Thailand – Bangkok & Ko Samui

Our time in Thailand seemed to fly by! 3 days in Bangkok followed by 6 nights in Ko Samui and it felt like we only scratched the surface of what Thailand has to offer. Bangkok was a fun stop as always. We stayed near the Democracy monument at Paragon One Residence which was a central, cheap and comfortable base to explore this crazy chaotic city. The backpacker district of Khao San Road, Golden Mount, Royal Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, and Wat Pho were all within easy walking distance so we avoided getting ripped off by tuk-tuks on this visit to Bangkok. Since we were craving Chinese, we hopped over to Chinatown and indulged in delicious roasted pork and duck. The group was keen on checking out a ping pong show but after a bit of research, we realized the women involved are severely exploited, so we decided to forego it to hang out in the Patpong go-go bar district instead. We were also able to catch a ladyboy show at the excellent Playhouse Magical Cabaret – two huge thumbs up! Excellent performances and absolutely no hassle from the ladyboys for tips afterwards. Getting there was an experience and gave us a tiny sampling of Bangkok’s nightmare traffic situation…we had to take a combination of public bus, 2 km sprint to the nearest MRT to hop on the metro for the final push out to the Chatuchak Park area. Total distance was under 20 km but we sat in traffic for almost 2 hours! Can you imagine having to contend with a daily commute around Bangkok? No way. On our final day in Bangkok, we got to reunite with Nancy, our friend from numerous Afghan and Iraq deployments…it was so great seeing her in a non-combat zone! We had a few hours to kill before our late afternoon train ride down to Surat Thani so we decided to check out the Dusit zoo. On our way there, we stumbled upon the old Parusakawan Palace (free) which was worth a quick detour. The zoo was a fun place to spend a few hours but the poor lions! They definitely need to be given a huge upgrade stat! Our night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani was OK – the least comfortable of all the night trains we have taken to date. The lights stayed on all night long, the ride was bumpy and there wasn’t any AC (only a fan which wasn’t effective next to the privacy curtain in each sleeper compartment). Once at Surat Thani, our group split up. Lars, Helen and Ant headed to Ko Toh while the rest of us hopped on a shuttle to the Songserm Don Sak Pier where we caught a ferry to Ko Samui, our home for nearly a week. Our hotel was the very pleasant Samui Beach Resort on Lamai Beach…a bit of a walk to get to the touristy zone but that suited us just fine. Lamai had all the entertainment we needed – female muay thai kickboxing, fire dancing, excellent Thai and western restaurants and a beautiful sandy beach. Our one day trip to Angthong National Marine Park was worth the detour for the views alone! Spectacular although the snorkeling is nothing to write home about. We were blessed with excellent weather during our beach week getaway and before we knew it, we were reluctantly meeting the group for our onward travel to Malaysia. Goodbye Thailand – can’t wait to see you again soon!

13 Sep – Welcome to Thailand! We exited Cambodia and entered into Thailand at the Baan Khlong Luk border. No fuss and we were back on the bus by 2 pm for the long onward drive to Bangkok. Stops were few and far between, and it started to downpour as we neared the capital city. Traffic grew increasingly chaotic as we got closer to Bangkok, and it took well over an hour in congestion to reach our destination near Khao San Road. By the time we arrived, it was 7:30 pm and we were ready to get off the bus. Tig took us on a 15 minute march to our lodging for the next few nights, the Paragon One Residence near the Democracy Monument. This bare bones hotel seemed really strict and no-nonsense. There were plenty of signs indicating the hefty fines that would be added on for any “damages” incurred, such as staining our white bed sheets/bath towels, or losing our room key! However, the rooms were kept immaculately clean, the AC ran cold and most importantly, our room was bed-bug free so we were happy! After dropping off our gear, our first priority was hitting Khao San Road in search of an ATM. All of the machines appeared to charge a 200 TB fee (just under $6) per transaction! Pretty outrageous fee to access our own money so we did our best to calculate how much we needed for our duration in Thailand. Hopefully this will be our one only ATM transaction over the next 9 days! Dinner was at the petite Khaosan House Bar & Restaurant (excellent Pad Thai).

14 Sep – No major plans for today so we decided to sleep in till 10 am. Since we’ve been to Bangkok numerous times, we figured we’d hit some new places this go around. First destination was the Golden Mount where we were able to grab cheap bowls of duck noodle soup from the street vendors at the base of the mount. After checking off breakfast, we climbed the hill for a nice panoramic view over the city. Next up on our walking tour was the Giant Swing next to Wat Suthat Thep Wararam. Then we made our way to the Corrections Museum but it was closed for renovations so we made our way through the Sempang Lane Market. From there, we got lost in Chinatown’s old market area leading to the Chinatown Gate. After weeks of eating Vietnamese and Cambodian food, we were craving Chinese and this was the place to meet our needs! We found the most popular local joint, and had to wait to get a shared table. Several orders of braised duck, crispy roasted pork and grilled Chinese sausage hit the spot and we left Chinatown with big smiles on our faces. After a quick cool down in our room, we headed back out to the Museum of Siam but discovered it was closed for renovations. Consolation prize was to walk through the nearby vegetable and flower market, followed by a quick pit stop at the Pak Khlong Talat waterfront. Then we wandered by our old favorites of Wat Pho and the Royal Palace (no need to revisit since we’ve been multiple times). Unbelievably, the only 2 people we had run into today were Gill and Denise near the vegetable and flower market. Everyone in our group seemed content to do their own thing while in Bangkok and that suited us just fine. By this time, it was dusk so we figured it was food time. indicated there was a local street food market just a few minutes away from our hotel but that looked completely dead so we walked over to another area that we had spotted on our walkabout earlier today. Roasted duck for dinner…yum! Yes, we might have a slight obsession with duck as it dawned on us that this was our 3rd meal with duck for the day!! The McDonalds near our hotel lured us in for ice-cream, and the 7-Eleven sucked us in for drinks. Robby bought what he thought was cheap beer. Imagine his surprise when the beverage turned out to be a sweet white wine! No thanks. Denise seemed to think it was OK so Robby happily donated it to her. Our original plans for the night were to hit Patpong for a ping-pong show but after reading dozens of reviews filled with horror stories about getting scammed out of money and how depressingly sad it was to watch the girls demean themselves, we decided to give it a miss. Instead, the night evolved into hanging out at a go-go bar in Patpong for Robby, Tig, Gill and Denise with Helen and Ant showing up later. The main strip of Patpong was a bit to tacky for everyone’s taste with pricey beer and a seedy atmosphere. So the gang relocated a few streets over to the Gay district which was a great idea because it was way more pleasant with better beer prices. Win-win! As luck would have it, we were across the street from a bar performing a drag show. Denise and Robby scored street level tables and were able to watch the entire show for free!

15 Sep – Another free day today! So of course we had another lie in this morning. Breakfast was at a nearby noodle joint where you guessed it, we had duck soup! In the afternoon, we forced ourselves to venture out for lunch near Khao San Road. Becky couldn’t resist a bit of window shopping and ended up buying a pair of baggy pants. Our only major plan for the day was to make our way across town toward the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, which is home to the Playhouse Magical Cabaret. After asking the helpful staff at our hotel about the best way to get there, we were told that traffic headed out that direction would be pure madness at that time of night, so we were discouraged from taking the bus all the way there. But taking a taxi wasn’t recommended either, as we’d be sitting in traffic for well over an hour. In the end, we decided to do a combination of bus and metro. The bus was fine for the first half of our ride when it came to a complete standstill. Traffic wasn’t budging and the locals appeared resigned to this fate. We watched at the minutes ticked away with our bus remaining stationary. When we couldn’t stand it any longer, we begged to be let off the bus. The closest metro stop was 2 km away so we hoofed it. A few metro stops later and we were at the Suan Lum bazaar. Now we just had to figure out where the cabaret show was. The reason we chose the Playhouse cabaret were the positive reviews. This is one of the newest ladyboy shows and we were happy to read that the performers weren’t aggressive in asking for tips at the end (unlike at the more popular venue “Calypso Cabaret”). We had booked online and saved well over 50% of the published rate of 1000 Baht each at Our tickets came out to 778 Baht for 2 people…bargain! The only catch is you have to book at least 2 days in advance to score the cheap seats. At the show, we were shocked to realize that there were only 4 spectators (including the 2 of us)! But the performers were fantastic…professional, fun and engaging, sometimes interacting with us in the middle of their act! Brilliant costumes, original dance moves…it was a great night out and completely hassle free. We were invited to take photos afterwards and absolutely no pressure for tips. We did tip one of the ladyboys and she graciously accepted with a wai and a slight bow. After the show, we wandered around the night market and finally decided to call it a night at 11 pm. Taking the bus back proved impossible, but we found an honest taxi driver who took us back into town for a reasonable fare. With no time to squeeze in dinner in our rush to get to the show, we swung by McDonald’s for a quick bite before crashing at midnight.

16 Sep – We had a late sleep in and hung out in our comfy room until the noon checkout. Our friend Nancy Rivera (from our contracting days) was supposed to arrive yesterday but her flight was cancelled and she informed us that she would be in today so we were really keen on seeing her. Around lunch time, we finally got word that she was at the Democracy Monument so we hustled over for a quick reunion. Nancy was on R&R with her sister and niece and today was day 0 of their busy SE Asia vacation. We were so thrilled that she had taken the time out of her tight schedule to squeeze us in. Since we had already checked out of the hotel and our train to Surat Thani wasn’t until tonight, we had a few hours to kill. What better way than a couple of hours at the nearby Dusit zoo? Along the way we came across the grounds of the Police Museum (the old Parusakawan Palace). This compound houses the Chitralada Villa, which was completely restored and free to visit. From here, we walked over to the Royal Plaza, which has a King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) statue in the middle. The zoo was adjacent to the plaza, and we spent a couple of hours checking out the animal exhibits here. The seal performance was especially popular with the locals although we did feel really bad for the penguins cooped up in a tiny enclosure. By midafternoon, we had to head back to link up with the group. But first a quick pit stop at the Dusit Palace grounds, which houses the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Since we had a long night train, we grabbed some snacks for the ride and managed to squeeze in a cold shower at the hotel to cool down after our long hot day in the sun. It was a short taxi ride to the Bangkok Railway Station (Hua Lam Phong) where we had over an hour to kill before our train arrived. Since we were feeling peckish, we grabbed dinner from a street vendor. The food was OK but the drinks (ice coffee) were bad. Really bad. Like if you drink this you will get painful diarrhea all week long bad. Robby tried to refuse to pay for it but the street vendor held firm. The train from Bangkok to Surat Thani (the ferry port for our onward trip to Koh Samui) arrived and we all hopped on. The train configuration was a bit weird. There were two seats facing each other on both sides of the train through the entire car. The bottom seats fold into each other to form a “bed” while up above, a foldaway bed drops down. Unfortunately, the train did not have AC but there were fans that kept us from sweating too much. After about an hour the staff came through and folded all the seats into a bed. They even made our beds for us with clean sheets! Most of us scored upper bunks which meant we were closest to the fan but also to the overhead lights (which were never switched off). The train car felt way too warm during the night, resulting in an uncomfortable sleep.

17 Sep – Despite a restless night of rocking and rolling on the train, we managed to get a bit of shut eye. At 7 am, the staff came through to wake us up as we were about 5 minutes out from Surat Thani. Little did we realize we still had another hour drive to get to the pier! Once we offloaded the train, we were seperated into groups based on which island we had chosen to spend our “beach week” at (Koh Samu, Koh Tao or Koh Phangan). Since Lars was keen on getting his dive certification and Helen and Ant wanted a small island, the 3 of them were headed to Ko Tao. The rest of us would scatter to the island of Ko Samui. We said our goodbyes to Lars, Ant and Helen and got settled in for our ride out to the Songserm DonSak Pier. In the excitement of getting to the pier and onto the boat, Robby left a bag of our snacks on board the bus. Not a biggie since we can buy more on Ko Samui. The ferry ride took about 90 minutes and we were dropped off at the Nathon Pier. Denise and Connie were headed up to the north part of the island and had coordinated a ride through their hotel so we bid them farewell for a week. Now we were down to 4 (Gill, Tig and us). We had to negotiate hard with a shared songthaew to the Lamai Beach. Our accommodation for beach week? The Samui Beach Resort which had decent reviews and a great rate. Since it is located on the outskirts of Lamai, we were the first ones to be dropped off by the songthaew. Happily, we were upgraded from a simple fan room to an AC room free of charge at check in. We later found out that the budget rooms were being renovated, hence our upgrade. Becky had debated whether to pay extra for the AC when initially booking the hotel so we were thrilled that we got it in the end for free. Ahhh, beach week. When we first booked this 26 week adventure, we were thinking it was rather silly to squeeze in a “beach week” getaway toward the end of the trip. But this little break from the group couldn’t have come at a better time. Especially since all of us had been traveling with each other non stop since April and sometimes little things get on your nerves. It was great to relax, recharge and get away from everyone and everything. The first thing we did after getting unpacked was hit the town to search for some food. The reviews for Pizza del Sol were pretty good so we made a beeline there. As promised, the thin crust pizzas were delicious and the beer cold. The only excursion we wanted to book while on Koh Samui was a visit the nearby Angthong National Marine Park. Since the weather was supposed to deteriorate later in the week, we decided to book a trip for tomorrow. There were plenty of travel agencies strewn throughout town so we stopped at the first one we ran into (World Express Service). The lady helping us gave us a big discount for booking with her so we left happy. Lots of souvenir shops line the main street in Lamai and Robby quickly scored a pair of flip-flops since his are always falling apart. Before heading back to the hotel, we stocked up on snacks and booze for our week’s stay. While in town, we heard about female Thai kickboxing later that night so we made a mental note to swing back into town later on this evening. At 9 pm, we sauntered back out for dinner at the night market in town. The Saturday night kickboxing matches are advertised as free and they were supposed to kick off at 10 pm. But it was closer to 10:30 when the first match started. Even though watching the fight is technically “free”, the catch is you have to buy an overpriced drink or else pay 500 baht to sit in a chair near the ring. We were more than happy to pay for a drink which we nursed the entire time. The fights were pretty good and there was plenty of action to keep us entertained. The crowd seemed especially entertained when a female kickboxer knocked out a ladyboy kickboxer but we felt bad they were celebrating in her defeat. The halftime show required audience participation as about 30 people were pulled in to the ring. Everyone had to tie a balloon around their ankle and the goal was to pop each others balloon until you were the last man standing. Good fun and we got to see some creative moves in the ring!

18 Sep – After an instant noodle breakfast, we made our way to the hotel reception for our 7:30 am pickup. Today we were visiting Angthong National Marine Park with Highway Travel High Seas. We were the last 2 passengers to be picked up from Lamai and we zipped over to the Nathon Pier to board our boat. Once onboard, we were offered a light breakfast and given life jackets. Becky was feeling off today so she laid down for the journey out to our first stop of the day, Ko Wau Talap Island. We were given about an hour to explore here, so we decided to climb up to the 262 meter high lookout point. The trail has been improved most of the way up, but for the last 150 meters we had to climb across extremely jagged rocks. Luckily there was a rope to grip and pull us up along the rocks but it is no easy feat. We can see why other travelers warned us not to wear flip-flops! The jagged rocks are no joke and can shred your feet in seconds. However, the hike was well worth it because the panoramic views alone were mesmerizing! We could see several neighboring islands surrounded by pristine turquoise waters…just beautiful. Thankfully we had hustled to be one of the first visitors to reach the summit, because the platform soon became overcrowded. We hiked back down and had a few minutes to enjoy a quick dip in the water to cool down before being herded back onto the boat for lunch. Lunch was a buffet, and Becky started feeling even more nauseous and queasy. Robby came back with two trays of food but the smell set Becky off. Anyone standing near the stairwell closest to the bathroom got to witness Becky desperately trying to make her way to the bathroom. And she didn’t make it, ha ha. Instant noodles were spewed everywhere…eeeew! But at least she felt a hell of a lot better afterwards. Our next stop was Ko Mae Ko where approximately a third of our boat’s passengers got off to do a bit of sea kayaking near the entrance for the Talay Nai Blue Lagoon or Emerald Lake. We hadn’t paid extra for kayaking, so we had free time to explore the Emerald Lake for ourselves. That required a climb up a steep staircase to a lookout point. From that vantage point, we would not only see the surrounding Angthong marine park but also the blue lagoon…very cool! The lagoon definitely had more of a green hue than an blue one, so the name “emerald lake” makes more sense than “blue lagoon”. We hiked down to the lake to check it out. This salt lake is completely surrounded by limestone cliffs and is fed by underground channels that connect to the sea. Back on the beach, we had about 30 minutes to enjoy a dip. The first third of the passengers were done with their kayaking so they swapped out with a second group of passengers who had been patiently waiting their turn to kayak. We were soon given the signal to head back to the boat. There was one final stop to pickup the second group of folks who had just completed their sea kayaking and then we turned around to head back to Koh Samui. There were heavy clouds over the island when we got back but luckily we had a great day out without any rain. Dinner was at a shack near our hotel on the main ring road. Prices in touristy Lamai are surprisingly good…we had expected to pay a lot more for food and drinks while here.

19 Sep – Today was a lazy day. After a sleep in, some noodles in the room and a phone call with Fran, we went down to the beach around 11 am. Our hotel’s beach front is close to the famous grandfather and grandmother rocks so we figured we had plenty of time to revisit them later. We really liked the Samui Beach Resort’s outdoor configuration…shaded beach loungers right next to a massage area and close to a bar and swimming pool, free WiFi and a nice view of the rock formations. Bliss. The ocean was colder than we had anticipated which made for a nice contrast with the hot sunny day. Lunch was at a restaurant just up the street from our hotel and afterwards, we decided to check out the nearby Makro supermarket, which looked like one of the biggest supermarkets on the island. Even though Makro usually requires a membership card to shop there, we were given a one time coupon for visitors. It was a good call to check this place out as we scored some really cheap brownies, ice cream, chocolate milk, yogurt drink and guava juice. Good thing our hotel room has a fridge! Back at the hotel, we had brownies and ice-cream…our new dessert was amazeballs. We quickly vowed to revisit Makro to pick up more brownies since they were buy one, get one free! In the evening, Becky still wasn’t at 100% so Robby hit the town with Tig and Gill to check out Swing Bar’s fire dance show. After the show they hit the night food market where they spotted one of the girlie bar dancers killing the competition. Of course they had to check her out up close while having a beer. They quickly found out that the dancer was the daughter of the very proud bar owner. Mom was super proud of her daughter working the pole, shaking what her momma gave her. The atmosphere at the bar was great since mom and daughter were super friendly and they provided board games (Connect Four and Jenga). The gang bar hopped to another bar down the street to shoot a few games of pool before calling it a night just after midnight.

20 Sep – We had another lazy morning with breakfast in the room followed by some lounging by the pool. Since the sun was already scorching, we scored a little bamboo hut and enjoyed the sea breeze. The pool was perfect and we enjoyed our own mixed drinks. In the afternoon we went for a walk to the Hin Yai & Hin Ta (grandmother and grandfather rocks) followed by a late lunch. Back at the hotel, we made a beeline for the pool where we hung out until sunset. Back out for dinner at 9 pm but nothing caught our eye so we revisited the Makros supermarket for a bit of self catering. Yes, we got more brownies! Those suckers are addicting.

21 Sep – Sigh…another free day to do absolutely nothing. After another sleep in, we decided to have an all day “The Americans” TV show marathon. Amazingly, we were able to finish off an entire season with our non stop marathon. At some point, Robby made a run for it to grab some roasted chicken for lunch but other than that, we were in the room for the entire day. Late this afternoon, a torrential downpour hit but it only lasted about an hour. For some reason, our room’s AC has been set to freezing so we’ve been way too cold at night but we finally cracked the code today. After setting the temperature to 24 degrees Celsius, we finally got the AC to a comfortable level.

22 Sep – Yay! After days of feeling miserable, Becky was on the mend today. We decided to celebrate by hitting the town, walking from one end of Lamai Beach to the other. On our return walk, we cut through town and Robby returned to the souvenir shop where he had bought a pair of flip-flops. He liked the first pair so much he decided to get 2 additional pairs. Meanwhile, Becky got two pairs of pants making the seller very happy. We got to learn a bit more about the owners and found out they hailed from India. They told us that it was low season now so they were struggling to get by but once high season hit, they would have more business than they could handle. Lunch was at a restaurant offering a lunch special. We weren’t expecting much but Robby discovered this place had a kick ass Pad Thai! He liked his meal so much he ordered a second plate of it, bringing a big smile to our attentive waitress. After chilling by the pool for the afternoon, we decided to link up with Tig at Bikini Bar BQ for ribs. What a great decision and too bad we waited until our last night to discover this gem. We ordered a half kilo of ribs and another half kilo of chicken wings and both meals were to die for. Serious yum factor! Ko Samui has been good to us so we are sad that our beach week break is over tomorrow. This island has been perfect for some serious down time.

23 Sep – There was a van waiting for us when we checked out at 7:15 am. Tig had coordinated a ride for the 4 of us to go from Lamai to Bang Rak Beach Pier (near the Big Buddha). Connie and Denise were already at the pier when we arrived since they had a much shorter distance to travel. At 9 am, the ferry arrived and we discovered that Lars, Helen and Ant were already on board (this ferry had come from Ko Tao to pick us up). Goodbye Koh Samui! We were back to the mainland by 11 am and dropped off at the Raja Ferry port. From here, we had a private van that drove us towards Hat Yai, stopping at the midway point. For some reason, we had to switch to another van for the remainder of the trip to Hat Yai. Once in Hat Yai, we were dropped off at the bus station where we squeezed into a tuk tuk for the ride to the Hat Yai Green View Hotel. Neither one of us was keen on exploring Hat Yai since it was just a border town to Malaysia so we opted to grab dinner at the hotel restaurant (good) and chill for the evening with some Vikings.

24 Sep – Breakfast was at a restaurant just across the street from the hotel. We had briefly considered the hotel restaurant for breakfast but it didn’t look appealing so we gave it a miss. Our group met up in the lobby to wait on the van to Malaysia. Ant and Helen had managed to find the most massive iced coffee to go containers ever…those drinks were gargantuan! The van arrived and we loaded in, departing at 9 am. Other passengers were picked up around Hat Yai, and it was a good thing we loaded up first because the last couple of passengers were simply squeezed into the smallest and most uncomfortable seats. After exiting Thailand at the Thai-Changlon border, we were told to offload all our gear as we had to switch to another van for the remaining drive into Penang.

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