The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Category: Thailand (page 1 of 2)

The Start of the Solo Travels in Pai, Thailand

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I bid my sister adieu in Chiang Mai with a little trepidation – we’d been on the road for the better part of three months together, and now the next five months yawned ahead of me, only a rough sketch of plans in place, and no one to ask, “Is this a good idea?”

I’d already been in Chiang Mai for a few days longer than I felt I needed to be, so I packed up, headed to the bus station, and jumped on the next minivan for a small town called Pai. The ride to town was a nausea-inducing three hours hurtling through forests and winding mountain roads, upon which we were unceremoniously dumped in the town center.

My arrival in a new place was enough to keep me busy for the first few hours – find a place to stay, get myself situated, peruse the Lonely Planet and a few blogs for things to do here, and check out the map to situate myself. And then it was time to go out on my own.

There are a lot of blogs that extol the virtues of solo travel, and all the things they post are true. But maybe a lot of them don’t remember that traveling solo for the first time requires a little warming up. I felt weird wandering around a town with no real destination and no one to mark my observations to. I felt like people were staring at me  wandering the streets alone (they weren’t, I’m just paranoid and always think people are staring at me), I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands while I wandered the roads with no real destination, I felt like I should be making friends but it would have been so weird to just walk up to someone and introduce myself. So I parked in a little hippy cafe, ordered a stunningly delicious chai tea latte, and caught up on my travel journal like a recluse. Some things take easing into.

I did sign up for a trip to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset, and was able to chat with a group of girls from the UK on the way up and the way back, so my social interaction wasn’t exactly zero for Day 1 solo on the roads.

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Since my time in Pai was limited to a couple of days, I signed up for a ‘Pai Sights’ Tour, one of these package deals where they pack you into a van and take you around the various sights for a fee. It was about $18, and I figured it was better than trying to figure out how to get everywhere on my own. And then my decision to do this crazy traveling thing alone was fully validated by discovering that every person on the tour was a solo female traveler! There were five of us in total, we all came from different places, were different ages, and we all got along great.  All my doubts from the day before were put to rest.

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Swinging at the Treehouse in Pai

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Pai Natural Hot Springs… No Egg Boiling Allowed

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Natural Hot Springs That Actually Felt Natural!

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A Casual Barefoot Hike, As You Do

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I LOVE Pai!

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No Visit Is Complete Without Buddha

Pai is a place that seems to encourage becoming one with the earth. There are plenty of dreadlocks, Bob Marley decor, incense and other hippy-esque details about the place that give it this vibe. So naturally part of the day included taking a dip in the natural hot springs and choosing to climb the sandstone rocks of Pai Canyon barefoot, just to get into the spirit of the place.

Pai is what the rest of Thailand probably was 15 years ago: still a little undeveloped, a little off the radar, but beautiful in it’s own rough, earthy, unapologetic way. What a fabulous place to start traveling alone.

Til next time, xoxoxo!

Taking a Bath with an Elephant

I have always been an avid animal lover.

Well, ‘avid’ might be putting it mildly. I’ve always been a rabid, borderline-obsessive lover of anything with four legs. When I was five, we ‘rescued’ a bunny that turned up in our back garden. I carefully made a comfy nest for it in the bathtub of my childhood home, where I would sit and hold and hug it like it was a stuffed animal. It returned the favor by biting me in the leg one day and giving me my first set of stitches before running off forever. I was inconsolable, both over the mutinous stitches and the loss of my precious (and probably wild) bunny.

For years, I wanted to be a veterinarian, until I realized that veterinarians have to perform surgery on animals, and most often put pets to sleep.  So I settled on getting a puppy when I was 21 and just finishing college, much to my parents’ chagrin.

So when I read that there was an opportunity to volunteer with rescued elephants in Northern Thailand, it was a no brainer. I was in.

I wanted to spend a week at the Elephant Nature Park, the most famous of the elephant rescues in the area. But my sister was worried about the expense of a week and she isn’t as weirdly into animals as I am, so we opted instead for the full-day trip.

The whole ride from Chiang Mai out to the rescue center I was buzzing with anticipation. I wanted to sprint into the center when we arrived, but our guide led us to an area where we were told the basic rules of interacting with large animals before they let us out onto a viewing platform where we could hand feed elephants chunks of squash and watermelon. The first time a trunk extended in my direction for the food in my hand I was suddenly that five year old girl again, amazed and wowed by this wild animal in front of me, and incongruously wanting to give it a hug.

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Throughout the day we were able to both observe and interact with these amazing animals, walking with them, giving the adults scratches behind their ears, and watching the babies frolic and cause mischief. At one point, the youngest in the rescue center (a one year old calf) managed to get his collar off his head, which then got stuck around his nanny’s right foot, and then it also wrapped around her left foot, nearly tripping her! One of the guides managed to help her extricate herself before she went down with a big thump.

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But the highlight of the day was when a group of eight of us waded into the river with a big old female elephant to give her a bath. Armed with a bucket each, we were encouraged to fill the buckets with water and toss it at the elephant to get the mud off of her body. I swear she was smiling as she was doused with water, enjoying her day at the spa.

The Elephant Nature Park also rescues cats and dogs. Just after lunch, I wandered into the cat den, a netted enclosure that’s full of young cats. We were called back to the elephants before I had a chance to visit the dogs. But between all the animals, I was on cloud nine. I definitely will be planning a return trip, and this time, I will stay for that whole week!

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Chiang Mai

After reading sooooo many travel bloggers raving about their mad love for Chiang Mai, I was excited to see this city of temples in the jungles of Northern Thailand. And then we got to Chiang Mai, and I couldn’t help but think:

Am I the only person who finds this place a little… vanilla?

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will recoil in horror reading those words, but I’m afraid that this was one example of those ‘high expectations makes for disappointing reality’ situations. Seminyak in Bali felt much the same.

I tried to love it, I really did. I wandered the streets and the markets, talked to the locals, and gawked at the myriad stunning temples that dotted each corner like Starbucks dot the corners of my suburban homeland in Orange County. But I just couldn’t summon the love that I felt for Bangkok or Ubud.

First, the good things:

  1. The shopping in Chiang Mai was top-notch, without a doubt. Much better quality of product, much lower prices than just about anywhere else I had seen in Thailand. And there were several really great artists selling their wares at the night market just outside the old city.
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  2. The temples were stunning, and you couldn’t turn a corner without running into one. My favorite one had a peaceful garden with Buddhist proverbs hanging from the trees and a feeling of wisdom and joy that made my soul sing. And despite the crowd at the Doi Suthep temple, it had a spiritual presence all its own.IMG_20150326_153142
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  3. IMG_20150324_115508The food here was consistently better, and there were several dishes that were famous to the North of Thailand that were truly scrumptious, like Khao Soi Gai. There was a mom-and-daughter restaurant just across the street from where we stayed on Soi 5 Rachadamnoen that had excellent food. Nothing I ordered there wasn’t spectacular, so I went almost every single one of the five days we were in town.
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  4. I ticked off a line on my bucket list by spending time with the rescue elephants! But that needs it’s own whole post.

Now, the blah things:

  1. After a couple of days, there really wasn’t all that much to do. Other than see more temples (which are beautiful, but how many can you really see and maintain that breathless wonder that they instill in you) or shop more (not exactly the best option for budget traveling), we struggled to keep ourselves busy. Sure, there were the exploited Karen tribespeople we could inflict ourselves upon for a staggering fee, or we could check out more drugged-up tigers, but neither of those things really topped our list of ways to spend our time or money.
  2. We were there during The Burn, a time when the surrounding land is set ablaze in controlled burns to keep vegetation under control. Fortunately, it wasn’t too smoky while we were there, but it did add a tinge to the air that wasn’t the most beautiful.
  3. The countryside didn’t overwhelm us. We went out to Huay Tung Tao Lake on recommendation from a few people and websites. And we tried, oh we really tried to be wowed by the incredible natural beauty, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us.

Overall, I think maybe we scheduled in two days too many for Chiang Mai. But because so many people who live the location-independent lifestyle have called it home, we were certain we’d need as many days as we could spare there. For some it might be the best place to call home, but for us we were ready to go.

Bangkok 2.0

The first time I ever met Bangkok, I wasn’t quite ready for the pandemonium he brought to bear. But I fell in love with his crazy ass anyway.

I drank in the whirling neon, the steam from the street vendors and the asphalt beneath my feet, the skin-tingling relief at the slightest hint of a breeze, the cacophony of raw fish, spice and sizzling meat. This time, I couldn’t wait to show him off to my sister, and maybe get to know another layer of his personality.

We decided to stay near Khao San Road this time, both for the cheap accommodation in abundance in the area, and because I loved it’s messy, touristy, hedonistic vibe the first time I’d visited. Rather than stay right on that street, we opted for a room on Soi Rambuttri, a smaller, quieter street just across the road.

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Not wanting to waste a moment, we tore ourselves away from the air conditioning and found our way to the center of the city to get on a bus to Amphawa, to one of the most famous floating markets in the area. Once there, we slowly made our way through the stalls, sampling a little of this, a little of that until we were full to bursting and still a little unsure of exactly what we had just eaten. We cruised the river for an hour after that, checking out a community that revolved nearly entirely around the waterways – a dock for every home.

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The next day, we took a spin past the famous Reclining Buddha and explored the temple grounds of Wat Pho. After that, it was time to jump onto another local bus across town (for $0.80!) to get to the Chatuchak weekend market — a place where everything from paper lanterns to puppies are sold. The amount of stalls and wares was absolutely staggering, so much so that we got ‘buyer paralysis’ and actually had a hard time finding anything to buy!

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After weeks of sticking to the cheap, we decided we wanted to see more than just Bangkok’s touristy epicenter, so we showered, got dressed up and headed to the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel to have a rooftop cocktail. While Beth and were both a little taken aback by the chintzy scene and terrible cocktails in the bar, we did make it up to the revolving roof deck and were able to take in the lights of BKK from the tallest building in the city.

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After the disappointment of Bai Yoke as a cocktail destination, we headed to Silom Road, a place that’s popular with the business traveler and expat set in the city. We had dinner at a place called Scarlett, a wine bar in the Pullman hotel. After weeks of beer, I was so ready for a good glass of red. And I absolutely fell in love with the restaurant. Not only did they have wine for $3/glass, they had a cheese and charcuterie bar (yes!), where you could choose which you wanted on your platter by walking up and pointing. Plus they were serving oysters, the ambiance was great, we were surrounded by well-heeled office workers of various backgrounds out for post-work dinner and drinks. It was the same Bangkok I had fallen in love with the first time, but this one was wearing cologne and had his hair slicked back. Utterly dashing.

The next night, we decided we wanted to see a little more of this well-groomed Bangkok we’d met the night before, so we went to the rooftop bar at Lebua, which you might remember from a movie called The Hangover 2. Teetering over the whirling streets of the city, with a bright red sun sinking down behind the skyscrapers and a New York-priced cocktail, it definitely felt like a first-world country to me. We continued on to Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant that’s famous both for it’s art made out of latex condoms and it’s contributions to family planning in Thailand.

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But we knew we couldn’t leave without a proper farewell to the shaggy, crazy, mildly unhinged heart of this city. And so we found ourselves strolling down Khao San Road at 1 a.m., stopping for some live music and watching the neon bounce off the whirl of faces that filed past. The steam of the street vendors enveloped us like a parting hug, and we faded out of that great metropolis and into the jungles of the north.

 

Koh Samui

“What is that?” I asked to the top of a small head covered in spiky black hair.

“Crocodile!” mischievous brown eyes danced up to mine as a small finger finished carving lines into the sand in front of us. A big smile revealed a smattering of browned teeth and dimples carved into smooth brown skin.

“A crocodile! So it is!” I exclaimed, turning my head sideways to see that he had, indeed, drawn a very good likeness of a crocodile into the sand between us.

I had been sprawled on Lamai Beach in Koh Samui for most of the day, with the latter part of the afternoon spent drawing in the sand with a four-year-old boy named Davon. His mother hovered nearby with the other women who walked the beach peddling manicures and pedicures, observing his unofficial English lesson.

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The little artist

After a week of relaxed lounging in Koh Lanta, Koh Samui’s pace took a little getting used to. We spent four days exploring this island in the Gulf of Thailand, and here’s an overview of what we found:

The Areas We Explored:

  1. Chaweng: This is Thailand at full-tilt Tourist, with a capital T. There are bright lights, heaps of restaurants and clubs vying for tourist dollars, and people peddling everything under the sun on the streets and beaches. One night, while sitting at dinner on the busy main drag of Chaweng Beach Road, a truck with a boxing ring in the back drove by, blaring music while two Muay Thai fighters staged a fight in the back of the moving truck.
    • Food: It’s very hit-and-miss here. We had one Thai dinner that was great, despite the touristy name of the restaurant (Khao San), and we had one dinner where my meat was so under-cooked I had to send it back. Do you research on this one, because an empty stomach is a terrible thing to waste on bad food.
    • Lodging: Everything under the sun, from five-star resorts to cheap and cheerful beachfront places, like Lucky Mother, where we stayed on recommendation from Lonely Planet.
    • Nightlife and Attractions: If you want to party, Chaweng is the place to do it.  The most famous places are Ark Bar and Green Mango. Beth and I split a bucket on the sand at Ark Bar, and the resulting fuzziness led us to agree to a 100-baht photo opp with a clearly drugged monkey, though we didn’t realize it until it was too late. On that note, don’t go to the monkey or tiger attractions that are touted around the island. The animals are drugged and terribly mistreated, no matter what the owners/salesmen say, and you would be contributing to this mistreatment! Beth and I are still trying to forgive ourselves for our tipsy misjudgment.
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  2. Lamai: In contrast to Chaweng, Lamai is smaller and more relaxed, and it seemed that more expats tended to center in this area. There are still salespeople who troll the beaches peddling manicures, pedicures, food and ice cream, but they aren’t as aggressive or as numerous. Many are happy simply to have a conversation with you, or draw animals in the sand!
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    • Food: Most of your options here are restaurants embedded into the hotels/bungalows that line the beach. I found that the food was more consistently good here than it was in Chaweng, and we caught a pretty cool fire show at Swing Bar, which also served passable Mexican food, because sometimes eating Thai food for a month is a little hard.
    • Lodging: Like in Koh Lanta, we stayed in a super simple beach bungalow without air conditioning. On the downside, this place didn’t have a private bathroom attached (there was a shared one at the back of the bungalows), but on the plus side, our bungalow was right on the water. As in, step off our little porch, walk 20 feet, and you are in the Gulf of Thailand.
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    • Nightlife and Attractions: Lamai has its share of beachfront bars, like Chaweng, but they don’t seem to last as late into the night, and they don’t seem to be quite as crowded. It strikes a nice balance between having places to go if you’re keen for a few drinks, and not pushing the party too hard.
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  3. Bophut/Fisherman’s Village: This is honeymoon Koh Samui. The highest concentration of fancy resorts and nice hotels seemed to line the waterfront here. The town was also nicely kept, and had an artsy vibe to it. We spent a day here, since an overnight in one of the fancy hotels was outside of our budget range, but it had a nice feel to it.IMG_20150315_150628
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    • Food: There were several restaurants with all different types of cuisine, but what really lured us to Fisherman’s Village was Cheeseburger Cheeseburger. After two weeks of Thai food, we just really wanted a good ‘ol American meal, and this place seemed the closest we would get. Since they ship their beef from Australia (instead of using the water buffalo beef of Southeast Asia), we knew we had to give it shot. It wasn’t quite In N Out Burger, but it was pretty close. And for that, we were thankful.
    • Lodging: We didn’t stay in Fisherman’s Village, but as we walked along the beachfront we noticed several very nice hotels with lush pool areas, plush rooms, and attached spas. We knew that if this were a different kind of trip, this is probably where we would want to stay. We made mental notes to tell our respective boyfriends about it, in case they felt the need for a surprise trip in the future.
    • Attractions/Nightlife: We didn’t stay out too late here, but it seemed to be the most subdued of the three areas we explored, likely due to the difference in clientele that seemed to frequent the area. There was a pleasant beer garden in a plaza just up the walk from the beach, so we stayed and enjoyed a couple of brews before heading back to the madness that was Chaweng for the rest of the evening.

I watched a small finger drawing more lines into the sand in front of me. When Davon finished, he looked up at me expectantly. I looked down at a perfect stick-figure likeness of me, reclining under a palm tree and reading my Kindle, temporarily etched into the sand of Lamai Beach. I smiled at him, and he smiled at me, running away wordlessly as his mother called him away to go home for dinner.

 

The Beaches and Islands of Koh Lanta

Armed with my new motorbike driving skills, my sister and I set off the explore more beaches around Koh Lanta.

Here are the beaches we visited: 

Long Beach: This is where we stayed at the lovely Lanta L.D. Beach Bungalows. Many other resorts and budget accommodation facilities line this beach, and it’s worth it to pay a couple extra baht to be close to the shore. You can find beachfront accommodation for 500 – 700 Baht/night. Restaurants line the sand for the length of the beach, and behind this are usually bungalows or a hotel. The beach is decidedly more crowded, but it’s also very long (obvs), so it’s not too hard to carve out a place on the sand. Mr. Wee’s also has some pretty kickass pizza, believe it or not.

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Klong Nin Beach: Not far from Long Beach is Klong Nin. This beach also has it’s share of on-the-sand restaurants and bars, but it’s not as developed as Long Beach. All sunsets in Koh Lanta are stunning, but we got a beauty from Klong Nin after an afternoon of tanning here.

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Kantian Bay Beach: This is the farthest south of the western-facing beaches on Koh Lanta, and it’s purely sand, sun, and sea. There isn’t much by way of on-sand refreshment, but you get heaps more privacy and space than Long or Klong Nin beaches. It’s a great place to spend a couple of hours with a book.

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Nui Beach: Stop off at a little roadside restaurant/bar, and make your way down several steep wooden staircases to Nui Beach. It’s a small strip of sand nestled in a cove, and the swimming is spectacular. I spent at least an hour floating on my back, watching the clouds drift above me while I started pondering my future when I get back to the States. There’s no better place to do it.

We also took an organized trip called The 4 Islands Tour, which we booked through a travel agency on Long Beach. It cost about 1000 Baht/person and included lunch and snorkel gear.

Here’s are some of the smaller islands we saw off the coast of Koh Lanta:

Koh Cheuk: We went snorkeling here in a protected little cove that had plenty of fish, but also plenty of dead coral. Being a bit of a snorkeling snob after the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji, I was less than impressed by the level of destruction around the seafloor. But we only spent 30 minutes here, which was just enough time to not get bored.

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Koh Mook & The Emerald Cave: This was something truly impressive; a huge underwater cave/tunnel that led to an open-air secret hideaway beach at the center of the island. True to it’s name, the water within the tunnel was a vivid green… what we could see between the massive lines of Chinese tourists floating in a line, being pulled by a sole Thai boatman. This is a place to get a longtail out to early early in the morning before the crowds come.

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Koh Ngai: We stopped here for a curry lunch and some time to relax on the sand for about an hour. And what sand it was! Bright white next to the turquoise sea, it was the postcard image of Thailand that you see in all the brochures. It was nice to take a break and enjoy the sunshine.

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Koh Maa: There was one last snorkel spot that was even less impressive than the first, and we only spent about 15 of our allotted 30 minutes in the water. By this point, we were pretty sun-worn and swim-worn, to the point where my sister didn’t even make it back to Old Town Lanta without falling asleep to the hum of the longtail engine.

Other places worth knowing about in Koh Lanta: 

Old Town: This is the original settlement of Koh Lanta and where many of the locals still live. There are countless restaurants on stilts over the water, and it’s worthwhile to stop for lunch at one of them.

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Saladan: It’s impossible to miss Saladan, since it’s where the ferry drops you off. Don’t fall into the trap of booking accommodation here either in advance online or from one of the many people who will accost you as you disembark. It’s a decent place to shop if you want, but it’s busy and noisy and not nearly as lovely as the beaches.

Hell’s Angels, Here I Come

My right hand flexed and we surged forward, the wind blowing our faces and fighting off the clinging humidity. ‘This is freedom,’ I thought to myself as I leaned into a turn, letting my body weight steer as much as my hands on the handlebars.

It was the third time I’d ever driven a motorbike, and I was hooked.

Most people will say that it’s crazy to try to drive a motorbike in Southeast Asia, and most of the time they’d be correct. But we were on Koh Lanta, and this meant less traffic, dependable roads, and little extra room for error (as long as it was a small error). With a daily rental rate of $4/day and a whole island to explore, we could hardly say no.

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Of course, my only experience with motorbike driving prior had been a 2-minute attempt in Mykonos ten years prior that had ended in me falling over and off the bike, but I had ten more years of life experience and a little more false confidence, so we took the plunge.

At first, it was terrifying. This is the common sentiment when you’re aggressively pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone farther out. I felt like the brakes weren’t responding fast enough, I was worried about balancing myself and my sister, and we had to start off on a dirt road. But I made it up the dirt road, waited until the main road was completely clear, and swung out, only minorly swinging into the opposite lane before correcting myself. From there, we were on a long, straight stretch of pavement that allowed me to get a feel for how to fully release the throttle before applying the brakes and to understand our balance situation.

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When the first curve came up, I freaked out again, but it was a gentle curve and it showed me how to use my weight more than the handlebars. It took a few more lessons for me to fully grasp this, but I picked it up quickly enough.

We made our way to Old Town Koh Lanta, a relatively short drive that looked simple enough on the map. I was finally feeling like I had this motorbike thing down, when I spied a small hump ahead that I couldn’t see over. Having passed a couple of these already, I assumed it was only a depression in the road and we’d be on our merry way.

As we crested the ‘small’ hump, I realized that I was about to drive down a very steep, very curvy stretch of road that was way outside my level of expertise on the bike. But we were already going down it. If I stopped, I wasn’t sure I could get our balance back to a point where we could start again. So after a split-second of heart-stopping terror, I gritted my teeth and went for it.

I may have rode the brakes the whole way down, and I may have kept shouting at Beth to lean into the turns unnecessarily, but a few moments saw us at the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, buzzing with the remnants of adrenaline from our harrowing journey.

And, like most things that take us out of our comfort zones, I was hooked. We traveled by bike for three days around Koh Lanta in total, and by day three I was ready to patch in to the Hell’s Angels. Or at the very least, I plan to get my motorcycle license when I’m back in the U.S.

Koh Lanta, I’ve Come Back For You

Back in 2013, I visited Thailand for the first time. It was during this trip that I discovered Koh Lanta, a small island in the Andaman Sea.

Have you ever traveled to a place, and it just clicked with you? That was Koh Lanta for me. Sure, some may say it’s played out and not off-the-beaten-track enough. Some might say it lacks the crazy-fun nightlife of Koh Phi Phi. Koh Samui, or Koh Phangnan. But for me, it’s heaven.

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I Mean… How Is This Not PERFECT?

We were only able to stay for a couple days on my first trip, and I kept enthusing to my sister how much I had loved it the first time I went. It helped that we’d found a kickass and super cheap place to stay the first time, and I was confident that I could replicate my luck. So rather than waste days on Koh Phi Phi, which was choked with tourists and a more expensive, we made straight for Koh Lanta from Railay Beach.

Koh Lanta had grown up a bit in the two years since I’d been there, but she was still the same at heart, and I was so happy to be back wandering Long Beach, hoping I could maybe find the cute little bungalow I had stayed in the last time I visited. New resorts and restaurants confused me a bit, but suddenly I saw a little convenience store on the sand, and it all clicked into place.

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It Looked Familiar…

“This is it!,” I called over my shoulder as I strode up the sand toward the store. Just past the restaurant, there they were! The tiny cluster of bungalows, looking exactly as it had in 2013. I was beside myself as we went to the office and promptly booked ourselves in for three nights. We ended up extending this to five after my sister had the exact same reaction I did after a day on the shores.

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Home for a Week

Lanta L.D. Beach was exactly as it had been before – still manual flush toilets, still no hot water, still run by the same sweet Thai Muslim family, still perfect. We were 20 feet from the sand, and 20 feet from the center of a backpacker village that meant cheap eats and cheap motorbike rental. There was a new convenience store on the main dirt road that led to the village that carried American treats, and I had Goldfish crackers for the first time in over a year sitting on our bungalow porch in Koh Lanta. They also had the cheapest Changs around, and tables outside where you could drink up. At night, the Pad Thai and Pancake carts would show up, and for under $2 we could stuff ourselves until we couldn’t move any longer.

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Thai Iced Coffee, a Daily Staple

Our days were spent working on our tan and playing with the friendly dogs on the beach, and even my pale skin darkened a shade or two during our daytime lolling. And the sunsets EVERY day were just as spectacular as I remembered.

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This time, I was able to get the week I wanted out of Koh Lanta, and I was still sad to leave when we packed up to cross the peninsula to Koh Samui. At least I now know that there’s a little slice of heaven in Andaman Sea, awaiting my return.

Railay Beach, Thailand

We arrived via ferry to Railay Beach late in the afternoon. This place had been on my travel bucket list for a while, but my vacation-length first trip to Thailand two years ago meant that I didn’t have a chance to visit.

We had a few hours stopover on Koh Phi Phi, so we decided to check our bags at the marina and take a longtail boat over to Long Beach, just five minutes from the busy main town. This was our first taste of Thai beaches, and though Long Beach in Koh Phi Phi is busy, it doesn’t lack for white sand and glorious stretches of turquoise water.

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Long Beach, Koh Phi Phi

After a few hours of relaxation, we were back on the boat and on our way to Railay. Nothing can adequately prepare you for the sight of those sheer karst cliffs jutting out of azure water, looking for all the world like they’ve been masterfully painted in a series of rust, orange, and brown.

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We were deposited on Railay West, a small stretch of beach dominated by resorts. Our research suggested that we head toward Railay East for more cost-effective lodging, so we passed over the small spit of land that separates the two towns and started our series of walk-ins to the guesthouses and hotels. We were surprised at the prices here – it’s small enough that there seems to be floor price amongst most of the accommodation providers. Not that $30/night is expensive, but it was more than were expecting to pay.

We finally chose a place that had air conditioning and a pool nestled under one of the looming karst cliffs, and a sunset dip closed out our first day.

One purpose of my travels is to try out potential new hobbies. With Railay as the rock climbing mecca of Southeast Asia, my sister and I decided we would give it a try one of the days we were here. After a morning on Railay West trying to treat my bedbug bites with seawater and sun, we hopped on a half-day Seven Islands tour that promised to show us the best of the small islands off the coast of Railay.

The tour was a huge disappointment. We never stopped in any place for very long, and were constantly being rushed from one site to another. Why they chose to pack so much in a half day, I’ll never know. We also were with a group of Chinese tourists who were all together, leaving us and another couple feeling like the 26th – 30th wheel. At one stop on the tour, we could climb up rope ladders that had been anchored into the cliffs and cliff jump into the water below. My sister and I both tried to climb and discovered our upper body strength meant we couldn’t even get up the ladder!

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Chickenhead Rock

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We Couldn’t Climb It

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Sunset Was OK Though…

Needless to say, that put the kibosh on any thoughts of rock climbing. I had visions of being halfway up a cliff and unable to lift myself any further.

Since we had scrapped our plans of rock climbing, we decided to set out the next day for Koh Lanta. I knew it would be decidedly less expensive, and I had been itching to get back to it since I had visited it the first time in 2013.

As we hopped on the ferry from Railay West, I said a final farewell to the beautiful cliffs, with a tiny flash of regret that I hadn’t taken on the challenge that they offered. Next time, Railay.

Bedbugs: A Travel Nightmare Realized

I had two fears when I set out for Southeast Asia: Beadbugs, and Dengue Fever.

One is decidedly worse than the other — Dengue means potential hospitalization, spending days in bed that could be spent exploring or relaxing on the beach, and (worst case) DEATH.

In contrast, bedbugs don’t carry any communicable disease, and for many people their bites don’t even cause a reaction. But the idea of sleeping blissfully while tick-like creatures dine on your flesh gives me the heebie-jeebs like nothing else.

So imagine my dismay when, on the ferry from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi, my arms and legs started itching like crazy. I thought perhaps my mosquito repellent was having the opposite effect, but it was Bushman’s. Bushman’s is an Australia icon, like Vegemite, and it’s skin-melting chemical cocktail meant nothing was getting it’s sucker-feeder-thing into my pristine skin.

Then there was the volume of bites – these things were in clumps, and in those clumps, they were everywhere. Lines and lines of big, fat welts were raising.

Suddenly, I remembered the strange bug I had seen crawling in my bed as I lay awake at the hostel (Ai Phuket, if you’re curious) we had stayed in overnight while we waited for our ferry. I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, I just smushed it and was a little grossed out when a big red drop of blood oozed out. I had seen three, and smushed them all before I finally dropped off to sleep.

I whipped out my phone and Googled, and sure enough, the bites and the bugs I had seen were consistent with everything bedbug.

So Foul.

Throughout the rest of the day, new bites kept popping up in rows on my shoulders, back and side, rounding out the masterpiece that had started on my limbs. I learned that bedbug bites can take up to 24 hours to fully develop, and up to a week to disappear. Excellent.

Can I also pause for a moment to describe the sheer and utter joy of being covered in huge, itchy bug bites in 95-degree heat and 90% humidity? I’m pretty sure it resides somewhere in the fourth circle of hell, right after going to the DMV without an appointment. Needless to say, my first day in Railay Beach was a hot and seriously bothered one, and not in a good way.

The next day wasn’t necessarily better, but I gave those bites the sun-and-sea treatment, dipping into the Andaman Sea and laying out in the hot sun to try both numb my nerve endings and hopefully heal the bites. On the second day, they were nearly gone, and by the third, only a few stragglers remained.

I feel your pain, sister.

I feel your pain, sister.

But it impressed on me an important lesson: inspect your mattress before you book anything! At each place I stayed in Thailand after, I’d lift up the sheets and dig into the seams of the mattresses, looking for bedbugs, bedbug eggs, or bedbug poo (yeah), since those little shits sleep during the day and only come out at night.

After visiting all the islands, we were back in Phuket Town (at a different hostel, of course, Phuket Backpacker), and I was up in my bed getting ready to go to sleep when I saw something crawling next to my pillow. In a flash, I had reached out and smashed it, and a telltale drop of blood oozed out.

Oh HELL no, I thought to myself, and I stomped downstairs and immediately told the man on the night desk that he needed to move me, LIKE NOW, to a new bed or a new room that wasn’t covered in flesh-eating vermin. Unfortunately for them, our entire room then evacuated thanks to the ruckus I caused, but anything would’ve been better than another few days dealing with bedbug agony.

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