Thailand with G Adventures, Part 2

As our sleeper train arrived in Bangkok in the unholy morning hour of 7:00 AM, we prepared to say a sad goodbye to a few people that would not be joining us on the Southern Sojourn tour to the Gulf islands of Koh Samui and Koh Tao. We also couldn’t check into our rooms at Bangkok Centre Hotel until 11:00 AM so the group went next door to have one last breakfast together. As soon as I got my room key, I took a long nap; and then headed to the nearest internet cafe to get caught up on e-mails, facebook, etc.. I had forgotten what downtime felt like. It was nice. Luckily, Willie, our awesome guide from the north would be accompanying us to the south. After the group dinner, we decided to head for Bangkok’s notorious ‘red light district’ of Patpong to see what that was all about. Honestly, it’s overblown and not that exciting with more upmarket hotels and a night market selling fake Rolexes. The next day Maria, my roommate, and I headed for the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha. We wanted to get there before the heat of the day set in and to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, we didn’t  manage either. It was hot, hot, hot with loads of people around. The Grand Palace must be one of Thailand’s busiest attractions. This was also one of the more expensive attractions with a 400 Baht ($13) entry fee. The Emerald Buddha is the top sight and it sits upon an elevated altar garbed in royal robes for each season. After sweating it out, we decided to head to the MBK shopping plaza for some cool air and to stock up on items we would need in the south like a new camera case for me, a camera charger for Becky, and whatever else we could find. This place is massive with 7 floors containing everything from movie theaters to pharmacies. Part of the fourth floor is devoted to gadgets. I have never seen so many iPods, iPads, iPhones, Samsung Galaxies, and accessories galore. Probably 95% of them are fake, but still the sight was incredible. After successfully locating a new camera case for me, we headed back to catch yet another sleeper train to Surat Thani. This train felt like steerage class compared to the Chiang Mai trains. The walkway was narrow and the luggage sat on metal racks in the walkway. And Willie recommended that we sleep with all our valuables in our bunks! This must have been the theft train as well.

The Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace

The MBK shopping extravaganza

We arrived without incident in Surat Thani for breakfast before getting on a local bus to Khao Sok National Park for one night. Our local driver from the Rainforest Retreat ferried us to a gorgeous location in the middle of the rainforest where we had individual bungalows with both front and rear balconies. Unfortunately, we only had one night here as I would have loved to have stayed for longer. After a hot and sweaty bus ride, we were ready for some river tubing. So we spent the afternoon drifting lazily down the river. It was a slow current, so our arms got a bit of a workout propelling us along. The end of the ride ended at a cave temple so we had to dress properly for the occasion with sarongs, t-shirts, or shorts as we made our way back to the trucks. Then we got soaked on the truck ride back to the retreat. It’s a rainforest after all.

The local bus

The next day it was back on the bus to the pier to catch the ferry to Koh Samui where we would spend the next two nights. Everyone was looking forward to getting some sun and beachtime. The hotel was a brief walk from the beach with a great pool, and our room had a poolside view. Too bad the pool water felt like bath water. We ate dinner at the Ark Bar Beach Resort, which was in nearby Chaweng. We had a prime location right on the beach with cushions to sit on. The next day was spent lazing about on Lamai Beach, and I quickly realized I was going to need a chair with an umbrella. So a few of us rented them for the day, and still ended up sunburned. That’s why they call it the tropics.

Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

After departing Koh Samui, we headed for wonderful, little Koh Tao, land of great Scuba diving. The beach was a stone’s throw away from our resort restaurant, and I could swim to the nearest reef. We went snorkeling the next day and some of us choose to do the full day adventure, which began at 8:30 and ended around 4:30. This trip included 4 snorkeling sites, lunch, drinking water and snacks, and a 2 hour stop at Koh Nang Yuan all for 750 Baht ($25). The first stop was Shark Bay and the coral wasn’t in good shape, but some of our group saw some large sharks. The only thing I saw was a barracuda. The interesting thing about this snorkeling trip was the operator didn’t provide us with fins, but they weren’t really needed as the reefs were in shallow water. The rest of the sites had great corals, sea anemones, and a variety of fish. Then we stopped at Koh Nang Yuan, and I thought we had arrived in paradise. Koh Nang Yuan is a collection of three tiny islands connected by a causeway of white sand with gorgeous beaches. I headed up to the lookout at the top of a brief, steep climb for an amazing view. The sun was very strong at this point in the day, and most of group retreated to the covered restaurant to wait for the return of the boat.

Sunset, Koh Tao

Viewpoint, Koh Nang Yuan

Crystal blue water, Koh Nang Yuan

Then it was back to the mainland to catch the final sleeper train back to Bangkok, which arrived at 6:30 AM. We spent the next 2 hours at breakfast barely moving. Then Maria and I headed to the Chatuchak Weekend Market in which we got promptly lost. That place is a labyrinth of stalls selling whatever you want from handicrafts, textiles, silk, designer clothing, and exotic pets. It was a bit overwhelming, but exciting.

In conclusion, I am very glad that I did a G Adventures tour for my first two weeks in Thailand as it was a thorough introduction to Southeast Asia. I met some great people and had some amazing experiences. I’m hoping to do another one in the future.

Last sunset, Koh Tao

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Thailand with G Adventures, Part 1

As I said goodbye to one of my favorite places in New Zealand, I was preparing myself for my first trip to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has long been on the backpacking route because it’s cheap, easy to get around, and there are lots of travelers about. However, this would be my first trip to a non-English speaking country and I was scared to death to do it by myself. So I started researching small tour companies geared towards independent travelers, and I decided to go with G Adventures who had several trips in Thailand to choose from. I signed up for the Roam Thailand tour which started in Bangkok, went north to Chiang Mai for the first week, and then south to the Gulf islands the second week. It was a jammed packed itinerary and wicked fun with awesome people.

My flight arrived in the wee hours of the morning of February 25, and I had booked a room at the nearby airport hotel in order to get a few hours of sleep before meeting my group at the Bangkok Centre Hotel, which was downtown. I had prepared myself, but still exiting the airport to feel that wall of heat hit you quickly reminded me I was now in a tropical zone. After a few hours of sleep, I headed back to the airport to catch the skytrain, which is the monorail that would take me downtown to the hotel. There were no activities planned today, but I met up with a few people from another tour who took me to Khao San Road on a Tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are these 3 wheeled motos that ferry people around the crazy Bangkok traffic to their destination. I was introduced to a new concept not used in Western civilization normally, bartering. Fares for taxis and tuk-tuks must be negotiated and you have to know when to say no and walk away. I let the others do most of the talking. Khao San Road is Bangkok’s travelers’ getto with shady tuk-tuk drivers willing to give you a day tip around the city in exchange for stopping at the favorite gem stores and overpriced tourist traps.

Bangkok tuk-tuk

One of Bangkok's many markets

That night was the group meeting with our G Adventures tour guide, Willie, who is a local Thai. The next day the group went on a walking tour of one of Bangkok’s many markets, took a canal tour, and toured the Wat Pho temple with the giant reclining Buddha while eating yummy street Thai food. It was an introduction to the sights, smells, and heat of Bangkok. I don’t remember the last time I had sweated that much without going to the gym. My water intake has increased considerably since arriving. Afterwards, we headed for the train station to board the overnight train to Chaing Mai.

Thailand is a big country, but it’s well connected by planes, trains, and buses. The overnight sleeper trains allow you to depart in the evening and arrive in the early morning at your destination. There are two sleeping berths, an upper and a lower bunk with curtains that provide a modicum of privacy. However, the lights remain on and I experienced a very disrupted sleep with all the braking and movement of the train. Too bad this trip had four sleeper trains on the itinerary.

We arrived in Chiang Mai in the early morning of February 27 to meet with our local trekking guide, Sammy who would give us the rundown of our three day, two night trek to the hills to visit the hill tribes. This is the one moment I was glad I had taken my sleeping bag with me. The nights were apparently going to be quite cool up in the hills. Chiang Mai is vastly different than Bangkok with a cool, laid back atmosphere where everyone rides a moped. We visited Doi Suthep, which was up a mountain and after a 45 minute ride in the red songthaew, I was feeling a bit queasy. The next day we departed in the songthaew for the first part of our trek, which included a side trip to Mork-Fa waterfall, in which we took a refreshing dip. After lunch, we got dropped off at the insertion point for the trek and put on our packs. I managed to fit everything I needed for 3 days into a 22 liter pack including my sleeping bag. I was very proud of this. Most of the first day of trekking was downhill, and it wasn’t easy. It was steep and slippery in spots due to all of the dried foliage. However, once I got my bamboo walking stick, things got much easier. We arrived at the Me Jok Village around sundown and took a tour of the village, which was full of farm animals and very cute puppies. Our accommodation was a guesthouse with 13 mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets. We even got to assist with the dinner preparation with the spring rolls. The local food was very good.

The first hill tribe

Homemade springrolls

The next day, Willie our tour guide told us that there would be about 4 hours of walking and then launched into a very evil laugh about the hill we would have to climb. Now, I had done a lot of tramping in Arrowtown over the past 2 months so I wasn’t worried about it. I should have been more worried about the brush fire we had to walk through after the steep climb. It is the dry season and part of the forest was burning next to the track. After the walk we arrived at the elephant camp for lunch as we would be riding elephants the rest of the way to the second hilltribe. The elephant ride was a nice break after the walking.

The brush fire we walked through

Elephant rides

The third day was bamboo rafting for 4 hours. Basically we got to sit or stand on bamboo and take in the scenery. After all the trekking, the rafting was a welcome break. For the final day in Chiang Mai, we went to the women’s prison to  get Thai massages. The massages are done by Thai women as part of their rehabilitation training who are due to be released from incarceration within 6 months. It was wonderful as I was quite sore from the trekking. Afterwards it was back on the night train to Bangkok to start the next part of our adventure, the Southern Sojourn.

Bamboo rafting