Exploring the Andaman

Day 56
Ao Nang, Thailand

The sun was up early this morning and so were we. We’ve only got one day here so decided that chartering a speedboat would be our best way of exploring the secluded beaches, islands and marine life of the famed Andaman Sea.

With everyone piled aboard, we took off for our first stop, Bamboo Island, which had fantastic white sand beaches and clear waters. We were off to a good start!

After an hour, we got back on the boat and, after passing the Viking Cave, where bird’s nest are collected for the soup delicacy, we arrived at Pi Leh Lagoon. With limestone jutting from the calm sea, it was breathtaking, and the shallow waters made for some good snorkeling (highlight: a parrot fish stupidly attempting to eat a jelly fish — idiot!).

A short ride brought us Maya Bay, another gorgeous spot where “The Beach” was filmed. We asked Leo about Giselle, took a dip and took off.

After lunch at Hippies beachside restaurant on Tonsai Bay, on the island of Phi Phi that is still rebuilding from the tsunami, we stopped at Monkey Beach. We fed the island’s only inhabitants a couple of bananas.

On our way back, we anchored at Hin Klarng for open-sea snorkeling. There were some of the biggest schools of fish there that I’ve ever seen. With a little bit of bread, we were all about attacked — look at all of them!

We got back to the hotel, showered and changed up. Coincidentally, two of my buddies from back home, Derek and Andy, are also here in Ao Nang tonight, so we’re getting together for dinner and some drinks. It’ll be good to see some familiar faces after so long.

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How the beaches measure up

Day 55
Ao Nang, Thailand

The Bangkok train station had nothing on Beijing, but it was still busy last night. At 6 p.m., the national anthem played and everyone stood to face a painting of Thailand’s beloved king. Our leader, Kim, passed out tickets which, on the reverse side, stated: “Strong smell food/fruits are not allowed in the air-conditioned coaches.” After a quick bag check, we got on board at about a quarter past seven.

Today was one of, if not the, most difficult travel day of this trip so far. While the overnight train wasn’t terrible, there weren’t sleeping compartments and the ride down was bumpy, so it was only possible to get a couple hours of shut eye.

When we arrived in Surat Thani about 12 hours later, we were hot, greasy and needed to brush our teeth. But the day was only beginning. We then boarded an absolutely cramped public bus with no air conditioning — fortunately, Kim put up a real stink and we were soon transferred to a less crowded bus with still no air conditioning. The four-hour ride to Krabi was pretty brutal. From there, it was time to hop into a minivan (the pick-up truck was a no-show) for the final 30-minute leg to Ao Nang, where we are now. Entire trip from Bangkok: just about 24 hours.

Yet, it was worth it. We’re staying at J. Mansion, not a “mansion” per se, but a clean, comfortable place a block from the beach with amazing showers that left us quite happy. After a spicy chicken pizza and Chang beer at a café overlooking the water, we took a short orientation walk and got our first taste of Thailand’s beaches. Lined with limestone outcroppings, the backdrop is spectacular for the white sand and crystal clear waters that must be around 80 degrees fahrenheit — if not warmer.

We took a longtail boat to Railey Beach, a 10-minute ride away. It was relatively quiet and local kids playing soccer outnumbered tourists. On our way back, we witnessed a spectacular sunset. The longer I’m here, the more I’ve come to understand why some visit this country and never leave.

The City of Angels delights

Day 54
Bangkok, Thailand

We had our orientation meeting last night. Besides getting a chance to meet my 10 travel companions (and relishing in knowing that I’m the only American), we also learned that this trip falls under the “Roam” category, which means much more independence to see and do what we’d like versus the more tightly controlled itineraries in Egypt and China.

I’ve been in Thailand less than 24 hours but already know that I’ll return here. They call this country the Land of Smiles, which isn’t just a slogan. The Thai people are the most friendly and welcoming of just about any I’ve encountered on this trip. There is something about them — exactly what is hard to put your finger on unless you’ve been here and experienced their hospitality.

Bangkok is, as most would expect, a traffic-clogged, chaotic and absolutely stifling place. But compared to some of the cities I’ve already visited, like Cairo and Beijing, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad — or, I’ve just grown accustomed to this all.

My first stop of the day was the Grand Palace, which is the former Thai royal residence but is now used only for ceremonial occasions. It’s also the home to Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a richly ornate shrine to a 75 cm statue that is carved from a solid piece of green jasper. The dress code for the palace requires pants, so I’d wanted to get there as early as possible. But, even by 9:30 a.m., the air was heavy with humidity and my shirt was already soaked through.

Many who visit Bangkok talk of “temple fatigue” — after a while, it’s said, they all start to look the same. If this is the case, I’m glad to have started my tour at the palace, which was a colorful, detailed and absolutely stunning introduction. It was hard to put my camera down.

Right next door is Wat Po, better known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is Bangkok’s oldest monastery and houses an absolutely huge (150 feet long, 50 feet tall) Buddha reclining on the elbow — his intricate feet are inlaid with mother of pearl.

Wat Po is also famous for its traditional Thai massage school, said to be one of the best in the country. For around 400 baht, or $13USD, one of the students treated me to a wonderful hour massage, which as an added bonus, allowed for an escape from the heat into an air-conditioned treatment room.

Across the polluted and filthy Nam Mae Chao Phyraya river is Wat Arun, named for the Indian god of dawn. It’s covered in a mosaic of porcelain tiles, some of which are broken plates that have been repurposed for decoration. An 82-meter climb to the peak of the Khmer style spire provided an interesting vantage point to take in the surrounding city.

Needing some lunch, it was time to see Khao San Road, or simply, Backpacker Road. This infamous stretch of bars, beat up motels, souvenir shops, laundromats and everything in between is what many envision Bangkok is like. While chowing down on my first plate of pad thai and sipping a local Tiger beer, two other solo travelers sat down next to me. We chatted for a couple of hours — there are loads of friendly farangs (foreigners) here, really unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

We’re gearing up now for our 12-hour overnight train (my last!) to Surat Thani. From there, we need to take a 4-hour public bus to Krabi and then hop on the back of a pick-up truck for the last 30 minutes to our somewhat isolated beach destination of Ao Nang.

Live from Thailand!

Day 53
Bangkok, Thailand

After over a week’s delay in daily updates due to Internet restrictions in China, it was welcome to arrive in a country this morning with unfettered access to information. You can now catch up on my travels in China and Dubai.

From Shanghai’s sparkling new Terminal 2, we boarded Thai Airways flight 663 for our 4-hour southwestern journey at about a quarter to eight. After being greeted by wai’ing flight attendants, served an interesting breakfast (sweet and sour pork, rice and two cups of coffee) and then digesting an entire issue of Newsweek (much needed after 10 days in a Chinese media silo) wheels were down in BKK at 11:50 a.m.

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A metered taxi brought me to the Trang Hotel in the midst of Bangkok’s concrete jungle. My driver didn’t even try to rip me off. A first!

I’ve got a couple of hours before the orientation for my next G.A.P Adventures trip: “Roam Malaysia.”