Southern Thailand, No Photoshop Required

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September 27th 2009
Published: November 14th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

A few picturesque long tail boatsA few picturesque long tail boatsA few picturesque long tail boats

I know it's the quintessential Southern Thailand photo but I couldn't help myself

“When you travel, remember that a country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” - Clifton Fadiman

Southern Thailand! The Gem of the Banana Pancake Trail. I had heard so many great things about this country while in South America that I was subconsciously pulling at the reins to get here. Every country we've 'had a feeling about' ended up being great, most notable Argentina and Turkey. My birthday was coming up, 2nd in a row while traveling. I was excited to spend it in Thailand. The only question was, which of Southern Thailand's gorgeous beaches would I be lazing the day away on while I turned the big three one? Let's see. There's Ko Tao, scuba diving mecca. Ko Phi Phi, home to “The Beach” where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed “The Beach” based on the novel “The Beach.” I wonder what that movie was about. Hmm. Oh! There's Phuket, which I know is pronounced Poo-Get but I just wanted to go there to say I've been to F*CK IT ISLAND. Or James Bond Island, where one of Sean Connery's films were shot? Or should we head to Ko Pha-Ngan,
Footprints in the beach.  I think this deserves a haikuFootprints in the beach.  I think this deserves a haikuFootprints in the beach. I think this deserves a haiku

fresh finite footprints fearing waves prepare to run, forgetting themselves...
home of the famous Full Moon Party where 50,000 people try to break the world record for highest number of people on acid simultaneously? Both Lonely Planet and both say that these islands are all heavily touristed and expensive. I couldn't decide. So Ammi researched and researched and declared that she would surprise me with the perfect spot.

After crossing from Malaysia into Thailand I began to notice some differences. We bought a 4 hour train ticket that cost us an astounding $1.25. Energy drinks were $0.35. And beer. BEER!!! I've missed you my old friend! You've abandoned me in Malaysia but I'll forgive you since a large one of you is now only $1.00. Let's never fight again. And we were happy to be out of Ramadan territory so we didn't feel guilty eating in front of people who had to fast all day.

We arrived at Ao Nang, where we caught a Long Tail Boat to Ton Sai Bay. What's a Long Tail Boat, you ask? You know those trucks that do tractor pulls through mud pits, spewing black tar diesel smoke in the air while slack-jawed rednecks applaud? If you took the engine out of that and strapped it into an oversized canoe and added a ten foot long coral destroying propeller, you'd be pretty close. We jumped off the boat about 15 feet from shore, waded through the warm turquoise water and dumped our bags unceremoniously on the beach, and took in our surroundings. It felt like we had our own private beach. No tourists, no touts, no resorts, no motorcycles, no loud music. We could only hear the waves and exotic birds. The only signs of human life were small hotels and restaurants that looked like they were built by Gilligan. “You did good, Ammi.” She beamed. We found a place to stay, which ended up being a thatched-roof bungalow with mosquito netting for 100 Baht, or about $3. Some hotel workers were erecting a bar within a few hours out of bamboo on the beach. Bamboo, is there anything you can't do?

That night the hotel staff were throwing a welcome party with free bbq and a fire twirling show. “How about a bucket?” I asked, not realizing the kind of trouble that usually follows the utterance of this innocent sounding phrase. What's a bucket, you ask? About a liter of coke, rum, Thai whiskey, and energy drink. These would be so illegal in the US. I guess the logic of making tourists drink out of a bucket is that hopefully they will opt to barf in the bucket instead of on the hotel floor later on. Makes sense I guess. We heard a story about some tourist on another island who had a few buckets and decided to try the double jump rope that's lit on fire with gasoline. He ended up with third degree burns. Ammi brought the bucket with 4 straws and a flower floating on top. About two minutes later it was gone. We felt totally sober. Ammi brought another bucket. About halfway through this one a switch was turned. I was sober, sober, sober, sober, and the next minute I was stupid drunk. Usually when I'm this drunk I don't remember anything. Apparently one time I started square dancing in the kitchen. I still think Ammi made that up. Ammi was busy socializing with someone she just met and suddenly realized that I was gone. “Uh...have you seen my husband?” After looking around a bit she noticed out of the corner of her eye a white glow coming from the blackness of the ocean. Apparently when I take my shirt off I look like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons after too much radiation. “Decide to do some night swimming?” She asked.
“Snnnyeah” I slurred.
“Without telling me?”
“Nnndin't I ntells you?” She realized then and there that whatever prospect she had of socializing that night vanished and she would now have to baby sit me and not let me out of her sight. To my drunk mind I thought this meant hide and go seek. “Nnnnyouuu can't not ssseee me behin...when I'm nstandin behind thisss bush.” Of course I was in plain sight. She started taking pictures of me to have proof the next morning. I thought the paparazzi was chasing me. “Nnngo ahway! Syou won't nkill me in a ntunnel in Pariss too!” Somehow she got me into bed and I fell asleep instantly. Not my finest night and the next morning wasn't so great either.

One thing I've always wanted to get into was rock climbing, and Ton Sai Bay is a kind of mecca for climbers from all over because of the natural limestone formations that provide every kind of imaginable hand hold for every experience level. I've always been amazed at how in shape every single climber I've ever seen has been. “What kind of exercise do you do to get in such good shape for climbing?” I would ask. They would give me a blank expression. “I don't exercise, I just climb.” I've enjoyed it ever since trying it in the gym but now I was getting the chance to try it for real. I put on my harness, watched the instructor lead climb to set the rope, and chalked up my hands. I scurried up the 80 meter face without problem, faster than anyone else. 'What a piece a cake!' I was feeling confident. The second time around wasn't as easy, and half way up the face I suddenly lost all power in my forearms, and I had to quit early. It was then that I started to understand the strategy to this sport. It's not just about sheer strength or speed. Even the guys on the 'World's Strongest Man Competition' can't hang while holding onto a bar for more than 2 minutes. It's about distributing the force required over your entire body, and conserving energy. I looked back at the cliff face with a new strategy. 'Maybe if I use my legs instead of my arms here, and lean away from the wall there and rest against the rope when I reach that point...' I tried again. I wasn't as fast but I made it with energy to spare (though my forearms throbbed like Popeye). I knew that I would like to practice this sport when I got home and had a newfound respect for the guys that climb for days while sleeping on the cliff face.

When I got back to the hotel I jumped on the hotel's slack line. A slack line is a flat nylon rope tied between two trees, but unlike a tightrope, it's...well...slack. I always thought my balance was good, until tried I tried this. I can tightrope until the cows come home but when your feet don't stay put it's a whole new dynamic, and I usually can't walk two steps. This was an activity that a lot of rock climbers seemed to enjoy and trying it now I started to realize that both require an inner focus and inner determination to do well. You can't do it if you're having a bad day or your head's not in it. I tried it and got 3 steps before falling off. I tried again, and again, and again. I over corrected my balance and felt my ribs smash my hip bone, but I was determined to walk the entire length. After about 50 tries I started to realize that I was making the same mistake I made with rock climbing, I was using sheer strength to force balance. I jumped on the slack line again but this time I felt something within relax. I somehow let go of control of an undefinable something and suddenly I found my balance. My feet were no longer swaying back and forth and I wasn't pinwheeling my arms wildly. I could feel the sun and sea breeze on my face. I could hear the birds and the waves. I could feel the eyeballs of the spectators watching me and somehow knew that they sensed a shift in my focus. I felt one with the universe. I felt like a zen leaf floating in a Japanese pond. I felt like Kain in the Kung Fu. I easily made it halfway across. It was only a few more times before I was able to do the whole line. Who would have thought such an innocent looking piece of nylon rope would provide such a strange experience?

Perhaps it was because I was turning 31 that I made a silent vow that I should be more active. I still hadn't recovered from rock climbing (or slack lining for that matter) when I suddenly said: “Let's rent sea kayak and paddle to that island!”
“Which island?” Ammi asked.
“You see that little dot on the horizon?”
So we paid for a 4 hour rental. More than enough time I figured. So we began by paddling out to some of the closer cylindrical shaped islands that look like huge Coke cans sticking out of the water. There's a fast growing sport here where rock climbers paddle out to these islands and climb up the sides without ropes. If they fall they just fall into the ocean. They claim that they can safely climb 60 meters (about 200 feet!!!). I didn't think I was quite ready for that yet. Besides, they must use chalk. If they fell into the ocean they would just have a thick goop in their chalk bag that would never dry out. While I was looking up at the islands Ammi was looking down. “Fishies!” In a burst of spontaneity she jumped head first into the water before realizing that maybe she should have taken off her hat and sunglasses first. “That was about the dumbest things I've ever done. Those were my favorite pair of sunglasses.” A short time later I realized I had done something equally dumb. I put the stuff we brought (camera, wallet, sunscreen, etc.) with us for the day in an extra plastic bag we had in our backpacks but we later found out that it had suffered some wear and tear along the way and was no longer watertight. Luckily the camera was fine—I had stuffed it inside my life jacket to keep it dry—but the USB memory stick that I kept in my wallet didn't fare as well. (Why the hell did I bring my wallet?!? What was I planning to buy on a deserted island, coconuts from monkeys? Everyone knows the the surcharges they charge on credit cards is outrageous and they just end up eating cash. Duh.) I looked down at my watch. An hour had already past and we weren't very far. It took us about another hour and a half to get to the island. It was an incredible beach with amazing sand, water, and fish, but we would only have about 20 minutes until we had to leave if we wanted to get back in time. Of course on the way back it seemed the tide and wind changed directions against us, and was it just my imagination or were we somehow paddling uphill? I was reminded of a time management theory that states 'A task will take as much time as you allot it' as we pulled up to our beach at the last minute. My body felt like the Blues Mobile that fell apart as soon as Jake and Elwood reached Chicago.

“So did you have a good birthday, Kevin?”
“I did, but something is missing,” I remembered Ammi's unfortunate accident in the taxi cab in Buenos Aires on her birthday. “I think we should start a tradition in which a birthday is not officially over until someone pukes,” (Just in case you were wondering, my 2 buckets in Ton Sai Bay once emptied stayed that way, thank you very much). So when we got back to Ao Nang we went out for drinks and didn't stop until...Ammi puked. “Well that's not really what I had planned but now my birthday is officially over. I'll puke for your birthday, I promise.” We will be in India for Ammi's birthday so I can safely guarantee someone will be puking one way or the other.

Next stop: Bangkok and Chiang Mai 😱


Contrary to what Lonely Planet will tell you, when you cross the border from Kota Bharu, Malaysia to Thailand the train station is 500 m NOT 50 m so plan accordingly. Also there is plenty of public transport from Kota Bharu to the Thai border which is fast, cheap and convenient, regardless of what the taxi drivers will tell you.

We think Ton Sai Bay is one of the best kept secrets in Thailand. So in order to keep it that way, we feel obligated to tell you that it is a HORRIBLE place that only CRAZY (read: lucky) people would even consider going to. That said it can be a little hard and slightly soggy to get to. From Ao Nang
or Krabi town you will have to deal with the Long Tail Boat Cartel to get a ride--more organized than OPEC and less friendly than the Russian mob--the prices are set whether you like it or not. Also there is a long walk from the boat to the beach so with regard to your bag we give the same advice as picking up a girl in Patpong: It's best to double bag it. Crap my mother will read that! (No, this is not Kevin. It is Ammi and I have control of the blog. Mwahahaha... But anyone who knows us knows that Kevin writes the haikus and I secretly insert the dirty jokes when he isn't looking. Mwahahaha...)

While thatched roof bungalows sound fun, they aren't comfortable as they sound because it is just a mattress on the floor with nothing else under it. For a little extra comfort use a bed roll or sleeping bag underneath. Also a little insect repellent in addition to using the mosquito net provided doesn't hurt either.

If you get your Thai visa in Kuala Lumpur or other nearby capitals you get a free 60 day visa instead of the 15 they give you at the border or the 30 days you get at the airport.

Come to Ton Sai Bay with plenty of cash. There are no ATM's in paradise. Also the scenery is amazing as far as the eye can see but the access to internet and even the plumbing and electricity blows. Keep it in perspective though, are any of those things important in heaven?

Additional photos below
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The hotel owner grillin' up a storm.The hotel owner grillin' up a storm.
The hotel owner grillin' up a storm.

I noticed a lot less 'Cock-A-Doodle-Doos' the next morning

14th November 2009

Hey Kev, Sorry that I didn't remember your birthday, but by the looks of it, you didn't either. :) Glad to see you guys having fun, even in your old age.

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