Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi – Our beachfront paradise

OK, we’ve got to be honest with you. Our plans to permanently move to Santhiya Resort didn’t work out. Maybe it was for cultural reasons, maybe the lack of a long-term Thai visa, or perhaps it was the hotel’s unwillingness to give us room and board for free. In any case, after two wonderful nights, we decided to move on to a new hotel on the other side of a rock outcrop in the bay. Our new home was Rasanandra, a new boutique luxury hotel in the center of a larger beach: Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi. Santhiya is technically part of this beach as well, but the rock outcrop separates it from the strip of accomodation on the other side, which included our new place.

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The modern pool at Rasanandra. The benches on the side had buttons that turned on jets.

Upon arrival, we received the typical coconut-milk welcome drinks (western culture really needs to adopt this custom), and were led to our room. The room was amazing — modern in design, clean, it included a small private pool (as all rooms at this hotel do), and oddly — free alcohol. We had a selection of gin, rum, and whiskey, which we were informed would be refilled daily. Strangely, the mixers (tonic, cola, etc.) were in the mini-bar for a charge. Still a pretty good deal. As the cheapskates we are, we bought tonic from the local store down the street and mixed some drinks.

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Free booze

The hotel was amazing. From the pool, to the excellent restaurant, to the complimentary beach snacks (courtesy of the chef), this place was top-notch. Over the course of four days, we were continually asked by the hotel and restaurant managers if there was anything they could do better. There wasn’t.

The beach was great too. Many Thai beach areas are over-developed:

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Parts of Chewang Beach are not so relaxing. Careful with those power lines!

Or underdeveloped (no services). This strip was perfect. There was a selection of good local restaurants and bars at the other guesthouses along the beach, along with a couple convenience stores, an ATM, and laundry services. The sand was white and pure, and extended far out into the water (no rocks). We were in heaven.

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Looking north from our hotel

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The beach in front of our hotel

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The palm tree that we sat beneath in front of our hotel one afternoon

The one last thing worth mentioning during a trip to Ko Phangan are the infamous “full moon parties”. Our little beach was way too chill for serious ravers, and the moon wasn’t full while we were there, but we still got a taste of the action. The “Beach Club” bar down the beach had a fire dancing show (free for anyone to watch) one of the nights we were there. Abby and I had no idea what to expect, but were mesmerized when it started and stayed for a full hour. We will always associate this scene with the Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face”. Definitely worth seeing, even if, like us, you’re not into the rave scene.

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Fire dancing

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Our new life on Ko Phangan

Dear Family & Friends,

This is not an easy blog post for us to write, but we wanted to share our news with all of you right away. It is with mixed emotions that we are writing to let you know that we will not be returning home to Seattle from Koh Phangan. The resort that we have called home for the past two nights is simply too wonderful for us to ever leave, so we have decided not to. This is not a decision we made with haste. We treasure our family and friends and the time that we get to spend with all of you. That is why we hope you will all come visit us in our Sea-View Villa at the Santhiya Resort. It has a separate sitting room with a daybed (where we are sitting right now) that would make very comfortable guest quarters. Although we hear it is currently 100 degrees in Seattle, we all know how gray the winter months can be — and that would be the perfect time for you to come visit us on Koh Phangan.

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These wooden buggies transport visitors from their villas to the main lodge/pool area.

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The daybed in our villa, with walkway connecting to bedroom area.

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Interior of our villa, with outdoor bathroom visible through windows behind Abby.

Upon arrival at our new home, you will be treated to a welcome massage and can arrange for a 1.5 hour Thai massage that will cost you a mere US $45. We indulged in such a massage yesterday and cannot remember a time when we felt more relaxed. The lovely ladies who stretched, kneaded, and pulled our muscles chuckled at us at the end of our massage as we lay on our beds underneath the open windows, arms outstretched and unable to move right away after such a luxurious experience. We know you will enjoy this as well when you come to visit us.

Although best known for its epic Full Moon Parties, which involve all sorts of hallucinogenic drugs and “fire dancing,” Koh Phagnan also boasts a beautiful and secluded set of beaches called Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai & Noi. This is where our new home is located on the island. After an almost one-hour journey from the public ferry pier that took us over mountainous dirt roads, with portions so steep that our driver had to turn off the A/C before powering up the craggy rocks, you will arrive at our most lovely resort home with villas tucked away into the jungle. You may also choose to take the resort’s power speedboat directly from the pier, but we recommend the van ride because it really makes you feel like you have embarked upon a daring journey and earned your welcome drink upon arrival at this remote destination.

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Upper eating area at main lodge building.

After dropping off your bags in our villa, we will take you down to the lovely beach for a Beer Chang on one of their tables in the sand. You may remark, like Dan did, that you feel like you are in a James Bond movie. We predict that you will sit for a few moments without even speaking and share the feeling we had of being so extremely lucky in life to be in such a beautiful place with someone you love.

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Beach bar & restaurant area.

And finally, we will reserve a table on the beach for the dinner we will all share during your visit. This is truly an experience you won’t forget. How many times have you sat at a table IN the sand with your shoes off and a torch by your side?

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Dinner on the beach on our second and final night at Santhiya.

Although we will miss Seattle and everyday contact with all of you, we know that our visits together will be even more special in the future because we can share the experience of our new home with you. We have not yet figured out the financial logistics of our decision, but we are hoping that the hotel will let us trade gardening time for permanent residency. If not, we will be collecting donations from our loyal readers. We can’t wait to welcome you to our new home in Koh Phangan!

Love, Abby & Dan

Sawasdee Khrab, Koh Samui!

After nearly 24 hours of travel, we made it all the way from Seattle to Koh Samui, Thailand. The flight was easier than expected, especially since we were able to get a pretty good night of sleep on our red-eye from Seattle to Taipei.

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Taiwanese airport food

Once we landed on the island, we took a taxi from the tiny airport (complete with an open-air luggage carousel) to our hotel just north of Chaweng beach. Here, we were upgraded to an ocean-facing villa, specially decked out for our honeymoon.

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What a way to start the trip! The hotel (Nora Beach Resort) is wonderful, and despite some overcast skies up in Bangkok, there’s no sign of any monsoon down here, but I won’t go on about that since I don’t want to jinx us. We did a little exploring on foot that first night, walking down to Chaweng beach for dinner. Jet-lag quickly set in though, making it an early night for us.

Jet-lag does have its upside, as we woke up first thing Monday morning in time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise on the beach with a cup of coffee.

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Sawasdee Thailand

See our gallery of photos tagged with “thailand”.

Our flight out of Thailand departed five weeks after we first landed in Bangkok. During this time, we traveled in and out of the country to visit Vietnam and Cambodia, but Thailand — and especially Bangkok — had come to feel like home by the time we left. It is an easy country to love, with its friendly people, delicious food, very affordable prices, and beautiful weather. We were sad to bid farewell to Thailand, but at the same time, we left feeling certain that we will return and excited for the next stop on our itinerary.

We’re still not sure how we got so lucky, but we were re-booked on a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong on Friday, December 5, the same day that Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport resumed full operation (read more here) and only two days after our originally scheduled flight. The only signs of the the previous week’s shut-down were a line-up of security officers on the road leading into the terminal, a dance group performing next to signs thanking tourists for their patience, and many flights showing a status of “Canceled” on the boards within the terminal. Based on what we read and saw on TV, in addition to a few conversations with other travelers on our flight, we were very lucky to have faced as little inconvenience as we did.

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Sign in Suvarnabhumi airport on its first full day of post-protest operation

During our final few days in Bangkok, we spent time hanging out with Dan’s friend Bill, who has lived in Bangkok for the past four years and was a tremendous host to us during our stay. We also took a final tuk-tuk ride and revisited some of our favorite restaurants where you can get a fantastic entree for US $2. We already miss all of the amazing food in Thailand, particularly the abundant and always delicious street carts. You can get everything from pre-cut & bagged fresh fruit (US 50 cents) to coconut & red-bean pancakes (US 60 cents) to grilled pork skewers (US 60 cents). But our favorite vendor has to be someone we spotted in Koh Chang, whom we affectionately refer to as the Banana Man. You couldn’t miss his rockin’ music — and his production speed was truly awesome. We can also vouch for his excellent product: banana crepe with chocolate sauce.

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Koh Chang’s Banana Man in action

Due to the shutdown of the airports, the streets around our guesthouse in Bangkok felt quite a bit more empty than they did at the beginning of our stay. We are very hopeful that the tourism industry will bounce back quickly, but there is no doubt that the country has been dealt a big blow. We also saw the effects of the shutdown when we visited Wat Arun on our very last day in Bangkok, where we practically had the beautiful temple to ourselves. From a very selfish perspective, it was quite an experience to wander up the steps and around the top platform of the amazing structure virtually on our own.

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View of Wat Arun

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View from the top of Wat Arun

Our very last stop on our very last day in Bangkok was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a cocktail. It was a beautiful setting that we won’t soon forget (never mind that the bill for our two cocktails and fizzy water amounted to more than one night’s stay in our guesthouse). Until next time, Bangkok!

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A taste of the good life at Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Thanksgiving: Koh Chang style

See our gallery of photos tagged with “koh chang”.

As we described in our last post, the PAD protesters’ occupation of the airports forced us to abandon our plans of flying down to the famous beaches in the south of Thailand, leading us to instead choose an overland trip to Koh Chang. This island is a five hour bus ride from Bangkok, followed by a 45 minute ferry ride. We left late morning, and were there by dusk.

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View from the ferry to Koh Chang

We arrived without accommodation, but knew that we wanted to stay somewhere along White Sand Beach on the west coast of the island. After taking a songthew to the center of the hotel strip along the beach and walking door-to-door checking out places, we finally settled on this beach-front spot:

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White Sands Beach in front of our hotel

We spent the next four days relaxing. Each morning, we settled down on two beach chairs right between the hotel pool and the beach, and spent the rest of the day reading and taking dips in the water. Around dusk, we continued our South African tradition of enjoying a sundowner cocktail.

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Sundowner, White Sands Beach

Our second night in Koh Chang happened to fall on Thanksgiving and also became one of the most memorable nights of our trip. After a beachside sundowner (photo above), I decided it was the right moment to ask Abby a rather serious question. After getting our bill, we walked out onto a small island that had formed as the tidal waters receded. It was here that I asked her to marry me and was delighted when she said “yes”.

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Two people that just got engaged on the beach!

We went out for a celebratory (and Thanksgiving) dinner at Ton Sai, which is a fantastic restaurant perched up in a banyan tree. We had yellow curry, phad thai, and minced pork cakes while we thought about all that we are thankful for and how excited we are for the future.

We spent the rest of our trip relaxing, only leaving White Sand Beach once to visit “Lonely Beach,” which is a less developed part of the island further south. This area has more of a backpacker feel with a bunch of cheap bungalows, bars, and restaurants.

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Lonely Beach

Another highlight of our excursion to Lonely Beach was this sighting of a mother and daughter monkey pair traversing the power lines:

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Making it work

See our gallery of photos tagged with “bangkok”.

We returned to Bangkok from Phnom Penh on a flight that arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport around 6p.m. on November 24. Little did we know that approximately 24 hours later, that airport would be overwhelmed by protesters and shut down entirely to inbound and outbound flights. (Read more here.) Had we returned one day later, we would have been caught in the craziness of the airport takeover. Two days later and we would have been stuck in Phnom Penh. So when we first heard the news, we were feeling pretty lucky about the timing of our travel arrangements. The only remaining problem: we had already purchased round-trip tickets to Krabi in and out of Bangkok that departed on the 26th.

We soon realized there was no way we would be flying to Krabi (which was to be our jumping-off point to the island of Ko Phi Phi), so we channeled Tim Gunn and set about making it work. After consulting our guidebooks and the recommendations of an old friend, we picked Koh Chang as our alternate beach destination. Koh Chang is a beautiful island on the Eastern Gulf Coast of Thailand, and most important, is accessible by ferry from a town that is accessible by bus from Bangkok. So, one five-hour bus ride, 45-minute ferry ride, and 30-minute songthiew ride later, we settled into our beach-front hotel and never looked back. (More on Koh Chang to follow in our next blog entry.)

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Koh Chang

When we first restructured our beach plans, we thought there was no way the protest would still be underway one week later when we were scheduled to fly to Hong Kong. How could Bangkok’s main transit hub possibly be out of commission for that long? Slowly but surely, however, we realized the protest showed no sign of ending and we needed to figure out a back-up plan for leaving Thailand. So that’s what we did yesterday. Luckily we were booked on Thai Airways and they have been doing everything they can to accommodate inconvenienced travelers. After a visit to the downtown Thai Airways office, we left with stand-by bookings on three different “evacuation” flights that were departing from a naval airport about 90 miles from Bangkok, as well as confirmed seats on a December 6 flight that was departing from BKK’s main airport. By the end of the day, a constitutional court had ruled that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was banned from politics for five years, which appeased the protesting PAD party and led to their announcement that they would leave the airports by Wednesday, December 3.

So, long story short, we have confirmed seats on a December 6 flight to Hong Kong and it appears that we will be able to fly out of the main international airport. Our time in Hong Kong is thereby shortened from four days to one day, but we’re determined to make it dim-sum-packed! We feel quite lucky compared to all of the other travelers who have been struggling to return to jobs or families back home, as well as all of the Thai merchants and businesses that rely so heavily on the tourism industry. We will be sad to leave Bangkok and Thailand as a whole. We’ve had a wonderful time here and would recommend a visit to anyone.

Cooking pad thai in Chiang Mai

See our gallery of photos tagged with “chiang mai”.

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After five nights in busy, clanging, dirty, hot, fantastic, delicious, colorful Bangkok, we decided to take a quick plane ride up north to the city of Chiang Mai. Although it’s Thailand’s second largest city, you’d never know it. Chiang Mai has a very relaxed and friendly vibe that we really enjoyed. Several people (including a monk) stopped us on the street to make sure we knew where we were going and just to find out more about us. It took several of these experiences — during which we initially braced ourselves for “the sell” — to realize that people were actually just being friendly. (Side note: when we identify ourselves at American, the response is almost invariably “Obama!” with an arm or two raised in excitement. This has happened throughout SE Asia both before and after the election.)

Our visit to Chiang Mai was just before the start of the annual Loy Krathong festival that is held on the first full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. As part of the celebration, residents release paper lanterns into the air and float small boats carrying candles down the river. We unfortunately missed the main festival, but did get to see a small spattering of lanterns floating through the air on Saturday night, as well as intermittent bursts of fireworks throughout our stay. We also took a half-day tour to see a beautiful temple called Doi Suthep, which is nestled into the trees at the top of a mountain, and also to visit a Hmong village where we met these adorable youngsters.

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The real highlight of our visit to Chiang Mai was a full-day cooking class at a place called A Lot of Thai that came highly recommended from a new friend named Mari, whom we met during the election day festivities in Bangkok. (Mari is currently traveling throughout SE Asia and has a great food-focused blog called fedification.com.) The A Lot of Thai cooking class is run by a delightful woman named Yui, who grew up in Chiang Mai and comes from a family that includes cooks, butchers, and farmers. Yui’s love of tasty, fresh, and healthy food is contagious and she is an excellent teacher. In addition to several Thai dishes, we also learned how to crack an egg with one hand, how not to burn garlic, and why we shouldn’t fear deep-frying.

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Throughout the day, we made pad thai, green curry with chicken, vegetable spring rolls, chicken with cashew nuts, hot & sour prawn soup, and sticky rice with mango. After the first three dishes, we went on a field trip to the local market where we got to see all of the different fruits, vegetables, pastes, powders, sugars, and more that go into traditional Thai cooking. In Seattle, we’re lucky to have places like Pike Place Market and Uwajimaya for a variety of ingredients, but this was something else entirely. One of my favorite discoveries was the “pea eggplant,” which is exactly what it sounds like … an eggplant the size of a (big) pea.

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Yui answering one of my questions about green curry.

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Yui showing us galangal root at the market.

Besides the delicious food and personable teacher, what we loved about the class was how it made so many dishes that we’ve always considered restaurant-dependent suddenly doable on our own. So, friends and family, get psyched for our return to Seattle, because with no jobs and newfound cooking skills, we look forward to hosting many dinner parties.