A Travellerspoint blog


Good Bye, Bangkok

January 14 - 19, 2013

sunny 31 °C
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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.DSC02421.jpg(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.

Posted by Elmar123 02:30 Archived in Thailand Tagged people city Comments (0)

Diving in the Andaman Sea

January 09 - 13, 2013

sunny 31 °C
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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. DSC02350.jpgDSC02348.jpgDSC02395.jpg (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. DSC02415.jpg("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. DSC02407.jpg(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.DSC02368.jpg(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.

Stomach Bug

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. DSC02361.jpg(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.DSC02366.jpg(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.

Posted by Elmar123 01:55 Archived in Thailand Tagged boats diving Comments (0)

Thailand’s former capitals – Sukothai and Ayutthaya

December 18 - 20

sunny 32 °C
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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.

Sukothai Wikitravel Info


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.

DSC01894.jpgDSC01900.jpgF3DD95E72219AC6817AA9763A650FDE5.jpg(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.

172152B32219AC68178D4CFD7006AC84.jpgDSC01945.jpg(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.

DSC01961.jpgDSC01985.jpgDSC02012.jpg(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.

Ayutthaya Wikitravel Info

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.

DSC02073.jpgDSC02101.jpgDSC02145.jpg(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.

DSC02200.jpg(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.

Posted by Elmar123 00:19 Archived in Thailand Tagged art buildings historic Comments (0)

Nongkai – the “Visa Run City”

December 16 - 18

sunny 24 °C
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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.

DSC01701.jpg (The mighty Mekong river in Nongkai)DSC01696.jpg

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.

DSC01698.jpg(The typical tuk tuks in this region)DSC01726.jpg(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.

DSC01733.jpgDSC01739.jpgDSC01769.jpg(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.

DSC01811.jpg(Our small bungalow in Sukothai)

Posted by Elmar123 01:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged people city Comments (0)

Ancient cities of Isaan – Phanum Rung and Phimai

December 15-16

sunny 28 °C
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After a nice long breakfast and a chat with Mike, one of our newfound friends from Cleveland who we met on the jungle tour the day before, we left for Phanum Rung. Phanum Rung is an ancient Khmer temple complex East of Nakhon Ratchasima and close to Buriram and Surin.

As soon as we left Pak Chong and the vicinity of Khao Yai heading eastwards Isaan revealed its true nature – endless countryside, only broken up by small dwellings, forests, lakes, rice paddies or sugarcane fields. As mentioned before, we always enjoy taking in the Thai countryside as it is so green and soothing and Isaan is no different. And again, even though we were in one of the poorest and most remote regions of Thailand, the streets are well maintained.

We arrived in Phanum Rung mid afternoon and after a quick lunch on the roadside eating my all-time Thai favorite Phad Khra Pao, we bought our entry tickets and walked into the temple area. Phanum Rung is beautifully located on top of a hill with views over the countryside and surrounded by green shrubs and forest. Since it is in “the middle of nowhere” it has a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere and we saw very few foreign tourists – it’s just not on the main circuit of Thai tourist sites for foreigners. So we just walked around the temple complex, meandered along the long walkway from the east gate to the steps up to the temple.

Phanum Rung Wikipedia site

DSC01514.jpg (Phanum Rung historic park)

Coincidentally, on the day of our visit a Bangkok film crew shot a Thai movie production, apparently one of these historic epic movies, with lots of swords, fighting and the like. We were sitting in the shade of the trees for a while and just watched the painfully slow process of adjusting and re-adjusting the cameras, repositioning some of the poor “extras” mere inches, some of them getting really bored and starting to pick their noses. The obvious “star” of the movie was this 6ft 3 tall, muscular handsome guy with long hair (actually a hair piece as we saw them readjusting it) who tried to look so cool it could have frozen all of Thailand. It was quite fun to watch this unfold and in the breaks some of the scantily clad extras were more than happy to pose with tourists for photos.

DSC01605.jpgDSC01608.jpg (Movie set at Phanum Rung)
DSC01525.jpg (Actors/extras from the movie set)

Besides the fun we had with watching the movie set we really enjoyed Phanum Rung and both decided after our little round trip that it was our favorite temple. The peaceful atmosphere, beautiful temple ruins itself, the layout of the place and grounds and the position on top of the hill will leave a long lasting memory as one of the “temple highlights” of Thailand for us. Once we paused for a while and took in the whole setting and scenery it actually felt like a former spiritual place unlike some other, more commercialized temples we’ve seen across Thailand and Asia.


But it was time to leave Phanum Rung and make our way towards Buriram where we had booked a small hotel for the night. It took about an hour from Phanum Rung to Buriram and driving through the countryside at sunset was almost “magical”, the last rays of the sun turning the rice paddies, little lakes and small villages into a picture perfect backdrop for our adventure through Isaan.

DSC01773.jpgDSC01802.jpg (Isaan countryside)

It was already pitch dark when we arrived in Buriram, which is a very typical little town (and province) in the middle of the Isaan region although it is still very close to the Cambodian border. Many people in this region speak several languages or dialects - Thai, the Isaan dialect which is almost a separate language as well as Khamen or Khmer, the language of Cambodia. So, it doesn’t get much more Northeast than this.
Using our GPs and a map we bought before our trip we actually found the street and our hotel relatively quickly and we checked in to our room, which turned out to be the most expensive one during our whole trip through Isaan – we actually paid a whopping US$45 for a nice, large clean room including balcony. The hotel even has a nice pool – the only one in Buriram by the way – and it has a nice restaurant that serves Thai and Italian food, including a large selection of pizzas. The hotel is called “Muang Pizza & Resort Buriram” and many locals just call it the “Pizza Hotel” since it is still the only place in Buriram where you can get a decent Pizza.

DSC01619.jpg (Our room at the "Pizza Hotel" in Buriram)

We got to know the owner a little bit and had a chat with him. He’s a Dutch guy and married a girl form Buriram so they both manage the hotel together. Like so many other stories in Thailand, their story is very similar but also somewhat different, “same, same but different” as many Thaissay: Boy (or often man and in many cases old, ugly man) meets Isaan girl in Bangkok – mostly in a beer or gogo bar - he falls in love (she falls in love with the little money he has), they marry and in many cases it doesn’t last very long for any number of reasons. In their case, however, it seemed to work really well. They were both! attractive and relatively young, they had been living together for a couple of years in Bangkok before they decided to move to Buriram, the hometown of the girl, to build a small business. They started out with a Pizza place after some research and finding out that there’s good demand for Pizza but no “Pizzeria” in Buriram. And they were right, the little business took off and after a couple of years they bought some land and built this very nice small hotel where we were staying. He was managing the hotel and his wife was doing administration, reception and the like…and probably managing most of the staff in the “appropriate Thai style” whenever needed. So it sounded like a really nice success story and we both wished them all the luck for their future.

We were getting pretty hungry after we checked in and we decided to go out and not have Pizza in the hotel restaurant – it just doesn’t feel right to us not to have Thai food in places like this and we wanted to sample some of the local fare. So we just took a little walk and not far from our hotel was a little outside eating place where we stopped. It had a nice outside kitchen, a little bamboo style bar and a large screen showing English Premier league football. Thais are crazy about football and especially the English Premier league. You can get pretty much any PL game on some of the many satellite channels in Thailand and most restaurants and bars have screens or flat screen TVs showing just this. So we felt right at “home” and ordered some of our Thai favorites Phad Khra Pao, som tam thai (spicy papaya salad), tom yam goong and Leo beer, which is my particular favorite. Food was very tasty and the folks at the restaurant were very friendly, only one person speaking some broken English but that, together with our broken Thai (at least we know the names of the food we like), pictures on the menu and many hand signals we were perfectly able to communicate.

Totally satisfied we took a nice long walk in the relatively “cool” air (approx. 25 degrees celsius) and since it was a Saturday night we decided to have a night out in town. Buriram actually does have a little bar and nightclub area in the middle of town but don’t expect it to be anything like Bangkok or Pattaya (or many other larger cities in Thailand for that matter). It’s a string of about 20 small bars and a couple of night/dance clubs and we counted approximately 7-8 foreigners overall. Other than that it was a young Thai crowd going out and having fun. While we were having drinks in one of the bars, we curiously observed a group of 4 young women who were “getting ready” for the night. They all had a small snack but ordered a large bottle of whiskey and soda water. Before changing location to the adjacent nightclub they each must have gulped down 3-5 glasses (by the way regular water not whiskey glasses) of whiskey just watered down with some soda water. Surprisingly, none of them showed any signs of intoxication so we figured that couldn’t have been the first time they were doing this. But ordering a bottle of whiskey for a small group of people, no matter whether men or women, is very, very common in Thailand. You can still get a decent bottle of whiskey for a reasonable price and quite honestly, “it gets you drunk cheaper and quicker” than drinking e.g., wine or beer. Beer is actually priced at a premium rate compared to many of the whiskeys in Thailand. At the low end a cheap bottle of Thai whiskey costs the same as a bottle of beer. So there’s a real economic reason for the high consumption of whiskey in the country and it is indeed one of the biggest markets for many whiskey produces like “Johnny Walker”.
So we really enjoyed our night out and the people – e.g., staff at some of the bars – were all very friendly albeit not able to hold any meaningful conversation in English. When we decided to call it a night just after midnight we had a hard time finding a taxi or tuk tuk as this is not what you’d call a bustling nightlife city but we finally managed to round up a couple of guys with their motorcycle taxis who raced each other to take us back to the “Pizza Hotel”. By the way, taking motorcycle taxis is often very cheap and quick and, although it doesn’t always feel safe, is really good fun. Just tuck your knees in when they navigate through heavy rush hour traffic and don’t worry too much about the fact that the only person wearing any form of protective gear, i.e. helmet, is the driver.

The next day we had a lot of driving to do since we wanted to reach Nongkai, which is almost 500 km from Buriram. So we left Buriram early and a stopped in Phimai, the location of one of the other big Khmer temple complexes in Isaan.

Phimai Wkipedia site

DSC01638.jpgDSC01655.jpg (Phimai Historic Park)

Different from Phanum Rung, the Phimai historical park is in the middle of a small town called Phimai but once inside the temple complex, it is almost as peaceful and quiet as Phanum Rung. If you have been to Siem Reap and the temples of Anchor Wat in Cambodia you will notice the many similarities between the architecture and layout of the temples. But while Anchor Wat, due to its sheer size and the many temples surrounding it, is certainly impressive, we enjoyed Phanum Rung and Phimai as much or more than Anchor Wat. One reason is also the fact that the Khmer temples in Isaan are much less known to at least foreign tourists so you don’t have to deal with the hordes of European and Asian tourists on their photo safaris.
In that context (i.e., hordes of tourists travelling to Anchor Wat) here’s a little fun I’d like to share with you and hopefully it will make you chuckle as much as me. It’s a pictogram found at the airport restrooms in Siem Reap which welcomes many tourists now from countries and regions that are not familiar with the concept of urinals.


Anyway, we really enjoyed the temples in Phimai as well and after a couple of hours wandering the grounds and some sweet and spicy crepes form one of the street vendors we left Phimai and headed towards Nongkai. It was quite a long ride and we passed typical Isaan cities like Khon Khaen and Udon Thani before we reached Nongkai in the dark. We hoped we would find the little hotel we booked on agoda.com as easily as the one in Buriram but this time was much more difficult. We drove around for almost an hour, frequently stopping, looking at our map, checking the GPS and asking a few tuk tuk drivers. We finally found it by way of “eliminating” every little alleyway off the main road where we suspected the hotel to be. The reason it was so hard to find for us was because it was tucked away at the end of a little alley and the sign on the main road was written in Thai only. We checked in and were again pleasantly surprised to find a clean, comfortable room with ensuite bathroom, TV and little balcony for US$ 14. We were also immediately greeted by the two puppies of the owner, dressed in camouflage shirts and named King and Kong; they were just adorable and followed us everywhere we went.

DSC01693.jpg (Baan Tawan Hotel in Nongkai) DSC01686.jpgDSC01691.jpg (Our friends King and Kong)

After the long ride we were quite hungry and walked around for a bit in this sleepy little border town and ended up in the most “popular” place around the corner from our hotel, which was a Chinese & Thai open air restaurant. Again, delicious food was had by all and we ended our day with a very strange encounter that I will tell you more about in our next blog entry “Nongkai – the Visa Run city”.

Posted by Elmar123 08:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged landscapes art buildings historic Comments (0)

Khao Yai National Park

December 13 - 15

sunny 28 °C
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Our first stop on our tour through Isaan was Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest national park. We didn’t know what to expect but we were very pleasantly surprised by the area around the park and the many safari tour options that were on offer. The drive from Bangkok to Khao Yai only takes about 2-3 hours and you drive mostly along the typical Thai “strip malls” and store fronts, so it really doesn’t give you the impression that you are officially entering Isaan and are in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Nakhon Ratchasima is actually called Korat (spoken “Kolaat”) by most Thais.

In terms of accommodation we were curious as to what to expect. We had booked a small bed and breakfast place called “Bobby’s” online through Agoda due to the consistently very high ratings it received by other travelers. The place is actually in Pak Chong, a little outside of the park and we had a hard time finding it. We knew from the descriptions online that it is close to the large “Tesco” in Pak Chong right on the highway. So once we located the Tesco we drove around and tried to find the place based on the location on the online map. As we have learned many times before, looking for an address, even with a GPS which we had with us in the car, is almost always a fruitless exercise since street names are being spelled in many different ways and often you have the same street name for different streets. So, our challenge driving through Isaan was to locate our hotels based on descriptions online and attempts to get as close as possible to the indicated positions on online maps. We also used the Google map on our phone which proved invaluable in locating specific places and we got pretty good at finding our way around without turn by turn directions provided by the GPs. The GPS was mainly helpful to get from one city to the next but once there it mostly reached its limits.

So, back to our search for “Bobby’s” place. From the Tesco we drove around the few streets surrounding the area but just couldn’t find the place or any sign directing us to it, so I finally called and spoke with Mike, the owner. Within 5 minutes he picked us up with his scooter at the parking lot at Tesco’s and from there it was only about 2 minutes to get to the hotel. It’s a small residential area squeezed between the highway on one side and a main road with some restaurants on the other and there’s a reason why we couldn’t find it – the complete lack of any sign or advertisement. Typically that’s not a problem since most travellers come by bus or train and Mike always picks them up at the bus or train station. It’s still relatively uncommon that tourists drive through regions like Isaan by rental car. We found it very convenient though and it makes you very, very flexible. It’s more expensive than the cheap buses but again, rental cars are actually not that expensive in Thailand and the road system is excellent.

Once we arrived at “Bobby’s”, we checked in to our room and were pleasantly surprised by its size, cleanliness and relative comfort given the room was exactly US$ 7!!!. It had a large bed, en suite bathroom a TV with DVD player and even a small outside sitting area. The place looks a bit like a motel in the middle of the US in the 60’s.

DSC01275.jpgDSC01280.jpg (Our US$ 7 room at Bobby's)

Mike, the owner, is a German who’s been living in Thailand for more than 20 years and he’s been married to a Thai woman called Meehow. The two of them are running the place after their partner, actually Mike’s stepson, went back to the UK where he came from. Meehow, however, seems to do most of the work, including great cooking in the morning and evening. Mike seems to have more of a “socializing” role, picking people up and dropping them off and keeping them happy with cheap beer in the evening. The name “Bobby” seems to be a bit of a sensitive issue and we could only find out bits and pieces but obviously it is the name of a son who passed away very young for some reason.

DSC01281.jpg (Mike, the owner of Bobby's)

Anyway, once there we could also book a jungle tour through Mike since they run a small tour operation as well and some of the guides are family members, too. So it is quite a compelling little business they are running from this place, cheap but acceptable accommodation, jungle tours and safaris and a good little restaurant with some of the best simple home cooked Thai food we’ve had in Thailand.

We booked a full-day tour for the next day so we were all set for now. So we drove around a bit to explore the area and drove towards the park entrance. It is a beautiful area with small villages, many restaurants and small hotels but also some gaudy looking resorts and condos for sale – probably to affluent Bangkok residents given the proximity to the capital. One of the most bizarre places has to be the development of an Italian looking village, all built in what Thais would think Tuscany looks like, with earth tone houses, water fountains and big gates.

IMG_0361.jpg (Tuscany in Thailand)

Once we went back to “Bobby’s” we ordered dinner and within 10 minutes had a great Thai meal in front of us, sitting in the little backyard restaurant with view into Meehow’s little kitchen. She’s a master in the kitchen, every ingredient neatly pre-arranged and she prepares every single serving fresh in her wok, which is meticulously cleaned after each portion. Together with a few Leo beers and interesting conversations with Mike and other fellow travellers it was hard not to feel like, “it can’t get any better”.

DSC01498.jpg (Meehow at work)

If you have followed us on our blog and have read the last entry about our fast/detox in Koh Chang you might wonder what happened to the post-fasting process. Now, everybody who is somewhat familiar with how fasts typically work knows that you are supposed to slowly break your fast over a couple of days and eat light food, typically vegetables and fruit, for about a week or longer afterwards. You also should stay away from alcohol for a while. Obviously that hasn’t happened with us as you can read in this blog entry. But there was just no way on earth we would travel through places like Khao Yai and not eat the delicious food from Meehow and have a beer with it. It would have been difficult to just get raw vegetable or salad and probably even somewhat insulting – if that sounds like a lame excuse, it’s because it actually is one. So, if you are really serious about post-fasting stay in the place where you did your fast and don’t get yourself exposed to the rest of the country because the food temptations are just too delicious.

The next morning, bright and early at 6:00, we got up, had a little breakfast and went on our Songthaew (a covered pick up truck modified with benches on either side of the platform) together with about 6 fellow travellers and our guide who is actually Meehow’s son. I have to tell you first however a somewhat funny and uniquely Asian/Thai story about the breakfast we had in the morning. As said before, Meehow runs a nice little restaurant business in her backyard and breakfast is no exception. You can get pretty much anything from American, Continental and Thai breakfasts to congee, fried rice or porridge. However, one of Meehow’s young sons, who was taking the order was pretty inflexible when it came to ordering anything that was not part of the standard menu or that was a slightly different combination than the “set breakfast” options like American. I ordered an American breakfast, which was simple enough. However, Anna just wanted some toast with butter and jam. The problem was that this was not on the menu. So after a lot of back and forth we ended up ordering an “American breakfast without the eggs and bacon”, which, not surprisingly produced a satisfied smile on the face on Meehow’s son who now was able to order something from the standard menu while just omitting some items rather than having to “create” a whole new combination of items, like toast, butter and jam. Once the humor of the whole situation set in, we had to chuckle so many times about this little incident as it is so typical for Thailand and in fact many countries and people for that matter. One of our fellow travellers, Mike from Cleveland who we met at “Bobby’s” even sent us a video clip from the movie "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson which is taking a similar situation to a whole new level of ridiculousness (Five easy pieces dinner scene).

But back to our jungle tour, which was just beautiful, interesting and educational. Khao Yai National park is lush green and its terrain very varied, from open areas of elephant grass to dense mountain rainforest. After we entered the park we stopped at a viewing point and everybody was handed some blue colored ”leech socks” since leeches and other creepy crawlers might get on or under your skin if you are not protected. And we were planning an hour long jungle hike.

DSC01286.jpg (Khao Yai Park entrance) DSC01299.jpg (Thailand's latest fashion: leech socks)

From our viewing point we also got a first glimpse of some of the wildlife in the park as we could spot two large and colorful giant hornbill birds across from us in the trees. Luckily we had some binoculars, which helped us spot some of the animals in the trees. Throughout the day we saw many of the resident monkeys, mainly macaques.

DSC01307.jpg (One of the many macaques along the way)

We also had the pleasure of watching some white gibbons up in the trees making their characteristic noise, which one person described as a noise that reminds you of “spaceships”, or whatever you think the noise is that spaceships would make.

On our jungle hike we also spotted some snakes, including a green leaf viper and giant black squirrels who are the size of midsize dogs…never even heard of them before. Other than that we could see some of the different types of deer that live here as well as a couple of Asian water monitors, which are very common across Thailand and which can get up to 9 feet long. We’ve even seen some in the middle of Bangkok swimming in one of the khlongs (canals).

DSC01350.jpg (Green leaf viper) DSC01474.jpg (Asian water monitor) DSC01476.jpg (Deer)

Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the approximately 200 wild elephants living in the park or tigers which are extremely rare. At sunset we drove up to the highest point in the park with a splendid view over its rainforest and valleys. We returned back to Bobby’s where we had another delicious meal before we fell into our beds tired but totally satisfied.

DSC01431.jpg DSC01445.jpg DSC01464.jpg (Heo Suwat waterfal in Khao Yai) DSC01489.jpg (View over Khao Yai National Park at dusk)

So, if you are ever travelling in this region or maybe even just want to take a break form the urban stress of Bangkok for a few days, consider Khai Yai as a terrific getaway. We were very pleasantly surprised to find this paradise and tropical rainforest so close to Bangkok.

Posted by Elmar123 08:55 Archived in Thailand Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains trees animals birds Comments (0)

Exploring Thailand’s Heartland–Isaan and the Central Plains

December 13 – 20 (Days 48 – 55)

sunny 28 °C
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We’ve come to Thailand for several years now and have been here probably more than 10 times but we have never visited the center of Thailand and the most populous of all regions, Isaan. Isaan, or the Northeast, is also the poorest region of Thailand and is often associated with the “Red Shirts”, who demonstrated in Bangkok a couple of years ago until a military crackdown cost over 90 lives. The Isaan region also mainly fuels the vast sex industry of Thailand with young women who don’t see a future in Isaan and who often have to support big families back home who have a hard time making ends meet.

Isaan and the Central Plains are also regions where you can find many of the manufacturing plants supplying products to e.g. Japanese, European and some American car manufacturers as well as companies like Jim Thompson, which produce silk for expensive pashminas and the like.

So, while we have heard many stories about this region we have never visited it and thought that on our extensive visit this time it would be a shame to miss out on a chance to get to know the “real Thailand” and not just the Thailand of the beaches in the South, hills in the North and Bangkok, which is in many ways unique anyway. Finally, we also saw it as an opportunity to get away from the typical tourist razzmatazz of most places in Thailand for a few weeks which you can grow tired of.

So our plan was to travel through Isaan for about five days, maybe catch a boat on the Mekong in Nongkai and make our way back to Bangkok through the Central Plains with the two old capitals of Sukothai and Ayutthaya. The following chapters describe the different stages of our Trip to Thailand’s Heartland.

Posted by Elmar123 08:15 Archived in Thailand Tagged landscapes people sites historic Comments (0)

Detox on Koh Chang

December 4 – 12 (Days 39 – 47)

sunny -32 °C
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Well folks, it’s been a while since our last blog entry and we’ve just come back from our “Christmas-break” (it’s kind of a break from a break ☺) so it’s time to update our travel journal.

After a while in Bangkok carousing through the city, not having been as physically active as we should, not having eaten the healthiest food (although even the “bad” Thai food is considerably healthier compared to the typical Western fare and fast food) and generally not having taken care of our bodies enough we felt compelled to reverse this trend – at least for while.

We’ve been thinking and talking about this for some time and we did some research in terms of hotel and price options for detox programs. A couple of years ago we heard about the many detox options in Thailand from a friend in Singapore who spends one week every year to fast and detox in Thailand and said that it keeps her healthy and energized for a whole year. So, although we were not sure what exactly to expect, we gave fasting and detox a shot and booked a 7-day full fast/detox program at “The Spa Koh Chang”. We didn’t want to mess around with the two or three day semi-fasting programs; we felt they are for “sissies” and it’s time for us to man up and get serious about getting rid of all the toxins that have accumulated in our bodies.
“The Spa” is a small spa chain and the sister properties are in Chiang Mai and Koh Samui. We’ve been to all of these tourist locations and were open to considering any location but we found the proactive customer service in Koh Chang compelling enough to book there. We often make a decision for or against a hotel restaurant or other more “personal” purchases based on how we feel about the people we first interact with. And the spa in Koh Chang (The Spa in Koh Chang website) was the only property that contacted us by phone and our friendly customer relationship manager “Beer” was happy to discuss all possible options for the fast/detox program and accommodation. He even offered a small discount and overall the package sounded the most compelling. If you compare the price we paid for the full week detox including accommodation with Western prices in Europe or the US you would typically only get to day 2 of your program before you’d need to pony up some more money in order to continue.

We had been on the island of Koh Chang (btw – "Koh" means “island” in Thai and "Chang" means "elephant") a couple of times before so we knew the island and knew that we liked it. However, we hadn’t stayed at this particular place and on the eastern side of the island, which is much less developed than the western side. Besides a few local villages and individual simple teak wood homes in the forest and mangroves there are only a handful of small hotels and resorts and not much other tourism to speak of, so we were in for some quiet and secluded time.

In order to be at least somewhat flexible we rented a car and drove to Koh Chang, which is always a very pleasant experience. We love driving through Thailand ourselves as the streets are good, even in the most remote areas of the country, and Thai drivers are not as reckless as in some other Asian countries. Even driving in Bangkok is manageable and doesn’t give you an instant heart attack if you just go with the flow and don’t wait for others to wait for you. But driving though Thailand’s countryside is just utterly soothing, typically passing a lush green roadside and only interrupted by the storefronts of the towns and villages along the way which all look pretty much alike.
We make sure that whenever we rent a car we buy one of the flower garlands from one of the street vendors that wait for cars at major intersections and traffic lights. They only cost 20 THB and are nice to look at, smell good (compared to your typical “wonder tree”) and supposedly protect you from harm, i.e. accidents – if you are a superstitious person. At any rate, it’s a nice tradition and it keeps many flower sellers employed. It is a real service, they never try to cheat you and they stand in the exhaust fumes of cars all day to make ends meet. We are always more than happy to support these folks.

The journey from Bangkok to Koh Chang takes between 4 and 6 hours, depending on traffic and the ferry schedule. You need to take a ferry between Trat and Koh Chang and if you are lucky you don’t have to wait at the pier and can drive straight onto the ferry. Once you arrive at the pier in Koh Chang it’s about 20-30 more minutes to get to the Spa in Koh Chang.

08A843A52219AC681710141BD115766D.jpg (On the ferry from Trat to Koh Chang)DSC01187.jpg (Sunset behind Koh Chang)

We arrived at the spa at around 6:00 PM, checked in and had a quick first briefing with Beer, our customer service rep. He’s originally from Chiang Mai and has been transferred here. He explained to us that we would need to take a litmus test (i.e. pH test) the next morning in order to assess our acidity level because fasting is most effective when started at an alkaline body state. So we went to the restaurant overlooking the little pond and mangroves and had some vegetable soup and fruit, something we pretty much ate for the last couple of days already.

DSC01221.jpgDSC01219.jpg (Our room at the Spa resort; selling for roughly US$ 60/night))

The next morning, bright and early at 7:00 AM we went down to the “Colema Center” where we met Beer. He gave us some small strips that we needed to put on our tongues for a few seconds to see how acidic or alkaline we were. Anna’s was still pretty much all yellow which indicated that she was still fairly acidic. Mine was only slightly green, which was a bit more alkaline but still not enough to start the detox. So Beer recommended doing one more day of pre-fasting, only eating raw vegetables, fruit and fruit juices. So that’s what we did although we were a little frustrated that we couldn’t start right away. Since we had the day free we used the opportunity to drive to the western side of the island and spend the day there. We drove to White Sand Beach and visited “Thor’s Place” (Thor's Place link), which is a little bar/restaurant right at the beach. We had met Thor and his brother, who run the place together, on our previous visits to Koh Chang and always had long conversations with them. Thor used to be an investment banker in Bangkok and he decided with this brother to buy this small place in Koh Chang and live a much more tranquil and less stressful life. We said our hellos and caught up an all the news. Thor is always asking about Christina, who was with us when we traveled to Koh Chang the first time. It’s good to meet some “old friends” in places like this.

DSC01189.jpg (Entry to Thor's Place)
DSC01212.jpg (Thor and one of his staff)
DSC01217.jpg (Thor's brother/chef at Thor's place and...one of his staff)

Unfortunately we couldn’t eat any of the delicious food they are serving since we were on our pre-fast so we stuck to lemon juice and took a long walk up and down White Sand beach, which was busy but not crowded. Despite the ongoing development of hotels etc. White Sand beach is still a beautiful and relaxing place to take a walk at and you still find very quiet little coves and bays at the fringes of the bay. One our way back we stopped at a little outside massage place and got our “massage fix” for the day, relaxing in the shade on the beach…life can be good!

Back at the hotel we had a light dinner a “Spa salad”, which tasted like the best salad we’d ever had. In fact, the restaurant at the Spa in Koh Chang has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in this part of Thailand and many visitors come to stay here to experience the great and healthy food choices while relaxing in the mangroves. We went to bed this evening hoping that we could start our fast tomorrow.

The next morning, again bright and early at 7:00 AM, we went to the Colema Center to take our litmus test. Surprisingly Anna’s test hadn’t changed much from the previous day, which indicated an acidic state, but mine was turning dark green very quickly, which means alkaline. So the question was, what should we do? Would we wait for another day, which meant that we couldn’t do the full 7-day fast, or would we just start? Anna was pretty adamant that she wanted to start that day and after a bit of back and forth we decided to give it a go. We were advised though that there’s a chance of a “crisis” if you start a fast in an acidic state but after we interrogated a bit what “crisis” really means we felt better. “Crisis” in their definition could be anything from bad dreams to headache to not sleeping well, so it sounded like the effects of a bad hangover. Since we couldn’t drink any alcohol for the next ten days anyway we thought that we were more than ready to handle it☺

So off we went. The first order of the day was to gulp down a “detox drink”, which is a mix of some indefinable juice, some fibers (husk) and bentonite clay to absorb toxins in your body. It didn’t even taste that bad. We had to get one of these detox drinks every 3 hours. At the same time we were handed out our 32! Pills that we had to swallow per day – a mix of herbal supplements and “chompers” and we had to take 6 pills every 3 hours. In addition, in our package of pills was a “probiotic” tablet that we had to take in the evening just before going to bed in order to repopulate beneficial bacteria in the intestines. And from now on, for the next 7 days, we were not allowed to “chew”, meaning that we couldn’t eat anything, were only allowed to drink water and juices and drink a clear vegetable broth in the evening. It was recommended we drink a couple of coconuts per day, which we happily obliged to since they were just delicious at this place and very refreshing on a hot day.

IMG_0345.jpg (Our daily Fasting/Detox schedule)

Information about Fasting/Cleansing programs and methods

Now, there’s one more thing that we had to get familiar with on our first day of fasting and this was how to administer a colema, or colonic enema. On our first day of our fast in the afternoon we were shown a video in the colema center that taught us how to set up the “Colema Board” in our bathroom and how to administer the enema. It looked less intimidating than expected and once we were fully educated we received two large buckets filled with a concoction of fresh ground coffee. We also received some of the other pieces of “equipment” you need to do a colema and went to our room. Back at our room a couple of Colema Boards were already waiting for us so we were all set to do our first colema.

DSC01252.jpg (The colema setup in our bathroom)

I won’t go into much more detail here but suffice it to say that it is quite an experience to shoot up a gallon of coffee water up ya bum twice a day for a week. Fortunately the whole process is much less uncomfortable than we had expected and after a couple of days you actually get used to it and it becomes a routine. It all helps with cleansing your body and getting rid of toxins that your body eliminates during the fasting. One of the effects that it had on me though was that I tended to be pretty wired after a colema and it obviously was due to the caffeine that your body absorbs while doing the colema. This also contributed to the fact that I couldn’t fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning and had a hard time getting up once I fell asleep – until the next colema at 10 AM in the morning that is.

Over the next 7 days we fully immersed ourselves in the almost meditative routine of a detox program, our schedule dictated by detox drinks, pills, colemas, steam saunas, yoga or Ampuku massages. An Ampuku massages is a special deep tissue massage of your stomach intended to stimulate your digestive system so that toxins are transported out of your system even faster. It felt actually pretty good and the open massage room high up in the trees overlooking the forest and pond was wonderfully relaxing. I just should have used the bathroom before the massage because somebody pushing your stomach down to your spine while having a full bladder can be pretty excruciating.
The rest of the time, in between all the activities of our “hectic” detox schedule, we spent reading at the pool, chatting with some of the other guests, taking walks in the evening, renting bicycles or a canoe and catching up on our Skyping with friends and family at home – so the ultimate relaxation experience. We also drove to White Sand beach a couple of time, packing up our detox drinks, which we mixed up when it was time to drink them, and pills so we could stay at least until our next colema which is understandable less portable than fluids and pills. But we spent a wonderful afternoon at this little secluded beach with white sand and a few little huts and visited friend Thor a couple of times to have a fruit juice and take a jealous glimpse at the food of other guests.

08C4CFF62219AC6817B05366E197F155.jpg (The pool area at the Spa in Koh Chang) DSC01236.jpg (View of the restaurant at the Spa in Koh Chang) DSC01227.jpg (View of the pond and mangroves at the Spa in Koh Chang)
DSC01244.jpg (At the fringes of White Sand Beach on Koh Chang)

But let me just talk a bit more in general about the whole detox/fasting experience and possibly also remove a few fears or myths that are out there. First of all, even a 7-day fast/detox is not “starving” your (healthy) body. Many people do 2-week detox/fasts without major problems. We actually lost a few pounds during the week but part of this is excess water in your fat tissue that will be replaced once you go back to a “normal” diet.
We also never felt excessively hungry during the whole 10 days of pre-fasting, fasting and post-fasting. It’s part mind-set and part getting used to having an empty stomach. Unlike some others, at least based on reports you can read from fasters talking about their experience, we never experienced total euphoria after a few days of fasting. Likewise, we never fell into any kind of serious depression, states of prolonged anger or aggression. Throughout the whole time we felt pretty “normal” and relaxed. Obviously the environment and relaxing activities we did contributed to it. So overall, we didn’t experience any “crisis” that some people report when they have done several day fasts. The one thing we both experienced towards the end of the fast was slight exhaustion – a few stairs felt like climbing Mount Everest - but that seems to be appropriate after not having eaten for 6 or 7 days. So we wouldn’t recommend doing a fast like this while you are working a normal, stressful job. Take a time out, immerse yourself fully in it, fill your days with enjoyable things and you will come out of a fast refreshed and renewed – you are actually giving your body a bit of a fresh and clean start. The “experts” actually recommend doing one of these 5-7 days fasts once per year and having a day or so every two weeks where you don’t eat or just eat fruit and drink fruit juices or clear vegetable broth. We are definitely recommending it and will for sure fast/detox again in the future.

Posted by Elmar123 04:59 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches spa relaxation Comments (1)

Sawasdee Khrap, Bangkok

November 23 – December 3

semi-overcast 33 °C
View World Tour 2012/13 on Elmar123's travel map.

In our introduction to this blog we prefaced that we will put particular emphasis on three things, or passions of ours: Food, interesting people and great diving. And Thailand offers an abundance of all three of them and I could go on and on about describing the many delicious meals we’ve had and will have in Thailand, the many interesting, funny, gentle or bizarre people we’ve met or the beautiful dive spots Thailand has to offer. But it would probably bore you to death and you have to experience it yourself since words can hardly describe these unique, sometimes very subtle and sometimes ‘in your face’ experiences you can only have in Thailand. But I thought that the following words from Anthony Bourdain very eloquently describe the essence of Thailand – if you are open to it:

===There is no place like Thailand. It is one of the greatest of foodie destinations and in marked contrast to the violence of their national sport–and the occasional outbreak of political strife, one of the least dangerous, most gentle and tolerant places I’ve ever been. Thailand, in my experience, is a country where a visitor can pretty much wander at will without anything resembling a plan, eating everything in sight, relying completely on the kindness of strangers–and only good things will happen.===
(From Athony Bourdain’s Blog, August 16th, 2009)

A day early, due to a slight change in our flights and skipping our planned two-day stint to Singapore, we flew into Bangkok on a direct flight from Brisbane with Thai Air, which is always a pleasant experience. Again, as usual and due to all the friendly words, smiles and chit chat at the check in counter, we secured the last two seats in an exit row.

Our first stop and home base on this trip was Bangkok and we felt immediately at “home” when we arrived at the airport, picked up our luggage and exchanged money right at the luggage belt. We also bought a prepaid SIM card, which is very cheap and convenient in Thailand. I wish all countries, especially European countries, the US or Australia would make it that easy for travellers to get connected via phone, internet, transportation etc. So if you ever plan on visiting Thailand, pick up a SIM card right at the airport with any of the providers, e.g., Dtac and it only takes about 5 minutes. You also can buy top up vouchers at pretty much any 7-Eleven or Family Mart store, which you can find at almost every corner of the country.

Our taxi ride into the city, which is comparatively cheap even compared to the BTS (the modern Skytrain in Bangkok built by Siemens), was already one of these weird and unique, but also typical experiences that you can only have in Bangkok - but it took us a while to fully realize how bizarre the situation was. The taxi driver that was assigned to us at the counter for public taxis looked a bit “strange” when he helped us put our luggage into the car but we only connected the dots once we were sitting in the taxi and had some time to take it all in. One of the things that we noticed after a while was this Elvis puppet hanging from the windshield, one of those cheap plastic figurines that shake with every twist and turn of the car. And boy, did he put the pedal to the metal – he raced with 140 kilometers towards downtown Bangkok, so the figurine got a good work out. But then we realized that our taxi driver had the same hair style and glasses like the little Elvis in the windshield. So we looked at the Elvis puppet in the windshield, looked at the taxi driver, looked back at the puppet again and suddenly realized…they are both Elvis, looking pretty much alike sans the clothes (the taxi driver that is). So we figured that he probably goes off after work as a taxi driver and hires as an Elvis imitator at a cheap watering hole or cruise boat. There are not too many places in the world where this is perfectly normal and nobody gives it a second thought but we had to chuckle when we took in the absurdity of the situation – and we loved it.

But since this blog should also be somewhat educational for other travellers here’s a few tips for transportation in Thailand and especially Bangkok. First of all, taxis are very cheap and often the most convenient, fast and cost effective option. A taxi ride from Shuvarnabhumi airport to anywhere in the city sets you back between 250 and 400 baht (8-13 US$), including highway toll. You can take the Bts (Skytrain) into the city but if you are more than 3-4 travellers, taxi is almost as cheap as Bts. When you are travelling within the city, assuming you are staying somewhere central, you can either take the Bts, MRT or taxi. When you take a taxi, ask them to put the Meter on – often they don’t want to and call a price that’s sometimes double or triple the realistic amount. Secondly, don’t take a Tuk Tuk if you don’t have to. Typically, it’s a big scam and they want to take you to a night or gem market. Unless you know the “local” rate for a Tuk Tuk and you can negotiate something close to it, stay away from them. Other than that, transportation is easy, quick (unless during rush hour and in the suburbs) and convenient.

Now, if you ever want to go to Bangkok, we would be the first to recommend it. But you got to be prepared for a few things that make Bangkok unique.

"Bangkok is a city of extremes and superlatives, a city you do not react to indifferently," says Thailand at a Glance. "Recently declared the world's hottest city by the World Meteorological Organization, it also boasts the world's longest name: Krung-thep-maha-nakorn-boworn-ratana-kosin-mahintar-ayudhya-amaha-dilok-pop-nopa-ratana-rajthani-burirom-udom-rajniwes-mahasat-arn-amorn-pimarn-avatar-satit-sakattiya-visanukam.

Not surprisingly, only a handful of Thais can remember such a mouthful, although the abbreviated translation of the whole is a relatively brief Jewelled City of the God Indra. However, most Thais simply refer to it as Krung Thep, “City of Angels."

Over the next ten days or so we did exactly what Tony Bourdain prescribes: ”…pretty much wander at will without anything resembling a plan, eating everything in sight, relying completely on the kindness of strangers–and only good things will happen”. We hardly had a plan whenever we started a day and just explored the different neighbourhoods (called districts) of Bangkok, wandered along street food stalls, night markets, shopping centers and massage places.

DSC00998.jpg (Thai noodle soup with fish balls from a street food stall)
IMG_0307.jpg (Teddybear rice - gotta try it!)

The things that were on our agenda though included getting visas for India since we didn’t get them back in the US – as many things, Thailand and especially Bangkok has the amazing quality of making otherwise long and tedious processes relatively simple and efficient. Getting a visa for India in the US would take at least 5-10 working days and you can only apply if you are a US citizen with residence in the US. You also have to drive to to one of the major Indian embassies to apply in person or otherwise the process takes even longer. For non-residents it’s a much more complicated and long process and it could take weeks. Not so in Bangkok – we prepared our applications and went to VFS on Sukhumvit road, which is the India visa applications center and which has been outsourced by the Indian embassy. We spent the better part of an afternoon there but walked away with our visa application submitted. And low and behold, after about 7 business days we found out through our weblink that was provided to us that our visas were ready for pick up…simple as that.

We also had the pleasure to meet with our good friend Suchada and went out to lunch with her a couple of times to have an extended lunch. It was lovely to see her and spend some time with her and we had some great food as well – one lunch was at a place called Greyhound Café on soi Thong Lor off Sukhumvit road. They serve Thai fusion fare and it was surprisingly good. We shared the other meal at the mall close to the DDI office (Central Chitlom), which provided the opportunity for us to quickly pop in to the office and say hi to the very lovely Thai DDI team. Anna had never been in the Thai office and I was very happy to see some of the office staff which I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for.

DSC01055.jpg (Having lunch with Suchada at Greyhound Cafe)

Another activity that we regularly enjoyed was taking the public taxi boat from Sathon Pier at the end of the Bts line (Saphan Taksin) down the Chao Phraya river. It’s very cheap, sets you back between 10 and 20 Bht (30-60 cents) per person for an hour-long ride or however long you’d like to stay on the boat, going up and down the river. It’s a great way to catch a fresh breeze during the hottest hours of the day, rub shoulders with the locals and see the gleaming high rises and ancient temples pass by.

IMG_0335.jpg (Getting cozy with the locals on the Chao Phraya taxi boat)
DSC01116.jpg (Rama VIII bridge at night from the taxi boat)
DSC01108.jpg (A dinner cruise boat on the Chao Phraya at night)
DSC01134.jpg (Wat Arun at night from the taxi boat)

We had seen many of the temples that we saw from the boat or the Grand Palace before, so we didn’t engage in much temple sight seeing this time. As said before, we were more guided by just taking in different neighbourhoods, people, and day-to-day life. However, we found a great list of things that someone pulled together and which is a pretty nifty guide for people who’d like to explore Bangkok beyond the usual travel guides.

101 Things to do in Bangkok

DSC00999.jpg (A typical street food stall 'chef')
DSC01002.jpg (Elmar eating fish ball soup)

Try it out next time when you’re in Bangkok. Before finishing this post I feel the urge to point out a couple of additional things and give some advice. Firstly, Thailand and even the major metropolis of Bangkok is cheap! Compared to Europe, the US, Australia or even many Asian countries these days you can live on a tight budget and don't miss anything. We stayed at hotels for 30US$/night and did not see a difference to solid three to four star hotels in Europe or the US in terms of service and accommodation. The great thing about Thailand is that even for a fraction of the money you'd pay in other places you can get great quality and service. If you are o.k. with street food, you can eat as much as you can for a few dollars. A Thai noodle soup with fish, pork or beef balls and all the good greens for example will only cost you 1.50US$ or less...and that's a full and healthy meal. On the other hand, you can also stay at the Mandarin Oriental and pay 500-800 US$ for a 'no frills' double room - no frills at Mandarin Oriental standard of course. Similarly, you can spend hundreds of dollars on a lavish meal in one of the high-class Thai restaurants or some of the restaurants serving foreign food like Indian, Italian or even German. You definitely have the choice in Thailand.

One final piece of advice that I'd like to share is to not let a day pass without getting a massage. It is wonderfully relaxing after a long walk or a good dinner. Just stay away from a Thai massage after a large meal since the often tiny massage therapists work you over good. In this case opt for a foot massage, which is very relaxing, you can listen to music or watch one of the Thai soap operas running on one of the wall-mounted TVs at many cheap massage places. But don't be surprised if, without warning, the person massaging you screams out loud if a particularly dramatic scene is showing - of course followed by excited chatter of the whole gang of massage therapists in the room. Thais love drama!

IMG_0317.jpg (Getting our daily massage for 6US$/hour)

Instead of boring you with more stories and experiences from Bangkok I’ve just included a few pictures that provide a little bit of an array of impressions of everyday life and scenarios – of course they can only provide a small slice of what Bangkok is. But pictures sometimes speak louder than words. Enjoy and see you in Krung Thep!

DSC01155.jpg (Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall close to the Thai Parliament)
DSC00991.jpg (Gangnam hype everywhere)
DSC01007.jpg (A fruit vendor at Chatuchak market)
DSC01011.jpg (A street vendor with his mobile kitchen at Cahtuchak market)
DSC01027.jpg (A pork meat vendor at Chatuchak market)
DSC01094.jpg (A food stall in Bangkok's Chinatown)
DSC01100.jpg (A typical street in Bangkok's Chinatown)
IMG_0296.jpg (Dinner at 'Coco Walk' night market at Ratchatewi Bts station)
IMG_0311.jpg (Sticky rice with mango...yummy)
DSC01038.jpg (A Thai beauty selling coconut ice-cream at Chatuchak market)
IMG_0305.jpg (Don't Eat Here!)

Posted by Elmar123 08:31 Archived in Thailand Tagged city Comments (1)

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