Tag Archives: Thailand

Chiang Mai, Oh My We Ate a Lot

We are not experts on pregnant women, but the Chiang Mai night markets struck us as a place a woman with child might enjoy hanging out. You can eat for two (or three, if we’re being honest here) from the incredible array of delicious street foods, get a foot massage for less than $5 an hour, and eat lots more delicious street food during your massage (and then maybe eat again after). At least, that’s how we enjoyed spending time in Chiang Mai. Though a doctor might advise drinking fewer Singha’s when preggers, and perhaps less street food sushi.

We really enjoyed Chiang Mai. The natural scenery was a bit less impressive than we expected, but it is a most chill place to hang out for a few days. Chiang Mai offers the convenience and comfort of a real city.  There are movie theaters, international cuisine, shopping malls, bagels (!) and good WiFi.  But it doesn’t feel like a real city. The locals are friendly and nobody seems to be in a rush.  The crowd is young and international, the weather is good (at least this time of year) and it is easy to understand why so many expats now call Chiang Mai home.

We were excited to find a place with some not-terribly-sketchy sushi, and so our first night in town we tuk-tuked over to Tsunami Sushi. It was great, and reasonably priced, but when I found out later we could eat street sushi for literally 15-30 cents a piece, I maybe would have skipped it. (I don’t know if the irrational excitement I experience at being able to order a meal for $1 is as widespread as it is satisfying, but I do know that obtaining a $1 meal of sushi is the most rewarding.) Anyway, it was fun, and put us near Chiang Mai University at graduation time, so we bopped about the bars in that area with the young and newly free (or were they newly shackled?). This area (particularly Nimmanhaemin Road) is packed with coffee shops, spas, and bars, including one stop that is essentially a liquor store (Kamrai, on the west side of the street) with little tables outside, set up so that you can go in and buy a couple of beers and sit drinking them on the street. It was here that we discovered Banana Bread Beer and Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale (can you say delicious?).

We also made what was probably the best value purchase of our lives here: jackets for $1.50 a piece! We didn’t realize how cold it would get in the evenings, and as we shivered our way down the street we both did a double take at the sight of a row of jackets with a price tag of 50 Baht! Check out how sweet these are.

We may or may not have gotten into an argument over which one of ours actually was cool. They would have been worth it for the tuk-tuk ride home alone, and we wound up wearing them every night in Chiang Mai, though given our limited luggage we opted to leave them behind after those five days.

By the way, they’ve got real tricked out tuk-tuks here, which feel more like low-riders with reclining seats. We half expected them to start bouncing and blaring a little Warren G when we drove.

One of Chiang Mai’s highlights is its array of street markets.  The most famous are probably the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets and the nightly, um, night market.  There is also the Warorot Market, likely others we don’t know, and countless little agglomerations of food carts scattered throughout the area.

And the variety and amount of cheap street food on offer in this city is impressive. But maybe not quite as impressive as the amount of it we were able to consume. Let’s give you the breakdown, shall we? Because it’s so remarkable, nay, monumental even that it’s hard to believe it happened. (I promise, we worked out after this.)

Saturday Walking Street: Pork on a stick (10B), roast pork on rice (30B, fantastic), pad thai (40B), thai pancakes (25B insanely delicious), freshly fried quail eggs (7 for 20B). We had some kanom krok (coconut custard cups, 10B) on the walk there to wake our bellies.  The Walking Street has tons of food (beyond what we ate here, there are endless options for grass jelly, dumplings, sausages, shumai, ice cream, cupcakes and more), art, and souvenirs etc, including these awesome little hand-held sewing machines that look like staplers.

There is also a very substantial collection of food stalls just outside the Saturday Walking Street market by the south gate of the Old City wall. While dining at one of these, Alan tried to purchase beers at 7-11 but was denied due to pre-election regulations.  This happened a couple times during our stay, but was easily thwarted by patronizing smaller, local establishments that despite their lack of billions in revenue were sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the situation: we would not be voting and so it didn’t really matter how much beer we drank.

Along the Walking Street we got half hour upper-body massages for 80B. Not the best massage I’ve ever had, but probably the cheapest. Did I say that exact same phrase when blogging about massages in Varanasi, India? Well this one was worse, and cheaper. But it’s really fun because you sit in your chair and people watch as market-goers pass by. Definitely not a zen environment as massages go, but a fun and unique one.

I tried to convince Alan to eat some fried crickets or worms. Do you see the size of this thing? His downfall was too many questions. How do you eat it? You eat the whole thing? What is it fried in? How long ago were these cooked? You know you’ve over-thought it by now, and it just ain’t happening.

Sunday Walking Street: Our mango sticky rice consumption had been gravely deficient so first thing we did upon entering the market zone was eat this dessert.  And then, bam, more street sushi!  Followed by half hour foot massages for 70B.  We ambled on to a wat’s courtyard loaded with food vendors where Alan had some grilled spicy sausage that was phenomenal and Jenni ordered lemon iced tea that turned out to be Thai iced tea, which may be more calorie-laden but is sweet and delicious.

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There are a lot of musicians (many disabled) that sit or stand in the middle of the walking street and play or sing.  We passed some girls playing Hava Nagila on the violin, but it was too crowded to fire up the circle.  After this we spent a while near the lively east gate at a courtyard bar cum ice cream shop with a talented singer playing acoustic guitar and covering popular Western songs.  I can’t figure out the name of this place, but maybe it is part of Turtle home made ice cream or next to it. Jenni got an early birthday present necklace on the street…for 200B.  Birthday presents are so much cheaper in Thailand than Brentwood!

Tempted by the 24-hour BK, instead we patronized another Turkish joint that is part of Zoe at the reggae/bar area.  Gotta show love for the peoples.  The doner kebab was so-so.

Monday night Alan ate some mystery pork or chicken on a skewer on the walk to Warorot Market followed by the night market.  Don’t worry, we’ll talk about something other than food and markets…just not yet.  We’re not sure if we exactly found Warorot Market or just the streets nearby, but here we had one of our favorite meals: spicy cold noodles with chicken.  These were outstanding, and the vendor was a young lady so on point.  Alan gets excited at jobs done right.  And while he was drinking a large Singha as we shared the noodles, this drunk older Thai lady kept trying to steal his beer.

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Do you know what’s best to wash down some spicy noodles and beer?  Fried chicken!  With all due respect to my southern relatives, this might have been the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  Then Alan ate a Peter Luger size piece of grilled bacon (maybe even bigger), Jenni ate a donut, Alan ate a peanut caramel cake, and we both had these items that looked like tacos with sour cream but were really mini crepes with a fluff-like filling.  And then another kebab sandwich, where we concluded that Thais excel at most food but not Middle Eastern.

All that said, let’s talk a little about food.  Street food spots pop up everywhere. We stayed near a school and on weekdays there were side-by-side chicken skewer (10B each, get it covered in chili powder if you can stand the heat) and iced tea stands where students ordered from inside the fence and commoners lined up on the street. Solid. So for a person like Alan, whose biggest fear in life is probably where and when he might be able to get food next, Chiang Mai is a very safe bet.

There is also a big assemblage of food stalls outside the north gate where Alan tried some pork from the lady wearing a cowboy hat. She has managed her brand well and built a following, but there is definitely better pork elsewhere. It is less clear, however, if there is better dessert elsewhere than the fried dough bites dipped in green custard made with condensed milk and green something or other. Just watching the cook lay out and cut up strips and then his maybe eight-year-old assistant fry them up in a big wok, turning them with chopsticks, was entertaining.

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Next to the markets, the wats (temples) are probably Chiang Mai’s other biggest tourist draw. And wat a collection of wats they have! (See wat I did there?). Just wander around the city a bit and you’ll happen upon a number of them, each impressive in its own right. It is pretty neat to be bar- or food-hopping and stroll past centuries-old temples. We checked out Wat Chedi Luang with its gorgeous high ceilings and abundance of gold Buddhas. We also enjoyed the broken English signs which seem intended to warn tourists of the non-sanctioned guides who want to pickpocket you?

We also made the journey up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is a stunning temple set atop a hill a ways outside of the city. It’s a very windy road, so expect to get carsick. You get up there via a songthaew, which is a cross between a tuk-tuk, a pick-up truck and a bus. On a good day you supposedly get great views of Chiang Mai proper, but we were greeted with hazy skies. Alan also checked out Wat Pra Singh (20B) one day when Jenni was battling her stomach, which was battling the Chiang Mai street food (all I want for my birthday is to not get sick from food in Asia one more time. Pretty pretty please.). The main building was nice but he was more smitten with the rear annexes containing gorgeous murals and woodwork.

Our efforts to find the lady-boy cabaret at the night market were nearly thwarted when we were pointed in completely different directions by no fewer than ten people. We finally found it, luckily catching the last couple songs and getting a good feel for the Thai tranny scene (I don’t quite understand what it is about Thailand and trannies/cross-dressers, but there sure are a lot) and Alan was kissed by one very gregarious waiter/waitress who obliged a photo with Jenni in exchange for a photo and a kiss to Alan.

Our last night in town we opted for a slightly classier scene, and enjoyed a bit of live jazz at North Gate Jazz Co-op’s weekly Tuesday jam session. Jenni turned 28 at this pleasant spot with spirited musicians, and tourists, locals and ex-pats spilling out of the diminutive space over the sidewalk and into the streets, drinking cocktails and enjoying the tunes.

We were in Chiang Mai right before the elections that were causing some pretty serious protest-related violence down in Bangkok (part of the reason we skipped Bangkok, as you’ll remember reading in our Railay post). There were some smaller protests taking place in Chiang Mai, including one instance before we arrived where a Molotov cocktail was thrown, but the protests we passed by were so small you might not even notice them. And it definitely did not feel unsafe. It is alarming what is happening in Bangkok, though, and our thoughts are with the Thai people hoping that they can find a peaceful resolution.

Practical Info

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northwest Thailand and a popular base for hill tribe trekking and further exploration of the area.  Most tourist attractions are concentrated in and around the square Old City.

Transportation: Chiang Mai international airport is only a few kilometers southwest of the old city.  A pre-paid taxi from the airport into town costs 120B, and our hotel charged 150B from town to the airport.  Some recommend the day train from Bangkok as a good way to see more of the country.  Overland travel to/from Laos is possible.  We considered going from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by heading north, crossing to Huay Xai and then taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong.  Some say it is a great journey, others that you might look back fondly but likely won’t enjoy the experience.  I saw a place that seemed to be advertising 1900B for this journey, though it wasn’t clear to me what that included and I doubt it includes your night of accommodation in Pak Beng.

It is easy enough to walk around the Old City.  To visit the markets, depending on your exact location and affinity for hoofing it, you might want to hire a tuk-tuk.  As a couple examples for local transport, a tuk-tuk from our hotel by north gate to Tsunami Sushi cost 120B, and from Nimmanhaemin Road back to our hotel cost 100B.

Our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep involved a songthaew from near north gate to the zoo for 30B/each, followed by a shared songthaew up the hill for 40B/each.  On the return one shared songthaew took us from the temple back to north gate for 60B/each.

Accommodation: There are tons of options here.  We stayed at Sawasdee Chiang Mai House in the northeast part of the Old City.  Jenni was a little less enthusiastic, but I could recommend this place.  For ~$40/night, we had a huge room with a pretty comfy bed and a bathroom with a shower curtain!  Maybe it wasn’t the cleanest, but some division of shower and other space in a bathroom is now a cause for celebration.  The included breakfast was decent and filling and WiFi worked well.

Location-wise, I might rather stay a little closer to the Old City’s east gate where there is more action, but our spot was very convenient.  There are some high-end properties at varied distances outside the Old City that I’ve heard are wonderful, including the Four Seasons (not to be confused with the Four Seasons Golden Triangle) and Anantara.

Food and Drink: For sure our favorite part of Chiang Mai, in case you couldn’t tell.  Street food is everywhere.  The Saturday and Sunday walking streets are loaded, as is Warorot Market and the daily night market.  Plus there are small to large collections of stalls at several places throughout the city.  Street food averages 10-40B per meal.

Sushi is widely available.  Our meal at Tsunami with plenty of food, sake and beer cost 820B.

Chiang Mai has quite a coffee shop culture (I enjoyed my iced mocha at Akha Ama), and a nice cup of java was a welcome change from many places we’ve been on this leg.

One night we had a carafe of white wine at Brasserie near east gate.  It cost 390B and the space is nice, with live music later at night.

Nimmanhaemin Road is close to Chiang Mai University and has many boutiques, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Kamrai Shop is a liquor store where you can drink your purchase at tables out front. There are also several spots along the Ping River, a handful of blocks east of the Old City.

The little backpacker / reggae bar complex is described as follows in http://www.1stopchiangmai.com: “Chiang Mai’s very own backpacker-cum-little Jamaica is a cluster of bars around a car park just off Ratvithi, down from the Irish Pub. Here you’ll find a lively collection of shacks or open air bars with several live bands, cheap beer and food. It’s downmarket but has character and is popular with beatnik locals and backpackers alike. Best bars include Zoe in Yellow (popular), Babylon Café (Irie), Roots, Rock, Reggae (live music) and Heaven’s Beach (pool tables).”

Activities: There are temples all over the Old City.  Cover your knees and shoulders to visit.  The weekend walking streets and night and other markets are entertaining and loaded with good food.  Cooking classes are popular.  Trekking (single and multi-day), elephant rides, climbing, rafting and more are offered by countless tour operators.  A couple hour visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (30B) is worthwhile.  I believe there is a touristy hill tribe village further up the road. I have heard that Huay Tung Thao Lake can be fun, especially on a hot day.  And how about hour-long massages for $5-10!

January 24-29, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)

Paradise Found: Lipe

Sweet, untainted tropical bliss. Our home of five nights on Koh Lipe was pure, unbridled relaxation. We picked the very best hotel on the whole island, if I do say so myself. The island is quite small; you can easily walk around pretty much the whole place without exerting too much energy. The vast majority of the hotels are located on Pattaya Beach and Sunrise Beach, with a smattering also on Sunset Beach. Ours was set apart from all of them, on its own private little beach over the hill from Pattaya and a bit south of Sunset. And oh, was it paradise. We knew things were looking good when our longtail from Pattaya rounded the southern tip of the island and we saw some crab-eating macaques climbing up the rocks above the flawless turquoise sea. We had a little cove filled with lounge chairs and hammocks, a small beach, a slice of crystal clear water to wade in and a huge labyrinth of coral to snorkel through.

So if you go to Koh Lipe, we highly recommend you check out Pitiusas Resort. I believe it’s fairly new as it hasn’t got too many reviews on TripAdvisor or elsewhere, a fact that made us hesitate to book, but so happy we pulled the trigger. It’s a bargain for such a pristine and isolated corner of the Thai islands. Our bungalow was about $70/night. To be clear though, the rooms are not what make this place so special. Each room is its own bungalow set up on stilts up a hill. There’s a smidgen of an ocean view and the rooms are pretty bare bones. They are not overly spacious, large enough for a big (kind of hard) bed, a fan and a little armoire. That said, you do have your own private balcony complete with a hammock. There is no hot water, but as we are becoming accustomed to rarely showering this didn’t bother us. Also, it’s hot and you are in the ocean constantly, so it’s not really a big deal here. That said, we showered once in five nights. (Cue the “ewwws.” We joked that our average rate of showers per week is probably closer to two than our former seven. How will we ever adjust to the working world again? Oh, with a real shower, probably.) And since we’re getting it out with the negatives, the beach is not ideal for swimming when the tide is very low. And while there is a restaurant and a teensy-weensy bar, there is not a ton of variety, and the service is not the most impressive. And this is a plus or minus depending on the person: be prepared for lots of topless Europeans (this is not specific to Pitiusas, but it’s more common on these quieter more isolated beaches). Boobies big and small, perky and droopy. And bikinis are not limited to the svelte and sexy. Am I becoming weirdly modest, or are one pieces very much in vogue in the US? I don’t think we saw a single other person in a one piece in Thailand. We saw lots of larger than lifes in thong-esque bikinis though. When did I become such a prude?

The WiFi didn’t work, which put us a bit behind on the blogging, but it was such a nice place to unplug and unwind. I think we read a cumulative five books over the four and a half days there.

::not a bad office::
::not a bad office::

The landscape is slightly different here vs. e.g. Railay in that you don’t get the jaw-dropping limestone karsts or dramatic cliffs, but the trade off for remoteness balances out. Alan remarked that Lipe has a bit of a South Pacific feel. And this is what Jenni calls a “honeymoon place.” Railay is not a honeymoon destination, unless you want to be surrounded by hip Europeans and topless chubby Russian ladies and hoards of men in banana hammocks and worst: children. If I were to honeymoon in Thailand, I would do it somewhere like Pitiusas on Lipe.

Again, the animals were a highlight for me. I struck up an intense friendship with the semi-wild resort dog, whom I affectionately named Bug. With the manners of a well-trained house dog and the energy and joy of a convivial puppy, plus an affinity for holding paws he obliterated any ability I had not to fall in love. Given the romantic setting I suppose it’s not that surprising that I engaged in one or two make out seshes with this little guy, after I hand-fed him the carrots from my dinner. Carrots are his favorite. I would totally steal this little booger if I could. He’s the sweetest. And I know I say that about all dogs, but this one really stole a piece of my heart. Although the puppy at Bila Beach nearby who bore an uncanny resemblance to Ryder tugged at my heartstrings as well. Look at that face, just aching for some Thai noodles.

There’s also an impossibly sweet cat that likes to hang out near bungalow four and he’ll mew for you and wait outside your door for love, much to Alan’s displeasure.

Much of the action on Lipe is on and around Walking Street, which connects Pattaya and Sunrise beaches with a strip of mini-marts, restaurants, spas, souvenir and dive shops. We ambled through one day, though didn’t sample many of the goods. We did, however, purchase some very overpriced sunscreen.

And we leave you now with a million pictures of this divine and restorative view.

Practical Info

There are no ATMs on Koh Lipe.  This is surprising given the amount of development, but be prepared.  There are shops on Walking Street that will swipe your card and give you cash for a 5-10% fee.

About that development…most of you travelers are all too familiar with the pattern of paradise found then lost.  Such is the nature of the world.  A spectacular location is “discovered,” a wise developer sees its potential, word spreads, and pretty soon those who were there before it was well-known cry foul.  Lonely Planet describes Lipe as “this decade’s poster child for untamed development in the Thai Islands.”  We can’t offer a before/after comparison, and yes much of the island is quite commercial.  But there weren’t any true eyesores and it does not have the feel of e.g. Koh Phi Phi, probably in part because it is more remote.  And the western side with Sunset Beach is more laid back, and Pitiusas’ spot is peaceful as can be.

Transportation: We took the Tigerline Ferry from Railay, and actually getting to the ferry was not so smooth but I think that was the fault of the travel desk at Sunrise Tropical Resort on Railay (which we covered here and is otherwise very nice).  That aside, it cost 1100B/person which includes the longtail from Railay East to Ao Nammao, a shared van ride to the Hat Yao pier in Trang, a ferry to Koh Lipe where you disembark on a floating platform off Pattaya Beach, followed by a longtail for 70B/person which dropped us right on the beach in front of Pitiusas.

There is also a ferry to/from Langkawi, Malaysia which we took on departure…more details in our Langkawi post.  It was quite a rough ride.  Note that many use the Langkawi/Lipe ferry to make visa runs from Thailand.

On the island, walking is generally sufficient, though there are moto-taxis and we took one (for 100B) to get ourselves and our luggage to the Bundhaya immigration office when we left for Langkawi.

Accommodation: We stayed at Pitiusas and discussed it above.  If you want to be closer to the action, you should stay on Pattaya or Sunrise Beach.  If you want peace, relaxation and a beautiful setting, Pitiusas is hard to beat.  There is a spit of sand jutting into the ocean on the northeast part of the island.  This is very pretty, though with the prevailing northeast winds this time of year Pitiusas’ location was even more advantageous.

The WiFi at Bundhaya on Pattaya Beach worked fairly well.

Food: We ate many of our meals at Pitiusas.  Our lunch at Daya Resort was fine, and Lonely Planet claims Daya has the best bang for the buck beach BBQ on the island.  We also had lunch at Flower Power on Sunset Beach, which was pretty good, and Bila Beach, which was a cool spot in its own little alcove, complete with banana daiquiris, hammocks and menus painted on bamboo shoots.  There are lots of eating and drinking options on Pattaya and Sunrise beaches and Walking Street between the two.  Castaway Resort on Sunrise Beach looked cool, as did the bar in front of Z Resort on Pattaya.

Also, check out the Thai potato chip flavors.

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Activities: Relaxing!  In addition, you can rent kayaks and there are lots of places offering day/snorkel trips and several dive shops.  The diving is rumored to be pretty good around here.  The going rate was about 2800B for two dives with equipment.  Some operators use longtails and others more proper dive boats.  There are day trips visiting the nearby islands of Ko Adang and others, which are far less developed.  I believe that Ko Adang has some bungalows and you can camp on Ko Rawi.

Massage spots are omnipresent, and the going rate is 300-350B/hour.

January 14-19, 2014 (Tuesday-Sunday)

Restorative Railay

Three planes, one van, one longtail boat and a beach tractor ride later we arrived in paradise. It was a bit of a tiring journey from Varanasi, taking nearly 24 hours in all, mind you the actual flight time was a total of perhaps 6-8 hours. Lesson learned on planning in advance. One of the big dilemmas for “round the world” travelers is whether to buy the so-called round the world airline tickets or a package of major flights in advance, or to buy one-way tickets as you go. We did a bit of a combination, buying a number of more “major” international flights before leaving, and then supplementing that with internal flights, ferries, buses, trains etc. as we go. One such major ticket was a flight from Varanasi to Bangkok that had a sub-optimal layover in Kolkata. We wound up skipping Bangkok altogether and taking a decidedly un-direct route down to Krabi. We are learning!

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By the way, a handful of people have asked why we’re skipping Bangkok. Alan has been already; Jenni had not, but figured we’d see lots of big hectic Asian cities on this tour and given the protests and craziness going on there, figured it might be an OK city to skip for now. We will eventually be making our way back up to Northern Thailand, but decided to work our way south down the islands and ferry it over to Malaysia for a bit before the journey back up to Chiang Mai. It kind of made sense, it kind of didn’t. We were kind of tired of changing our mind on itineraries and so this one stuck.

We also had some concern regarding the onward ticket rule and thought showing a confirmed Koh Lipe to Langkawi ferry ticket would be safer than arguing about our plans to cross from Thailand to Laos over land.  As it turns out, the onward ticket issue never came up on our flights to Thailand from India or Malaysia and in any event we chose to fly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.

Anyway, on to the good stuff: a very much appreciated beach holiday!!! After 25 nights in India, some of which were more trying than pleasant, we were ecstatic to be on “vacation.” So much so that we bought a bottle of bubbly at the duty free in Bangkok and upon arriving in Railay popped that bad boy with a toast of “cheers to not being in India anymore!” We love us some India, but talk about a vacation from which you need a vacation!

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There is so much beauty to be found in Thailand, it’s incredible. Picking a couple of islands to visit was almost as difficult as picking out what to fill your plastic baggy with as a child at those bulk candy stores. Being optimizers, you know that this process involved Alan vigorously researching the virtues of each island and Jenni google image searching each one with a lot of comments like, “well, this one looks like the most perfect turquoise water, but did you see the way the longtails frame the karsts at that island?!” At some point we settled (smartly) on Railay. By the way, while we didn’t spend too much time in the town itself, Krabi was featured on the New York Times’ list of 52 places to go in 2014.

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Perhaps a little orientation on Railay and the Thai islands is in order.  There are tons of islands!  Some are on the gulf side, like Koh Samui (very developed and often compared these days to Phuket) or Koh Phangan (home of the full-moon party), which Alan visited on his 2007 trip to Thailand.  More are on the Andaman side, and that is where we stayed on this trip.  Ko Phi Phi is probably the most famous of these.  And Railay is not actually an island.  It is part of the mainland, but huge limestone cliffs make it accessible only by boat so it has the feel of an island.  These same cliffs make it very popular with climbers.  This blog covers the various islands pretty comprehensively.

Railay itself has a few different sections.  The most popular area is Railay West, a beautiful crescent bay framed by huge cliffs with awesome sunsets.  Our hotel was on Railay East, which is the non-swimming mangrove-y side, but a mere five-minute walk across to West.  And being on the East side meant we were even closer to Phra Nang (about a 10 minute walk), which is the beach on the south of Railay and our favorite spot.  Then there is Ton Sai, reachable by longtail or a short walk over rocks (tide-dependent) from Railay West.

Unless you are there to climb, you can probably skip Ton Sai.  It has lower quality beaches and water than Phra Nang or Railay West. It’s more popular with the toking crowd who hang out walking on tight ropes and listening to music best described as heady. No wonder Alan remembers spending his time here when he came in ’07.

Funny enough we stayed at Sunrise Tropical Resort, the same hotel in Railay that Alan stayed at over six years ago when he traveled post-big law and pre-buy-side jobs. It was a bit of a splurge, at around $100 a night, and oh what a luxury it was. Air conditioning! Tons of space! Wood floors! Blankets! Pillows that are soft! A separate shower! A safe! A TV (that we never turned on but still)! A pool (that we never went in even, but who needs it when you have perfect oceans lapping at your feet)! A huge breakfast buffet! A mini-fridge! Towels for the shower! AND separate towels for the beach! We are living like gods among men here! Even though Sunrise Tropical is not on the “good” side of the island, we were only a few bungalows farther than the farthest back rooms of the hotels on the “good” side.  Plus there is that proximity to Phra Nang.

Phra Nang is wonderful.  It is home to one very nice resort (Rayavadee) and no other development. To walk there you pass caves full of crab-eating macaques (aka mustache monkeys) and arrive at a perfect bay of clear turquoise waters with jungle-covered karsts sticking out of the pristine sea. And the coolest part by far: there are longtail food boats. It’s the Thai answer to food trucks. Pad thai, fried rice, coconut shakes, beers, and more all on the cheap and available just a few steps into the water. Heaven.

Railay West is by far the most popular, lined with resorts and bars, including one awesome sunset viewing spot at the walking street entrance where they set up rattan mats along the sand, play chill music and serve drinks while the big pink ball in the sky sinks into the ocean. I’m trying not to insert too many sentences in here that say simply “sigh,” but it’s hard. How else can I describe that feeling? And in what was quite possibly the most perfectly set up question and response of Jenni’s lifetime, when Alan pointed at the white lanterns young lovers were buying from Thais on the beach and sending off into the sky by flame asking, “what are those?” Jenni was able to respond, “Oh Alan, you just don’t watch enough Bachelor to be cultured.” (On Ali’s season of the Bachelorette they attended the Lantern Festival in Taiwan, there is also a lantern festival in Chiang Mai.). Proof, watching the Bachelor does not suck the living soul out of me, but in fact makes me a more cultured person!

We had one other epic sunset while in Railay, this time while having a picnic back over at Phra Nang beach, eating pad thai, mango with sticky rice and a bottle of wine while being practically the only people there. Pretty incredible. So while it is quite touristy and crowded on Railay, there are still pockets where you can feel a bit removed from it all.  Which is pretty great considering how easy it is to get here.

It was quite sad to see how much trash people leave all over the beach. Jenni walked around and picked up a few pieces, but it’s really a bit soul-sucking to see the way people treat this natural treasure. And an aside, how come people don’t consider throwing their cigarettes on the ground to be littering?! Huge pet peeve. Also, tons of people smoke here. So, those are my main complaints: trash and smokers. Have some respect for the bounty this mother earth provided us, people! Come on!

Alan also indulged me one day with a boat tour out to see some of the more iconic Thai islands. He’d been before, and so had seen these beautiful, but preposterously touristy locations prior. But let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a big deposit in the favor bank to generously oblige your wife’s request to go to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, again. We first hit Bamboo Island, where it appears you can camp! Pretty cool, although for an island with absolutely nothing else on it, it struck us as odd that the tents are set up right on top of one another. Oh and the highlight here was the water. Clear clear clear clear clear. Mmmmmmm.

We boated by Phi Phi Leh and the Viking Cave.  Next was arguably the most famed photo-op spot of the Thai islands: Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh. This is where they filmed The Beach (apparently, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, a rather shitty movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio). We were in awe, not so much because of the breathtaking natural beauty (which was admittedly quite stunning, if you could see it), but the MASSES of tourists. It took probably 15 minutes to pull the boat onto the shore because they literally had to shove other boats aside and squish ours in between the dozens of others. Absurd. It’s an absolute joke. It’s like a caricature of itself, complete with at least four and a half tourists taking jumping photos or flashing a peace sign at any one time.  When Alan was here in 2007 he stayed on Phi Phi Don (the larger, main Phi Phi island with all the development) and hired a long longtail boat for a day, and with a very early start he saw Maya Bay with hardly anyone else there.  Perhaps this is still possible if you beat the day tour rush.

We stopped to snorkel just outside the cove at Maya Bay, which was fun as always. I love snorkeling. It’s one of those activities that’s so consuming you can’t really think about much else beyond the mesmerizing display of foreign creatures living quietly and unbeknownst to most of the world below you. An in-the-moment and awe inspiring thing, that ocean is.

The boat stopped quickly by monkey bay at Phi Phi Don, but there were no monkeys today. After an unexciting included buffet lunch,  we wandered over to the northern side of Phi Phi Don and hung out in the super shallow and even more beautiful bay. So much better on this side. It’s like a gigantic kiddie pool, but the water’s warmth comes not from gallons of human urine. And it’s surrounded by beautiful nature, not Dora the Explorer diapers bloated with chlorinated poo.

We snorkeled one more time at shark point, where we were not lucky enough to see any sharks, but did see some scary looking starfish cum spider like things that made Jenni rather uncomfortable. It’s funny how Thais use the word “maybe.” A language of perpetually hedged statements. While explaining the itinerary it was “maybe we leave now, maybe we go first to Bamboo Island, maybe after we go here… maybe then… maybe maybe maybe.”

Whenever I travel to tropical beaches I am reminded of my fascination with hermit crabs. I don’t know what it is. I’m obsessed. As those in attendance at our wedding might recall, Alan vowed “I promise to try to accept that nothing I am ever saying or doing will compete for your attention with a puppy.” This vow did not extend to hermit crabs, but Alan is trying to accept that no matter where we are in conversation when I spy a shell crawling across the sandscape I have to explode with “oh look at that one!” Then I inevitably pick it up and put it on my hand or Alan’s stomach, just to ensure he witnesses the awesomeness that is this little animal LIVING INSIDE OF A SHELL. And then I usually share with him (for the umpteenth time) the story of how when I was lonely in college I went on over to Ithaca’s Pyramid Mall and bought myself a pet hermit crab. Somehow, my obsession manages to reignite itself again and again. What is it about those guys?

Practical Info

If you are from the US or many other countries, you do not need a visa to enter Thailand.  Do not be confused by the space on the immigration card asking for your visa number, nor the signs at the airport directing you to the visa on arrival desk.  Proceed directly to immigration.  ATMs are widely available.  The exchange rate was ~33 Thai Baht per US$.

Communication: At the airport in Bangkok we purchased SIM cards from AIS.  DTAC is another popular telecom company.  We paid 299B for seven days of unlimited data and 100B worth of talk time.  Rates are 1B/min local and 3B/min to the US.  This card is valid for a few months.  There are lots of plan options, and you can top up at 7-11 stores.

Transportation: We flew from Bangkok to Krabi on Thai Airways.  There are airports all over Thailand and many flights are quite inexpensive and convenient.  Air Asia also flies here.  Having taken three flights and traveled overnight from Varanasi, we decided to have our hotel in Railay arrange transport.  For 1200B we got a private van from the airport to Ao Nammao from where we took a longtail straight to Sunrise Tropical Resort on Railay East.  It would have cost a little less to arrange this ourselves.  I think a taxi from the airport costs ~600B and a longtail ride ~60-80B/person.

Getting around the islands is often a mix of ferries and longtail boats.  Ferries cover the longer distances while longtails are great for short trips, and often a ferry will offload you to a longtail for the last couple hundred yards onto land.  You may have to disembark in knee-deep water.

Longtails to Railay West leave from Ao Nang on the mainland, and to Railay East they leave from Ao Nammao.  Once on Railay, it is easy to walk between East, West and Phra Nang, and you can also take longtails between Phra Nang and West and Ton Sai.

Thailand is very tourist friendly.  You can arrange day tours and island transportation at countless places, including likely your hotel.

Accommodation: We stayed at Sunrise Tropical Resort in a very spacious room with good AC and WiFi.  There is a pool that we never used.  Breakfast was included and good, with fresh omelets, fruit, etc.  It is probably preferable to stay on Railay West, but again the walk is so short that it doesn’t really matter.  If money is no issue then Rayavadee is where you want to stay.  It is on the most beautiful beach, and I believe the grounds are open only to guests.  So while the beach is public and you can easily walk there, it could be nice to step outside your room onto that beach.

Food: There are lots of food options, from proper restaurants at the resorts (which often have BBQ’s at night) to little stands on walking street, etc.  One of our favorite experiences here was dining from the longtail food boats on Phra Nang.  And Jenni proclaiming that her first Thai pancake hit a spot she didn’t know she had.

Activities: Many come to Railay to climb, and there are classes for beginners.  You can rent a kayak from various vendors.  On the walking path between Railay East and Phra Nang there is a side trail leading to a lagoon.  It is very steep and slippery, and we passed.  With better footwear and free hands we probably would have taken the challenge.

We did an all-day tour on a 30+ person speedboat to Phi Phi etc. which cost 1400B each including lunch and soft drinks and mask with snorkel.  There are also onshore excursions to local parks and mangrove kayaking and more.  Diving is easily arranged.

January 11-14, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)