Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Islands

Only four days after leaving Cambodia, it was time for another vacation; a trip to the tropical islands of southern Thailand, specifically Phuket and the phi phi islands. Since both islands are nearly 500 miles from where I live in Bangkok, it provided a singularly spectacular glimpse of an entirely different area of the country.

I, along with eight of my friends (three Americans, five Thais),  left the Bangkok bus station at 7:30pm in a double decker night bus in the hopes of reaching Phuket by 7am the next morning. If, by any chance, that happens to conjure images of the swerving, rapidly accelerating night bus in Harry Potter, then your mind's eye is not far removed from the bus we rode. It zipped along curving mountain paths in the dead of night blaring screamo music as we held on for dear life.

Twelve hours later we reached Phuket, a quiet town situated on an island about one fourth the size of Rhode Island. It was quiet, you see, because we went during the rainy season. During the high season (November to April), the town population explodes as tourists come by the thousands. As a result of being there during the low season, we were presented with significantly lower prices than those found about a month from now.

The bus dropped us off here in the middle of the town

When we arrived, my friend Bob (Thai) and his parents were waiting for us with a van, which was fortunate since transportation in Phuket is about twice as costly as it is in Bangkok. His parents took us all to breakfast at a local restaurant not frequented by tourists.

As you can see, they ordered us a plethora of different items on the menu in small bowls as is traditional in this part of Thailand. The best part is that you only pay for what you eat; if you leave any food behind (close your eyes mom) they reuse the food for the next customers.

A very prevalent problem I come across in Thailand is that everything, everything, has meat in it. Even though the amount of meat in Thai dishes are significantly smaller than the portions found in America, I'm still out of luck.
Orange fish balls, anyone?

All the food in the bowls contained either meat or fish (surprise, surprise), so I ordered some kao pat pak (vegetable fried rice). It's my usual standby ^^

After eating breakfast, we went to the Patong Beach FX Resort, where Bob had found rooms a few months ago at a travel fair for a 50% discount, plus free breakfast. Since we had three people in each room, the price was only 200B ($6.69) per person per night. Not bad, especially considering we were staying at a resort. Even in Thailand that is dirt cheap!

Before going to Phuket I looked at some hotel prices on the internet, and many places were upwards of $500 per night. We were so lucky to have our Thai friends with us who can receive steep discounts just for being a Thai citizen. It is very common here to have a two-tiered price system, one price for foreigners and the other for native Thais. I can sometimes get the Thai price if I speak to the vendor in Thai, they really like when farang speak their language. And I really like when I get a Thai discount :)

Making Som Tum, a salad made from unripe papaya

After settling into our rooms, Bob's parents took us to lunch. We went to an open-air restaurant next to the beach (well, almost all restaurants in Thailand are open air, lol) and we all ordered our respective dishes. I ordered stir-fried vegetables in oyster sauce (I know, bad bad vegan) and pineapple juice. Oyster sauce and fish sauce are simply unavoidable in Thailand. Period. It was quite a delicious meal nonetheless.

 Bob brought some kanome (desserts) from his hometown in the south along with longan fruits from his fruit orchards. 

The longan were the best I've ever had and the pastries were absolutely aroy mak mak (delicious!)

We were soon done with our food and got back in the van to drive to a viewing point high on a ridge next to the sea. 

It was extremely windy there, the warm tropical breeze was very refreshing. We took a few pictures and were soon on our way to a secluded beach on the south shore. 

We arrived at Nai Harn beach only to find, much to our delight, that we had it mostly to ourselves. We did not see the red 'swim if you dare' flags waving on the shore until a few hours later when we went back to the van. The waves there were about two to three times taller than me, I had an absolute blast. I have never seen waves that big in my life, not even in movies. They would pick you up and slam you on the bottom of the ocean. I really loved it :) If only I had one of those floaty inflatable alligators...

After the shock of unknowingly swimming in dangerous waters, we went back to the beach near our hotel. It is the most popular beach in Phuket, especially for tourists like myself. There were not any waves here like there were at the previous beach (insert frowny face here)  so we were soon hunting for dinner.

Not surprisingly, the other Americans settled on Subway, and I followed suit. We ate our comfort food at a new mall that had just opened a few months ago. 

Sunset view from our balcony (Taken by Khem)

The mall was actually scheduled to open six years ago but the Tsunami in 2004 absolutely destroyed the entire island. Here is a link if you wish to see pictures of the destruction caused by the 'Indian Ocean' tsunami.
Anyway, after dinner we were so tired from the day's activities that we went to bed. But not before a shower with actual hot water! I have a water heater in my room but it uses a lot of electricity, which is subsequently reflected in my electric bill. If you never use it, you don't miss it. Well...maybe a little.

The world's smalles BK, in Phuket Thailand lol

The next day we went back to Patong beach. I would have preferred to return to the huge wave beach, but we no longer had a free van to take us wherever we wanted. Bob's parents had left the previous evening after we thanked them a lot for their hospitality. After all, they did buy most of our food the first day. And they rented a van for us. It was very nice :)


I swam for the whole morning (resulting in a healthy sunburn) then we (Americans) went to find something to eat. We wanted a cheap restaurant so we passed all the expensive farang restaurants and found a little food stall in a dark humid ally. The vendor was quite impressed that we ordered in Thai and only charged us 60B ($2.00) per plate.

Even though that is more than twice what we pay at cheap stalls in Bangkok, it was a really low price for a touristy area like Phuket. Satisfied, we returned to the beach.

Not long after returning, our friend Jub was swimming in the water when she was caught by a ferocious rip tide. She screamed for us to help just before the current pulled her under. She resurfaced quite a distance away and Lucas and I swam as fast as we could to save her. The lifeguard arrived just as we did and pulled her to shore. However, me and Lucas were still caught in the current. Luckily we are both good swimmers and were able to swim away without drowning. Others were not so lucky. Only a week before we arrived, a Thai person drown in the same current. And only two days before we arrived, two Germans were pulled under and never resurfaced. We only learned that afterward from the lifeguard.

About an hour later, I was swimming by myself rather far from shore when I saw a guy yelling not far from me. It was another language so I did not understand what he was saying, and I have bad eyesight and could not tell if his shouting was directed toward me or not. All of the sudden I realized he was being dragged away like a rag doll along with his friend. They were caught in the rip tide. I swam as fast as I could, once again, and reached the younger guy. He clinged to me as soon as I reached him and I pulled him to shore. If you have ever had to carry someone while swimming in a current, then you know it's nearly impossible. When we got to shore I asked if he was okay and it seemed like he didn't even hear me, I then realized he was looking out in the water for his friend. A jet ski (luckily) found him and was driving him to shore. There was nothing left to do so I went back to swimming lol. But hey, it was my first time to save somebody's life.

When we were all burnt to a crisp, despite repeated generous applications of sunblock, we went back to the hotel, showered, changed, and went to check out the nightlife. One street in particular is a hotspot for westerners so we walked there from our hotel. There were locals all around inviting us to drink at their bar, watch their gogo girl and ping pong shows, and receive a 'massage' from one of their lady friends.

The girls giving the 'massages' were no doubt prostitutes, the cover only being for legal purposes. It seemed as though the prostitutes outnumbered the tourists. That's a bad ratio for everybody.

We decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant after cruising the street and its nightlife. 

However, the food was so expensive there that I left and bought some roasted corn and cold papaya from some street vendors for a much more economical price. Better for my waistline, too :)

For some reason my eyes were really sore for the whole evening. Only later did I realize why. It was so sunny that day that my actual eyeballs were sunburned. 

The flash on the camera makes it hard to see, but there is a bright red stripe across both my eyeballs where the sun reached my eyes while I was squinting the whole day. I had a mild panic attack - who ever heard of sunburned eyeballs? I was anxious the whole night until I used some eyedrops that made the pain lessen. I just hope there is no long term damage. Only ten minutes after finding out my eyes were burned, I had a brand new pair of Oakley sunglasses bought from a nearby vendor for around $6. They do not have any UV protection, something I still worry about :/

I wrote my Thai name in the sand lol

The next day it was time to leave Phuket and make the journey to nearby Phi Phi Islands. We took a taxi to the dock to wait for the ferry. The price farang usually pay for the farry is 600B each way, but Bob knew someone there and got us each a round-trip ticket for only 500B ($16.71) per person. We were at the dock quite early so we played some cards and hung out enjoying each other's company.

We were lucky to have a coverway over our heads, it was midday and sunny as hell merely 8' north of the equator. Don't let Zeta's jacket fool you; it was really really hot!

We had a lot of fun on the dock while we were waiting for the ferry to leave. 

This is the boat we took to the islands

After waiting a few hours we boarded the ferry. The ride was quite pleasant, we arrived at the islands before we knew it. Despite it being the rainy season, it had yet to rain for the entire trip. In fact, it had not even been cloudy. Some of the locals told us that it rained up to the day before we arrived in Phuket, and as we boarded the bus to go back to Bangkok it started to rain. It really was only sunny for the duration of our vacation.

I'm on a boat!
When we arrived at the islands, Bob called the place we were staying,  the Viewpoint Guest House. It was a little cabin situated next to a not-so-crowded beach with only three rooms. We had nine people so we once again put three people in each room.

I checked thoroughly for bedbugs before putting my bags down. I had read on the internet that bedbugs are a common problem on that island and did not want a repeat of Cambodia! There was no hot water or air conditioning in this room but there were two fans. We were so tired by the end of the day that it did not matter how uncomfortable the accommodations were. We all slept pretty well.

Papaya tree next to my room

After moving into our rooms, we went to the ocean right outside our guest house. The view from the front porch was amazing; we were in a little harbor with shallow, crystal blue-aqua waters and a freshwater stream trickling from the mountain behind us. Much to our surprise, Bob's parents paid for us to stay there for both nights.

As we were walking in the water, we stumbled upon a slimy sea cucumber! Lucas was brave enough to touch it lol. I prefer my cukes as land vegetables, dipped in salad dressing.

Where we were walking was once a coral reef, and we found plenty of fragments of coral and such. Some were even alive!

 We also came across some old ship anchors and pieces of boats. There were a lot of treasures hidden on our beach, including a 1,000B ($33.42) bill. We decided to use it for dinner that night for everyone. 

The landscape was perfect for crabs, and we found plenty of them. Zeta is holding it in this picture.

Later that night we went to Bob's favorite restaurant on the island, called the Garlic Restaurant. The food there was local thai fare, something I have come to love. I ordered some delicious panang curry with rice and fresh-squeezed lime juice.

I'm not sure who ordered this, but it sure looked good!

Many of the other people at the table got more than one dish so we could all try what the menu had to offer. It was certainly a delicious meal. At the end, the total was 1,135B, and since we had found a 1,000B bill in the ocean, the total was only about 15B ($0.51) per person. We ate like kings and only paid 50 cents a pop. The island was welcoming us with open arms.

Fish, maybe?

This dish is called Rösti, it is a popluar food from Switzerland made from hashed potatoes; not unlike hashbrowns. There is even a koala vegetable garnish lol. Some of the people at the table ordered several variations with toppings like ham, cheese, and butter. I preferred the Thai food myself.

Me and Jub took a picture at the garlic restaurant. I thought the black and white option on my camera was kinda kool

That night most of the people went back to the guest house, but Bob, Paul, Arm and I went to see some of the night life on the island. Many of the bars have fire shows every night from 10-11pm. Needless to say, I loved the fire shows. I even asked one of the fire spinners if I could try it. It was a lot of fun :) I took a very short video clip of one of the shows below.

After the fire show, we went a few meters over and found a dancing platform. We danced for two hours to popular American songs (including Lady Gaga, of course) as the warm tropical breeze blew in from the crystal clear waters of the oceanic island harbor while we drank watermelon icees. It was epic.

The next day was arguably the best part of the entire trip. We hired a longboat for 350B ($11.69) each to take us around the islands for about 10 hours. It stopped at several places so we could snorkel and view all the tropical fish. In every case, I could see all the way to the bottom of the ocean. The water was so clear! I loved snorkeling and hope to do it again soon! I even got to feed one of my favorite fish, the powder blue tang.

Powder Blue Tang (Courtesy of google images)
These fish were very common and colorful, but I do not know what they are called

We saw so many different coral reefs all along the indian ocean near the islands. I was having fun thinking my friends in America were in class while I was out snorkeling off the coast of Thailand. Muahahaha.

This is a view from the longboat as we approached Koh Phi Phi Don

We also stopped at Viking Cave, where swallow nests are harvested and sold for thousands of dollars. You may have seen this cave on the Travel or Discovery Channel.

Viking Cave

One of my favorite spots was Monkey Beach, where the coral reefs were phenomenal. The monkeys were relatively tame, I even fed one some watermelon. 

Like I said, the water here was amazing

I was really enjoying the snorkeling ^^

Giant clams were everywhere!

Unfortunately, these guys were too

If you look closely, you can see all the fish swimming around us


Here are some  more pictures from our adventure that day:

Me and Bob

(Taken by Khem)

(Taken by Captain)

That night we went to eat at a Mexican restaurant featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Thailand. The food looked good, but I felt awful for a few hours after eating it. Thai food is much better. I ordered vegetarian fajitas. Sorry, the picture is not as good as it could be.

That night me and Bob went out dancing again, it was a TON of fun. There was a really cool guy there with dread locks that could dance like a pro. I danced next to him and tried to copy his moves. I have a feeling I looked like an idiot haha. Anyway, I had fun so it doesn't matter.

The next morning we just hung out on our porch on the hammocks as we waited for 2:30 when the ferry went back to the mainland.

Bloated pineapples?

We had a fantastic trip, with fantastic weather, and fantastic friends. It was one of the most exciting trips I have ever been on. The best part is that I can go back whenever I want, as long as I have $20 for a bus ticket and three days to spare.

Synopsis time!

I finally got to see my grades. Two A's, two B+'s, and a C+. The C+ was pulled up from an F :)

That growling dog chased me again today. This time I yelled at it - he whimpered away. All talk :P

My over-sexually active neighbors have been reported to the landlord. But not by me - by someone else who was tired of hearing...things

A chicken lives under the main gym on campus

I watched a monitor lizard chase a rat a few hours ago. Do they really eat rats?

I'm eating chestnuts right now

Apparently there was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean only hours after I left

I can hold a handstand for longer than 5 seconds now ^^

My horrible sunburn healed in less than a day :)

I accidentally fell asleep at 7:30 last night, and did not wake up until 10am this morning. The lights were still on. oops

Five more days of rainy season!

I'm already more than halfway through with my study abroad program

I need some UV sunglasses and some calcium gummy bears!

After five months, I still do not know my address or street name. I don't know if I even have a mailbox lol

That monkey threw my watermelon rind at a Canadian

Comments please!