Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thailand


A few months ago now i took my first 'real' overseas holiday (To a kiwi, that means going somewhere other than australia). A friend of mine had booked a holiday to Phuket, Thailand for the first week of august and i jumped at the chance to finally see some more of the world.

After weeks of reasearch and email discussion with my flight consultant, comparing the merits of different hotels and different itineries, I eventually settled on spending 10 days in phuket (The first , staying at the Baan Sukhothai hotel and another 5 days in bangkok staying at Hotel Narai, I then settled back to wait for the end of july and my first international experience.

The monday i was due to leave i began to get a little nervous, had i packed everything i needed?, did i have my tickets?, would i make my check in time? But come 2pm, I was checked in, passport and tickets clutched tightly in my hand, waiting for my boarding call.

Arrival

After 13 hours of flying (via Brisbane) I arrived in bangkok airport with a 4 hour wait until my domestic flight to phuket, thankfully i had managed to catch a little shut-eye on the plane, but I was still feeling cramped and exhausted so i decided to take a short stroll out of the airport. I walked out the sliding doors of the domestic terminal to be hit by a solid wall of heat and humidity unlike anything i had ever experienced before, and this was still several hours before dawn! I swiftly wandered back into the air conditioned coolness of the terminal and began to doubt the wisdom of traveling to thailand in the rainy season as i waited for my flight.

Several hours later and an exhaustive browse of every shop on offer in bangkok airport (Not the most interesting 4 hours i've ever spent in my life) I was finally on board the plane and en-route to 'The Jewel of the Andaman Sea'.

Phuket

On Arriving at 10am local time, I collected my luggage and strolled through the almost totally absent customs area (A change of pace for those of us used to the strict controls of New Zealand and Australia) and began scanning the hundreds of small white placards being held up by tourism operators to find my name.

Eventually, I found my transfer and took a half hour air conditioned mini bus trip to Patong beach, getting my first real view of a foreign culture on route with billboards and signposts sporting the cursive thai script and driving so bad it would seem out of place in auckland! I felt a certain sense of exhiliration building at the feeling that i was finally here, A quarter of the way around the planet, somewhere i didn't speak the native tongue.

While checking in at my hotel (located very conveniently to the local drinking establishments for any late night staggering home) i receieved a text message from Jeremy (The friend holidaying in phuket at the same time) - thank god for Vodafone global roaming! and we were quickly off for a walk down to the beach.

What a beach!, A long curving strip of white sand between tropical palms and the glittering blue sea. This is what i came here for, This is why people travel to these holiday resorts, This is what i had been missing out on for most of my life!, Over the next week and a half i spent quite a few hours down on that beach picking up what passes for a tan on those of pale english descent, Remarkably I burned very little in comparison to what such sun exposure would have caused in New Zealand, God bless places where there is still an ozone layer!

While walking back from the beach i had my first introduction to the street sellers of Thailand with tailors and other merchants continually approaching with a smile and a hand proferred to shake, although once they have you in their grasp they work quickly to draw you back towards their shops, often hidden down tiny lanes among tens of others selling exactly the same thing. With greetings of 'My Friend' and 'Have you got just a minute sir' they try to catch your attention and should you react just a little, they move in for the kill and try to sell you everything in their shop, usually for a little over 10 times what its worth. With a little practise and a couple days experience I learnt to fend of these approaches (most of the time, although i did end up buying several shirts from the local tailors) and started to get a basic idea of what merchandise was actually worth, making negotiation and much easier, if still frustrating, experience. Even if you are not a particularly good negotiator, prices in thailand are excellent although do remember that almost everything is counterfeit and therefore technically illegal to bring home with you! (You can't bring those fancy looking throwing stars or daggers back either!)

Food selection in Thailand is excellent, From traditional thai cusine (Phad Thai being one of my favourites) which tends to feature seafood quite strongly, to more typical western fast food (Pizza, McDonalds, Subway ... yes the big american chains are everywhere!) there seem to be a dozen food outlets every ten metres in patong beach and in general you will get a good meal for less than $5NZ. About the only complaint i can really make about food in thailand is that vegatables didn't seem as fresh and crisp as in New Zealand, but that probably had a lot to do with the heat. I found i ate a lot at the more westernised food outlets, not because i preferred the food, but because they had air conditioning!

Thankfully for the tourist who (like me) wants to keep in touch with those back home while they are away, Internet Cafes are everywhere and in Phuket start from about 1Baht/min (about $2NZ/Hr) with good connection speeds and most usefully, CD writers, which made it possible to offload my photos from my camera on an almost daily basis.

Being a town built entirely around tourists, Patong Beach has no shortage of nightlife on any night of the week with a few 'Discos' (similar to typical nightclubs in New Zealand) and heaps of small bars throughout the town, but particularly down the main street.

Every bar in Phuket has its selection of bargirls who stand out in the street to draw you into the bar, bring your drinks to your table and, if you are so inclined, are available - at a price, to take home for the night. (I wasn't so inclined, even if was single, I don't fancy the idea of catching any of the varied diseases other tourists may have passed on to these girls. I must also admit that despite what almost every other article about thailand says, I didn't find Thai women particularly attractive). The girls are rarely pushy however and once you make it clear that you are not interested in 'those kind of services' they don't act inappropriately towards you.

A lot of the bars in Patong beach have Kiwi or Aussie themes and even at such a quiet time of year and after the Tsunami, were still full of english speaking tourists making the place feel almost like home while watching live rugby on the big screen. (But a lot warmer and cheaper :)

The highlights of my trip to phuket were the day trips out to some of the many islands dotted around off the coast. A couple of days after arriving, Jeremy and I booked a speed boat trip out to Phi Phi Island for around 1000 baht ($40) each. (Activities were easy to book from any of the many small travel agencies dotted around the town). A minibus arrived to collect us from our respective hotels at 8am the next morning and took us out to the marina (some 20 minutes from patong beach) where we were loaded onto a flash high performance speedboat (seating about 20) and headed out on the ocean for the day.

First stop was Maya bay (The location for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie 'The Beach') which, for that reason if nothing else was worthy of a few photographs athough my pictures don't do it justice, it really is very nice!. After a short stay here we travelled around the island to a sheltered cove where, in the company of the many other tour companies running trips to this island, we spent around half an hour swimming in the beautifully warm water before getting back in the boat and heading further around the side of the island.

Now it was time for snorkling, and i must admit to having had a very sheltered life and never having been snorkling before, so it was quite an exciting experience for me to swim around with multi-coloured fish darting about beneath me although being out upon the open ocean i must admit to a touch of trepidation about sharks (I didn't see any sight of a shark in my entire time in Thailand).

After the snorkling we were taken in the the island to have a buffet lunch at holiday Inn with entertainment provided by a small thai covers band playing classic american songs. A group of 3 lebanese girls from our boat got up on the stage and sang hotel california with the band, Adding to the fun and relaxed atmosphere of the day.

The day was completed with a trip out to Khai island (surely one of the smallest islands on the planet with nothing more than a tiny beach, a couple of the ubiquitous stalls selling souveniers and cold drinks (impossible to avoid anywhere around phuket) and a row of deck chairs and umbrellas. By mid afternoon there were at least 10 other speed boats drawn up at the island but it was still a pleasant place to fall asleep in the sun or feed the tropical fish swiming around the rocks.

The trip was excellent and highly recommended to any visitor to Phuket, although if you tend to get seasick the speedboat might not be for you! (I personally loved the speedboat and thought it worth the price just for that experience alone)

The Next trip we took was to 'Phang Nga' Bay including 'James Bond Island', so called because the movie 'The Man with the Golden Gun' was filmed here some years ago. This trip was ona cruise boat rather than a speed boat, and while this was a pleasant way to travel and much more enjoyable for Jeremy i believe (who felt somewhat seasick on the speedboat trip), I felt the bigger boat felt less social and I didn't get the same rush i got on the earlier trip. James bond island itself was something of a disappointment and a little frustrating trying to extract myself from the clutches of the many vendors on the small island selling shell and paua items (I eventually escaped having purchased only a small paua bracelet for my mother)

On the way back we were taken on sea canoe trips through several islands and this was an unforgettable experience. I didn't take my camera on the canoe out of fear of dropping it in the water but i don't think i could have done it justice anyway, Luxuriant tropical foliage climbing up the inside of steep walled bays accessible only by tunnels from the outside sea (some with thousands of sleeping bats hanging from the roof), at one point monkeys could beseen swinging about high in the trees and strange walking fish scrambled among the mangrove roots. It felt like something out of jurassic park with an eriee,prehistoric, otherworldly character.

After Jeremy left to return to New Zealand i organised myself a couple more day trips, firstly a "4 in 1 safari" (There are many of these on offer) that offered me Elephant Riding, Canoeing, A bush walk and visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation project and a display of traditional rice farming techniques. The day was fairly interesting although, in my opinion, not up to the standard of the Phi Phi island trip (I think i'm just addicted to speed boats). Elephant Riding was a fun experience and the presentation given by a volunteer worker at the Gibbon Rehabilitation project was interesting and dig tug somewhat at my heart strings (I put a few dollars in the contributions tin). This trip also included a drive to the highest point in Phuket for a view out across the island and of the construction of a huge buddha statue (under the carefull obersvation of a traditionally clad bhuddist monk).

After the safari i found i was longing for the speed boat experience again and having already been on the 2 major day trips available from Phuket (Phi Phi and Phang Nga) i decided to take a trip out to Krabi, taking in quite a few other islands. The speed boat experience was again fantastic and in my opinion, is of itself worth the trip, theres nothing quite like the feeling of rising up on a swell then crashing down on the other side and getting soaked when a wave comes over the bow (Trust me, Its more fun than it sounds). The islands visited were interesting and provided plenty of photographic opportunities as well as plenty of opportunity to chat to the other passengers on the boat (Primarily English and Australian, its good to have a nice chat with other english speakers while you are overseas :) and i after starting to feel almost bored with Phuket in the previous couple of days i found myself reinvigorated and wishing i could stay on longer and take a few more trips out.

Just before i left Phuket, being at a bit of a loose end for things to do in the evening, I decided to take in the 'FantaSea' show, Shows involving a lot of dance are not usually my thing but i was pleasantly surprised by this show, with excellent lighting and sound effects, very high quality performances and lots of elephants!, This show is definately worth seeing and at the end of the performance i found myself wishing it had been longer. Cameras and Video cameras were not allowed into the show and this was strictly enforced at the entrance with bag checks and all cameras required to be checked in so i can't put any pictures up here, but suffice to say, if you are in Phuket, The FantaSea show is worthy of your attention for an evening.


Bangkok



Bangkok, with its concrete jungle of skyscrapers and elevated trains, ever present smog from the millions of cars that jam the expressways and 10 storey shopping malls is an entirely different proposition from Phuket. There is some relief in being away from the never ending hawkers and merchants out to trap the unwary tourist, these are much fewer and far between in bangkok, but with them stay the beautifull beaches, speed boat trips, tourist friendly bars and clean, clear atmosphere.

I stayed at the Hotel Narai in Silom Road while in bangkok, this was a good quality hotel with nice rooms, good service and an excellent included breakfast buffet, however the location was less than ideal with a 15 minute walk to the closest BTS (Skytrain) station and no surrounding tourist amenities. Possibly a good hotel for the frequent or business traveller to bangkok, But not recomended for a first visit.

Getting around Bangkok was relatively easy with the overhead train (BTS Skytrain) running regularly around a large section of the city and taxis & Tuktuks always available. I found negotiation with drivers and long waits in traffic to be tiresome however and most of my travel while in Bangkok was via the skytrain or my own two feet.

Probably the key highlight of Bangkok for me were the markets, in particular the weekend markets, a seemingly never ending collage of small shops selling everything from incense to puppies (I decided that smuggling a puppy through New Zealand customs probably wasn't going to work) and the generally fixed, reasonable prices of the merchants was a welcome relief from the artificially inflated tourist prices and endless negotiation of Phuket or the Patpong night market

My biggest challenge in bangkok was to find somewhere to watch the rugby!, A far cry from Patong beache's line of Kiwi & Aussie themed pubs with Live sports on every wall, nowhere i could see advertised the game. I eventually ventured to the internet and discovered than an english pub was showing it on a big screen and took the long train ride almost halfway across bangkok to get there. At around 500 baht my meal of bangers and mash here was probably the most expensive dinner i had all holiday, but at least i could have a couple of heinekin and sit back in relative comfort to watch the game, albeit among a somewhat less enthusiast crowd than would be in a pub back home.

(I have since been informed by others that have travelled to Bangkok that i was simply staying in the wrong part of town, and had i been in the more 'tourist oriented' areas i would have had no problems finding somewhere to watch the game surrounded by the usual hordes of kiwi and aussie fanatics)

I must admit to not visiting many temples or taking any tourist trips while in Bangkok, Partly this can be blamed on my location in a less tourist friendly area (Silom Road) and partly on my becoming a little lonely for the company of friends and family and being somewhat less motivated to get out and about.

Leaving

Finally, it was time to go home, and while i felt a faint twinge at leaving this tropical paradise and in accepting my holiday was finally over, I was also very happy to be coming back to friends, family and my girlfriend, to be able to wear long sleeved shirts without becoming instantly soaked in sweat, To have a conversation with someone who spoke good english and could understand my (admittedly very fast) manner of speaking, and to browse a shop without being constantly accosted by sales staff trying to sell things to me.

I did have one of the more worrying moments of my trip on arrival at Bangkok airport when, on checking for my flight details on the screen, I discovered it had been cancelled! This was sorted out after a few tense moments waiting in the thai airways counter queue and i was able to proceed to check in my overweight luggage (34KG but the friendly girl at the checkin counter let me off :) and then race through the airport to make my flight home on time. (Having almost no time to browse through Duty Free - not that i had any space to carry anything else with me!)

Notes

The thai people do not seem to be particularly fond of sweets or chocolate and these can be quite hard to find when you just need that sugar fix, If you think you'll have travel coping without your regular cadbury chocolate or pascal lollies then i'd recommend taking a few packets over in your luggage!

Tsunami?, What Tsunami? .. Honestly, If i hadn't seen it in the news i would have never known any kind of natural disaster had hit Phuket, don't let this put you off visiting!

Although it was the rainy season, it only rained once the entire time i was in thailand, however the humidity was quite oppressive and exhausting. Unless you are quite comfortable in tropical conditions i would recommend visiting at a cooler time of year.

What would i do differently in future?

I enjoyed my holiday in thailand, But i think in future i will be travelling with a partner or friends, As much as i admire the lone traveller who can strike up fast friendships on a daily basis, I'm not that person and a great deal of my travel enjoyment comes from pointing out sights to other people.

I will aim to stay in backpacker hostels rather than hotels, I believe my holiday could have been more social and therefore, for me, more enjoyable than being isolated away in a hotel. Having now had a travel experience i'll be more confident booking my own accomodation rather than going through a travel agency again.

I would probably stay at Kata or Karon beaches rather than Patong while in Phuket. While close to the nightlife and the action centre of Phuket, The endless hawkers and bargirls do detract from the idyllic tropical experience after a while and some very attractive accomodation offers are available at the less popular beaches

I would aim to visit at a slightly less humid time of year, I think phuket would be an incredible destination, although quite a bit more expensive, during the peak season around the start of the year.

I would like to visit Thailand again and i highly recommend it as a holiday destination for those looking for somewhere a little bit different, but still having all the western touches.

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