After our live aboard trip in the Andaman Sea we went back to Phuket for one night before we flew back to Bangkok. Unfortunately, while I escaped the stomach bug on the boat it hit me almost immediately after we stepped off it and for the next couple of days I was sick, which made the trip back to Bangkok a miserable experience. But we used the couple of days we had in Bangkok for some shopping we needed to do in preparation for our onward journey to India. We also hooked up with our friend Suchada again and met for lunch and dinner with her and Dzhangar, one of DDI’s employees in the Moscow office, who is on an assignment in our Bangkok office for accelerated development. It was good seeing him again and while I had met him and spent some time with him during visits in Moscow and Europe, Anna only had spoken with him on the phone and via email related to several projects.(Dinner with friends in Bangkok)
It was great to spend such a nice evening together with friends and some great Thai food before saying good bye to Suchada, Dzhangar and Thailand. We knew that we would miss Thailand but we were also looking forward to very different experiences in India.
After coming back from our short Christmas break in Miami we had a few days ‘to kill’ before we needed to travel to Phuket. So we just spent a couple of days in Bangkok getting our food and massage fixes, rented a car again and drove around to Koh Samet and Koh Chang for a day on the beach and went back to catch our flight to Phuket. Already in early December we had booked a live aboard trip from Phuket to the Similan Islands, which we’ve always wanted to visit. The Similans are supposed to be some of the best diving in Thailand and in fact anywhere in the world – it always shows up high on rankings for top diving sites in the world and we can now understand why.
We didn’t really plan on spending any significant time in Phuket since we had been there a few times. It is a pleasant island but we just wanted to get on the boat as quickly as possible. So we just booked a night in a relatively cheap hotel in Phuket (in Patong) and just had a quick dinner in the evening in one of the many seafood outside restaurants. They look a bit like the hawker centers in Singapore and the seafood is typically pretty decent and fresh. Before going to bed we got another relaxing foot massage and retired early. Our pick up the next day was not until around 4pm, so we used the time to get another foot massage and manicure in one of the local massage shops that we actually had visited a couple of times on one of our last visits here. We even recognized a couple of the staff from the last time, which was more than 3 years ago – they seem to have good retention mechanisms here. We had a good time and chatted with the staff about this and that. But Anna and I were quite intrigued by the “girl” who massaged Anna’s feet and then manicured my hands. Her name was “Cat” and she was actually not a girl – she/he was a katoye, or as it’s more commonly called a ladyboy. Now, everybody who has ever been to Thailand has probably seen or heard of the infamous Thai ladyboys and they are actually all around. Although there is a certain social stigma attached to being a ladyboy, they still seem to be fairly accepted in the Thai society. You can see them everywhere, as waitresses in restaurants, store owners, shopkeepers, in massage places and in many other businesses. Many of them are relatively easily identifiable, either by some physical features like large hands, feet or Adam’s apple or a dark voice. However, ladyboys blessed with a feminine body structure in the first place or the ones who start very, very early with hormone therapy can appear as feminine – in many cases even more feminine – then naturally born women. There’s a saying in Thailand that is used jokingly, “the prettiest women are ladyboys” and in some cases this might actually be true. Anyway, Cat fell into the latter category and although Anna and I were both relatively certain that she/he was a ladyboy, she was one of the prettiest and most natural looking ladybodys we’ve ever seen and she could easily win beauty contests against a number of quite attractive looking women contenders. Unfortunately we were not comfortable taking pictures but just consider Anna and I as ‘experts’ in these matters.
Anyway, it was time to head back to the hotel where we got picked up by a minibus together with a few other fellow travellers who were already waiting in the bus. It took us more than 90 minutes to get to the boat jetty which was north of Phuket but we finally reached the boat at around 7PM in the evening. There were probably 4 or 5 other live aboard boats that were about to leave that night and we were glad to see that our boat looked the nicest, cleanest and with the least amount of passengers on it. The preparations took more than an hour and while we received our first briefing on the boat the crew was loading up our luggage, food supplies and diving gear for the next 4 days. (The MV Pawara, our dive boat)
Now, everybody who is a diver and who has been on a live aboard trip will be familiar with some of the following descriptions but there’s probably a need to summarize how these trips work for the uninitiated. “Live aboard” obviously summarizes the main idea: for several days a bunch of hobos live on a boat and do nothing but sleeping, eating and diving. In some cases this routine is interrupted by throwing up or diarrhea but I’ll get to that part later. Once everybody was on the boat, 16 of us plus the crew (5 of them) plus the dive instructor team (4 plus a private dive guide for one Japanese passenger), Vince did the initial briefing. Vince, the head dive instructor and safety guru, is an English cat and he was always dead serious. He has a military background and used to be a fireman before he hired on as a mining rescue diver, rescuing injured or stuck ocean miners in depths of up to two miles! underwater. That’s probably where he had developed that ‘dead-serious’ attitude since every little mistake in those depths means death 100% of the time. But we were glad that he was responsible for safety and he always did all the safety briefings before every dive and dive site. ("Tough guy" Vince)
The initial briefing mainly covered the names of the crew, main safety rules on board, how to use this and that, meal procedures, and the itinerary for the first night and next day. Once that was done dinner was served, which was quite tasty and we had a little time to get to know our fellow travelers, who were quite an eclectic bunch. There were Lauri and Paulina from Finland, who we both liked a lot, then a couple from Holland, who we and most others didn’t seem to care for that much since they always appeared to be miserable and judgmental. There was also an Indian couple, Anu and Johann, who were both investment bankers with JP Morgan Chase in London. They were really nice folks but interestingly spoke very negatively about their mother country India in terms of corruption and willingness for reform. (Anna and Anu)
Then there was Tony and Alison, Tony being an Ozzi and Alison British and both are living in the UK. They were very sweet and they were our dive buddies for most of the dives. There was also an Australian couple, who we really didn’t spend much time with and then there was this quiet Japanese guy, Hiro, who mainly hung out with his personal dive instructor and “entertainer” Chiko. Chiko was an interesting character; she is a Japanese woman, close to 40 but looks much younger, very petite, in excellent shape and she has been living in Thailand for the last 15 years. She used to be a diver instructor on different boats but is now a freelancer and gets mostly hired by private persons, mainly Japanese, as their personal instructor. She smokes like a chimney, which doesn’t seem to affect her diving, she likes a cold beer or two and she was typically one of the last ones on deck chatting with Hiro. And finally there were two solo travellers, Chris and Mike. Chris is an Australian who lives in Papua New Guinea and he’s a security officer with the UN. He was very secretive about his job since his job comes with security clearance requirements but otherwise he was a very talkative and somewhat funny/awkward guy. Mike, who is an American and married to a Thai woman, lives in California but still visits Thailand once or twice a year. Mike looked and talked like a hardened biker and smoked like a chimney but interestingly he was an ordained Buddhist monk. He told us that he decided to go through the ordination process and the required time in the monastery to prepare him for being a monk because there are no male relatives in his wife’s family, so he wanted to keep the tradition alive of having at least one male in the family being an ordained monk. So, as you can see, this was a rather eclectic group of people and conversations were hardly boring. In addition there was the Thai crew, who were all very nice but hard to have a conversation with since none of them had any English skills to speak of. Of the group of dive instructors, I already talked about “tough” Vince, besides him there was Yemmi, a guy from Quebec in Canada who was the dive instructor for our group; Anna, myself, Toni and Alison. It was very nice that every dive group only consisted of max. 4 people. Yemmi was a great guy and even when he got a stomach bug with high fever and diarrhea he insisted on doing his job and guided our group under water.(Our dive instructor Yemmi feeling sick)
The other instructors were Fernando from Brazil, who never spoke a word, at least to anyone outside of his group, and Cam. Cam had also an interesting story. He is Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong before going to college in California US. He was doing well and got hired straight out of college by “Hustler” magazine as a graphics designer. He got married, bought a house and lived the American dream. But at some point he and his wife decided that they wanted to escape the ‘rat race’ and move to Thailand. They just made a nice chunk of change by selling their house 2 weeks before the bust of the housing bubble in California, so they were all set to move to Thailand, buy a small place and “live the life”. However, his wife got cold feet just before they were about to move and they broke up over it – and the divorce process was apparently very ugly. But for the last 4 years Cam has been living in Phuket, enjoying life, hiring as a dive instructor once in a while (although he doesn’t have to) and not stressing over the ‘rest of his life’. We hear a lot of interesting stories with as many diverse people as we meet on this trip. Once you start asking a few questions people tell you their whole life story – seems to be a basic need of people. On the other hand, we also meet a surprising number of people who like to talk about themselves but don’t seem to be interested in the least in other peoples’ lives.
There’s probably nothing worse than being on a boat for 5 days and just feeling sick to your stomach; throwing up, having diarrhea and headaches. Unfortunately someone brought a stomach bug onto the boat and one by one, almost two thirds of the passengers on the boat caught the bug including Anna. So at any given point in time the group that was diving was decimated significantly and several people were laying in a fetal position somewhere on deck on one of the benches outside or inside or on one of the recliners on the sundeck. This put a little damper on the mood on board but everybody just dealt with it on their own and typically people were feeling better after 24hours. So, as said Anna had the bug for 24 hours and could rejoin our small group of divers after one day and I had to take a break for three dives on the first day, not because of the stomach bug but because my ears were not adjusting to the depth due to a cold. We suspected and blamed Chris for brining the bug on board because he was sick when he arrived for the trip. Unfortunately there are not many options to escape from a boat other than jumping into the water and not coming back on board for 4 days but that would probably not be conducive to having any fun. (People chilling and recuperating on the sun deck)
Diving in Similan Islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock
The diving itself was very good; varied and some of the best we have ever experienced. Although we didn’t see many of the big fishes, like sharks or mantas, we saw plenty of interesting other animals, colorful corals and terrain. The difference between the different dive sites that we stopped at is quite stark and we had everything from large, rocky pinnacles at Koh Bon to the most amazingly colorful soft corals at Richelieu Rock, to a wreck on our way back to Phuket. Also the small islands of the Similans and Koh Tachai and Koh Bon are beautiful to look at above the water and we did a small excursion to one of the islands in the afternoon of the 2nd day.(Koch Tachai)
If you have never done a live aboard trip but are a diver we would definitely recommend one since it is a very unique experience. We really liked most of our fellow passengers on our boat and we had many interesting conversations with a number of them – there’s just not much else to do and you are consumed with the basics; eating, sleeping and diving. So the distractions are small and people are typically very relaxed after a couple of days. Four dives a day also means that your are really getting into a routine of diving, you can work on your skills, really enjoy the little and big things under water and feel pretty tired at the end of the day.
Anna and I also used the experience to advance our diving skills and certifications. Anna is a certified Open Water Diver, which means that she officially is only allowed to dive up to 18 meters (60 feet), so she completed a Deep Diver certification, which includes theory and practical elements; a written test, and a dive to 30 meters (100 feet) while completing a few tasks. These tasks include calculating numbers or writing your name backwards (which in Anna’s case was relatively simple☺). All of this is designed to experience how your body and mind reacts to deeper depths, so you can recognize the symptoms in case you react to the depth on one of your future dives and take appropriate measures, i.e., ascending slowly. While I am certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver I used the opportunity to complete a certification that’s called Enriched Air, or Nitrox but let me explain briefly what this is about without trying to get too technical, the divers amongst you will be familiar with this explanation. While normal air contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, Enriched Air contains typically 36% oxygen and 64% nitrogen. Many divers these days use Nitrox since it has a number of advantages compared to normal air. The first one being that diving with Nitrox extends your allowable bottom time, i.e., the time you are allowed to dive at a certain deeper depth without being required to do a safety stop at defined depths. This can be a great advantage since longer dives are now possibly without “pushing” near decompression limits. The second advantage is that Nitrox reduces the overall nitrogen load in your body, especially on multiple dives. Divers who use Nitrox report that they are less tired after multiple dives and don’t have some of the other occasional effects of multiple dives like sleeplessness or headaches. Anyway, the course includes a theoretical test after reading a book and watching an instructional video and a practical piece, which includes analyzing the gas mix in your tank and adjusting your dive computer to the different gas mix, i.e., enriched air. Nowadays, almost all dive computers can be set to enriched air and then they calculate your bottom time, decompression limits and surface time accordingly. The time we had on the boat was a good opportunity to complete these further certifications with the appropriate attention and supervision by our dive instructors. So, we used our newly acquired skills on our next dives, Anna could dive with the rest of the group at 30 meters, which many of our dives started out with, especially the first couple of dives of the day. The typical day’s schedule began at 6:30 AM with a light breakfast, i.e., tea, coffee and some toast and a first dive at 7 AM, which ensured that we were typically the first dive group in the water in case there were other dive boats nearby. After the first morning dive we had a bigger breakfast at 8:30 AM and a second dive at around 11 AM. Lunch was at around 12:30 PM, a third dive followed at 2 or 2: 30 PM and the last dive was at 5PM, just before it got dark shortly after 6PM. There was one night dive on the first day, which we didn’t participate in since neither of us are big fans of night dives.
But as said above, the overall diving experience was great and instead of trying to describe the underwater world in words, we’ve uploaded a video that is a compilation of most of our dives and includes encounters with the amazing underwater world and creatures of the Andaman Sea. We hope you enjoy watching it; it’s not National Geographic quality but a very personal summary of some of our best underwater experiences.
Don’t worry; I am not going to bore anybody with a long report about Christmas with the family so I’ll keep this short. We had decided a while ago to spend Christmas with Anna’s parents and brother Eddie in Miami and hopefully the kids could come as well. However, as it turned out we only could see Tim, who lives in West Palm Beach, so only about 1 hour north of Miami. The girls could not make the time to fly or drive down to Miami from Pittsburgh so we missed them quite a bit.
The trip from Bangkok to Miami was long and we flew via Tokyo Narita and Chicago and finally arrived in Miami on Christmas eve after about 30 hours of travel time. For the next 8 days or so the house was filled with people coming or leaving and it was good to be around people we love.
After the Christmas celebrations and lots and lots of yummy Indian-Jamaican-American food we decided to get out of the house for a couple of days, so we packed twelve of us into 3 cars and drove down to Key West, one of our favorite hangouts spots close to Miami. Fortunately we could use some of our hotel points for three rooms in the Sheraton in Key West, which is a really nice property not too far from downtown Key West. It was nice and warm and we went out in the evening to have some seafood downtown.
Unfortunately, something must have been wrong with the food and Anna felt terrible the next day. We originally were planning to rent a boat for the afternoon but the prices were a bit steep so we decided to just do a little sightseeing on one of the historic tour buses, which was actually quite fun. After an early dinner at the pier we made the 3 hour trip back to Miami. Anna felt a bit better was I was feeling increasingly worse and for the next couple of days was fighting a stomach bug. What are the odds? We’ve travelled in Thailand for the last 4 weeks and have only had minor problems with food and we come to the US and get a major food-related infection.
Anyway, for the rest of our time in Miami we just spent as much time with the family as possible until it was time to get on our flight back to Bangkok, which was another 30 hour or so trip. It was worth it though!
Instead of writing a long report about the historic sites and significance of Sukothai and Ayutthaya I just provide a weblink and a few photographs, so everyone who is interested can read up on them. Instead, here are just a few impressions about these two places, which are naturally firmly established locations on the tourist circuit.
On a vey general level, we definitely preferred Old Sukothai and the historic park of Sukothai over Ayutthaya although this is clearly a very broad statement. But at least the historic sites of Sukothai seemed to be better maintained and cleaner. We enjoyed the main historic park in Sukothai and the temple complex within it. It just exerted a more peaceful, relaxing and quiet atmosphere. The audio tour that one can purchase is very interesting as well and it always helps to connect with a place more than without any explanation.
We probably spent about 3 hours in the main historic site of Sukothai and then drove around using our car to see some of the other temples that are scattered around in a relatively vast area around the main site.
(Historic Park Sukothai)
It was quite hot when we finally left for Ayutthaya but it is a relatively comfortable ride just following the main highway for about 4-5 hours heading South.
Once in Ayutthaya, again it was dark already at around 7 PM, we found our place very easily since we knew that it was close to the main train station. We were a little surprised when we drove into the street where the hotel was since it felt like we were entering a very local neighborhood, with small alleys and old and very simple wooden houses. And it was indeed a very local neighborhood right at the river. There were two guesthouses and our place, which was called Baan Are Gong Riverside Homestay, was an old teak wood house in traditional Chinese Thai style. Our room was adjacent to the main courtyard in the middle of the house and right in front of our window was the small reception desk. The lovely hotel owner and manager was a woman in her forties who spoke very good English. She inherited the house from her parents and was running it together with her sister. The little restaurant, very simple wood structure and wooden benches and tables, was right on the river and we could see the ferry leaving from just underneath the deck to the other side of the river. Our room rate was US$18 and again, it was clean, comfortable yet very simple. We were a bit afraid that it could get pretty noisy being so close to the action outside the room since other guests and staff would pass by our window but since it was relatively quiet and not too many tourists stayed there it was fine and we actually slept very well.
(The two sisters and owners of Baan Are Gong)
Before we settled into our room though we went to grab some dinner and decided to go to one of the local night markets. We took a tuk tuk and were surprised to see that the market was about to close when we arrived there at around 8 or 8:30 PM. But we found a small street restaurant at the corner of the market where we could eat our Thai favorites, have some drinks and watch the action at the night market. When we left and walked towards the main street where we hoped to find a tuk tuk we noticed a street dog following us. He just walked right alongside us and whenever we took a turn or changed sides on the street he would do the same. We must have walked for almost a mile and he was still following us, regularly fending off other street dogs that were about to attack him. He obviously must have decided to “adopt” us as his new owners and it felt sad when we eventually stopped a tuk tuk that took us across the river back to our hotel. Our new K9 friend was just sitting on the roadside and watched us leave with sad eyes until we couldn’t see him anymore.
Next morning we got up early, packed, had breakfast on the deck above the river and left our luggage at our little hotel in order to see the sights of Ayutthaya. When we drove into town we received an SMS from our friend Martina from Germany, who was actually on her way to Ayutthaya as well, together with her partner Uwe. We knew they were in Bangkok and we were planning to meet them there when we arrived back in the “city of angels” so we were surprised to hear that they had decided to do a day trip to Ayutthaya as well. And wouldn’t you know, in a city that is filled with tourists and temples, we actually ran into them at the entrance of one of the main temples – what a coincidence. We were greeting and hugging each other euphorically but parted ways quickly since they were part of a tour group and didn’t want to miss the group and their bus. But we were planning to meet up with them anyway the next day in Bangkok.
(Historic Park Ayutthaya)
So we just wandered around the different historic sites, which are scattered across the city. To be honest, while it was still enjoyable we didn’t like it as much as we expected judging by the reputation as one of the prime tourist destinations in Thailand. Part of the reason for that was the sad state of some of the monuments and the garbage that literally was everywhere, along the streets but also at some of the most important historic sites. It seemed as if some of the remains of the King’s birthday celebrations hadn’t been cleaned up completely but it was a pity to see these important historic sites filled with garbage and nobody seemed to care about cleaning up the mess. There might also have been some impact from the previous year when Ayutthaya including some of the main historic monuments were under water for weeks. We saw some of the renovation work going on but in our opinion there’s just no excuse for not cleaning up the garbage in a place like Ayutthaya that lives from tourism.
Anyway, after a few hours of sightseeing we drove back to our hotel, parked the car and went on a boat trip around the old city of Ayutthaya. We arranged this trip through our guesthouse and for the next two hours or so we were skipping along the many temples, stopped every 15 minutes to get off the boat and wander around the site and we eventually made the whole circle around the old city and arrived back at our starting point, the guesthouse. We said good-bye to our hosts for the last night and got into the car for a relatively short drive back to Bangkok.
(Boat trip along the historic sites of Ayutthaya)
We had to drop off the rental car at Suvarnabhumi airport and unfortunately we had a small crack in our windshield, which happened while driving on a highway and a small stone hit us. The guys at Hertz told us that we could either pay for it since it wasn’t covered by the insurance or we could have it fixed ourselves, which would be cheaper. One guy form Hertz even offered to take us to a repair place where they fix broken windshields. So we drove with him to a Bangkok suburb close to the airport and stopped at one of the places that repair windshields just to find out that the crack on our car couldn’t be fixed because it was too big. We needed a new windshield. But how could we arrange having a windshield repaired in a small repair shop in Bangkok? English is still only common for high school and college educated Thais. So our guy from Hertz offered to meet us the next morning at our hotel and take us to a repair shop which should be much cheaper than paying directly to Hertz. We were not sure what to think of this and whether this was a scam but somehow agreed to it and gave him a few hundred baht for taxi money for a ride to our hotel. Well, we found out the next morning that we got scammed since he never showed up and I had to take the car to Hertz at the airport eventually since our time was up. But it turned out to be only about US$ 100 to replace the windshield, something that would cost ten times as much in Europe or the US for the car we had. So, while being relieved that we didn’t have to spend an arm and a leg on the repair we felt angry about falling for the scam. We are only talking about 10 or 15 dollars but nevertheless, no one likes to think they were naïve and as seasoned travellers we should have known better. We even tried to hunt him down at Hertz again but for some reason we never saw him work there again – probably for a good reason.
In the afternoon we eventually met with Martina and Uwe and spent the day driving up and down the Chao Praya on one of the taxi boats that we took many times before. They both enjoyed the hustle and bustle on the boat and doing sightseeing for 20 cents per person.
In the evening we decided to go to one of the night markets to have some dinner and soak up the atmosphere of a typical Bangkok night market/eating area. Unfortunately one of our former favorites, the Suan Lum night bazaar close to Lumpini Park doesn’t exist anymore since the lease ran out and the operator of the night market and restaurant area needed to close shop. On the internet and through the concierge at a hotel we found out that the “replacement” of this night market is called “ASIATIQUE The Riverfront” and it has a free shuttle boat. However, when we got there it was nothing like the old Suan Lum night bazaar and is now a glitzy, high priced entertainment park with brand name shops and air conditioned restaurants.
(Dinner with our friends Martina & Uwe at ASIATIQUE The Riverfront)
We still had a decent dinner and enjoyed Martina’s and Uwe’s company before we wished them “Merry Christmas” and went our separate ways. They were leaving the next day back to Germany and we had one more day in Bangkok before we were heading off to Miami in order to celebrate Christmas with Anna’s family.
If you follow our blog you might remember that I mentioned a rather strange encounter we had in Nongkai. Actually, it took place while having dinner at the Thai-Chinese restaurant where we had dinner after we arrived in Nongkai. While we were eating we noticed a slightly weird looking guy sitting at the table behind us. He was very tall, lanky, very, very pale and when he walked it looked like as if he’d just swallowed a broom – he didn’t seem to move any body parts above his waist when walking. He was chugging down large Leo beers and he had already several of those sitting on the little side table next to him (something Thai restaurants do, probably in order not to loose count of the bottles of alcohol people consume) when he made contact with us. We found out that his name was Jack and that he was from Ireland. We didn’t want to be rude and invited him over to our table, an offer that he didn’t resist in the least and in no time he was sitting on our table and started chatting. We actually thought this could be an interesting conversation but we were clearly wrong. Jack was just a very strange cat and besides the fact that he was planning to “settle” in Nongkai we didn’t really find out any more about him or his thoughts. His favorite phrase was, “if you know what I mean” at the end of long-winded, circular sermons which made no sense whatsoever. Whenever we asked a question like, “What are you planning to do here in Nongkai” or “what did you do back in Ireland” he used to respond with, “Well, that’s a long story” before rambling along, getting off into unrelated topics and ending his explanations with things that had nothing to do with the original question. While we were sitting there it got increasingly chilly (chilly meaning slightly above 20 degrees celcius) and Anna was starting to get cold, so she decided to get a jacket back at the hotel. However, while she was at the room she decided she had enough of Jack and was getting tired of listening to him, so she just stayed at the hotel and fell asleep – smart of her. Unfortunately, this left me completely at Jack’s mercy but after realizing that he just needed someone to talk at and drink with I accepted my fate. Almost two hours, a dozen of Leo beers and a happy waitress later we finally parted ways and stumbled in opposite directions. And to this day I have no clue whatsoever what Jack was trying to tell me between, “Hi, I’m Jack from Ireland” and “Good night; it was great talking with you”. Sometimes you just meet the strangest people when travelling and although Jack was not a ‘bad’ guy, we were not keen on repeating the experience we had with him. However, this was already put to the test the next day when we were having a coffee in a small street café in Nongkai. When we were sipping our coffees we realized that Jack was sitting in the back of the café. We thought what are the odds but we could not muster the courage to even acknowledge or say hi to him. I know it sounds mean but we were too afraid of another episode of him talking at us while we were wondering what the heck he’s trying to say. So, after we finished our coffee we just paid up and left, trying hard not even to look back in order to eliminate any chance of Jack latching on to us again.
Other than that, Nongkai is a fairly sleepy and quiet town right at the border to Laos and separated by the mighty Mekong river. We used the day to wander around, taking long strolls along the river, stopping at a couple o f the small temples along the way and taking an afternoon break in one of the nicer guesthouses right at the river. It’s called Mut Mee Guesthouse and it has a nice outside restaurant under old, beautiful trees and some of the rooms they rent out are individually decorated in very interesting designs. They also have a restaurant on a boat that is docked in the river just a few steps down from the hotel.
(The mighty Mekong river in Nongkai)
There were only a few other tourists but there seems to be a small “expat” community in Nongkai, mainly consisting of a few chaps who start drinking beer at noon in a small Scandinavian owned watering hole and retirees from different countries. We also met a number of German retirees who seem to meet every morning in a little German bakery. We actually went there one morning and had a pretty decent and authentic German breakfast, including dark bread and rolls, prosciutto, eggs and cheese. Thais don’t really eat too much for breakfast and breakfast options are very limited so this was a nice change. Many of the retirees seem to like Nongkai since it is quiet, very cheap and has a good climate. With US$ 500 per month you can actually have a pretty decent life in this part of Thailand, including rent for a small place.
(The typical tuk tuks in this region)(Street vendor in Nongkai)
We were actually a bit surprised that Nongkai was so quiet, we saw very few tourists. Tourism seems to have gone down this season and although Nongkai was never much of a tourist destination it attracted foreigners who wanted to extend their Thai tourist visa. The typical Thai tourist visa allows you to stay within Thailand for 30 days continuously. Before the 30 are over you need to leave the country and re-enter to be allowed another 30 days in the country. Naturally, many foreigners like to stay for extended periods in Thailand or even retire there and this requires that you leave the country on a regular basis. Nongkai used to be one of the few border crossings that made it fairly easy to leave Thailand into Laos and come back after a day or few hours. And that’s the main reason why people came to Nongkai. Nowadays there are more options for “visa runs” along the border, which seems to have an impact on the number of foreigners who pass through Nongkai.
One of the reasons why we came to Nongkai was to check out boat cruises on the Mekong river. Unfortunately though, there are no cruises that start in Nongkai. Most of them start in the North of Thailand, e.g. Chiang Rai or Mae Sot or in Vientiane, the capital of Laos which is only 24 km from Nongkai. There are also cruises that start in Vietnam and end in Vientiane and they will take anything between 14 and 21 days. At some point we probably will do that since Mekong cruises seem to be fascinating. But unfortunately this time we were out of luck and didn’t want to drive to Vientiane which you can conveniently do taking the “Friendship” bridge in Nongkai, a project that was funded by the Australian government as a development aid to Laos and it opened in 1994. We had been in Laos before, in Luang Prabang, which we liked tremendously but we didn’t hear many positive things about Vientiane so we didn’t make the effort to find out ourselves and pay the relatively high fee to enter the country.
So, after a couple of days in Nongkai we decided to head towards the Central Plains and visit the former Thai capitals of Sukothai and Ayutthaya which we had never visited before. But before we got on the highway heading West we stopped at Sala Kaew Ku (Wat Khaek), which has to be one of the most bizarre open air museums around. Some of the giant sculptures that are on display look as if their designers were on crystal meth when they conceived them, some of them are esthetically pleasing but many are just outright scary and sick looking. But we enjoyed this display of ‘bizarrness’ nevertheless since you won’t be able to see anything like it anywhere else.
(Statues at Sala Kaew Ku park)
In the early afternoon we finally started to head towards Sukothai, which is a beautiful drive through changing terrain for about 5-6 hours. After driving through typical Isaan villages and countryside we passed through two national parks with very mountainous terrain. Every few hundred yards there were signs warning of “elephants crossing” and while we didn’t spot any wild elephants (only lots of droppings) we enjoyed the ride tremendously. It is lush green as far as you can see and at night the rainforest seemed to take over completely, encroaching on the street we were driving on. We also saw a number of interesting looking resorts and might come back to this region, which is certainly off the beaten track for (at least foreign) tourists.
We arrived late in the evening in Sukothai and we knew from the description of the hotel we booked again on agoda.com that the place was close to the entrance of the Sukothai Historic Park. We could locate the park entrance fairly easily but drove around for another 30 minutes until we found our hotel, which was tucked away in the fields about a mile or so from the park entrance. But finally we could check into our place, which comprises of 6-8 little bungalows in a quiet setting (Baan Rim Klong Resort). So we just unloaded the car and drove to a nearby street restaurant which was also a tourist guest house. They had all our Thai favorites and we were chatting with some of the other tourists and staff until they closed at around 10 PM. People go to bed early in this region but we were tired from the long drive and went back to our hotel, again a good deal for about US$24.