Updated: Jan 18, 2020
“Where is he now? Have you heard from him?”
I’m trying to text with Susie & Skylar while keeping my bleary eyes open as I am walking around a sketchy and surprisingly busy corner of Bangkok at 2:37 AM. There are panhandlers wandering around, a few normal looking folks and some young women on blankets sitting on the sidewalk having a picnic.
Jazz had landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport an hour or so ago after traveling about 30 hours in
planes designed for people under 4’ 8”, and his texts seemed a tad grumpy. He’d hit all the usual snags: finding a bathroom, getting a SIM card, getting local currency, hailing a ride, etc. He finally procured a GRAB (like Uber) but the driver claimed the address of our Airbnb was invalid. So another flurry of texts flew back and forth with the address, (and photos!) of the nearby 7-11, train station and café with giant billboard – Hong Kong Noodle. None of this seemed to help the hapless driver who pulled over twice to look on his phone and drove up & down many dark & seedy looking side streets. It was really a straight shot on 4 lane divided highway! After more wandering he dropped Jazz off in a dingy alley that was near the back of our building, but without a direct path to get there, and he started walking towards the main highway.
“He’s at the 7-11” now.”
“Well I am at the 7-11 and I don’t see him” - as I scrutinize the two dozen assorted
characters loitering around at 3 in the morning. A couple seem to be filling out lottery forms. Another flurry of texts to determine if we are at the same 7-11! There is also a small café next door called 5-11. I guess they open earlier.
Finally – I walk around the snack aisle one more time and run right into him! I swear he is 2 inches taller than last June! Yay! Back to the room for some much-needed rest. But first a couple of hot pockets….
It was wonderful to have our family back together for the first time since we left Florida in June. After a day of rest we walked across the street to Hua Lamphong Station, the main railway hub in Bangkok, purchased tickets and boarded an “express” train heading north to Ayutthaya. The cars were clean inside and out, having just been hosed and scrubbed while we sat on the platform, and were not crowded when we departed, fairly close to schedule.
Even before the engine pulled away there was a steady stream of women selling drinks, fruit
and other snacks of an indeterminate nature. We declined. Bangkok is a very large city and apparently has many smaller stations as the train stopped often before we cleared the town, taking on more passengers until it was quite full. No A/C so all the windows were open with a steady warm breeze flowing through the cars, which was perfectly fine for us Floridians. However, there was also dirt and smoke in the air much of the time – probably from the engine – and that started to make some eyes and lungs burn a bit. Still, the 2 hour ride was not bad and we were pulling into the small station at our destination.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 by King U Thong and is the former capital of Siam, located about 65 km north of Bangkok. Strategically located on land surrounded by 3 rivers it grew to be a global center of commerce and diplomacy with a population reaching 1 million souls around 1700. The city was laid out in a systematic grid and used advanced hydraulic system for water management. Foreigners from France, India, Japan & China served as ambassadors and merchants, building enclaves bearing their home country styles, and serving a thriving international trade.
The Burmese army attacked in 1767 and burned Ayutthaya to the ground, forcing all
inhabitants who did not escape into slavery. The city was not rebuilt in the same location and remains an archaeological ruin, which is recognized internationally as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins, characterized by the prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries, give an idea of the city's past splendor.
After a short ride in a tuk tuk we settled into Tamarind Guest House, a nice little multi story wooden place with many levels and shaky floors. It was still early so we popped over to the river to take a boat tour circumnavigating around the old city, with stops at several of the larger temple ruins. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny – as we cruised along, admiring the contrast between centuries-old ruins, modern day hotels and homes, and shanty-style residences along the river. We also passed two trains of large barges pulled by small tugboats, likely heading down to Bangkok. One seemed to be loaded with military vehicles & supplies.
The fabulous palaces and temples were built with influences from the Khmer and Sri Lanka
cultures, using gold and gems mined from the mountains and wood from teak, mahogany & ebony trees. The wars with Burma destroyed many of the structures and burned all the wood, so that temple ruins are all that remain in most sites, although the existing structures are still very impressive. Here is a good article on some of the ruins. We also visited several “modern day” Buddhist temples & monasteries that are currently in operation, with beautiful statues and wood columns and planking. Walking back to our rooms at twilight we stopped at an outdoor café for some local fare, then back for some rest. Tomorrow is Elephant Day! (see previous post)
Saturday Dec 21, 2019 – Breakfast at a nice little café in front of Tamarind, and then a tuk tuk ride over to the Ayotha Floating Market, a short ways east of the old city, where the new town of Ayutthaya was rebuilt. After debarking our ride, we were unsure what we were looking at. No lake or river in sight - just appeared to be another collection of shops and stalls selling the usual stuff. After some frustrating attempts at directions Susie paid someone 100 baht each and they pointed towards another aisle. What it turned out to be was yet another large collection of stores and stalls selling the usual food & trinkets, with a
little pond in the middle. But it was full of some huge, weird looking catfish. Floating Market indeed! More like Branson, Mo or Gatlinburg, Tn! So we walked around, had a mango shake, and watched some young Thais put on a representation of one of the battles – with the Burmese? The loud narration was all in Thai. Oh well – another experience!
Back to the room to pack, and back to the train, and back to Bangkok, and a little place called Chill House close to Don Mueng Airport. Sadly there were not enough beds – only 2 double beds for 4 of us, and some bickering about who slept with whom! On a bright note, we got a pizza by Grab, and it was the BEST we have had in many moons! Very cheesy and delicious!
Up early next morning and over to the airport where we board a colorful Air Asia jet heading south to the port town Surathani on the east side of the peninsula. Next is a cab ride to the harbor where the Raja ferry docks, and we get our tickets stamped and join the queue to board. We watch as the large old vessels pulls in and unloads several hundred people and many trucks and cars. On we go, with Susie & I sitting outside on the top deck and the kids go inside to look for snacks.
This is a SLOW old vessel, and takes almost 2 hours to reach our first port at Koh Samui. (Later we hear the story of how 2 ferry boat captains from rival companies were fined for racing their vessels across the straits. Ha. Some race at about 7 knots!) Back at sea for our last leg of another hour or so, and as we are pulling into the docks at Koh Phangan I see our
good friends Bo & Pu waving from the next pier.
We have known Bo for many years. We lived in the same neighborhood in Ft. Lauderdale and his daughter Alexa and Skylar were great friends growing up. He had an ironworking shop in FTL where he created some beautiful art and ornamental iron using old smithy methods. 3 years ago he moved to Thailand and married Pu, a lovely woman, and they settled on Koh Phangan.
These islands are truly the embodiment of tropical paradise. Small rocky and mountainous, they are part of the Chumphon Archipelago in he western portion of the Gulf of Thailand. Ocean water tempers the climate with an average daily high of 83 F and low of 78, and a rainy season during October & November. Most of the population resides near the coast with a few dwellings and businesses in the hilly interior, with large portions protected as national parks.
Koh Phangan and neighboring islands were pretty isolated until the ‘60s, relying on fishing, coconut farming and some tin mining for subsistence. Tourism has far outstripped other revenue streams in the last couple of decades, with everything from local bungalows & hostels to luxurious resorts. Diving and snorkeling have become very popular and Koh Phangan has gained notoriety for the Full Moon Parties with all the usual (and more) craziness.
The ferry docks in Thong Sala, the main town on the south end of Koh Phangan (KP). We loaded our stuff into Pu’s Toyota and drove through town to a local food court for dinner, then to a grocery. It felt like driving through Key West on a holiday weekend. Then up the Middle Road to Villa Cha Cha, on Haad Salad (Salad Beach) near the SW tip of the island. The main road is new and well maintained but the side roads are not so good, paved or dirt, with sharp hills and curves.
Villa Cha Cha was a lovely resort set on the north end of the beach in a little bay, with a nice
western view of the sunset. Our 2nd floor room had a nice view of the pool and beach beyond, and the never-ending construction next door! Despite the noise, everyone was ready to rest after a long day of traveling.
Next day Bo drove over & picked us up & we headed over to Chaloklum, the village where Bo & Pu live for lunch, and to see their sweet little Thai bungalow built on stilts, with parking for the car & motorbikes below. Their place felt very comfortable, decorated with twinkling lights and many of his beautiful ornamental iron pieces.
Now it was time to check in with Lotus Divers nearby, who would be getting Jazz & Skylar certified as Open Water SCUBA divers. We met the owner and filled out the requisite paperwork and made arrangements for the dive shop to pick them up next morning for classes. The course would typically take 3 days: class & pool work the first day, and 2 tank dives each subsequent day. First day went fine, and Susie observed some of the time from a window built into the pool wall. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner on the beach at Villa Cha Cha, watching the sunset, and then sat around playing Rummikub (tiles).
Christmas Day! And we are going diving! Sail Rock is one of the premier dive spots of these islands – about and hour’s ride from the pier. I have elected to dive today also, joining about 2 dozen other divers of varying experience. Jazz & Sky are diving with their class instructor. I am grouped with a young German woman who has not been diving in 5 years and seems uncertain with her equipment. Also 2 experienced men slightly younger than me and our dive master.
Sail Rock is a rocky pinnacle then projects out of the water about 13 meters and is unremarkable in shape – thus the name? (hey – I didn’t name it). The sea floor is 33 meters below, so most divers spend their time between the surface and 18 meters, which is the max depth for an Open Water cert. When our boat pulled up there were already 3 or 4 large dive boats moored, so we tied up to the stern of the last boat and proceeded to gear up.
Our group did the giant-step off the boat and into the sea, which was a pleasant 28 C for me in a shorty wet suit. When we finally descended there were only 4 of us as one guy had a faulty BCD that kept inflating and holding him at the surface. We stayed close to the pinnacle as we followed our leader, and that proved to require constant attention as the visibility was terrible and there were many other divers around. The German lass had some trouble with her buoyancy and breathing as well I suspect as she ran out of air in half the time we usually take. I did see several large schools of small barracuda and a few very large ones in a little pocket in the coral.
Back onboard for lunch break and a rest – then back in the water. This time we have a new guy with us with his own equipment. Back down for a swim around the rock in the other direction. In a few places the current was stronger, and vis was better, but still not great. And even more crowded. About 20 minutes (again) we surface, and our dive master tells the 3 of us guys we can continue until out of air, if we like, while she takes the woman back. Highly unorthodox. But we go back down for a short while, but it is just too crowded – so back to the boat. Jazz & Skylar had a successful dive! Everything went as planned and they were ready for their last day of diving which would be 2 days later on Thursday.
We were all feeling a little lazy the day after Christmas, so we just hung around the resort,
walking the beach and swimming in the pool. Feels good to be a slug sometimes! Next day Jazz & Sky went off for their final dives while we hung out at the resort. Skylar was not real keen on going as she had suffered from some sea lice stings on the previous dives. This is something that has plagued Susie a lot in recent years and we were not happy to see Skylar react as well. Also called sea nettles, they are the larvae from a certain jellyfish. I occasionally feel them but never really bothers me or leaves a mark. In any case, they both completed their courses and are now SSI Open Water Certified! WooHoo! Congrats!
Saturday was moving day. We are just moving down to Cookie’s Salad Rresort at the south end of Haad Salad. It’s a short walk on the beach but a long walk over steep, hilly roads. Villa Cha Cha was a nice place but the endless construction on their own property from 7am until 11pm was just inexcusable.
Since moving is such fun, Jazz & I elected to rent motorbikes and explore the island whilst the women handle the moving logistics. So off we go on two – wait for it – Honda Clicks! The main roads are fine and traffic is light compared to many places we’ve been, so driving on
the left was not really a challenge. We first drove to Sadet Ko Phangan National Park in the middle of the island and hiked a trail along a stream to a small waterfall. Nice forest and foliage, with a decent altitude gain. (highest point on island is about 660 meters). I brought my drone along but the first sign we see says NO DRONES.
Back to the north end we take a side road to the east to see what the beaches look like that way. One place has a small parking lot by the road and a cable & pulley system next to it, ostensibly to cart luggage up and down the hill. We hoofed it down to the beach which was gorgeous – white sand, turquoise water with palm trees everywhere. And lots of people. Ok – onward.
Do you remember reading/seeing Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd? “You’ll shoot your eye out!” is the catchphrase. Well, every time I have suggested renting a motorbike since we have been traveling that is basically what I have heard. This was in the back of my mind as I was lying underneath the bike on my side, with the engine still running and rear tire spinning! Darn it – I hate it when they can say “I told you so”!
Where we parked there was a sharp drop of about 4” between the pavement edge and the dirt shoulder. I had gotten the front wheel onto the pavement and was revving the engine to get the rear wheel up, but just a tad too much when it finally grabbed the pavement and shot over to the other side. Geez. And now the ignition was locked, as was the steering. Took us a while to figure out how to unlock it and get back on the road. I had a minor scrape on one leg and the trim on the bike floorboard was loose on one side. Coulda been worser…..!!!
Time for lunch break at a yummy sandwich shop in Chaloklum, then over to the NW area and an easy hike to Wangsai Waterfall. Pretty place that would be nicer with more water flow. Nobody around so we got the drone out and practiced a bit. No crashes! Drove on over to Ko Ma Resort, which looks out on a little Ko Ma Island. There was a submerged sandbar between the mainland beach and the island, and a steady stream of folks wading out and
back, with water up to their hips.
Now back to Cookie’s Salad Resort to check out the new digs. We parked at the top of the hill & walked down, and it is a long and steep ways to the beach! Jazz had a room near the top and Susie, Sky & I had a room near the beach. Both rooms were spacious with comfy beds and great showers, and had fabulous views of the bay and beach, and nearby split-level pool. A large, partially covered wooden deck served as the restaurant and common lounging area, overlooking the beach and massage station.
Next day was Sunday (Dec 29th) and Jazz took the ferry back to Koh Samui to meet his girlfriend Kelsey, who was flying in from North Carolina. (after another marathon flight plan!) He found out quite a bit more about how the ferries operate on “island time”, but eventually made the connections and met Kelsey at the airport. Too late for a return ferry so they spent the night there and caught the ferry back on Monday.
Meanwhile Bo & Pu took us to the Art Market in Thong Sala, which was an eclectic collection of shops selling clothes, jewelry, paintings, sculptures & food. Several musicians were singing
and playing acoustic instruments in an area with some benches, and the atmosphere and people walking around was a cross between Asheville, Haight Street, Ft Lauderdale Beach and Amsterdam. Skylar bought a nice wrap and I found some scrumptious caramel-chocolate brownies, and we listened to a big band play a few tunes before leaving for home.
Jazz & Kelsey made it back to KP on Monday and it was wonderful to see her again! They borrowed Pu’s motorbike and used it to scoot around the island – without mishap! That evening Bo & Pu drove us out to Zen Beach on the west side where they have a drum circle every evening at sunset. It was well underway when we arrived just as the sun was going down and enjoyed the ambience for a couple hours before everyone dispersed.
Well – here we are at the last day of 2019. We all gathered at Cookie’s for a special buffet
NYE dinner and drinks, then got out the tiles for a few games until midnight. The resort played music over their sound system, then brought in a guitar player for about 30 minutes at 10:30! Go figure. All in all, a wonderful way to ring in the new year with family & friends!
Time to say goodbye to Bo & Pu as we are moving on to Koh Tao, the next island. The resort taxi driver warned us there might be 700 people on the ferry and be careful because it might tip over. Wait – what?!?! He dropped us off at the ferry docks at 9 am, where we saw huge crowds of mostly 25-year-olds milling around. I was volunteered to go up to the office and get our “will call” tickets and joined a small mob off to the side of the humongous mob.
After finally getting the tickets our mob moved to the pier where we missed the cutoff for the first boat by about 50 people. Another 45 minutes of standing in the sun and we boarded the next boat – not really a ferry as there are no vehicles – and somewhat faster than the big ferry.
Koh Tao has similar geography to Koh Samui & Koh Phangan but is smaller, and caters more to divers and beach goers, rather than the Full Moon ravers. Still plenty of young backpackers, as well as older travelers. The streets around the harbor were similar to other beachside villages with a profusion of dive shops, tattoo parlors, clothes, souvenirs and eateries. Of, and motorbike rental shops. Naroua Villa sent a driver to collect us in their new Toyota pickup and off we went – up another series of steep mountain roads into the tropical jungle.
Naroua Villa is a group of individual buildings on a steep fill, with tall concrete pillars supporting the downhill side of the structures. Our 2 story, 3 bedroom villa was absolutely gorgeous with full length windows looking out over the hillside and ocean beyond – perfect view of the sunset. After dark it was amazing to see the lights of dozens of fishing boats in the distance, trying for sardines and squid.
Jazz & Kelsey rented a motorbike and explored the island, taking snorkel gear with them. We all took a day trip around the island on a longtail boat, stopping at several places to hike, snorkel and eat lunch. The water was warm and clear and there were plenty of tropical fish and large coral heads. Back at the room I practiced with the drone, getting a little video of the hillside. Friday night Kelsey treated us to dinner at Barracuda – a very swank restaurant with delicious food, impeccable service and a beautiful outdoor setting. Jazz had grilled
barracuda, which he pronounced perfect.
Monday (Jan 6) Jazz, Kelsey & I got up very early to go fishing with Marc Bell & his company Fishing Koh Tao. We boarded his 13 meter diesel-powered wooden fishing boat at 6am and started putting westward, with the eastern sky just starting to brighten. Marc immediately set out 3 lines to troll as we headed out to a wreck to catch bait, and instructed us to keep watch.
Shortly thereafter the port rod began singing as line was pulled from the reel. Jazz grabbed the rod and started trying to reel it in but had to help the reel by pulling the line in with his left hand. The pilot had not slowed down and the drag could not overcome the tension, which seemed rather too steady to me to be a gamefish. After a 10 minute “fight” Jazz boated a large mass of seaweed, that was cleared from the lure and sent back out.
15 minutes later as the sun was peeking up and Jazz had gone for coffee, the same rod began singing again. I grabbed it out of the holder and saw that the line was peeling off
much faster than the boat speed. Under Marc’s direction I tightened the drag a bit – then held on. Marc pronounced that it was a sailfish, and a moment later I did see a sailfish jump, off to port and about 5 miles away! (it seemed). No more jumps after that, but it was quite strong and we had to motor after it to get line back on the reel, before it tired enough to bring near the boat. Once it was close enough to grab the leader, Marc & the pilot both gaffed it and brought it aboard.
These sails run larger than the Atlantic sailfish off Florida and are not nearly as brightly colored. I felt bad that it was gaffed and kept, but they eat every fish they catch here so they don’t go to waste. This one would be salted and dried.
We had no more good hits on the trolled lures before we got to the wreck, about 2 hours offshore. Marc caught some sardines on tiny jigs, and then rigged them on other rods for us to fish at varying depths. Jazz & Kelsey both caught some nice red snapper while I just had my bait stolen. After loading up on sardines in the live bait well we headed back towards a sandbar near shore, trolling again but hooking nothing but weeds.
We heard the same refrain from Marc that we have heard everywhere: It’s not like it was 20 years ago. I suppose that is true for all types of activities, from fishing to diving to hiking to visiting historic locations. There are more people on this planet, and more of them are getting out and traveling around. I can say the same thing about many places I have been years ago, and our kids will say it in the future.
Arriving at the sandbar Marc rigged up one rod with a large & lively sardine and a small
block of Styrofoam to act as a bobber, that would break in half if pulled very hard. This rig was floated out behind the boat and we all tried to keep it in sight, which was not easy in the bright sun shining on a slight chop. Somehow, we missed it when the Styrofoam was pulled under and split, but everyone notice the big sailfish leap from the water nearby! Jazz grabbed the rod and began reeling furiously, but when he got the slack pulled up the fish was gone. ☹ Turned out to be the last strike of the day – so we pulled in the gear and headed back to the dock. Overall it was a great trip, with perfect weather and fish in the boat, and some sailfish & snapper for us to take with us.
Susie & Skylar had gone to a local island cooking class during the afternoon, and had made some delicious Pad Tai, curry and mango/sticky rice. They brought that home and Susie cooked up the snapper with the curry sauce for a delicious dinner with local Thai foods.
Tuesday found us just lying about and enjoying the pool, until late afternoon when we went down to the village to walk along the streets & beach and have a drink as the sun sank into the Gulf. Back up the street to a BBQ/Mexican restaurant that looked very tempting but turned out to be very mediocre. One of the few places I’ve seen that had a drag club among the bars & shops!
All good things must end, or so they say, and on Wednesday we packed up and rode back to the docks to catch a boat back to the airport. This time it was a “fastboat” that maybe held 200. Much faster than the ferry boat but not like the ones in Bali with six outboards. Susie and I sat up on the back deck and watched a beautiful flaming sunrise over the Gulf of Thailand as we said goodbye to Koh Tao. Stopping at Koh Phangan we dropped off a few and took on many, filling all seats to capacity for the final run to Koh Samui.
After debarking we walked to a nearby café for iced coffee and pastries. Then a tuk tuk ride to the airport, which turned out to be a very cool place. Ticketing and luggage drop are in one area, and then a long outdoor walk through upscale shops and cafes to the small terminal, which had free drinks and snacks, and the cleanest restrooms ever, with an aquarium inside each one!
I love Bangkok Airways! Their people on the ground have always been extremely courteous and helpful. The planes are clean and comfortable, and maybe seats are not so close together. Or maybe just that these flights were shorter. Hour and a half to Bangkok and we even had meal service. At each end of the flight we took a tram from the terminal to the plane, which was sitting out on the tarmac.
Landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport in SE Bangkok we procured a taxi to get to the nearby
hotel, located on a busy 4 lane street. After cleaning up we walked to a nearby market where everyone browsed the many different stalls to find something to eat. We passed on the fish heads, squid and insects, opting instead for BBQ chicken, curry, mango shakes, and various other treats. Back at the room Jazz packed up & got a taxi back to the airport because his flight out was that evening.
Next morning was Skylar’s turn, so after breakfast at the hotel she was off. Susie & Kelsey and I had the rest of the day before our flights, so we walked to a couple of nearby Buddhist temples to explore, checked out a catfish farm in a small local canal and had lunch at a small café. Then off to the airport for us as well, where we bid a fond farewell to Kelsey and headed off to deal with immigration.
We were one day over on our visas, but all the immigration officials did was send us to a different desk 10 feet away and give us a disapproving scowl. No fine or panalty. A stamp in our passport and we’re on our way to Cambodia!
(more pics on Photos pages)