After nearly a month away from the tropical waters that surround Southeast Asia, we were once again craving a bit of beach bumming. This time around, we carved out a couple of weeks for nothing but R&R on some of Thailand’s infamously beautiful islands.
Thanks to affordable flights within Thailand, we were able to get from the north to the southern islands in a single day. After landing in mainland Krabi, we took an hour boat ride to Ko Jum – a quiet island on the Andaman Sea (Thailand’s west coast). Ko Jum truly offered that feeling of seclusion and tranquility. The beach that we stayed on, for example, had only three small resorts that offered accommodation in simple bungalows. Amazingly, Ko Jum appears to get overlooked by the heaps of tourists that flock to some of the more popular surrounding destinations.
With Ko Jum being as quiet and undeveloped as it is, the roads on the island are in rough condition and, as a result, most people don’t stray too far from their resort. During our three night stay on Ko Jum, we ate every meal at our resort – it was good that the food was fabulous! And, while peaceful, the beaches on Ko Jum are not the best in Thailand – there were some pretty big rocks that made swimming a bit challenging. If the beaches were superb though, Ko Jum would certainly be a much busier spot and its unique atmosphere would surely be lost.
Ultimately, Ko Jum was a quiet, off-the-heavily-beaten path place to chill out for a couple of days. In fact, during one of our days we did basically nothing (unless naps count). During our other full day, we were a bit more ambitious and took a long boat cruise out to some snorkelling spots and surrounding islands with fabulous beaches. Perhaps the most picturesque stop was Ko Phi Phi Lee which was used as the backdrop for the movie The Beach. All of the places we visited were so crowded though that we were happy that we saw them on a day trip and could return to quiet Ko Jum in the evening.
After three very relaxing nights on Ko Jum we took a ferry a little further south to Ko Lanta. Catching the ferry was in and of itself a neat experience – since there was no pier on Ko Jum, we had to take a smaller long tail boat out into the middle of the sea and wait for the ferry to come by and pick us up. Ko Lanta also proved to be an excellent place to stay for a few days – it’s bigger and more developed than Ko Jum but it’s not so busy that it has lost its chilled-out island vibe (no high rise resorts here). We felt that Ko Lanta had struck a perfect balance between activity and tranquility. We loved the fact that its beaches were big enough to spread people out, but there were still plenty of restaurants and bars within walking distance, so we never felt confined to our resort.
During our stay on Ko Lanta we rented a motorbike to explore some of the island’s southerly beaches. As the southern part of the island is much less developed than the north, its beaches are somewhat quieter in comparison (to say any beaches on Ko Lanta are busy though would be ridiculous). As we drove south, it seemed that every time we travelled over a ridge we discovered a beautiful bay with white sandy shores.
It’s also worth noting that the scuba diving off Ko Lanta is incredible – as Patrick discovered firsthand, there are leopard sharks and loads of different fish to see (sorry, no pictures as the dive sites were to deep for our underwater camera).
After four nights on Ko Lanta, we spent about a day travelling from the Andaman Sea on the west coast to the Gulf of Thailand on the east coast. Our first stop in the Gulf of Thailand was tiny, but popular Ko Tao. Unquestionably, the biggest draw to Ko Tao is the scuba diving – apparently more people get their scuba certification on Ko Tao than anywhere else in the world. And no wonder, the water is crystal clear and with all the competition amongst the various dive shops, it’s very cheap. In fact, Patrick went diving twice for less than the cost of one day diving in Ko Lanta.
Since our accommodation on Ko Tao was a little out of town and up on a hill, we rented a motorbike for our entire stay. This gave us lots of opportunities to explore Ko Tao’s beautiful bays and beaches. The scenery on this hilly island never ceased to amaze us.
Our last day on Ko Tao happened to fall on Songkran (Thai New Year) which is truly a celebration like no other. What started with the ceremonial sprinkling of water has now evolved into a massive water fight. Thais and tourists alike roam the streets with water guns and buckets in an all-out water war. Nobody is off limits and it’s common to wish someone a happy new year right after drenching them. The water fight on Ko Tao was limited to one day because of severe water shortages, but in Chiang Mai and Bangkok it actually lasts for several days. We had such a blast on Ko Tao engaging in the water fights and having some drinks at the beachside bars that were in full party mode.
After four nights on Ko Tao we took a ferry about an hour south to Ko Phangan, a bigger island famous for its crazy full moon parties. Given how legendary this party has become, we decided to schedule our time on the Thai islands to ensure that we would be able to attend – this was one party that we simply weren’t going to miss! We did however decide to stay on the northern end of the island where it was a bit quieter than the southern end where the full moon party is held – this way we could enjoy some tranquility (and better beaches actually) after a bit of revelry.
The full moon party fell on our second night on the island. Like everyone else, we dressed up in bright colours and painted our arms with neon paint. After a 45 minute taxi ride from our resort, we arrived at Hat Rin – the venue for the party. The scene on the beach was incredible, certainly like nothing we had seen before. There were over 20 thousand people socializing and dancing on the beach. All of the bars that line the beach were playing their own music so there were a bunch of different genres – truly something for everyone. There was a flaming skip rope to jump over and a ring of fire to jump through. It was an amazing atmosphere and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly given the amount of liquor being consumed, it was a really friendly atmosphere. We had a blast – so much so we stayed until 7am, dancing and socializing as the sun rose over the ocean.
After taking a day to recover from the full moon party, we spent the rest of our time enjoying some of the different beaches around the island which we accessed by motorbike. We also celebrated Ashley’s birthday with some massages and a facial (just for Ashley!) followed by a superb Italian meal at our resort (which is owned by an Italian). On our last morning on the island we tried Yoga for the first time which was the perfect way to end our two weeks on the Thai islands (the hotel staff basically had to drag us off the beach – we didn’t want it to end).
From Ko Phangan, we made the long journey (12 hours) to Bangkok where we would spend our last three nights in Southeast Asia. We had heard mixed reviews about the city before arriving but we ended up really enjoying our time there. Yes, the city was busy, hot, smoggy and maybe a little chaotic but it truly was a lot of fun. Once you get past the silly inconveniences (like metered taxis that refuse to use their meter), Bangkok is a pretty cool place and certainly worthy of a couple days.
We stayed about a 5 minute walk from the main tourist street (Khao San) which had a lively night market and lots of chilled out bars with live music. Although the sex tourism industry still exists (we were offered a ping pong show many times), Bangkok was not nearly as crazy as we were expecting. Apparently the city has tried to tone things down a bit in the past few years. It is also worth mentioning that there was a large political protest in the city however it was confined to one park which was easy to avoid.
Bangkok is so big and sprawled that it would be absolutely impossible to see it all in two days. So we picked what we wanted to see and didn’t race around trying to visit every attraction. On our first day, we enjoyed a relaxing breakfast near Khao San road and then took a taxi north to the massive Chatuchak weekend market for a little souvenir shopping. That evening while strolling down Khao San road we randomly ran into a couple we had met in Cambodia a month prior. We decided to join them for a few drinks which turned into a few more drinks and by the end of the night we were eating fried scorpions on a stick.
During our second day we visited the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. This attraction was actually relatively expensive ($35 for both of us) however the detailing on the temples and stupas was very impressive. Afterwards we took a boat back down the river towards our hotel where we spent the late afternoon relaxing by the pool. We capped our last night in Bangkok (and SE Asia for that matter) sipping cocktails at the swanky Moon Bar, located on the roof of a skyscraper.
All in all, our month in Thailand was absolutely fabulous – we really enjoyed the contrasts between the northern mountains and the southern islands. With such great food, landscapes, activities, culture, people and prices, it’s no wonder it remains a premier tourist destination.
From Bangkok we flew to Kathmandu, Nepal to prepare for our three week trek on the Annapurna Circuit. Wish us luck – we’ll need it after having lazed around on a beach for the last two weeks!