Scuba Paradise

I haven’t been diving in 10 years, not since the Great Barrier Reef in 2004. So it was high time to get back in the water. Enter Khao Lak, Thailand, which is the gateway to the Similan Islands and the Surin Islands National Parks. This area is arguably one of the best dive sites in Thailand and is noted as being one the top 10 diving destinations in the world. I was already scheduled to come to PhuketFit  for two weeks with my friend Romina, but I needed something to do in the meantime. Doing a liveaboard was a good choice. I actually ended up doing two liveaboards: Liquid Adventure (March 23-26) and Khao Lak Scuba Adventures (April 13-16). Both of these were 3 day/3 night cruises visiting the Similans, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai, and Richelieu Rock.

The first trip was with Liquid Adventure on the MV Vilai Samut. We started with Anita’s Reef and West of Eden in the Similan Islands before moving north to Koh Bon. Koh Bon was probably my favorite dive site because we saw manta rays and a whale shark.

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Manta ray at Koh Bon

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My first liveaboard with Liquid Adventure

 

We then moved on to Koh Tachai, which is famous for its currents. On this trip the currents weren’t bad. However, when I went out two weeks later with KSA, the currents were really strong. Talk about your underwater workout!

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Clownfish

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Koh Tachai

 

Our northernmost stop was at the world famous Richelieu Rock, which is not far from Myanmar. In high season, there can be upwards of 12 dive boats at this site including day boats. So it’s a very popular area. Luckily, at the end of the season there were only a few liveaboards around.

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Tomato clownfish at Richelieu Rock

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Cuttlefish at Richelieu Rock

 

Richelieu has so much macro that you could spend an entire dive concentrated on finding all the small critters in one area.

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Sunset dive on Richelieu Rock Banded coral shrimp

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Octopus

 

The last day consists of the wreck dives: Phra Thong and Boonsung.

The Phra Thong Wreck is relatively new, the Thai government just sank that ship in March 2014 so there isn’t a lot of variety of fishes yet. But it’s very cool.

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Wreck diving!

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Phra Thong Wreck

 

Boonsung is almost an artificial reef now, home to moray eels, scorpion fish, lion fish, and blue spotted stingrays. We also saw a leopard shark on my first trip, which was a treat. According to Simon, one of our local guides, they haven’t been spotted at this site in years.

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Moray eel at the Boonsung Wreck

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The rare leopard shark

 

Obviously, one liveaboard wasn’t enough for me so I convinced Romina to do her open water certification and we went out with Khao Lak Scuba Adventures. Both trips were fantastic experiences with wonderful people, great food, and spectacular diving. I kind of want to do my divemaster training now…

My day trip with Bruny Island Safaris

Since I only had 3 days in Tasmania and only in Hobart, I knew I had to use my time wisely. I usually avoid doing expensive day trips in Australia because you can do a lot of the activities on your own if you are clever and have your own vehicle. I am the former, but I don’t have the latter. So I knew I was going to have to go on a tour. I did what any savvy traveler does these days; I jumped on to TripAdvisor for a list of the top Hobart activities. That’s how I found Bruny Island Safaris, currently ranked #5 of 67 activities in Hobart.

I was not looking for a huge, impersonal tour company that crams you onto a bus and runs you around all day. I wanted a locally run, small company. Enter Bruny Island Safaris. Bruny Island Safaris is a relatively new tour operator on Bruny Island. The owner, Craig (who happened to by my bus driver) has been in the tourism sector for the past 10 years or so, operating on the tour boats. Bruny Island Safaris is his project. So I knew this company was about as local as it could get. And it was a food tour, and after eating crap for the past 3.5 months in Newman, I was ready for some good food!

Why Bruny Island? I know what everyone is thinking. You went to Tasmania and you didn’t do a giant hike?! Believe me, I wanted to. But in the interest of time and due to the fact that I was exhausted I opted for the bus tour. Bruny Island has a permanent population of 620 and is almost two islands, separated by a narrow isthmus known as “the Neck.” It’s renowned for its wildlife (fairy penguins, white wallaby’s, sea birds), has great coastal scenery, and is not that touristy.

On to the tour. Craig picked us all up at our Hobart accommodation around 7AM (so early for me as I was still on Perth time!) The first stop of the day was at the Nutpatch Nougat in Kettering. This place was literally a hole-in-the-wall, blink and you will miss it shop. This place is heaven on earth, locally made chocolate! I purchased a 30 set sampler that will be making it’s way back to my home in Ohio soon…

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Literally, this is a blink and you’ll miss it kind of place.

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So many to choose from!

After having our chocolate breakfast, it was time to head for the ferry to Bruny Island. We spent the bulk of the day touring Bruny Island interspersed with stops at the local shops for food tastings. The food tour included: the Bruny Island Cheese Factory, morning tea at the Hothouse café, lunch at the Bruny Hotel, and oysters at Get Shucked, and salmon tasting at the Smokehouse.

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Cheese! It was so good.

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Get Shucked! And yes, I did try an oyster.

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The salmon tasting at the Smokehouse

Bruny Island is home to awesome wildlife, including the white wallaby, a rare sighting. It’s not an albino; it’s actually white. However, we didn’t see the elusive white wallaby. We did see a normal one. I also spotted a Black- Faced Cormorant and an Australian Black Swan.

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The ‘normal’ wallaby, hiding in the grass

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Black-Faced Cormorants on the docks in Kettering

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Australian Black Swan

One of my favorite parts of the day was the visit to Cape Bruny Lighthouse, part of South Bruny National Park. It’s set among spectacular scenery.

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For our hike of the day, we climbed to the top of the Truganini Lookout for a view of “the Neck.”

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It was a fantastic day with great food tastings, wildlife spottings, short walks, and a great tour operator.

Tasmania, or the place I could live in forever

I finally quit my crazy job in Newman after 3.5 months of working at Seasons Hotel. I said goodbye to housekeeping in 40+ degree heat with glee, and got on a plane to Hobart. Tasmania, in some ways, is like New Zealand. It has lots of walking tracks and a more temperate climate than mainland Australia. I spent 3 days in Hobart, which has a hippy vibe. Any city that can support numerous used bookshops and a Saturday market selling locally made handicrafts is a place I could spend a lot more time in.

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I arrived on Saturday morning and headed to the Salamanca Market, in which everything from organic produce to tacky tourist souvenirs is sold. I picked up two woolen head wraps that I cannot wait to wear once I actually experience winter again.

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Sunday was unfortunately, half wasted due to jet lag and obnoxious people in my dorm the night before. However, I made it on the 1:30 PM Mount Wellington bus trip. Basically, the bus takes you from the visitor’s center up a winding road to the Mt. Wellington (1270 m) lookout. The view is phenomenal. That headband that I purchased the previous day came in handy here. It was –3 with the wind!

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Coming soon..my review of Bruny Island Safaris

Every town needs an animal shelter

As part of my experience living in Newman, I will now tell you all about the need for proper animal shelters. I don’t have anything else to do now as Cyclone Christine is dumping rain on us and it’s New Year’s Eve so all the stores are closed.

The hotel as been quiet the past week, which means I haven’t had that many hours. I have been using my down time to catch up on much needed rest after working 60+ hours a week leading up to Christmas. However, since I started spending time in the crew quarters, I have noticed a bunch of stray cats hanging around. For those of you that know me, I love cats. I am a cat person. So when I tell you that these cats are annoying, they are really annoying.

The main culprits are a large gray cat, Smokey or one-eye; and his partner in crime, a black cat, Yowler or battle-scarred.

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Smokey, the dominant cat in Stray Cat Society

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Yowler, the subordinate in Stray Cat Society

During the day, they have a tentative alliance, probably because it is too damn hot to do anything else.  Smokey maintains the dominant position in stray cat society with Yowler deferring to his exalted position. However, at night, all bets are off. I am often awakened to the musical sound of cats trying to rip each other apart.  It seems that Yowler has been getting the crap beat out of him because he has taken up residence outside my window to voice his displeasure.

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Smokey and Yowler during their daytime, tenuous truce

And just yesterday, Smokey and Yowler were joined by two new tabbies. So now I can look forward to more musical hissing during the night. Seriously, why does this town not have a safe place for these kitties?

#sarcasm

First month in Newman

I finally have a chance to sit down and write this post. For those of you that have been wondering what I have been doing the past month, I took a job in Newman at the Seasons Hotel for a few month. I am working in both housekeeping and the restaurant and been working a lot! The hotel was very busy leading up to Christmas.

Newman is in the East Pilbara region of Western Australia, 9 kilometers north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Newman is a modern day mining town complete with small shopping complex, a few takeaways, a post shop, a library, and a pool! It exists to support the iron-ore mines at Mount Whaleback and the population that works for BHP Billiton.

It is hot, hot, hot in Newman. I happened to arrive during the hottest part of the year; in January the temperature averages 40°C or 104°F. Apparently, Newman rivals Baghdad in terms of temperature. Now imagine pushing a cleaning trolley around 6 blocks of rooms, some of which are two floors. That’s what I do every day.

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It’s only 9:00 in the morning!

For recreational opportunities, Newman has a few walking tracks. One goes to the top of radio hill, which offers some spectacular sunsets. There’s also an outdoor swimming pool, but with temperatures over 40 degrees, the pool water isn’t exactly refreshing. The day I went it was 32°C or 90°F. And boy, you better remember your sunscreen!

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Cue the Star Wars Binary Sunset Theme Song

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Newman in a way is a victim of its own success. The mines in Western Australia have been so successful that they have driven up prices in the surrounding communities. Houses are worth about 1.2 million for the following, which is a typical ranch style home. Most casual jobs provide housing, which is what I live in.

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Ranch style home

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Seasons Crew Quarters, the shoes were left by previous staff members

Overall, there isn’t much to do in Newman, except work, work, work!

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The Newman Visitor Center

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Seasons Hotel front entrance

Rottnest, or Rotto as the locals call it

Rottnest Island or Wadjemup means “place across the water.” It is a 25 minute ferry ride away from Freemantle, and it a very popular holiday destination for Western Australians. Rottnest (or rat nest in Dutch) received its name from Dutch explorers in the 17th century who called the native marsupials giant rats. Today, it’s a hugely popular summer destination spot with crowds topping 15,000 daily.

I went on Tuesday, November 19, and Tuesdays are good days to go to Rotto because the ferry is half price ($39 instead of $75). I added a bike rental bringing the daily total to $59. The island is only 22 km to cycle around and you can go to any one of the 63 beaches and 20 bays, almost guaranteeing a relaxing day on a semi-private beach.

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I picked up my bike from the ferry terminal and took off counter-clockwise around the island. My first snorkeling/swimming stop was Little Salmon Bay. This is a sheltered beach from water and winds, and was quite calm that morning. The water was crystal clear, which made it good for snorkeling.

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After spending a while exploring Little Salmon Bay, I got back on my bike and headed to the west end of the island, Cape Vlamingh where a colony of New Zealand fur seals supposedly lives at Cathedral Rocks.

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Unfortunately, there were no fur seals that day, just a few obnoxious seagulls interested in my lunch. I continued on my way and came across one of the islands quokkas, known as the Kangaroo Rat. It’s about the size of a large housecat with a long tail. These critters have no fear of humans as the below photo shows. There will always be stupid tourists on every continent.

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My last snorkeling stop was at Little Armstrong Bay, but I didn’t stay long. I stopped for a short swim, but it was pretty windy and the flies were bad. I should have taken a page out of the local’s book. There was an elderly lady swimming around with a fly net on!

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The white pelican seeing us off on the last ferry of the day. It was a great day on a beautiful island. I just wished I had more time to spend there!

Help-x, an alternative form of travel

For the past two weeks, I have been doing help-x opportunities. The help-x network is a type of work exchange. Usually, you do a few hours of work per day (normally 4) in exchange for accommodation and food. It’s also a cultural exchange, giving you the chance to live with a local family. I enjoy them because I find that I have trouble meeting people while traveling independently. By staying with a local family, I not only save money, but I get a sense of community. I did a few help-x jobs in New Zealand, and decided to give them a try here too.

My first week was spent at a home in Waneroo, Western Australia that had two horses, Harley and Gonzo. My host, Sally, had recently injured her shoulder in a horse show and needed some help with the horses. Every morning I would get the horses ready to go out to pasteur, muck out their stables, and then do some general yard work. In the evenings, I would help with dinner. My afternoons were free; most of which I spent job hunting. I also got to bake chocolate cake for the family!

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Getting Gonzo ready in the morning

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Harley and Gonzo

During the second week, I moved to Ballajura, which is another suburb in Perth to stay with Sharon and Taipan. Taipan is a gorgeous Siberian husky, who I got to take for walks every day. The other work consisted of  weeding and housekeeping. I was luck enough to stay here because I developed a bad sinus infection, and I had my afternoons free to rest.

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Taipan, the Siberian Husky

So most of my afternoons were spent scouring Gumtree, which is like Craigslist in the U.S. for jobs. However, I did take one day trip to Rottnest Island on November 19, which is a gorgeous island 25 minutes away by ferry…

On leaving Yellowstone

I haven’t blogged in quite a while (like 1.5 years), and I need to start again before I leave for Australia, which is in 5 days. Yeah, I’m a bit of a procrastinator. But things get in the way, like life.

So to restart my blog, I will be telling you all about my last trip out of Yellowstone. I spent 5 wonderful seasons working in Yellowstone National Park, 1800 miles away from my home in Ohio, and each was very special. The rundown goes like this:

Year

Location

Job

2004 Lake Park service internship in fisheries
2005 Canyon Server at Canyon General Store
2006 Canyon Sales associate at Canyon Adventures
2012/2013 Old Faithful Server at Old Faithful Basin Store

 

I had the opportunity to work at several locations and with amazing people every year. I have so many wonderful memories of the park and my experiences (especially seeing that grizz at the Black Butte trailhead in 2012). But my last trip home was quite memorable.

I was planning to depart Yellowstone on October 1, 2013 with my mother who had so graciously agreed to help me drive home. As everyone knows, October 1, 2013 was a significant day in America in that the US government shut down. I won’t get into the politics of it, but let’s just say that the effects were felt immediately in Yellowstone. My mom and I had stayed in West Yellowstone the night of September 30 with a plan to drive through the park the next day in order to exit via the East Entrance and make our way to Cody. Well, here’s what greeted us at the West Gate in the morning of October 1:

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It was a massive mess. People, cars, buses, whatever were everywhere. No one was getting in. However, I was not deterred. I simply told the park ranger that I was an employee while pointing to the sticker on my car and we were waved on through.

Here’s what we saw on our trip to the East Entrance on Day 1 of the government shutdown:

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And on our exit from the East Entrance:

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On the road to Cody:

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And onward:

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And this too:

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Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, which I visited in 2012

 

We made it home a few days later, and now I’m frantically packing for Australia.

The Lowdown on Laos

When I started planning my trip to Southeast Asia I knew I wanted to visit more than one country before heading back to the States. The traditional backpackers route starts in Thailand, travels to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Other destinations include Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore. And if you’re really adventurous Myanmar can be included. One of the main reasons I chose Laos was that Stray Asia offered bus passes through the country, and a much more comfortable way to travel as Laos’ roads are windy and bumpy. Stray is a New Zealand company and has an extensive route in New Zealand and I knew they were reputable. And I wanted to visit Laos before it became too touristy, like Thailand has become. Laos has only been open to tourism since the 1990s, and it is probably the poorest country in Southeast Asia, but very welcoming. The people are very friendly and live a rural life in huts on stilts where livestock cross the roads and the roosters crow in the early morning. Everything is laid back here. The common phrase is “Laos time”, which roughly means whenever. So my time in Laos has been lesson in patience.The landscape is more dramatic than Thailand, but unfortunately, much of it was obscured due to to the haze.

Stunning backdrop of Nong Khiaw

I crossed the border from Thailand to Houayxai, the northern border of Laos where our orange Stray bus was waiting for us. We then traveled the length of the country to the south, ending in Don Det, one of the 4000 islands. At most locations, we stopped for only one night. The exceptions being Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. I hopped off the bus in Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site since 1995. Luang Prabang is the culture capital of Laos and is rich in French-Indochinese architecture. I spent a day walking around the city, climbing Phou Si hill and visiting Wat Xiang Thong, one of the most famous temples in Laos. I spent one day at the nearby Kouang Si waterfall, which is a 60 m waterfall that spills through a series of crystal blue pools. It’s a great place for a swim and a rope swing into the pools.

The gorgeous Kouang Si waterfall

Wat Xiang Thong in Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng was also interesting. This is the backpackers mecca of Southeast Asia. On a typical day, people rent tractor trailer tubes, load them on top of a tuk-tuk and head to the Nam Song River to go tubing. In reality, most people don’t make it more than a couple hundred meters down the river as they stop at the many riverside bars. This place is like a playground for adults. There are rope swings, high dives, and ziplines into the river, and a lot of alcohol. Needless to say, I was more interested in tubing down the river so after a few stops at the first bars, I jumped back on my tube and paddled my way down the river.

The start of tubing in Vang Vieng

Our trip through the south of Laos was only one week, and including camping by a waterfall, a homestay at the monkey village, and elephant bathing in Tad Lo. The trip ended in Don Det, which is one of the 4000 islands on the Mekong River. We took a boat trip on the Mekong to look for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins in which there are very few left. We were lucky enough to see several during our trip. Then on the ride home, our tuk-tuk ran out of gas and the driver took off towards town leaving us with the vehicle! Luckily, he came back with another tuk-tuk otherwise it would have been a very long walk back.

Homestay visit in Xe Champhone

Dolphin tour on Don Det

My trip through Laos was a bit of a blur as it was full of activities, but I hope to return one day to do some more exploring.

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