Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Turtle Island - Koh Tao

17-20 Aug - After my unfortunate adventure in Koh Phangan, I felt extremely down at a point and was seriously considering of putting an end to my journey to go back to Malaysia. Nevertheless, I decided to finish off the third and final island around the area, Koh Tao.

Named after the island's shape of a turtle, Koh Tao is approximately 40km away from Koh Phangan and is the smallest among the three. Koh Tao was originally an island where Thai government imprisoned political prisoners but later on as tourism blossomed, it was turned into a scuba diving heaven due to its natural landscape and underwater beauty. Today, Koh Tao stands as the number 1 training and learning centre for scuba diving in South East Asia.

As I bid farewell to Carlos on the next morning, I headed to Thong Sala once again to catch a ferry to Koh Tao. The 90 minutes ferry ride cost me 250B and as I am traveling ahead of the other hungover tourist after the full moon party, I had no problem in securing a seat.

Even before reaching Koh Tao, I was swarmed by many diving school operators offering me their packages for fun dives and courses at the pier and on the boat. As I need to be extra careful with my money, I took advantage of this and shop for the best possible deal.

As there are plenty of diveshops in Koh Tao, competition was very keen. The diveshop that I decided to check out even had free transport for me from the pier. Once I reached their premise, I was greeted with a warm welcome and free drinks. HAHA. It's really crazy.

After some intense bargaining with the manager Miss Jai, I ended up doing an Advanced Open Water course with New Way Diving for 8000B that includes 3 nights accommodation in a bungalow by the nicest beach in Koh Tao. Even though I knew I had secured a very good deal, I still felt a bit uneasy about my decision to spend so much more money after what had happened.

Well I spent the rest of the day exploring the beach and of course studying for my Advance Open Water course. :) Beach in Koh Tao is much nicer compared to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan but to me it still wasn't as pretty as Malaysia's Perhentian island.

Early next morning, I woke up to get ready for my course. I was introduced to Tuk, my instructor and realized I am the only person in the class. I had to spend some time in class listening to the theory of what I will do and answer some questions and Tuk, being a local Thai guy speaks perfect English. After the boring theory part, finally I get to go underwater. We went out on a big boat alongside other fun divers and students in other classes.

My first dive went really well and Tuk turned out to be a very good instructor. He points out my mistakes and explains clearly what needed to be done for me to get the most out of my diving experience. The divesite that I went, Chumpon Pinnacle also happens to be the most beautiful in the area. I ended up doing 2 dives in the day and 1 dive at night. The night dive was really an eye opener for me as its totally different from day diving.

On the second day, I did 2 more dives and this concludes the requirement for Advance Open Water Diver certification by PADI. However my duties doesn't end here. Part of the bargaining I did with Miss Jai on the first day include me imparting some knowledge of marketing to help her and the diveshop gets more customer.

That's how I managed to squeeze such a good deal from her. I spend the rest of the day analyzing New Way Diving and its competitors' marketing strategy and gave Miss Jai some advice on how to stay ahead of other companies. I was so happy that my little knowledge in marketing came in handy and Miss Jai even offered me to stay longer to help her in return for free dives.. HAHA. How cool is dat. So at least if I can't get a job back in Singapore, I know I can always go back to Koh Tao to work now. :)

At night, I went for dinner with Miss Jai, Tut and another instructor. We went to a restaurant by the beach which I am staying and after that we went to a pub for a beer. One thing I liked about Koh Tao and the 2 other island is that all of them has some very nice restaurants selling reasonably priced food with excellent ambience. This is something that is sadly lacking in the Malaysian islands.

According to my original plan, the next stop after Koh Tao was Hua Hin, a beach town on mainland Thai and a popular retreat for the Thai King. However as I have limited cash left and doesn't intend to incur huge interest by withdrawing from my credit card, I decided to go straight to Bangkok to wait for my childhood friend Xiu Ting whom will be joining in a week's time. She will also be bringing me some cash along with my replacement ATM cards which sadly can only be issued from Singapore.

I spent the next day in the dive shop exploring more marketing avenue with Miss Jai and she even gave me a Masamman curry treat for lunch. After bidding farewell to Miss Jai and Tuk, I left in the evening on a ferry to Chumpon and from there I took a 12 hour bus straight to Bangkok.

As I mentioned earlier in my previous update on my blog, I was very very grateful to have done my diving lesson in Koh Tao as it helped me got over my loss. I felt that it was even better as I have chose to do it with New Way Diving as the service I received from them really made me feel at home. I would highly recommend New Way Diving and Tuk for those people whom are interested in taking a diving course.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Koh Phangan - The Place I Will Never Forget

14-17 Aug - Now to the saddest part of my blog. The part where I lost more than RM4000 due to my stupidity and carelessness. After my stay in Koh Samui, I went along with what most travelers would do and that is to Koh Phangan.

15km North of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan is a tropical island paradise exist mainly for parties, loud music, alcohol and drugs. Due to its proximity to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan's water and beach is not much better even though you get at least powdery white sand in Haad Rin (Rin Beach). Similar to Samui, Phangan too has a few beaches where you can choose to stay. The most famous is the aforementioned Haad Rin.

Every month at least 20000 to 30000 tourist visit Haad Rin for one sole purpose and that is the Full Moon Party. Held every month on full moon night, the night long party would feature world class deejays playing techno, R&B, drum and bass, house and reggae music. Entry to this event is free but accommodation on the island often doubled or tripled its usual price during these time.

In order to avoid having to pay through my nose for accommodation, I decided to go 2 days ahead of the full moon party. Even so, I had to take the slowest ferry I ever took in my life alongside some 800 other tourist on a boat meant for 300. The 15km journey from Samui to Phangan took me almost 3 hours. On the boat I met up with a Mexican guy, Carlos which I shared the room with for my stay in Phangan.

Upon reaching, we went on a frantic search for rooms. As we chose to alight at Haad Rin, the beach where Full Moon Party is held, finding decent accommodation was extremely hard. Most places were already fully booked or outrageously priced. At last we managed to find a tiny bungalow that cost us 450B a night. As beggars we cannot be choosers so we quickly accepted it.

As Full Moon party night is where business peak for many guesthouses, many local operators tried to expand the event with spinoff such as Half Moon Party, Black Moon Party, Pre Full Moon Party, Post Full Moon Party and many many more. Just more excuses for people to party... Haih..

Coincidentally, the guesthouse beside ours had a Pool Party on the day that we arrive. After dinner, Carlos and I decided to go for a drink and so we ended up at the Pool Party. As we arrived early, the party was quite subdued. But as the night progresses, the party people start trickling in and in no time, the whole place was turned into a party heaven with loud music, disco light and cheap Song Som (Thai Whiskey).

As the name suggest, the party's main attraction is of course the POOL. And under the influence of loud techno music, a few bottles of Chang beer and Songsom, I ended up in the pool. Yes.. In the pool. Of course by going into the pool means I have to make sure my camera, handphone and all valuables are kept dry so under this kind of circumstance, the bench beside the pool became the safest place I knew to place my stuff. HAHA and so the most predictable of things happened.

After partying for a few hours, I got really drunk and told myself that it's time to get the hell out of the place. Therefore I headed back to my room and I conveniently forget about the things I have left on the bench. By the time I woke up the next morning, I realized I have just lost myself more than RM4000 worth of cash and belongings.

Immediately I called the banks to cancel my bank cards and went to the police to lodge a report. When I got to the station, I saw my bag lying on top of the desk. However my happiness was short-lived as all my cash along with my camera and handphone was gone except for my wallet with all my bank cards and passport. I was thankful enough that I managed to get my passport back though.

Carlos and I then went on for a tour around Koh Phangan which we signed up the night before. I felt really sore and didn't want to go but I knew there's nothing more I could do even if I stayed whole day in the guesthouse.

The tour turned out to be equally horrendous. The boat which we took ferried about 50% more than its maximum capacity and because of that it broke down halfway in the middle of nowhere. However we did manage to visit some of the other beaches around Phangan as well as the famous waterfall. The tour which usually ends at 5pm ended at 8pm for us and we were starving by the time we went back to Haad Rin.

I spent the next day traveling across the island to the main town, Thong Sala where I can formally lodge a police report. The police at the station offered no comfort to me and I ended leaving the place feeling more cheated than ever. I had to pay 400B for the police report and when I asked the policeman for a lift to the bus station about 2km away and he even had the cheek to ask for more money from me. Haih...

At night, I did what I am supposed to be there for and that is to go for the Full Moon Party. The whole 3km long Haad Rin beach turned into a huge party arena with different clubs paying different music to attract party goers. Each promoting themselves as the most happening place to be in. The streets are also overrun with stalls selling snacks, SongSom, beer, and all sorts of liquor. Pubs, not wanting to lose customers to their larger counterparts, played loud music and offered free body painting. The whole place was just like a crazy party zone. I however did not had a single drop of liquor the entire night. I stayed sober to look at how crazy people get under the influence of alcohol and I fully realized why Islam forbids its followers to drink.

At last I went for some snacks and went to bed after feasting my eyes with the full moon party's craziness. As a result, I was able to wake up early next morning to take the early boat to Koh Tao, the third and final island stop ahead of the other hungover tourist...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Koh Samui - Crazy Tourist Island

12-14 Aug - I woke up at 6am the next day to catch the bus to the pier where I took a ferry to Koh Samui. The bus and ferry was very comfortable and the price I paid was definitely worth it.

Upon reaching Koh Samui's main town, Na Thon, I took a tut tut for 150B to the hotel which I have pre-booked in Surat yesterday. Local transport on Koh Samui is quite expensive as this is one of the most heavily touristed place in Thailand.

Koh Samui is overrun with chain hotels, guesthouses, western restaurants, pubs, cafes, laundries, massage parlors, souvenir shops and 7 Elevensss. This is truly an island that exist solely for tourism. There are locals staying on the island but their sole purpose on the island is for tourist only and thus you can't see much of the Thai culture here.

Most tourist opt for renting a motorbike or car to travel as local transport is outrageously overpriced. As I am traveling alone and I don't posses a motorbike license, I decide to go on foot.

My first night on the island was spent in Matlang Resort located in Hat Chaweng (hat = beach) There are 4 main beaches throughout Koh Samui namely Hat Chaweng, Hat Lamai, Hat Bo Phut and Hat Mae Nam. Hat Chaweng is the most famous of the four as it boast of having 6km long beach with crystal clear water.

After checking in to my guesthouse, I went to check out the beach. After reading and hearing so much about Koh Samui, I was expecting a lot from it, however to my disappointment, the beaches in Hat Chaweng doesn't live up to its expectation. Even though the coastline is indeed 6km long but the water and sand is far away from what I pictured. The beach is filled with massage parlors, souvenirs peddlers, sun bathers, jetski operators and cafes. It's so hard to find a stretch of quiet spot where you can rest and relax. At the end, I decided to escape from the crowd by going for a massage.

At night, the crowd from the beach swarms the restaurants, pubs and discos all over the island. As Hat Chaweng is the most famous beach in Koh Samui, it also has the highest concentration of pubs and discos. The atmosphere for clubbing and drinking was very good as competition compels each to bring out their best in music and service. Even transvestites shows which normally requires ticket can be viewed for free here.

The next day, I checked out from Matlang Resort and travelled across the island to Hat Lamai, the second most popular beach in Koh Samui. As Lamai is not as popular as Chaweng, the price of accommodation is also relatively cheaper. I managed to get a single room with attached bathroom for 200B, half the price of what I paid for in Chaweng.

Beach at Chaweng is also relatively quieter as the sand is even coarser and you can forget about crystal clear water here. As I have no intention of getting any tanner or swimming in murky water, I spent the rest of the day exploring the Lamai town. Lucky for me as explore the town I befriended a very interesting masseur who speaks Mandarin. Wan Wan, who works in a parlor owned by her sister was learning Mandarin and dreams of going to work in Taiwan. She turned out to be very friendly and we chatted for hours about Thailand and Malaysia. She even gave me a buddha pendant as a good luck charm.

The party atmosphere in Lamai is calmer and less crazy compared to Chaweng. The pubs here play softer music and the party goers here aren't as sophisticated as well. I spent the night having my dinner in McDonald's surfing and blogging as I have had enough of the loud music the night before.

My First Train Experience

10-12 Aug - I left Songkla for Hat Yai again together with Aaron and Kenneth. Upon reaching, I decided to check into a slightly more expensive guesthouse in town as the previous one is too yucky. So I invested in a more luxurious room for 300B in Louise Guesthouse.

Upon checking in, I shopped around the many many tour agencies around town for my next destination. As Hat Yai is the busiest city in Southern Thai, road, rail, and air connectivities are abundant here.

Hat Yai has direct busses that goes to Bangkok (14 hours, 550B), Krabi (5 hours, 200B), Koh Samui (7 hours, 400B), Phuket (8 hours, 250B) Hat Yai is also connected to Kuala Lumpur via a 9 hour bus and Singapore via a 16 hour bus. Prices are 350B and 450B respectively. All the busses are air conditioned.

Upon realizing my options, I decided to go to Koh Samui (koh = island). A huge island on the east coast of Thailand. Although I am able to get a bus plus ferry combo straight to Koh Samui, I decided to take the longer and cheaper route.

I woke up early next morning to catch a 10 hour train to Surat Thani. Known to the locals as Surat, this busy port town serves only as a transit point for travelers to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. As I have all the time in the world, I decided to check out this town before heading to the heavily touristed island of Koh Samui.

The train ticket from Hat Yai to Surat cost me an outrageously cheap price of 55B and I was told it's free for the locals (crazy rite). I know this sounds embarrassing but this was the first time I am traveling on a train and thus I was very excited. The 10 hour journey was really an eye opener for me and traveling on 3rd class with 90 degrees wooden seat with no leg room and fan coach added to the "fun".

The locals travels with all sorts of funny things on train including pet dogs, large pack of what looks like rice and fresh produce. Every 5 minutes there will be hawkers walking down the aisle selling chicken wings, drinks, nuts, eggs, rice packets and not forgetting occasional beggars making special appearance by singing or reciting poems.

When my train reach the station of Surat Thani, I was so relieved. From the train station, I took a tut tut into town where I stayed overnight in Ban Don Hotel hidden inside a Chinese restaurant which serves delicious and cheap food. After that I went sightseeing around town and shop around for the ferry to Koh Samui on the next day.

There's really nothing much you can do here in Surat and there are only a couple of temples that is worth visiting in town. I managed to secure a ferry ticket to Koh Samui for 150B and a night stay in Matlang Resort for 400B.

At night I had dinner in the Night Market which in my opinion is the biggest tourist attraction in town. HAHA. There were so much food and I had the famous Massaman Curry here. Massaman curry is actually inspired from the Indian curry available in Malaysia but in my opinion it beats the authentic Indian curry hands down. Massaman is also only popular in Southern Thailand so if you are in Southern Thai, don't forget to try it. Other snacks available in town includes the creepy insects, scorpion and worms.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Status Updates

Hi all. I am currently in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. Reached here yesterday from Vientiane, capital of Laos. I flew out of Yangon, capital of Myanmar to Bangkok on 19th and went by bus to Nong Khai, Thai border town to Laos. Stayed a few nights there and went to Vientiane to catch a bus to Hanoi.

Now I am waiting for 2 uni friends to come join me from Malaysia for 9 days. We will be travelling around the North of Vietnam after which I will travel alone to South of Vietnam. My current plan is to stay in Vietnam until the end of Oct then go into Cambodia for 2 weeks. After Cambodia, I will be in Laos for another 2 weeks and I will be taking a boat ride in the Mekong river to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand and catching a flight from there to go back to Singapore.

I have bought a Vietnam sim card so if you wanna contact me, the number is available on the right side. Take care and keep a lookout for more updates here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Most Underrated Thai Town - Songkla

9-10 Aug – Early next day, I checked out from the guesthouse and walked to the clock tower to catch a minivan to Songkla, a coastal town 25km East of Hat Yai. The 30B minivan took 45 minutes to reach Songkla as it keeps stopping to pick up more passengers along the way.

A Thai girl who speaks excellent English gave me an introduction to Songkla and even help me to direct the driver to my guesthouse. However upon reaching I was told that the guesthouse that I wanted to stay has closed and had to look for other alternatives. Walking on the streets of Songkla will really show you the difference between a small and large town. Unlike Hat Yai, Songkla is relatively much quieter. After much difficulty, I managed to find a pretty decent guesthouse at the foothill of a scenic mountain for 200B a night.

As I only plan to stay 1 night here, I wasted no time and upon checking in, I went straight to check out the town. My first stop was Tang Kuan Hill which houses the royal pagoda, Pratht Chedi Luang built in 1886. Visitors can choose to climb up the stairs for free or take the lift for 30B. As this is only my first stop of the day, I didn't want to waste my energy climbing up the hill, therefore I took the lift.

The view from the top of the hill was indeed fantastic and you can see the shoreline of Songkla town clearly from it. The chedi (pagoda) which was restored in 1996 consist of the relic of Lord Buddha bestowed by the current Thai King. The locals come here for prayers which gives this place a serene and calm feeling. However this place is also home to bunch of playful monkeys.

After feasting my eyes on the stunning view of the town, I decided to walk down the stairs and I stumble upon another interesting building. However there's no signboard in English explaining what this building was so I can't comment much.

At the foothil, I went into a temple with a reclining Buddha. The temple here are similar to all the temples throughout Thailand so I wasn't particularly impressed by it especially after seeing the ones in Kelantan.

Next I decided to check out the beach (Hat Samila) and to my surprise the sea water here is quite clear and there is a long stretch of sandy beach with stalls selling food and souvenir. The beach is also house to a number of pubs, hawker centre selling an array of seafood and a resort hotel.

Similar to the rest of Songkla, this place is very quiet despite the fact that it's a Saturday. The most famous sight here is the bronze statue of a mermaid squeezing water out of her hair. According to Lonely Planet, the locals believe that by rubbing her breast will bring the person good luck, however I didn't see anyone doing so and decided not to try. HAHA. In case someone shouts and me and accuse me of being a sex maniac.

One thing worth trying here is the coconut ice cream. The 25B ice cream is mixed with papaya cubes, peanuts, “atapchi”, nata de coco, sticky rice and bread. It sounds quite disgusting to me at first but after trying it, I wanted more. After that I went to the market and the shopping district of Songkla.

At night after dinner, I went to have an oil massage and a drink at the pub with live band singing Thai songs. The massage (180B for 1 hour) I had here is also the cheapest I have ever had throughout Thailand.

The next day, I woke up early to continue my sightseeing in Songkla with 2 other Malaysian guys (Aaron and Kenneth) I met on the hill who coincidentally are staying in my guesthouse as well. We went to the National Museum which is housed in a Chinese inspired building which we later learn that it was the home of a Chinese merchant.

As Songkla has a history of being one of the oldest town in Thailand, the museum showcased a lot of artifacts from the Paleolithic and Neolithic era. It has also a large amount of porcelain from each Chinese dynasty and the thing that amazed me most here is that they are not kept in any glass case and there's not even a security camera or guard in sight. At first I thought this was going to be a boring museum but I was so amazed by the quality and sheer age of each artifacts. The showcased item here are easily over a thousand years old and you can just touch them if you want even though there are signs asking you not to.

We checked out and left to Hatyai after visiting the museum. I am really glad that I have visited Songkla because it really opened my eyes. I imagined Songkla to be a boring coastal town but I was really proven wrong. I would highly recommend Songkla to all my friends especially those people staying in Northern Malaysia as a weekend visit. It's definitely a great place to relax as it is not as touristy as other parts of Thailand.

Siam - The Land of a Thousand Smiles

7-9 Aug – “Sawadee Krap” this is the phrase that I have to learn and get used to as I venture into Thailand aka Siam. Known by many as the land of a thousand smiles, Thai people's warm reception for foreign guest is definitely indisputable.

As my RM33 minivan from Sungai Petani left early next morning, the feeling of sadness from the parting subsided and grew into anxiety. Finally, I am leaving the comfort of my home country where I have lived for 24 years to venture into a foreign land where I neither speak nor understand the language and culture.

This might not be my first time in Thailand, but it is certainly my first time traveling alone as a backpacker without having prior arrangements made for hotel and sightseeing activities. Therefore I was overwhelmed by anxiety for what my journey holds for me. Traveling in a country where English is not widely spoken and understood makes things more challenging for me.

As the minivan leaves from Padang Besar into Sadao (Thai border town), the neat and tidy Malaysian North South highway gives way for unruly streets overrun with pickups, sawng thaew (small pickups with 2 rows of bench on each side), tut-tut (trishaw driven by a motorcycle) and crazy electrical wiring. This is truely a Thai thing where you can never find elsewhere.

The minivan went on for another 1 1/2 hours more hours before reaching Hat Yai my first stop in Thailand. Hat Yai is Southern Thai's commercial centre where East and West railway and roads all meet. True to the tradition of being a border town, Hat Yai has some of the most expensive road side food in all of Thailand. A bowl of noodle soup cost 50B while in the rest of the country you can get one at 25B to 30B. This reminds me of the crazy food prices in Johor Bahru.

I checked in to a sleazy guesthouse called Cathay Guesthouse for 100B per night right in the middle of town. All the major shopping centers and markets is just a stone throw away. I spend the rest of the day exploring the town on foot and at night I watched The Mummy 3 in the cinema. One thing worth noting is that before the start of any movies, the national anthem along with photos of the Thai king will be played and all audience will be required to stand.

The next day I continued my exploration of Hat Yai. I went to the market which has an extensive array of fresh produce and yummy food. No wonder Malaysians living near the Thai border love to come here for shopping. Naturally this is where I had my lunch.

At night, I decide to check out a restaurant recommended by my guidebook (Lonely Planet) called Dao Thiam while watching Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The Phad Thai (Fried Thai Noodle) I had is really tasty and goes along excellently with Chang Beer.