So I’m still not a fan of Bangkok. Our journey around Northen and Central Thailand concluded with returning to Thailand’s capital, where we would be spending a couple of days, and would be met by a couple of friends from home, before moving onto our first taste of Thailand’s islands. I’ll get straight to the point and say that nothing we did in those days changed my views of the city. This time we were prepared and knew what to expect, so we weren’t as overwhelmed as we had been on our first visit, especially now we were more familiar with Thailand in general, and whereas previously we’d stayed for six days, on this occasion it would only be two, however we were still fairly pleased to be leaving at the end of those two days.
Our return to the city began by returning to the airport to meet Charlotte and Jamie (the two friends mentioned above.) From there we introduced them to Bangkok’s Skytrain system to take us back into the centre of the city, and then gave them a taste of the madness of the city at street level by simply going for a walk through the streets, finishing with a trip through one of the many shopping centres. We had planned to expereince the views from one of the cities sky bars that night, but had realised this would not be so straight forward as most of them have strict smart dress codes, and being backpackers we were a little short on smart clothing. We jokingly floated the idea of paying a visit to one of Bangkoks many tailors, who I’d so derided in one of my first posts, but instead thought that somewhere in the mazes of clothes on offer in the shopping centres we’d be able to find something suitable and affordable. Again, not so straight forward. I’m pretty picky when it comes to clothes shopping, so finding something I liked and that was affordable was pretty much impossible. (Thankfully Jamie was the same, so I wasn’t being a complete diva.) After a couple of hours of wandering around, we’d picked up a pair of fairly poor quality imitation Ralph Lauren shirts (or Rolf Lauren, as I’d christened mine), and still needing a pair of trousers and shoes, we aborted the sky bar plan, and settled instead for a night out on Khao San Road. Again being backpackers (replace ‘backpackers’ with ‘cheap’) we’d decided to fuel up on drink at our hotel before going out, and spent so long here that when we arrived at Khao San Road a lot of it was closing, but we did find a club and it ended being a very good night. We considered visiting a ping pong show afterwards, but the price of 800 Baht put us off.
The next day we paid a second visit to the Golden Mount, which if you’ve read any of the earlier posts you may remember we’d been dropped off at by our tuk tuk driver (replace ‘tuk tuk driver’ with ‘kidnapper’), and frustrated and bewildered, we hadn’t even bothered to go up. This time we did, and it was actually a very simple process to do so, much to our embarrassment, and once we got to the top we were greeted with some fantastic views of the Bangkok skyline. Later that evening, we boarded a night bus which would take us south to Surat Thani, where we’d board a ferry to take us across to Koh Phangan. Me and Fran were both very excited for this, as after 6 weeks of travelling through the Northen cities and towns, we would finally get to expereince Thailands famous beaches. We were also heading to Koh Phangan at that specific time so we’d be able to catch the Full Moon Party, so again were excited for that. After a two and a half hour ferry journey, which we spent on the top deck to take in some of the views (and get slightly rained on), we disembarked onto the island, and in typical Thai style, were immediately pounced on by taxi drivers offering lifts. As usual we turned them down in favour of walking, and walked through the ferry town of Thong Sala towards our hotel. Immediately it became obvious that this was a far more tourist centred place than anywhere we’d experienced so far. Food menus are almost all printed in English, and there’s an abundance of Western food available. There are countless bars and pubs, seemingly all aimed at bringing in tourists, as well as holiday resort after holiday resort lining the beach front. Oh and everything is a lot more expensive. Although the beaches are fantastic (more on that later), there is very little of Thai culture on offer here, parts of it can feel like a generic holiday resort. If you want something like that for a holiday, then you’ll have a fantastic time, but if you’re looking to expereince Thai culture and life, this isn’t the place.
We checked in to a cheap but cheerful hotel, and ventured out for food. Much to our horror we then found out that due to it being a Buddhist holiday that day, nowhere on the island would be selling alcohol. We tried a couple of places and had this confirmed, so retreated to our hotel, comforted by the idea that after a long journey the night before we could get some rest, and be ready for the full moon party the next day. Then we arrived at our hotel, and discovered that they were in fact selling alcohol, so decided to sit on the beach front bar and have a drink or two before heading to bed. Many hours, and many drinks later we were stripping down to our underwear and running into the ocean, where Fran set off into a front crawl with so much determination she looked as though she was practicing for the Olympics. We called her back and headed back to the hotel, where we jumped/did front flips into the small swimming pool, and proceeded to have a series of piggy back races. Once those were complete we decided to call it a night, and headed back to our hotel to shower and get some sleep. We encountered a problem with this plan when we found that the hotels running water had stopped completely, but luckily what had been a pleasant evening weather wise had now turned into a torrential downpour, so we grabbed some shower gel, and headed back outside, where we proceeded to shower in rain water. Standing on the grass, surrounded by palm trees, washing myself with rainwater and original source shower gel, it was something straight out of a television advert. (Or at least that’s how I pictured it in my head, I’m not sure the reality was actually quite the same.)
Our hangovers took some effort to shift the next morning, but knowing the full moon party was later that night, we had little choice. We snoozed the afternoon away on the beach, before going out for food. At dinner I befriended a young Thai boy, who came over to our table to show me videos of some kind of very cheap Spider-Man imitation he was watching on his phone. He then started showing me his best Spider-Man moves by hitting and kicking me in the leg, which he followed by stroking my leg, culminating in attempting to slide his hand up my shorts. At this point I hurriedly and awkwardly tried to shoe him away, to no avail, however thankfully he went back to punching and kicking, and even more thankfully my food arrived shortly after, at which point his parents called him away. Who knows what they might have thought had they looked over a few moments before. After successfully navigating dinner without a pedophilla charge we headed back to the hotel, and proceeded to cover ourselves in UV paint and glitter (more the girls than the boys with the latter), and headed to Haad Rin Beach, home of the Full Moon Party. Although I wasn’t feeling bad, drinking again was proving far more of a struggle than I’d hoped, and I began to realise that drinking so much the night before had been a mistake, however I was determined to try and battle through.
Once we arrived to the party itself the scale and craziness of it immediately stood out. The party stretches pretty much the whole of the 800-or-so meter beach and there are bars or stalls running the whole way along it, almost all of them selling the famous alcohol buckets. The beach is jam packed with people the whole way along, and it’s fair to say most of them are pretty drunk. Sound systems line the beach, all of them playing different music, so as you walk along the song being played by one bar will suddenly shift into the song being played by the next one. The whole thing has a festival vibe, and the beautiful location only adds to the expereince (side note; don’t go in the sea, as rather grimly the ocean is used as one big toilet for guys and girls all night. I never said it was glamorous.) Me and Fran were both struggling with drinking, so we left earlier than we would have wanted to, and both didn’t enjoy it as much as we should have done, but being there just to expereince it was fascinating. We’re very likely to go back and try it again when we make our way back up through Thailand later in our trip, and next time we hope to do it properly. Charlotte and Jamie, who didn’t have this luxury, met us back at the hotel at around 7 the next morning, both having loved it.
After catching up on our sleep we did little with our remaining time together in Koh Phangan, apart from a visit to a rather underwhelming food market, before we headed our separate ways on the 13th of May. Charlotte and Jamie were returning north, heading back to Bangkok and across to Pattaya, whilst we had decided to stay on the island for another couple of days, albeit at a different hotel. The hotel me and Fran moved on to was a little further down the same coast we had been staying on, and proved to be a fantastic find, as it gave us our own private bungalow located right on the beach front. The beach itself was fantastic; white sands stretched on for miles, and more often than not we were the only people on it. Due to the time of year the tide was very low, meaning that it was virtually impossible to actually swim in the water, to do so would have meant going too far out, but it was deep enough to take a dip in if we needed to cool off. Not that the water was cold, a combination of the low water depth and the hot sun burning down on it all day left the water at times uncomfortably warm, it felt almost like bath water at some points, leaving us wishing the water was colder and a little more refreshing. The location of our £10 per night bungalow was a real highlight of our time on the island, you can’t quite beat the feeling of watching the sun set into the ocean from your balcony, going to sleep listening to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, and then waking up, opening your front door, and being greeted by that image of bright blue skies, clear blue water, and a long untouched stretched of white sand. Our enjoyment of simply being on the beach meant that for most of the time we spent there we didn’t do a huge amount. Enjoying the beach and the scenery kept us busy for long enough.
One day we did venture out for a second attempt at exploring on scooters. A friend we’d met in Northern Thailand, and then again at the Full Moon Party, had joined us at the hotel on our recommendation, so also joined us for the day as we headed out to explore the island. The three of us had a scooter each; my second time but Fran’s first time driving her own. Thankfully we all made it through the day unscathed, and had a fantastic time. To be honest other than more fantastic beaches and some waterfalls, there wasn’t a huge amount to see in Koh Phangan (not that looking at magnificent beaches and waterfalls is a bad way to spend a day, there just isn’t a lot sight-seeing wise.) Nevertheless we enjoyed our day driving around the island and finished it with a race against the sunset to reach the Amsterdam bar, which gave wonderful views across the island and out to sea, but sadly it was a race we lost, as by the time we had finished climbing the worryingly steep hills to reach the bar, the sun had already set. And that was it for our time on Koh Phangan, so next we took the short ferry ride across to Koh Tao. We had intended to make Koh Samui our next stop, but realised with time on our Visas running out, and the islands being more expensive, visiting all three islands in the area would be too much for us. So Koh Tao instead became our next destination.
As soon as you set foot on Koh Tao it is evident that pretty much the whole island is set up around one thing; diving. Dive shops and schools are everywhere here, and with good reason, at just over 7000 Baht for an open water PADI course, this is one of the cheapest places in the world to dive. Sadly due to having to be sensible with our budgets, we couldn’t stretch to pay for courses for the both of us, so we stuck with snorkelling. The rest of the island was very similar to Koh Phangan in that it’s set up for tourism; lots of hotels and holiday resorts, lots of bars and clubs aimed at getting tourists through the door, a huge amount of Western food, and everything is again more expensive than you’d pay on the mainland. Thankfully though there are still plenty of beautiful beaches and available, so that kept us happy.
We disembarked from the ferry on a sunny afternoon, and in a reversal of our usual roles, Fran took the lead on navigating, and after attempting to check into two incorrect (but admittedly similarly named) hostels, we found where we were supposed to be staying (and were immediately very disappointed, the photographs online that had sold us on the particular place were very different to the reality.) We wandered around the town later that night, and stopped to watch fire dancers on the beach, which are very common here, before retreating back to our room. The next day we spent enjoying the beach, which we didn’t like quite as much as our almost private beach at Koh Phangan, but was still very enjoyable. The next day, still slightly disappointed we wouldn’t be able to go diving, we booked a place on a snorkelling day trip, which would take us to various spots around the island to allow us to snorkel there. We made four stops; Shark Bay, Gluay Thoen Bay, Mango Bay and Koh Nang Yuan. On the whole, the snorkelling was fantastic. The first stop had poor visibility and our tour only made a very rushed stop there, which had us worried about how the rest of the day would go, but thankfully it only got better. Gluay Thoen Bay had much better visibility, and our tour operators threw some food into the water, creating a frenzy of fish fighting for food inches from our noses; it was quite something to witness.
The highlight of the snorkelling trip was the final stop; a trip to Koh Nang Yuan, which is three small pieces of land connected by a stretch of picture perfect white sand. The crystal clear blue waters of the ocean lap gently up against the shore, and with a backdrop of thick green hills and mountains, this island really is a little slice of heaven. The snorkelling was excellent too, the variation of marine life is fascinating, and the clear calm waters make the conditions ideal. At the top of one of the mountains is a viewpoint that offers up a breathtaking view across the three islands, as long as you can make it through the stifling heat of the climb. We enjoyed the island so much we returned a few days later, this time renting a Kayak and making our own way across the sea to the island. Despite some choppy waves we reached the island in 30–45 minutes in a double Kayak, and spent the whole afternoon snorkelling in the bays and enjoying the view.
Our next few days were spent partaking in the famous Koh Tao pub crawl, hiking up the mountains to visit the Mango Bay viewpoint, which was fantastic, but didn’t quite compare to the Koh Nang Yuan viewpoint, and of course continuing to enjoy the beach, especially as Koh Tao would be the last beach we would be seeing for a while. Our time in Thailand has (temporarily) come to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the islands we have seen so far. Although they are very touristy, expensive, and we found the locals to be less warm and welcoming than those of the North, the beautiful settings and relaxed style of life are hard not to like. We’ve yet to experience any of the islands or beaches on the West side of the country, so we’ll be returning in a few weeks to do so, and after a few days of being back in the city, are already looking forward to it. However it was time to move on. One of my favourite things about travelling is you get excited about visiting somewhere new every few days, and never is this truer than when you’re leaving for a new country. We left Koh Tao at 8pm, and one night ferry, two minibuses, and 22 hours later, found ourselves in Penang, the first stop of our trip through Malaysia, which I’ll let you know all about next time around!