Monday, December 29, 2008

Top 6 things to do in Thailand

Thailand is an amazing cultural and geographical adventure and there are perhaps dozens of things to do if you ever make it there. Here are my top 6 things to do in Thailand (don't miss 'em if you're heading there):

  • Street Food - Thai food makes for an array of amazing flavours and I'd recommend the earthiness of Thai street fare over any "fine dining" opportunities that present themselves. A meal for two, as I've mentioned in a previous post, can end up being as cheap as $ 8. Don't miss the pad thai noodles, the penang curry, the green curry, the masamman curry, the krapow rice, the stir fries in thai herbs, the tom yum and the tom kha soups, the tamarind fish, the endless arrays of grills, the pancakes and the mangoes with sticky rice. I think you get my drift -- there's way too much variety out there and best way to taste it all is to take your pick from the endless rows of street food vendors.

  • Bargain Hunting - Thailand is definitely a shopper's paradise. I traveled with my wife this time and came back with 40 kgs of shopping! If you're happy to put on a smile and put in the effort of speaking broken English with the locals, shopping can be the most enjoyable experience. For those uninitiated to the sport of bargaining, I'd suggest a trip to the Bo Bae market on Damrong Rak road in Bangkok. Its a wholesale market that will usually give you stuff at local prices provided you're willing to buy multiple items from the same shop. The limitation however is the fact that that this is primary a place to shop for clothing and accessories. Remember that most of the other markets that most people recommend - Khaosan Road, Pratunam, Patpong or even the famous night bazaar at Suan Lum, happen to quote "tourist rates" and will need you to put on your best bargaining hat - the right price could even be 1/10th of the asking price. I discovered Bo Bae by accident, but its turned out to be one of my best shopping experiences ever.

    This said, nothing beats the Chatuchak Weekend Market - the world's biggest open air flea market. Here you can find almost everything you need - antiques and collectibles, home decor stuff, furniture, plants and gardening tools, pets and pet products, books, ceramic and handicrafts, religious items, clothing and accessories and pretty much everything that you need. Look around and you cant miss the great deals. My wife was intent on taking home a golden retriever (with a pedigree certificate), and I had to put my foot down - though I couldn't resist the price tag! With 28 areas of land laid out for your shopping pleasure, I highly recommend paying a visit to the market if you're at Bangkok on a weekend.

  • Exploring the seas - While the tsunami destroyed many of the islands and beaches on Thailand's western seaboard, there are still a lot of beautiful seasides to be explored. If you are a diver, this is jackpot! Phuket is widely known to be one of the top 10 diving sites in the world and you could get really economical diving courses if you are keen to learn. There are plenty of diving sites in Krabi and Koh Samui as well; so just choose your spot and let nature play host! If you don't dive (like me), then you could choose to snorkel and while I'm sure that ain't half as interesting (I can tell from sea-walking). You could end up swimming with a school of angelfish led by a giant sea-turtle and that'll just make your day. Visibility is great in places like the Similan Islands, Ko Phi Phi, Ang Thong Marine Park and Koh Tao so admiring the coral reefs from the surface shouldn't be an ordeal.

  • Watching a Muay Thai Match - Muay Thai (Thai kick-boxing) is the country's national sport and deadly martial art. You have to watch a live match to know how punishing it can be. There's the Bangla stadium in Phuket, the Chaweng and Penbutcha stadiums in Samui and the Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen stadiums in Bangkok where you can catch some really serious fighting. If (unlike me) you wish to don the gloves and feel what its like to be a fighter, there are various options available too. You could participate in the various free demo lessons that many gyms offer at all major tourist destinations. You could also take a full course at any of these gyms or just hang out with some of the toughest fighters in the business at any of the World Muay Thai Council camps. I caught Dzabhar and Zidov from the Contender Asia 2008 series and it was quite thrilling to see these guys practice each day at Lamai beach in Samui.

  • "Wat" (Temple) watching and Reveling in the glory of Thailand's Royalty - Thailand is primarily is Buddhist nation and its Buddhist temples (Wat's) are quite awesome. While Bangkok, the capital has some of the most amazing temples - Wat Phra Khaeow, Wat Arun and Wat Po being the foremost: the other towns are not far behind. Look around in each town and you'll come across some beautiful sights. Thailand's king is equivalent to divinity and their royal ceremonies and monuments are things to be seen to be believed. When in Bangkok, dont miss the Royal Barge Museum, the Dusit Park that contains the Vimanmek Mansion (home to the late King Rama V and the world's largest teakwood mansion), and the amazing Grand Palace. Remember the current king, His Highness King Bhumibol Adulyadej (aka Rama IX) is the world's longest reigning monarch at the age of 81 and in his 61st year as the sovereign; so he is an extremely popular and loved ruler.

  • Thai Spas and Massages - I had to expand my list of top 5 and make it a "top 6" just to include this. I'll cut a long story short. Thai massages as you might already know are renowned for their use of aromatic oils and herbal scrubs and of course the trained Thai masseurs. For the aristrocrat, you could walk into a spa and get treatments as costly as $400-500 or you could be as cheap as me and get a 200 Baht ($5.72) foot massage by the road at Khaosan. Just don't miss the experience of the trained fingers easing your pain and relaxing your muscles.

I've had some amazing fun in Thailand in the last few weeks, and I hope to post some blog entries on the experience for those that are interested. If you've been contemplating a trip and haven't decided yet, I'd say go for it -- you wont regret it. The land of a thousand smiles has loads to offer in way of food, adventure, culture and fun!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Yes, that is a fried grasshopper. And yes, I ate it. As I did with crickets, bamboo worms, silk worms and ants. This obviously takes my count of meats eaten to an all new level, though I'm unsure if this counts as meat!

I'm obviously surprised at how big a crowd I can pull with my commentary of food and my penchant to try out new things. That said, I am sure that anyone eating insects in the midddle of a walking street will attract that kind of attention.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The cultural beauty of Bangkok

The sights of Bangkok are perhaps the most well documented in travel blogs, books and guides. Some of my memories from Bangkok are showcased in the album here. I'd still like to talk about two sights that I recommend for anyone that makes it to the Thai capital.

The Vimanmek Mansion (In the Dusit Palace)

The Dusit Palace is an amazing collection of buildings and monuments that make for a great story about Thailand's rich history and culture through the eyes of its Royalty. There are two throne halls and many residential halls in this complex, which are now used to exhibit various royal possessions, but the one stand out feature is Vimanmek - the world's largest "golden" teakwood mansion. The construction of the garden and the mansion started in the year 1897 under the aegis of the then king Rama V. There's some rich history surrounding this building as it was the residence of the king and symbolizes a strong western influence on Thai architecture. I strongly recommend the 45 minute tour through the mansion that'll give you glimpses of what its like to "live like a king". The elaborate display of the kings silverware, ceramics, crystal ware, ivory and other antique possessions is bound to leave you amazed. You could visit the palace complex to just visit this one mansion. Remember however, that Thais are very particular about the respect paid to their royalty and they expect you to be "decently" clad when you visit these places. I was asked to borrow a pair of pyjamas from the counter (against a deposit of 1000 THB) since I was wearing shorts.

Obviously you could visit all of the other 15 buildings in the complex but if you're short of time or patience, I'll recommend the Anandha Samakhom Throne Hall and the Abhishek Dusit Throne hall which are not just amazing in terms of the collections and royal thrones that they host, but also in terms of the architecture of the the buildings. I'll leave you to Wikipedia both these buildings if you're interested in visiting either.

The Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha

The Grand Palace dates back to the 1780's and was built by King Rama I, who had decided to move his capital for some reasons (which I don't understand yet). If you look at the architecture of 218k sq meter complex, you'd be amazed that this isn't one of the wonders of the world. This complex not just houses the erstwhile Royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of government offices as well as the renowned temple of the Emerald Buddha - Wat Phra Khaeow.

The Emerald Buddha which is in fact an image carved out of green jade (where "Emerald" symbolizes only the green colour), is the most revered place of worship for the Thais. Its an extremely small image as opposed to many of the other large Buddha idols that you'll see in the country (hardly 18 inches, I guess) though I must confess its one of the most beautiful. The image is clothed in three seasonal costumes for summer, monsoons and winter and the costume changes are usually presided by the king himself. The monastery itself is exceptional in that it has no residential monks and serves as the monarch's private chapel. Its quite a surreal experience to be in the temple and to admire the amazingly beautiful Buddha image.

Before I sign off on this post, I'd like to throw in a few pieces of advice regarding sightseeing in Bangkok. Most of the sights of Bangkok are located in and around the Ratnakossin area/ district. Which is why I recommend taking residence in Chinatown/ Khaosan. This gives you almost unbridled access to all of the sights which you can choose to access on foot. That's the other thing about touring Bangkok. You'll usually be approached by 2 different kinds of people:

  • tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers who promise to take you to all of the places for free if you promise to visit a certain store with them. Remember that the reassurance of "only look, no buy" is one you shouldn't believe. More than the fact that you'll feel compelled to buy something at these stores, you will also lose precious time by sitting in these tuk-tuks.
  • "friendly" neighbourhood gents, who ask you where you're from and where you're going and let you know in a matter of fact manner that the place you're going to is closed. These nice people will offer to take you to a really "nice, cheap" market for absolutely no charge. Guess who they are -- tuk-tuk drivers! Chat with them for a while and they'll take over your map and start marking out where they want to take you. The standard thing to do is pay no heed to anyone who tries to stop you -- pretend you don't understand English. If for some reason you do get stopped, say a firm "No!" and walk away.

Remember, most of Bangkok's sights are best explored on foot or by river boat. Stick to those modes of transportation and take the skytrain or the metro for anything else and I guarantee you will be happy. One last piece of advice - if you want to shop in Bangkok especially for jewellery or suits or fabrics, make sure you look around for the best deal. Its quite easy to get conned in Bangkok, especially by people you'll consider to be the friendliest. I can quote an example in Patrick's Fashionway - a tailoring shop that features on the "Official Map of Bangkok" that's distributed in the airport. These people will appear to be quite earnest but could end up charging you 4 times the market rate for a suit, if you were to let them have their way. Remember a suit in Bangkok, from a genuine Thai tailor shouldn't cost you more than 4000 THB. Remember also, not to view every Thai with suspiciousness -- most of them are really nice people. Just be wary of the few shady characters that want to sell you the most touristy deals!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The sights of Koh Samui

Koh Samui is an island town separated from the mainland by a 2 hour ferry route. Its fairly underdeveloped in comparision to other towns such as Pattaya, Phuket or even Chiang Mai, though there's a significant amount of culture and geography to be explored. I recommend the following things to do/ places to visit in Koh Samui:

Place/ ActivityPictureDescription
Elephant Trekking2000 of Thailand's 5000 elephants work in tourist outfits. One of the ways you could support their sustenance and prevent them from going extinct is by supporting eco-tourism in the country. Pick an outfit that you understand to be environment and animal friendly and join them on a trek on elephant back. If lucky you could even get the chance to be the mahout for an elephant - albeit for a short while
The Grandfather and Grandmother rocksThese strange rock formations shaped in the form of male and female genitals draw endless giggles from visiting tourists. I'm sure you can discern the grandfather from the grandmother. There's an interesting story of two lovers that drowned themselves since their families were opposed to their marriage -- and that just makes the place even funnier.
The mummified monk - Wat Kunaram
This temple contains the undercomposed remains of the ex-abbot of the shrine. Surprisingly the body shows little decomposition even 35 years after his death.
A 4x4 safari along the hilltops of SamuiI recommend Mr Ung's Magical Safari Tour which also covers the above three activities and introduces you to Samui's amazingly diverse geography.
The Golden BuddhaKoh Samui's most celebrated Buddhist monument.

Laem Sor Pagoda
Wat Silangu
Wat Samret

There are also some lesser known Wat's (temples) at Koh Samui which I recommend visiting. The photographs above are indicative of my top three.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Budget food at its best

So where in the world can you get a complete meal for two in less than eight dollars? Thailand of course! Here's our dinner for today:
ItemPrice (USD)
Spicy Seafood Salad 1.42
Seafood and Vegetables in a Coconut cream soup 1.14
4 Chicken Satays 1.42
Stir Fried Vegetables with Steamed rice 0.85
Chicken in Green Curry 1.42
Banana Pancakes 1.71
Grand Total 7.96

Monday, December 15, 2008

A brush with death

My visit to Ang Thong Marine National Park was my closest experience with death and I say this with no malice towards to the crew that helped us along and fully believing that it was my misfortune to have travelled on a day that the weather was extremely rough. To cut a long story short, we were troubled by waves bigger than what our tiny speedboat could handle both on our way to Ang Thong and back. With the sea being so turbulent, there was absolutely no way that we could snorkel in there. All we really got to see was the magnificent Talay Nai ("The emerald lake") -- a salt water lake enclosed by mountains in the middle of Ang Thong Marine Park. A word about Ang Thong -- its a collection of 41 islands (I think) of which only 3 are inhabited. Its been a marine park from the 80's and is a protected area by virtue of its vast coral reefs and underwater life. It was a pity we couldn't enjoy much of that.

On our way back our boat was rocked by huge waves (filling the vessel with water and drenching us to the skin) and my thoughts kept wandering from what will happen to the photos on my camera to who my insurance nominee was to how I'd take my wife ashore if our boat was to capsize. I must compliment the Seahawk crew that conducted the trip for us though -- they stayed calm right throughout and helped our confidence all the way through. If I travel to Samui again, I'll certainly visit Ang Thong with them one more time (though with a double check on the weather). My wife lost her cellphone in the waves; though I'm happy we came back alive, and with a story to tell at the end of it all. I managed to snap an encounter with a few little sea turtles, as you'll see in the picture above. This was during lunch at the local fisherman's village -- lunch was pretty good and yes, the turtle wasn't part of it)So all wasn't bad! My advice: do keep Ang Thong on your itinerary if you plan to visit Samui; just ensure you check that your crew knows what weather to expect.

Sketching your pictures

I've discovered a passion for sketching while in Thailand; as you'll discover from the above image. Can you believe it -- I did that all by myself! I'm quite an artist aint I?

OK, OK the truth now -- I hit upon a tool called Akvis Sketch, that allows you to convert your pictures into sketches. The price tag on this one isn't exhorbitant - just $72. And it does a pretty neat job, provided you comprehend and use the settings wisely. There's a 10 day, no limitation trial which should help you evaluate the purchase. I'd say if doing cheesy stuff like this interests you, then you should just go for it!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Phang Nga Bay

That photo you see up there is me trying to mimic Roger Moore as James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun. The sheer rock that you see in both pictures is Koh Tapu, now famously known as the James Bond Island of Phang Nga Bay.

We spent the day in this bay which is renowned for its famous mangrove ecosystem and the sea caves (aka hongs). These sea caves are best explored using inflatable sea kayaks in high tide. You can also explore some caves on foot when there's low tide, but it tends to be a sticky, itchy experience. I tried both. There's not much pleasure in swimming in these waters as they tend to be quite murky and uneven in depth. To add to that, there are often treacherous sharp rocks that could cut you badly, so avoid that if you can. The mangroves and the caves are beautiful however and are testimony to the number of ways nature celebrates its own beauty. You can get trips to the bay starting from 1600 THB, though I'd recommend you spend some extra money and take the trip offered by John Gray's Seacanoe or the one at I say this despite having taken the cheaper trip since I got the impression that the costlier tours spend more time in the caves and doing the sea kayak thing. This apart I learn that John Gray's happen to be a highly environmentally aware tour company and are extremely responsible in the way they operate their tours. The rest of the tour remains consistent across most tour companies. If you're lucky enough you'll get some glimpses of the wildlife around the bay in form of long tailed macaques and sea eagles, bramhanny kites, etc. I'd give this tour a 6/10 simply because I didnt get to do much kayaking through the hong ecosystem.

The amazing Koh Phi Phi

I continued my tour of the beautiful waters surrounding Phuket by visiting Phi Phi Island today. Ko Phi Phi has gained reputation as a tropical idyll ever since the 1990's and is renowned for its emerald waters, clean beaches and its abundant coral reefs. Tourism to the beach saw a rudden rise right after the release of the Leonardo di Caprio flick - The Beach. The tsunami in 2004, however ravaged both the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh and the more commercial Phi Phi Don islands and there's been massive reconstruction and restoration work ever since. The islands remain as frequently visited as ever though, and I'm personally amazed at how nature keeps up with the continuous influx of people.

Phi Phi Island is home to the amazingly beautiful Maya Bay, which is one of the best swimming spots I've ever visited. The only way to access this bay however is either by longtailed boats from Phi Phi Don or as part of a tour. You won't notice many similarities with the set from The Beach though -- the crew obviously modified the beach with additional trees and other props.

Well anyways, around Phi Phi Leh you'll find many other views such as the Pileh Cove which is an egg laying spot for various fish including the butterfly fish, the angelfish, the moorish idol, clownfish, surgeonfish and the parrot fish. Its an amazing snorkeling spot if you want to interact with Phi Phi's amazing marine life. I'd pick Hin Klang as the best point for snorkeling though -- there is the coral mountain under the water surrounded by various fishes and living coral reefs ans sea anemones. There's also the Loh Samah bay which is a great swimming spot and there's the Viking Cave (above) which is a popular spot with the locals as a bird nesting spot. Bird's nest soup is becoming an increasingly prized delicacy, especially for its aphrodisiac and energizing qualities. Bird nesting is apparently an extremely risky job and in fact the chao ley are a community that specializes in the art. The nests are quite costly though (130000 THB/ 3700 USD per kilo) and the gatherers have government granted licenses to perform the task.

So much for bird nesting. You'll notice another strange sight around the island at this place that the boatmen call "The Monkey Beach" -- for the huge number of monkeys that live here. These monkeys seem to be strangely dependent on humans for there diet, as you can make out from the huge number of monkeys that wait patiently for tourists to come and feed them with bananas. They seem to have even familiarized themselves with Coca-Cola as you can see in the above picture.

If you plan to stay over at Phi Phi Don, be warned that accomodation is at a premium and costs almost three times as much as comparable quarters in Krabi or Phuket. I find this obvious since Phi Phi Don was teeming with visitors when I was there and I see this as a case of demand outpacing supply. The main beach at Phi Phi Don remains as beautiful as ever though quite crowded as well. If you walk inwards, you'll notice restaurants and landscaped gardens -- they've obviously got this place geared for tourists!

If you wish you could take a boat to the nearby Khai Island where you can find a lot of angelfish right on the beach, begging to be fed some sliced bread! I dont recommend this spot for swimming though, since its extremely shallow and you could dash into some corals damaging them irreparably and cutting yourself really deep.

Overall, Koh Phi Phi is definitely a place to visit, though its starting to become very touristy. An organized day trip could cost you between 1100-1700 THB if you shop around and an overnight stay could cost between 1700-3800 THB. JC Tour booked my trip to Phi Phi and I strongly recommend them if you want to travel there too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sightseeing in Phuket

There are quite a few things to do in Phuket and they're usually difficult for the individual tourist to arrange by oneself. So, you could use a tour operator to take that trouble for you. If you can strike a good deal with your operator then they'll give you a chauffeur driven car for the entire day, for you to explore the city at leisure. Free of charge! Couple this with the free transfers to and from the airport, I'd say its wise to stick to one tour operator who convinces you of good rates.

What's the catch then? Well if you don't do your research and trust your driver to take you to all the tourist spots, then he'll most probably take you to a "pearl farm" (read pearl store with samples of oyster shells and corresponding pearls) and a "gem factory" (read gem store) and a "cashew factory" (read cashew products shop with one machine to skin the cashews). As you might have guessed, your driver gets handsome commissions for taking you to these spots and more if you end up buying stuff. The staff at each of these shops are trained to make you feel awful for not buying stuff; so even if you do land into one of these -- remember you don't have to buy something if you don't need it!

My advice is to research what you want to see and skip all of the gimmicky store hopping. In fact, decide in advance where you'd like to eat as well since the seafood joint that your driver might take you to could also be a "bring a customer and get a free meal" joint. Which is not bad, except that these joints tend to be overpriced in comparision to the most of the local fare.

Here are some of the sights I recommend at Phuket:

  • Wat Chalong - Phuket's most revered shrine
  • Wat Phra Thong - Home to the Half buried Buddha
  • Phuket's Chinese Temples - evidence of the widespread Chinese population of Phuket
  • Phuket Aquarium
  • Phuket Butterfly Garden and Insectarium
  • The Thalang Museum - A showcase of the history of Phuket and Thailand
  • Walking down Thannon Thalang, admiring the Sino Portugese architecture of the area
  • The Heroines Monument - dedicated to two ladies that defended the town against the Burmese
  • The Sunset at Prompthep Cape

There's obviously loads to see by way of beaches, islands and night-life but I figure that's more obvious and you wouldn't need help figuring that out.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Similan Islands

The Similan Islands are a collection of nine little land masses in the Andaman sea. The word Similan itself (IIRC) means "nine islands". A few of these islands were ravaged by the tsunami and only three of them (I am told) are inhabited by people (mostly tented accomodation put up by a handful of locals). The islands can be accessed on a day trip from Phuket and you could choose to even stay overnight if you want. During my day trip to the place, I visited Similan Islands 9, 8 and 4 via speedboat. Its usually the best way to get to the islands, given that the sea is generally quite calm and the waves are never higher than half a meter. The 70 minute ride can get bumpy at times, so hold tight and get a tablet if you're likely to be sea sick. My first stop was at a cove by Island 9 and while we didn't really get onto the island itself (apparently some really sharp rocks out there), we jumped into the sea to snorkel and explore the amazing variety of underwater life. I think we snorkeled for close to 45 minutes before we got onto the boat again to move to Similan Island 9 which is home to what tour companies call the unseen stone.

I must say this is the most beautiful beach I've seen in my whole life. Check out the panoramic shot above; notice the pristine blue waters, the smooth rock formation and the powdery white sand. Given that the tour company will usually take away your shoes before the trip, the otherwise simple trek to the top of the unseen stone can end up being quite precarious. The effort however is well worth the view from the top which is awesome to say the least.

We spent quite some time on this island before we moved to the final island on our trip itinerary - Island 4. Once again, more of the same granite rock formations, white sand beaches and clear waters. Add to that mix some really good food, and this becomes your dream destination. On this island you have tented accommodation available if you'd like to stay over and remember there are approximately 30 diving points around these islands if you'd like to take a dip. There are plenty of shallows to be explored as well, if you care to snorkel.

We spent a couple of hours at Island 4 before we hopped onto our speedboat back to Phuket. I think the day trip is well worth the cost and I'd recommend it to anyone. Our trip cost us 1700 THB ($48) which included transfers from the hotel, the speedboat ride, refreshments, snorkeling equipment and lunch. I am sure you could shop around for even better deals. That said, I'd recommend you take the tours run by Thaplamu Andaman. They're quite experienced and know the islands well, have a very good crew and generally take good care and serve decent food.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How to take a bath!

There's a WikiHow article on "How to take a bath."! Wow! Make my day!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My thought for some people.

Ask people for opinions, ask Google for directions/ fixes/ recipes. Not vice-versa
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