Visiting Koh Samui
The first leg of our trip to Thailand was to the island of Koh Samui. It's the biggest island of the 3 that we visited on our journey; the other two being Koh Tao and Koh Pha-ngan. Indeed, after 24 hours of traveling (from the USA) and a total of 5 hours of sleep in the last 2 days we were running on fumes but we were filled with such excitement at the thought of discovering this beautiful little part of the world that we just couldn't sit still.
The fact that we were literally on the other side of the world and were about to embark on a journey that we had only seen in movies and t.v. shows (explained in our about page) didn't really hit me all at once. In fact, most of the culture shock came in pieces. At the airport in Koh Samui, everything seemed "normal" and even the mens' bathrooms looked like something that I might see at a resort or boutique hotel back home. Aside from some cool Buddhist drawings at our connecting airport in Bangkok (for which we were too tired and in a hurry to stop and appreciate) we didn't really have a moment to reflect.
It wasn't until we got into the taxi in Koh Samui and began our 30 minute ride to the hotel that we received a glimpse of this cultural mosaic destined to shatter our naivety. Nina and I have been to some impoverished areas of the world so the shanty towns and general poverty didn't scare us. It was really the complete disregard for safety from the drivers that caused us to stare at the natives as if they were zoo animals. For example, we witnessed a family of four people plus a dog somehow riding on a single scooter and weaving through traffic. This family of four consisted of a man driving the scooter, a woman sitting behind the man, a child sitting on the woman's lap and another child sitting behind the woman and holding on to her waist. The dog was on it's hind legs in front of the man and had its front paws on the handle bars. Score 1 point for culture shock.
Boutique Hotel - Villa Nalinnadda
We arrived at our boutique hotel in Lamai (a southern province) called Villa Nalinnadda. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a specialty cocktail and a warm smile. The hotel was clean, beautifully decorated, and just steps away from the crystal clear waters of the beach. The restaurant at the hotel had many excellent options and it was honestly some of the best food that we had in our entire 18 day stay in Thailand. The sweet and spicy soup (we believe it's called Pad Thai soup) is highly recommended. Our room was very spacious and included an outdoor shower and hot tub overlooking the beach. The view was absolutely stunning and overall it was an excellent stay at a reasonable rate (approximately $100 a night) which includes a 1 hour Thai massage.
With the help of the hotel staff, we were able to book a private driver for 5 hours to take us around the island to some of the sites that we were interested in visiting. The total cost of the driver was about 2,000 Baht (equivalent to roughly US $67 using an exchange rate of 30 Baht to 1 USD) and it was worth every penny considering that we were only in Koh Samui for 1 day so this allowed us to make the most use of our sightseeing.
The first place that we visited was Na Muang Waterfall, also known as the Purple Waterfall. This is a waterfall in the jungle that is known for the purple rocks that glow underneath the raging cascade and is a really peaceful setting. The waterfall itself is quite beautiful; feeding into a river that disappears into the jungle. In the river we witnessed other tourists and their kids playing in the water but since this was our first day in Thailand we didn't want to risk getting sick from accidentally ingesting the water so we avoided taking a dip. The area around the waterfall is filled with tourist nick-knack shops, food vendors and an elephant riding encounter. Somewhat comically, we got into a bit of a philosophical debate with our driver because Nina and I are strongly opposed to the concept of elephants in captivity for the enjoyment of people but our driver insisted that keeping the animal in chains and hooks was the right thing to do. Score 1 more point for culture shock.
After leaving the waterfall, we visited nearby Wat Khunaram. This is a Buddhist temple known for housing the mummified corpse of a famous Buddhist monk who lived and died on the island. The mummified monk is on display in a glass case for all to see and is often wearing sunglasses while sitting in a lotus position. We took off our shoes and respectfully knelt in front of the mummy monk as is the custom and although we are not religious people back home we became enthralled with a feeling of such awe. Surely this mummy must have been a special individual who touched so many peoples' lives in a positive way, similar to how Christian monks in the west who achieve sainthood are equally revered. In that moment of reflection all I could think about was how we are not so different after all. Even in something as complex as religion we can find similarities between our cultures.
After the existential awakening that was Wat Khunaram, we set out to enjoy some rum at a local distillery called Magic Alambic Rum Distillery. They sold a variety of excellent (strong) rum in several different flavors. There is an area outside where you can sit and have your rum with honey and lime juice which was nice. You can also walk through the area where they process raw sugar cane for rum making. Interestingly, this distillery is run by a group of young (early 20s) French immigrants who were looking for a change in their own lives. Although, I thought it was ironic how they had left France in search of opportunity in a third-world country when so many people from North Africa and other impoverished areas of the world immigrate to France in search of the same opportunity.
Our next stop was Wat Plai Laem. This is a temple complex on the shores of a small lake that has three main displays. On the far right is a large white statue of what looks like a Hindu deity with 18 arms. In the center there is a small but ornately decorated temple. Inside that temple there is a shrine to the Buddha with what looks like the Buddha's journey to enlightenment painted on the walls. Finally, the display on the far left is a statue of a large, fat and smiling Buddha. This fat Buddha is most likely modeled on the Chinese Buddha as the Thai Buddha is supposed to depict a thin person.
Our last sightseeing stop was the Big Buddha temple. This is a temple complex on the shores of the beach and main pier with a long staircase that reaches up towards a big Buddha statue. We found that taking your shoes off and walking up many steps towards a big statue of the Buddha was emblematic of walking up towards the heavens. Once you reach the top you are overwhelmed by the size of the golden Buddha statue and the breathtaking view of the beach and mountains.
Our First Night Out
After a long day of sightseeing, we headed back to the hotel to relax but after an hour or so we got hungry and the restaurant at the hotel was now closed. We had no choice but to go out to the street in front of the hotel and look for a taxi. Unfortunately, since this hotel was away from the main attractions, we could not find a taxi. Also, the streets were very dark as they did not have street lights in this part of the island and there were no sidewalks so we couldn't risk walking in the dark to try and find something to eat.
As I stood there pondering our next move, I see Nina suddenly wave down a songthaew (truck). She looked at me and said "when in Rome..." and we proceeded to hop in the back after negotiating a rate. In general, a songthaew is just a pick up truck that has been converted into a ride sharing taxi by turning the bed of the truck into an extra cabin with wooden seats and metal bars installed. It's very easy to identify the songthaew because they are the only trucks painted red and you will see them all over the roads. I didn't really know what kind of situation we'd be putting ourselves in by getting into a songthaew but I must say that in that moment I was the proudest husband ever. That move took real courage and a carpe diem attitude so it always brings a smile to my face when I think of it.
We had the songthaew drop us off at the famous Chaweng night market so that we could grab some dinner. We walked around the market for a bit, enchanted by the strange smells and interesting sights and finally settled on eating a beef noodle soup, some spicy noodles with chicken and a giant coconut to drink.
After dinner we walked around the Chaweng beach area (a northeastern province), which is famous for its nightlife, shops and of course its beaches. What we didn't know is that it was also famous for are its ladyboys. Ladyboys are what we back home would consider tansgender. They are males who dress and behave effeminately and to be honest can be quite convincing. This is because from what we could observe, the native women in the Thai islands are not very effeminate as compared to ladyboys by our western standards. In general, we observed the local women to have very calloused hands and feet and with an attire that is very modest. But a typical ladyboy at Chaweng beach is wearing a dress, makeup, heels and perfume all night long. I guess for this reason pretty much all the girls standing at the front of bars and clubs enticing drunk men to come inside are ladyboys. That's 1 more point for culture shock.
We finished our night at Chaweng beach by watching some fire dancers perform on the beach at a nice resort called Ark Bar. Apparently, this resort is known for hosting excellent parties from sundown to sunup and we definitely got our fill for the night. But considering that we were leaving the next morning to Koh Tao we didn't stay very late.
The next morning we woke up early so that we could get some drone footage of the hotel, beach and surrounding countryside. The sun, in full view that morning, peeled back the curtains of that murky beach water obscured by clouds of the early morning to fully reveal the crystal clear water that had been there all along. Walking from the hotel to that deserted beach allowed us to fully appreciate the beauty of this jungle paradise as we gazed out over the horizon and caught our first glimpse of some traditional long tail boats anchored just offshore; the flamboyant red, white and blue banners tied to the bow with such pride. After our drone session we received a complimentary hour long Thai massage from the hotel and then we ate some more of that delicious spicy soup and noodle dish that we had the night before. Bidding farewell to our hotel, we took a taxi to Bangrak pier to catch a ferry to our next destination.
As we waited for the ferry to arrive, we opted to walk around the pier area. Up in the hills we could see some luxury hotel rooms with infinity pools overlooking the pier and beach area. With its all white colors, modern decor and chic designs I'd be lying if I didn't tell you just how jealous we were in that moment of the folks who were staying in those luxury hotels. Just across the pier we could see the big golden Buddha statue (Big Buddha temple) shining bright gold on a sunny Friday morning. Finally and perhaps most significantly, we watched from the pier as the locals were hanging out and getting ready to start their day. Looking out at the boats I saw a young kid running out to towards the water, carrying a child sized kayak and jumping into the water to begin paddling. After a few minutes of playing in the water he leans back and rests his head on the kayak with the sun beaming down on his face and floating in the water without a care in the world. Had I not been in vacation mode, I might have dismissed this innocuous display of joyful play as mundane. However, this little observation really reminded me of such simple pleasures in life. Indeed, simple pleasures that I had forgotten to enjoy back home due to a hectic work-life schedule.
This moment of reflection was snapped when we suddenly felt everyone around us move about. The ferry had arrived and we thus diligently lined up to board the ferry to Koh Tao.