New post by Mila —
With some trepidation, we boarded our catamaran style speed boat from Koh Tao back to the Thai mainland. This was the same style boat we had taken before and had gotten so motion sick upon. This time, the waters were clear and still, resulting in an easy, breezy ride, landing us in Chumpon in perfect balance and good spirits.
an ad for the catamaran we took to and from Cumphon/Koh Tao
The city was abuzz and it didn’t take long for us to realize that a big event was about to take place. It turned out there were actually two highly anticipated, upcoming events. We arrived one day before the king’s birthday, known in Thailand as “Father’s Day” which would be followed a few days later with “Bike for Dad“, a cycling event which also honored the king. Everyone was either wearing or selling gold “Bike for Dad” shirts which contributed to a festive atmosphere. Thais love and respect their king and wearing a gold shirt seemed to be an important symbolic gesture for many.
Chumpon was decorated with banners and to our delight, it turned out that there was even a small fireworks display on the evening of the king’s birthday. A surprising number of Christmas decorations were also popular throughout town.
Vintage train with holiday lights
Father’s Day fireworks
These gift baskets were being sold everywhere. We have no idea what all those little bottles contain.
Known widely as a stopover, Chumpon was a pleasant surprise to us. We found a nice hotel room, an excellent restaurant just down the street and a lively street market each evening. People seemed genuinely pleasant and relaxed, and we found that unlike other tourist-heavy cities, general pricing of goods and services quoted to us was much nearer to the price “local” Thais pay. Even when we were charged “tourist” prices, they were still much less heavily inflated. We spent two nights and three days exploring.
Chumpon town scene
Note the massive scale and design of the street lighting
Our hotel with gold banners floating high above the main street
Our favorite restaurant in town was extremely simple, like most family-operated Thai restaurants.
You can see the staff and customers all wearing their gold “Bike for Dad” shirts
The restaurant would have a great, spicy selection daily.
They served a big plate of fresh raw herbs and veggies with each dish
Thais definitely eat “snout to tail”
Panda shaped ice cream!
One of the aspects of Southeast Asia that we appreciate is the simplicity of local businesses. Many are family run, whether they are automotive part companies, steel fabrication shops, carpentry shops, restaurants, laundries, etc. We are always amazed at how minimally businesses appear to operate. There are certainly a number of glossy modern shops that look more to our eyes, like those we are accustomed to, but more often, operations are fully exposed and hide very little. A perfect example was this bakery where there was a glass display case with cellophane packed cookies and cakes, but inside, it was quite simple. There were some folding tables where cakes were cooling under an oscillating fan and packaging materials sat in stacks. There were a few photos of the king and queen, some religious hangings and that’s about it. Notice how the office/desk is in the back, which means one has to walk past the exposed work areas to pay. This truthful nature is very typical and we find it refreshing.
A nice local bakery
Inside the bakery
There was a small shop near the train station that featured some vintage western wear and handmade leather goods. The owner and leather craftsman gifted Jette one of his miniature leather vest keychains!
Jette with her miniature leather vest keychain gift
At 7-Eleven, or as the Thais call it, “7”
The stores are full of dozens of varieties of tea, but only a couple of them are unsweetened.
At the night market finding dinner
One of our travel bags is a backpack that Waco carried twenty-one years ago when he explored Southeast Asia. It is also the same Jansport bag he carried when he and I spent a month together in India seventeen years ago. After being a trusty and dependable piece of luggage for so many years, we decided to treat the bag to a bit of a fix. I found a small streetside sewing group and asked them to add a few stitches to the bag where it had started to unravel. With warm smiles, about five minutes of work and a bit of joking around, I was handed the fixed bag, given a thumbs up, asked for 60 baht (the equivalent of $1.66) and sent on my merry way. I think we were all happy campers.
Waco’s well-loved backpack that has been around the world more than once!
not sure how long this set of stitches will “hold”
As I walked along, I happened upon a local kitchen goods shop. It was quite large and felt like a place that needed to be explored a bit. After walking each aisle, my eyes fell on some traditional Lampang rooster-themed ceramics. I had seen this irresistibly charming style of hand-painted ceramics at a cafe in Chiang Kong, a northern Thai city we visited just before crossing into Laos. Now, happily, these two small bowls would be coming home with me. The painting on each was unique. These two were the only ones that did not feature an overly folksy floral in addition to the rooster, or else I would have needed a forklift for a full dining set!
We sampled the wares at Cafe Amazon, found some (hard-to-find) unsweetened bottles of brewed tea at one of Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens and even found a passable mini cheese pizza for Jette.
Jette getting an automated foot massage
One Thai style cheese pizza, please
Jette doing her best “mustachioed Italian Mario” impression
We experienced one of the heaviest monsoon rains in Chumpon, too. This was a heavy, all day pour!
Waco showing off the thick skin of our pomelo
Our random traveller tale for Chumpon occurred when we met a Canadian couple in our hotel lobby. They had accidentally left their ipad on a bus that had dropped them off in Chumpon. The bus left before they realized their problem, but they immediately went searching for (and found) the police station. They figured out how to file a police report and many hours of confusing half-translations later, this Thai policeman showed up at the hotel with the missing ipad. There were cheers, handshakes and photographs made of the successful recovery. The couple was thrilled and the police officer appeared very proud of a job well done.
Proud police officer
After a few days, it was time to book an overnight train back to Bangkok. Chumpon was a great segue from Koh Tao island life to the bustle of mega-city Bangkok. We left feeling satisfied that we’d spent a bit of time in an authentic Thai town, embracing only the aspects of modern life they deemed important, maintaining a bit of a sleepy feel. Most importantly, we felt Chumpon wasn’t trying too hard to cater to tourism, which seems to have only preserved its charms.
Cracking a few jokes while waiting for our overnight train to Bangkok
New post by Mila —
Visible from Sairee Beach and a short boat trip from Koh Tao is Koh Nang Yuan (Nangyuan Island or simply Nangyuan), really a series of three tiny islands connected by sandbars upon which you can walk to get to and from each island. Known for its snorkeling and crystalline aqua waters, so we brought along snorkels and masks and enjoyed getting close to tropical schools of fish. Jette also brought a half slice of toast, which we shared with our underwater friends. It felt somewhat magical to have dozens of fish would swarm us, nibbling bits of the toast.
The “boardwalk” at Koh Nang Yuan
Shallow water made for some gorgeous color combinations
Some areas were just way too busy for our taste
After our daytrip, we took a longboat back into “town” to our favorite restaurant for lunch and fresh coconut water shakes, then walked around and explored a bit.
There’s a nice mix of low key, simple places and some that have invested in some modern interior design and are priced accordingly.
The perfect local spot for iced Thai tea with tapioca “bubbles”
A very nice cafe called “Butter”. Notice all of the flip flops outside. We love this Thai custom.
Giant tropical foliage
Lots of green thumbs around here
We absorbed as much of the Koh Tao life and atmosphere as we could. Even the simple pleasure of walking from our bungalow down to al fresco dinners was a delight.
Mango Bay’s version of a Caprese Salad
There were several resident kitties living (mostly) peacefully at Mango Bay. Two of them did have a wild cat-fight one night right under a table where another family was having dinner, resulting in one woman climbing onto her chair to avoid getting clawed (we didn’t act fast enough to get photos!). Moments later, this one looks so innocent.
Our work space consisted of some mats and a low coffee table. Here, I’m working on a blog post and Jette is finishing some Khan Academy math work. She’s right on track with a mastery of nearly 50% of the fifth grade lessons and quizzes.
Homework almost finished—Can I go swim now?!
One night, we were honored to have been invited to join some of the Mango Bay team in their Loi Krathong festivities. During the day, we noticed everyone working busily with flowers, not realizing each person was making their own elaborate floats using local banana leaves and flowers. As night falls, they tuck a snippet of their own hair into the float along with some money and some incense. The incense is lit and prayers are made. The belief is that each participant receives forgiveness for any transgressions of the past year and good luck for the upcoming year. Jette was kindly and generously invited to place one of the floats in the water. Not knowing the protocol, she kindly declined the generous offer and we all watched the beautiful and intimate ceremony. The aroma from the incense and twinkly lights on the water from each float was lovely and it was a true privilege to have been a small part of the celebration.
Jette getting a chance to hold our friend’s float just after he lit the candle
Our friend carrying his float down to the water
Floats being pulled away by the ocean
We were getting used to our little island life on Koh Tao, but after nearly two weeks, it was time to get back to the mainland. We said our goodbyes, took one last photo on the deck at Mango Bay, loaded bags onto a longtail boat and savored the short boat ride to the main pier.
We’ll miss this idyllic view from our bungalow balcony over thatched rooftops and innumerable beautiful sunsets.
The view off our bungalow’s balcony
We’ll miss our walks along Sairee Beach.
The three of us agreed that island life is definitely something we can live with every once in awhile.
Life in Koh Tao was pretty darn good. We spent a quite a bit more than we typically do on our hotel (about $USD 60 a night), and it was worth it. The Mango Bay Resort was a great place to get away from everything for a while, slow down, catch up on blog posts and just relax. We’ve been travelling for more than 5 months now, and even though it feels more like 5 weeks and we’re far from fatigued, it was nice to just STOP and relax and read and not think about where to go tomorrow or what to do or what’s next. Beaches are good for that I suppose.
A little seal on the beach.
We spent some days just lazing around. Reading, relaxing, and swimming/snorkeling. Other days we took the boat to Sairee Beach and into “town”. We had a favorite restaurant on Sairee Beach, and there was a Mexican restaurant (run by a Californian) in town that we enjoyed. Jette has developed quite an appreciation for bean and cheese burritos!
On Sairee Beach
Enjoying some porridge
Pad Kaprow Moo (made with more long bean than basil, but still yummy).
Jette and a friend at our favorite beachside restaurant.
Jette on a turtle off Sairee beach
Jette and the bent palm.
Sunset on our boat ride back from the beach.
The days went by quickly and pleasantly. Mila and I read quite a bit and researched some new business ideas, and Jette knocked out a lot of math, history, and writing. She’s doing great with her “school” work. We enjoyed swimming/snorkeling across the Mango Bay to the little beach and collecting shells and sea glass.
Heart shaped coral.
Eye love you!
Mila’s sea glass collection.
MIla standing on one of the boulders at the water’s edge.
Drying off in the sun after a snorkeling session
The weather was good though we had a couple rainy days. The rain created little rivers that flowed down the mountain between the boulders and emptied into the sea.
Rain washing soil into the ocean.
On the days after the rain the sea was a bit rough and the water a bit cloudy from all of the silt and soil that had washed in. Here’s a video shot on one of those days. Even with the cloudy water, you can see the abundance of sea life. You can also see the waves breaking against the stairs at the pier. They look small, but they are really powerful. Jette got bashed against the concrete stairs one day when she misjudged the waves. We quickly learned to respect the power of the ocean!
One day I made the mistake of jumping in before looking closely. It was right off the dock in a familiar spot, but this time I managed to jump into a school of jellyfish! I was stung all over my arms, legs, and torso. Before I realized what was happening, Jette jumped in after me. At first we didn’t see the jellyfish and couldn’t figure out what was going on. I said something like, “The water is making my skin burn. It feels like something is stinging me all over!”. It wasn’t until I got my head underwater and looked around, that I realized I was in the middle of a school of jellyfish. Luckily, Jette had jumped in at the edge of the school and got away with a single sting on her ankle.
Needless to say we got out of the water as fast as we could! Jette’s body reacted to the sting more strongly than mine did, but none of the stings were serious. After a good, long, soapy shower (we didn’t have vinegar) the pain and discomfort was much diminished and we were almost as good as new. Needless to say, we didn’t do anymore swimming that day. The next day the jellyfish were nowhere to be seen.
On one of our trips into town we stumbled across a trapeze school. Our young adventurer was immediately taken with the notion of flying on that trapeze, so it was arranged. A couple days later Jette was taking her first steps up the tall, narrow ladder to the trapeze platform. Here’s a video of her very first go on the trapeze. Note that she can just barely reach the trapeze, it’s a stretch! Also the dismount from the net was a bit rough at the very end!
Here’s another video from a later “swing.” Look at how far it is up to that platform!
Jette says the trapeze was, “A little bit scary but it really fun.” She definitely has an adventurous streak. Yesterday after she finished her work, she was watching YouTube videos on the Cirque du Soleil audition process!
All in all Koh Tao was great. The trapeze and swimming were excellent exercise and a refreshing change of pace. I’d been missing the exercise we were getting when we were on bikes in Europe. Here in Asia we’ve been walking a lot (and sweating a lot, LOL!) but the intensity just isn’t the same. The swimming and snorkeling worked some muscles we hadn’t worked in a while and felt really good! We’ve spent a lot of time lately in crowded, busy, noisy cities. The quiet remoteness of Mango Bay was refreshing. We found great pleasure in just listening to the waves, watching the moon rise, and looking at the stars.
View of the full moon from our balcony
More about Koh Tao and our day trip to Nangyuan Island on our next post…
We’re sitting at a little cafe in Chumphon (actually now we’re in Bangkok, but when I started writing this we were in Chumphon) watching the pouring rain outside (and inside too when the wind blows!). It is monsoon season, which means that we’ve had the occasional cooling downpour in the middle of beautiful, sunny days. It has been a great couple of weeks in Southern Thailand. Let me tell you about it…
We left Bangkok on the night train to Chumphon in Southern Thailand.
Another night train
Getting ready to leave the station
Jette enjoying a peanut butter sandwich
When we bought the train tickets the air conditioned second class cars were full, so we ended up in non-AC second class. Same fold-down sleeper seats, but no AC, so the windows were open for most of the trip. It wasn’t too bad, but the open windows made it kind of loud, especially when we passed other trains, and there was a constant stream of little bugs blowing in. In fact when it was time to go to bed we had to brush all the little gnats, beetles, and flies off our beds. Once we were tucked in, we had little bugs hitting us in the face all night long, especially for Mila and me in the lower bunks. I didn’t sleep much, but I got a lot of reading done!
Sticky rice breakfast while we wait for the bus to the ferry
We arrived at Chumphon well before sunrise. We piled off the train with all the other tourists. The ferry company that services the popular islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, et. al. has an office at the train station, so we checked in there and then waited an hour or so for the big bus that would shuttle us all to the ferry pier. our fellow travellers were mostly 20-something backpackers who looked like there were ready for one of the “full-moon” parties Southern Thailand is sadly notorious for. We had chosen Koh Tao precisely because it was known more as a snorkeling and diving destination and less as a wild party scene.
While we were waiting for the bus, it started raining, but we were sheltered under the roof of the train station platform. It rained for half-an-hour or so, then conveniently slowed to a light sprinkle as the double-decker bus pulled up. We piled on the bus and headed to the ferry pier.
Jette at the ferry pier
Mila and Jette checking out the ocean
With the rain came some ocean swells. Nothing big, but just enough to make the ferry trip a puke fest. The ferry was a large catamaran. Compared to single-hulled ships, twin-hulled catamarans are often more stable and have less of a rocking and side-to-side motion in the waves. It didn’t help on this trip. Within 5 minutes of boarding the boat the crew was busy handing out small plastic bags and wads of toilet paper to increasingly sea-sick passengers. It was a puke fest. Mila and Jette both got very, very sea sick and vomited multiple times. I was very nauseated but managed to keep my breakfast down. It was an absolutely miserable two hours that seemed like it would never end. When we finally arrived at Koh Tao it was such a relief! We be landlubbers!
We made it! At the Koh Tao pier.
A “taxi” from our hotel was waiting for us. Like much of SE Asia (and the rest of the world), a “taxi” is a Toyota Hi-Lux 4×4 pickup truck with seats in the back. We were lucky and got to sit in the cab of the truck, while others piled in the back. Off we went to Mango Bay, on the North side of the island. In terms of distance, it was only 6 or 7 km, but the “road” was one of the worst and most hilariously challenging I have ever seen. As we went through town it was a typical paved road, but as we got closer to Mango Bay it was more of a washed out trail.
The route from the pier to Mango Bay in the North of Koh Tao Island.
Road to Mango Bay
The road/trail went up and down through the mountains and was much steeper than you might imagine. Think of the steepest streets in San Francisco and then make them even steeper! Along some of these very steep sections a concrete surface had been laid, about the width of a wide sidewalk. This gave the 4×4 enough traction to make it up the steep grade. In many places there were deep fissures and gullies, carved by rainwater rushing down, and large rocks (or small boulders, depending on your perspective). Some of the gullies were as big as 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, so the driver was constantly weaving slowly to avoid getting stuck. When it is wet, the road is impassable, so people and goods must come and go by boat.
When we arrived at Mango Bay we found ourselves at the top of the mountain looking down at a hillside of giant boulders and tropical vegetation. There was a very long staircase winding down between the boulders, with small bungalows perched between and on top of the giant boulders going all the way down to the sea.
The stairs down
Jette on her way down the mountain to our bungalow.
A bungalow, Jette and the sea
On the walkway at Mango Bay
View of Mango Bay from the water.
We made it down the winding stairs, checked in at the office, and found our bungalow. It was perfectly positioned atop the boulders with unobstructed views of the sea. Beautiful.
View from our bungalow.
Mila in our bungalow.
The walkway down to the restaurant and the water.
View from the restaurant.
Another view of the bay. For scale, note the size of the people on top of the boat.
The bay at Mango Bay is a popular destination for local scuba and snorkeling, so every day there are tour boats that come in for a few hours. The Mango Bay Resort is quite secluded as it is the only active hotel in the area. Other than the occasional scuba boat tour, we have the whole bay and beach to ourselves. It is a really fantastic setup! The hotel also provides free snorkeling gear, so anytime we want we can just jump in. There are large coral formations throughout the bay and thousands of tropical fish. The small beach at the center right of the photo above is easy to swim to, and there is lots to see on the way!
The seclusion gave us lots of time to just relax, read, and do our work. Jette was very busy with her math and we have started experimenting with a new curriculum based on the “great books” or classical tradition (think trivium). I’m pretty excited about it, and will go into more detail in a future post. Of course, when we were tired of working and wanted to play there was great snorkeling just outside our door and a beach to swim to. Town, a bigger beach, shops and restaurants were just a boat ride or 4×4 truck trip away.
More about life in Koh Tao in our next post…
Some of you have asked what cameras we’re using and what other gadgets we packed for this trip. (Charles, I promised you an answer to your questions and here it is…finally!)
Here is an off-the-cuff, slightly rambling video showing the gear and how we carry most of it. There is also a quick tour of our hotel room in Chumphon, Thailand.
Here are some links for more info on the gear we mentioned in the video:
I didn’t mention it in the video, but we are using Apple Photos to organize the photos that we shoot. I don’t like it and find it to be very limiting. Not being able to batch edit metadata is a real bummer, so we aren’t doing much organizing. I also made the decision that I didn’t want to spend time “post-processing” images, so I am shooting JPEGs, not RAW files. I’m not cropping, retouching or editing photos. Shoot and post. That’s it. One nice thing about the Fuji X100T is that it produces very good JPEGS and has “film emulation” modes which are kind of like the filters or special effects that you might find on Instagram, but more subtle. I don’t mess with them much. I’m not after perfect images, just decent shots with minimal fuss!
I also forgot to mention two other cameras we brought with us. The first is the Sony DSC-TX10. It was a gift from Grandad years ago. It is small and waterproof. A great little camera. It is an older model and I think it has been discontinued and replaced with the DSC TX-30. This is Jette’s camera and our underwater camera. We shot some fun underwater videos while we were snorkeling in Koh Tao. We don’t have the bandwidth to post them now, but I’m hoping to when we are back in Bangkok in the next couple days. In the meantime, here are a couple of snapshots.
Jette underwater at Mango Bay, Koh Tao
Fishy, fishy, fishy, fish…
The other camera I neglected to mention in the video is a Contour Action Camera (kind of like a GoPro). It is OK, but I would recommend GoPro if you are in the market for an action camera. We used it to shoot some bike videos when we were cycling the Rhine but it has been living in our luggage lately.
As we prepared for the trip I had visions of shooting quite a bit of video and doing more polished YouTube posts. Didn’t happen. I found very quickly that I just didn’t want to spend the time and energy on editing. It just takes too much time, and I want to spend the time on this trip experiencing it, not sitting in front of my computer editing video! So, our YouTube videos are going to be rough and unedited. Sorry viewers, but hey, we’re on this trip to explore, learn and have fun. We want to spend our time doing that, not video post-production! Finding a connection fast enough to upload video is a challenge too. The video in this post took 20 hours to upload. It would have taken even longer had we not made it to Bangkok where we have speedy internet at the local mall thanks to the speedy WiFi hotspot from dtac, one of the local wireless carriers.
Regarding phones and internet, my phone is an older Google Nexus, so it came straight from Google unlocked. I can use it with any carrier. In each country we visit I typically buy a prepaid SIM card which gives me a local phone number, credit for calls and data for internet access. (Here’s an example from Singapore – they give you a lot of data! In most countries data is more limited and expensive. For example, Thailand.). It is really nice to have “always on” internet access, and I can use my phone as a hotspot in a pinch. Plans are usually inexpensive, and are perfect for using Google Maps, checking local reviews and such, but typically don’t offer enough data to do things like upload videos. It is also more secure than public WiFi.
You “punch out” the SIM card and put it in your phone.
The SIM card in Laos was hilarious. Usually the SIM card come as a punch-out from a credit card sized plastic card. Different phones take different sized SIM cards, so there are usually three sets of perforations. In Laos there were lines printed on the card but NO PERFORATIONS!!!! I had to use my knife to cut the SIM out of the “credit card”!!!
The SIM doctor doing surgery.
I’m a bit security conscious, so the MacBooks are “empty” in the sense that they don’t have our personal data and files on them, other than a few things we thought me might need on this trip. As I mentioned in the video, our hard drives and storage devices are encrypted. If we lose a device, I don’t want to have to worry about bad guys having easy access to what data is on them, or even our photos from the trip. I won’t go into details here, but if you are curious about encryption you might Google “encryption on a mac” or “computer security while travelling“. We also use a VPN when we connect to the internet. It is great for security, and also for accessing services that are limited to certain countries. For example, we could have NetFlix or Amazon think we are in the US when we are actually in Thailand and play content that they will only stream to the US. There are some other things that we do for security, but I’m not telling you what they are in a public blog post ;-). The bottom line is that if we login to PayPal or check our bank balance, we don’t want some goon getting access to our accounts!
I hope I’ve answered your questions! Feel free to ask more in the comments.