We’ve only managed to scratch the surface of Thailand, but from our very short forays into this amazing country, we like what we see. Bangkok is a pulsating, vibrant city that is always on the move. “One Night in Bangkok” lyrics have never rang so true “One Night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free. You’ll find a god in every golden cloister, And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she…I can feel an angel sliding up to me.” With lady boys and orange robed monks and from ping pong balls to mind blowing temples, Bangkok has it all. We’ve done the obligatory “get taken for a tuk-tuk ride with a side trip to visit a gem store/silk tailor/fake temple or if you aren’t willing, you’ll get stranded in the middle of nowhere” experience, wowed at the mesmerizing Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace complex, been pummeled by the traditional Thai masseuses at Wat Pho, pub crawled and danced our way down infamous Khao San Road, and hopped on a day trip to Ayutthaya. Outside of Bangkok, we’ve only managed to squeeze in a visit to Pattaya and Kho Samui. We will be back and plan to spend several months in beautiful Thailand.
27 Nov 2012: After being stuck for two days on the Costa Victoria, we were all ready for a change of scenery. Today’s port of call was an overnight at Laem Chabang, and we had the option of heading to Bangkok or Pattaya. Since everyone had already seen the highlights of Bangkok from an earlier trip, we decided to check out Pattaya (which Bob and Ann had visited almost 40 years ago). The reception of the Victoria had a cluster of people waiting to retrieve their passports so they could disembark by 8 am. It was horribly disorganized, as tempers were aflare when passengers were told they had to sign up on a list, wait for staff to retrieve their passports and ask the immigration staff to stamp them into Thailand before being allowed to retrieve their passports. Thankfully, our group managed to find out yesterday that there was a special sign up list to be able to expedite getting our passports stamped and available for retrieval in the morning, so we didn’t have to wait amongst the agitated and irate group still waiting for their passports. Very poor customer service Costa! You would think after being in the cruising business for so many years, the crew would have their act together but it was an absolute mess trying to disembark today with the complete lack of organization. After receiving our passports, we were told that we had to wait on level 6 to disembark. Bob did a quick investigation and found that wasn’t true as passengers were allowed to disembark from level 3 already. It was unbelievable how disorganized and chaotic the disembarkation scene was…we couldn’t make this stuff up! When we finally disembarked, it was 0845 and our carefully organized taxi ride for 0830 was nowhere to be found. Becky found a helpful tour guide who allowed her to use his cell phone to call the driver, and he eventually showed up (8 pax van from Laem Chabang to Pattaya for 1200 THB). The current exchange rate was 1 USD = 30.75 THB, so for about $40, all 8 of us were transported to our hotel in Pattaya…not a bad deal. It was a straightforward drive to Pattaya where our hotel, the Jasmine Hotel was centrally located just off Walking Street where all the night action in Pattaya occurs. Robby stopped by an ATM to get some money out but was not pleased at all with the ATM fees…it seemed unavoidable as he tried another machine which had very similar withdrawal fees. After checking into our rooms (quite nice for the budget price), we rushed everyone to get ready to head back out again, as we had coordinated a full day at the nearby Nong Nooch Gardens. Nong Nooch is listed as one of the top Pattaya activities with gorgeous gardens segmented into different sections, an elephant show, Thai kickboxing, a cultural show, and opportunities to take photos with parrots, tigers, deer, etc. We read that the 500 Baht per person entry fee was well worth it. The same driver who picked us up from the cruise took us to the Gardens, stopping along the way to help Anh Hai find a SD card for his camera. Nong Nooch is actually quite a distance away from Pattaya, and when we got there, our driver recommended we stop for a quick view of the clay pot garden, which actually ended up being one of the highlights of the day. Whoever dreamt up the whimsical clay pot garden has a vivid imagination, and it was a real treat to see how spectacularly the gardens are laid out. Some of it is way over the top and a bit cheesy, but overall we quite enjoyed strolling through all of the gardens. We had opportunities to feed elephants (a huge bunch of bananas for 40 BHT), and feeding the baby elephant was particularly fun. Our group was having a hard time sticking together so we decided to cut everyone loose for the next 2 hours (before the next cultural/elephant show), so that everyone could explore at their leisure. We climbed Ant’s Tower for a bird’s eye view of the entire park, and headed over to the car exhibit followed by the tree top pavilion, Stonehenge garden, and the petting zoo before making our way back to the food court where we had some cheap and delicious Pad Thai. Seats for the cultural show filled up fast, but we managed to get decent seats as a group to watch the traditional dancers, kickboxers, and war costumed elephants put on a cultural show, which was immediately followed by the elephant show (in an adjacent area). The elephants demonstrated their skills at basketball, soccer, darts, dancing, and painting. We were all quite impressed with how smart and talented these magnificent beasts are. Every opportunity to sneak some bananas from the crowd was taken, and we laughed as several visitors were caught unawares by an elephant trunk seeking out bananas from those sitting in the front row…very funny! Volunteers from the crowd got to experience an “elephant massage” and photo opportunities with the elephants were plentiful. We decided that we had enough of the park after the show, so we headed over to the parking lot to link back up with our driver for the ride back to Pattaya by mid-afternoon. Back at the Jasmine Hotel, Bob was keen on getting caught up on email, while the rest of us wanted to explore Walking Street and the beach area. We read that Walking Street is not for the faint hearted and may not be enjoyable for all, but found it rather tame. Granted, that was during daylight hours but even as the day transformed into night, we didn’t feel like it was a crazy, out of control destination. Pattaya’s beach is miniscule, and lots of street shopping opportunities were available, so the relatives took their time browsing through souvenirs while we split off in search of a lamb kebab. Making our own cocktails was next on the agenda, so we hit up a 7 Eleven for some ice, and transformed our room into the party place with Robby mixing up mojitos and margaritas for all. Later on in the night, the guys and girls split up for their own separate entertainment and we all noticed that Walking Street became considerably busier as the night wore on. A table full of tourist police taking in complaints from a huge range of people warned us to be on our guard, as it appeared that some of the tourists complaints ranged from being fleeced out of money, to being pickpocketed, etc. It was a rough looking crowed lined up in front of the tourist police complaint area! The boys’ night consisted of tequila shots, street kebabs, go go girls dancing in the windows and street shows. The girls’ night out was tamer but both groups managed to stumble upon each other by the beach front…Pattaya is a small town! It was a late night as everyone did their own thing in fun and lively Pattaya.
28 Nov: We slept in until our rumbling tummies demanded food. Di Tam had just scoped out a noodle soup stand down the road so she recommended we stop by there for a bowl of hot, steaming soup which was a great suggestion as it was tasty and cheap (30 THB per bowl). Lady boys on towering high heels stumbled past and they appeared to have had a rough night. We headed back to the hotel to sort out our stuff before linking up just before noon with our taxi van for the shuttle to the cruise. Luckily, during our time in Pattaya we had decent weather because no sooner had all of us loaded into the van when a torrential downpour pummeled our ride all the way back to the port. It made for dangerous driving as we were a bit afraid of hydroplaning but our taxi driver was quite experienced and kept us all safe. It was a breeze to board the Victoria and we decided to hit the hot tub since everyone else was seeking drier conditions…we had the entire deck 11 to ourselves. The rest of our day was spent relaxing on the cruise as we left Laem Chabang and cruised towards Ko Samui.
29 Nov: Today’s port of call was a half day in Ko Samui, but the overcast day threatened to damper our plans. We woke and had breakfast early, informing the rest of the family that we would catch the first tender to town to see about hiring motorbikes to get around the island. It took about 45 minutes for the first tender to fill up, so we really didn’t save much time as the second tender was a few minutes behind us. Upon arriving to Nathorn Port, the dark clouds unleashed their fury, and we had a torrential downpour in mere minutes, with puddles collecting by our feet. Motorbikes did not look promising, but the large 12 pax vans sure did. After negotiating with several taxi drivers by the port side, the best deal we struck was a 5 hour tour for all 8 of us for $100, visiting all of the island’s main highlights. No one was keen on riding motorbikes in the rain, not to mention how dangerous it would have been due to poor road conditions. Our first stop of the morning was to Na Muang One waterfall, which is easily accessed by car. This first waterfall is only 18 meters tall, but with the morning’s heavy rains, it was quite powerful and we could barely take any photos due to the strong mist. Apparently there is another waterfall, referred to as Na Muang Two, which is quite tall at 80 meters, but it requires a 30 minute hike. Since time was limited, we felt that the first waterfall was sufficient. Our driver hailed from the village closest to Na Muang, and his wife was busy in the parking lot frying bananas and sweet potatoes, so we bought some from her, making for a tasty morning snack. Next stop was at the Wat Khunaram temple, where the mummified body of the island’s best known monk, Loung Pordang can be seen, sunglasses and all. We wanted to visit the Secret Buddha Magic Garden but our driver said it was inland up a mountain and would require 4WD so reluctantly, we gave it a miss and headed over towards Lamai beach. Lamai is the site where the natural geological formations known as Hin Ta and Hin Yai (the “Grandfather” and “Grandmother” rocks which incidentally look like male and female genitalia) can be found. Robby stuck a funny pose next to Hin Ta rock, much to the delight of fellow Costa Victoria passengers who followed suit. Souvenir stands lined the pedestrian path to Lamai beach, and we browsed through their offerings. Ann couldn’t resist beautiful paintings of Paris and Venice, so after a furious session of negotiation and $200 lighter, she was the proud owner of two lovely souvenirs. We had a quick stop at Chaweng Beach, one of Ko Samui’s most popular beaches. Since the weather was overcast, we didn’t linger too long. Yesterday had been Loi Kratong (Festival of Floats), and float decorations were still visible on the lake behind Chaweng Beach. We were gutted to have missed the festival by one day! From Chaweng Beach, we drove north to see the island’s most popular tourist attraction, the Big Buddha Temple which stands 15 meters tall. Built in 1972, this landmark has been drawing tourists in by the hordes. There were several scrap metal art stores with massive sculptures of Aliens, Terminators, and Transformers…very cool! We stopped by to check out these amazing recycled scrap metal works of art and were quite impressed with the quality and workmanship (contact firstname.lastname@example.org) if interested. The Big Buddha Temple was definitely worth a visit, but the Vietnamese relatives seemed more intent on finding food than visiting Buddha. No surprise that Anh Hai had scored a decent noodle soup in the few spare minutes he had to wander around this area. Our last stop of our tour was at Fishermen’s Village, which is a quiet and charming area of Ko Samui. Apparently the time to be here is on a Friday night where the entire area is transformed into an open air night market…very lively. Our visit on a Thursday morning was subdued, with tourists gathered at cafes lounging their time away. Since the last boat tender was scheduled for 3:15 pm for a 4 pm departure, we decided to head back to Nathron Port for our last hour on the island for a bit of drinking for the boys and shopping for the girls. The hour flew by (no real shopping bargains to be had here…we found much better deals in Pattaya) and we joined the massive group in queue for the last tenders back to the Victoria. Overall, we rather enjoyed our whirlwind introductory tour of Ko Samui and would not hesitate to return here to spend more time becoming acquainted with the island (the Magic Garden up in the mountains and buffalo fighting sounded intriguing). Our tender captain had a hell of a time lining our tender up with the Costa and had to make several attempts before he was successful. When we finally were back on board the cruise, we went through our usual routine of finding the best afternoon snacks to accompany our drinks, followed by a show and late dinner. Bob opted to spend tonight alone as he was drinking in honor of the lost souls at sea taken during the 3 November 1989 Typhoon Gay which sank the drillship Seacrest. The typhoon created winds of 100 knots and 40 foot waves. Bob lost many close friends and coworkers on that vessel (91 fatalities out of 97 crewmembers with 6 survivors), when it sank at the Platong Gas Field in the Gulf of Thailand. The Costa Victoria was sailing right past the Platong Gas Field, so Bob, armed with a bottle of tequila, was quietly commemorating the event in his own way. It was a somber memory of one of the only typhoons in 40 years to hit the Gulf of Thailand, wrecking complete havoc in its wake (hundreds of sunken fishing vessels, over 160,000 homeless and 529 killed).