streets, arterial roads and freeways. Normally, traffic moves along pretty well on the arterial roads and freeways, but in rush hour, everything grinds to a complete stop. We were amazed at the tie-ups. You’d see literally 6 lanes of traffic going in one direction at a standstill for as far as you could see. I could not see any advantage to having a car there. Everyone rides scooters and no one cycles.
Most scooter drivers and passengers wore helmets in the city, and usually dust masks. The scooters and motorcycles drive between the rows of traffic, then bunch up at the traffic lights (the lights stay red for at least 3 minutes). When the light turns green, the motorcycles all tear off at once as if they were in a road race, then do the same thing all over again on the next block.
The taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok were desperate for business (tuk-tuks are 3-wheeled contraptions that will seat 2 passengers). We didn’t use any of them but walked everywhere. Walking was a challenge: The sidewalks were all taken up with noodle stands and people selling things. The pavement was uneven, with big grates or cement manhole covers every 3 ft., so you could easily trip or even fall in. Crossing the street was a risky and frightening proposition because of the wide streets and all the traffic. We saw a tourist get hit by a taxi in a crosswalk – he didn’t see the car coming and it happened very quickly. Fortunately, the man wasn’t badly hurt but the taxi driver was in big trouble with the police who showed up right away. Louise was even more frightened of crossing the street after that happened, so we adopted a herd mentality that seemed to work – walk or run with several other people and hope for the best.
Travelling the sensible way in Bangkok:
We made good use of the Skytrain, an elevated subway system with 2 lines and about 20 stations. It opened in 1999 and is their pride and joy. It cost about $1.25 per ride or you could buy a day ticket for $3.60. It’s a superb system and is well used even though much more expensive than the buses.
Another transport bargain is the ferry boat service on the river. 36 cents gets you a ride on the Chao Phraya River for an hour each way. It was interesting to see both rich places and some rather ramshackle houses built right on the water that were almost flooded at high tide.
The other entertaining part about the ride is docking. When the tide is going out, the river flows pretty fast. The ferry pulls up along the dock and an attendant at the back uses a series of whistles (like a policeman’s whistle) to indicate to the driver to pull left or right, forward or back. (The driver sits at the front of the boat, but the people enter and leave from a flat deck at the back.) The attendant uses a rope to lasso a steel post while the people jump off and on (with the boat and dock bouncing up and down all the time), then the attendant whistles and away they go to the next stop. We didn’t see anyone fall in the water, but heard that it’s happened.
The airport bus:
Another good bargain is the airport bus between Bangkok airport and the city centre. It cost $3.60 each. On our ride into town, it came quite soon and we were on the freeway in short order. But going back to the airport on Saturday night, we waited at the stop for about 40 minutes before it finally came. A Canadian girl from Toronto was waiting too – she was on a 2-month trip to Vietnam and Indonesia but was headed home too.
I got a headache on the flight back. It left at 12:45 in the morning and lasted 12-1/2 hours. There was no fresh air in the plane, a full Thai Airways 747. It was only 7 deg. and raining in England, then we had to wait for a long time for a train from Woking to Guildford.
While there, I read the book “Touch the Dragon” by Canadian author Karen Connolly. It’s about her experiences living in Thailand on a student exchange program and is very well written; I’d recommend it to anyone.
Thailand welcomes 8 million tourists a year. Most people don’t visit the county once, they go back a second and third time. It’s even recommended as a place for British retirees to move to. The friendly people and low prices make it a popular destination. It has a unique culture and has everything set up so you can organize your own tour.