March 23, 2018
Rather than the long multi-stop bus ride to get to Phuket from Luang Prabang, we opted to splurge and fly instead. We took a tuk tuk to Luang Prabang airport, which is small but very modern. From there our Air Asia flight took us to Bangkok with a short layover, then to Phuket.
Only we had already discovered a problem with our plan: getting around Phuket is really expensive. Not American-traveling-with-an-income-expensive, sure, but by local standards it’s loco. For ~400 Thai Bhat (THB), you can take an overnight bus hundreds of kilometers, for example from Phuket to Bangkok. That same 400 THB will get you 5 whole kilometers in a taxi on Phuket.
Since we arrived after the public bus had stopped running for the night (an option which is much more reasonably priced than taxi), we stayed at Room Hostel @ Phuket Airport, a short walk from the airport. Room Hostel was perfectly acceptable, and the $26 USD room was cheaper than the taxi ride to Chalong Bay where we were planning to stay a few days.
In the morning we walked back to the airport and caught the bus to Phuket Town for 100 THB. We were dropped off at Bus Terminal 1 and walked to the market about 1.5 km away where the local buses stop. They’re not really buses, they’re trucks with a roofed bed and benches, but they act like buses and they’re called “songthaew”. From there it was another 30 THB ride to get to Chalong Bay where we had a reservation at Phuket Marine Poshtel.
On the walk over I also took the opportunity to stop at one of the food carts and get a delicious Thai iced tea for 20 THB, not bad! They also have an interesting minimalist bag that they give you for the drinks, which I’ve seen a lot of places.
Except for being in a not-very-happening part of the island, Phuket Marine Poshtel was pretty nice. New and clean, with a sweet AstroTurf-ed roof where I could do yoga and practice my handstands. They also had free coffee in the lobby all day, real brewed stuff, not instant. The free “breakfast” however, was a total joke: toast with butter/jam and fruit punch in several flavors. Beds were comfy though, and overall it was a good stay.
Unfortunately for everyone, there were two guys in our dorm that go violently ill from food poisoning. They were both in Thailand to train Muay Thai, and so it was really bad luck. They basically rotated barfing in the en suite bathroom for a while.
The next day we went to see Karon Beach on the other side of the island. Catching a songthaew at the traffic circle, we got there very easily. It was baking hot, and the sand was scalding, but the water was really lovely.
In general, Phuket was just too touristy for us, and definitely the first time we’ve decided to bail on a destination because we didn’t really like it. My feelings are best expressed in punny meme form.
However, we weren’t prepared to give up on our Thailand Island dream, so after doing a little research we decided to bail on Phuket and head to Koh Phangan.
So after two nights in the Poshtel, we caught a songthaew back to Phuket Town from Chalong Pier. The stop was a little confusing to find, and there were lots of taxis assuring us the songthaew would take forever to arrive, but we found the sign marking the stop and it showed up shortly. For reference, the songthaews are this bright blue and yellow in color, and pretty easy to spot.
On the walk back to the bus terminal in Phuket town, we discovered this fascinating double-trouble beverage, and while we were there, we asked about the little table with a presentation of food out front. We were told it’s for “ghosts,” and we saw it a lot of places around the island.
I also picked up some fried tofu, which came in a bag with a stick and spicy sauce. There’s a lot of food that we’ve seen that gets served in this general format.
Back at the terminal we booked a bus ticket to Surat Thani for 200 THB per person. It was actually a min-bus, and it dropped us off at the dock in Surat Thani, where we could catch the overnight ferry to Koh Phangan. We arrived with several hours to spare, so we hit an ATM and got some food at the street vendors by the dock.
It was our first whack at proper street food in Thailand. Dan and I did, with absolute relish everything you are advised not to do. We got a papaya salad: all raw vegetables. We got seafood dishes (hello squid Pad Thai!). And we got peeled fruit (Salacca or snake fruit, which Dan had just read about but we just bought by coincedence because it was a mystery fruit. Exciting!). Not even the fresh memory of our dorm mates violently barfing their insides out could slow us down. As we sat across the table from each other, Dan looked at me and said to me “this is what we’ve been training for.”
And I am happy to say, a week later, that we seem to have suffered no ill effects.
The night ferry was actually pretty uneventful. The passenger compartment is comprised of two rows of narrow mattresses, with life vests stuffed in pillow cases for headrests. No privacy or dividers. Could be a recipe for disaster, but even the pack of bros who had been drinking settled in to sleep, and all was very quiet.
We arrived in Koh Phangan before dawn, and since no one kicked us off the boat, we just slept in, which was pretty nice. Most people left, so it was just us and a family of three, two adults and a very well behaved toddler. Since our hostel wouldn’t be ready to check us in until later, we opted to take advantage of the sleeping space, and the boat crew let us.
Around 9 am or so we hopped off the boat at Thong Sala Pier and wandered into town to get some breakfast. Dan ordered a dish neither of us recognized called Yen Ta Fo, which came out PINK. PINK food people, it’s a thing! The broth had a light sweet edge to it, and Dan was a fan.
Fed, we began to debate how to get to our accommodation in Haad Rin. We had been quoted 150 for songthaew per person to get to Haad Rin, but motorbike rentals could be had for 200 per day for multiple days. However, a common practice is requesting a passport as collateral for the bike. For the more disreputable establishments this can mean your passport being held hostage to force you pay exorbitant amounts for repair of damages you may not even be responsible for. That, plus the general dangerous nature of motorbikes dissuaded us from this course of action.
That’s when we went ahead and made a mistake: we decided to rent bicycles to get to Haad Rin. It was 300 per bike for the 4 days we had planned, so that was the same as the cost we thought to expect for round trip songthaew. Same cost, but then we have free transit around town, and we get to ride bikes! It was only 12 km to get to Haad Rin, not a big deal. Sure, yeah, we’ve got our huge backpacks (mine is 16 kg), but we’re strapping young folk, it’ll be fine.
The guy who rented us the bikes said there was a big hill to get to Haad Rin. Okay, we can handle a hill. Little did we know, this was like the moment in the horror movie when the protagonist decides to go stay at the haunted isolated cabin in the woods, an obviously bad decision only in hindsight as they perish.
Okay, it’s wasn’t that bad. But a little melodrama is good for the story.
We were lulled into a false sense of security as the first half of the trip is pretty flat. But then we hit the hill. Then another hill. And then another. They increased in severity too. I had to get off my bike and walk up the second one. It was easily a 45 degree angle or more. Dan is stronger and more bicycle-abled than me, and even he was forced to walk. Not because he lacked the strength, but because with his backpack on, the hills were so steep the front wheel of the bicycle was coming off the pavement due to the imbalance.
What would have taken 20 minutes in a songthaew took us 1.5 hours, but we made it to Haad Rin alive and reasonably well humored, but very tired. We headed through town and went to find Ocean Phangan Homestay where we had our reservation. It was a little off the beaten path, something we wanted with the party-reputation Haad Rin has (obligatory statement regarding the Full Moon parties that Koh Phangan is famous for). And there was another hill. There was lots of cursing going up this last one, but we made it, and finally arrived at Ocean.
Ocean Phangan Homestay is a bunch of bungalows set on the hillside overlooking the sea. It’s green and tropical with flowers, and our cabin at high ceilings, huge bay windows with a partial ocean view, and a deck with a hammock. It was beautiful. I was so thankful, because if I had hated it, after the torture we had just put ourselves through I might have thrown an actual tantrum.
We had originally planned to stay in Haad Rin four nights, but I was so enamored with Ocean, that we extended our stay to six nights total. A week during which we largely just relaxed, took in the tropical atmosphere, enjoyed the water, and ate Thai food. Not that there weren’t a few downsides, namely a thriving ant population and a pack of roosters that saw fit to crow most hours of the day, but after the first night I just mostly slept through the bird calls.
Walking down the steps from our cabin one arrives not at a beach, but a rocky shoreline. However, its excellent for swimming (if you’re a confident swimmer), with the water getting deep quickly, and a line of buoys roping off the general area to keep out boat and jet skis from nearby Haad Rin beach. The deep water was cool and very pleasant in the hot weather.
On the other side of the mountain is Leela Beach, which was one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. White sand, palm trees, the turquoise water, the whole nine yards. It was also pretty unpopulated the days we went. However, I didn’t like the water as well as on the rocky side. The water stays shallow for ages, which means it’s quite warm and not as refreshing in the heat, and the first things I encountered in the water were two glass beer bottles and the rubber sole of a disintegrated shoe, which I marched right out with and plopped in a trash can.
Interestingly though, there were tons of black sea cucumbers hanging out at Leela Beach. They were about a foot or more long, and the thickness of a wrist. Dan and I weren’t sure if they were animal or vegetable initially, and poked a them gently, finding them slippery and spongy. We hunted them down online later and found that if you piss them off, they emit a toxin than can cause blindness if you get it in your eyes. So, good thing we were only poking gently!
What Leela beach was perfect for was a ring work out though. Ring workouts on the beach with a beautiful view, including sand to practice handstands on, then a quick dip after when I’m all sweating is where it is at! I went down one evening about an hour before sunset and had a lovely workout followed by a dip as the sun went down. It doesn’t get much better than that. Oh, but then I had to climb that stupid hill after doing one legged squats. The prices we pay for the things we love…
As to food, Haad Rin isn’t where you go specifically looking for Thai food, but we found some stuff we liked. The two best restaurants we found in town were Ladino and Tukta Thai. They both had Thai Food offerings for 50 to 80 THB and were pretty tasty stuff. Tukta especially had generous serving sizes and very good noodles, and was our favorite place overall.
A little more expensive, but much more accessible (read: did not require going down the hill into town) was the restaurant at Amarsea a short walk up the road from Ocean. The servings sizes are on the smaller side, but their Vegetables and Salt Fish dish was really good, and the green mango shake was too.
The Rock should also get an honorable mention. It was priced reasonably and the masaman curry and green curry that we got there was pretty good.
I’m not entirely sure of the relationship between Amarsea and Ocean, but they collaborate a lot, and may be owned by the same family. I know one of the teenage girls that I saw hanging out at Ocean was also over at Amarsea another time when I went to pick up food.
Back on Phuket when we had been researching alternate island options, Dan had come across Koh Phi Phi as being famous because it is where The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed back in 2000. While we didn’t opt to visit Koh Phi Phi (it seemed too developed), we did decide to watch the The Beach while we were staying on Koh Phangan since we had never seen it before, and it looked hilariously awful (it is).
Well, the second Leo opens up the fateful map that leads him to the secret beach… we realized we were on that map. While the Beach was filmed on Koh Phi Phi, the fictional location of the eponymous beach was in the An Thong National Park archipelago. Which we had been thiiiiiiiis close to visiting, but opted not to because the only way to get there was with an expensive and crowded cruise. Irony? Nah.
But also, that movie involves multiple shark attacks and the next day as I was swimming alone in deep water, I was questioning my choices. Especially after that time in 2011 with the tiger shark in Jamaica… Yeah, I was there, in the water. But that’s a story for another time…
At any rate, to avoid the hilly ride back with the bikes and because we decided to stay longer, I took the bikes back to Thong Sala in a songthaew, and picked up some fruits and snacks at the market there before returning to Haad Rin. I got a beverage that was made from fermented salak fruit, which was absolutely delicious. Sweet, but with a tart fermented edge, it was very refreshing on a hot day.
I also went for a haircut. I was nervous after the disasters I had in India, but this lady knew her stuff. She appreciated the concept of a fade, and that’s what I appreciates about her. Her asking price was 200 THB, but she accepted my counter offer of 150 amicably, and she knew enough English to make the haircut an easy success. Her place was a little out of the way, but the other more central places started with 300 THB as their opening offers.
A little boring, but we didn’t really take part of the party culture down in Haad Rin. I did wander down on the beach one day to see what all the fuss was about, and while it was pretty, there was lots of broken glass on the beach, with jet skis and boats floating in the water alongside the swimming area. It wasn’t crowded since we weren’t there near a Full Moon party, but there were a lot more people than at Leela, and it’s completely lined with bars and resorts. I didn’t feel like I was missing much.
Our final conclusion about Koh Phangan was that it was still a little touristy for our taste, but that it was absolutely beautiful. Any island is going to be more expensive than the mainland, and though Koh Phangan was less extreme than Phuket, it wasn’t an exception to this rule. I would go back to enjoy the scenery and the water, but the lack of cheap street food was a deal-killer for Dan.
So after a week in Thailand Island Paradise, it was time for a change of pace… and we packed up and hit the road for Bangkok… Gateway to Southeast Asia… where the hungry go to feed…