Tag Archives: Phuket

Phuket Part 3: Sun, Rain, and Massages

It felt like the hills and the jungle came right down to the edge of the beach.

It felt like the hills and the jungle came right down to the edge of the beach.

Read Part 1 and Part 2!

For our last day in Phuket, we wanted to basically do nothing. We wanted to go to the beach and we wanted to get a massage, which also happened to be our only two “plans” before we landed in Thailand. From our own observations and talking to the staff at the hotel, we knew that there were many small spas where we could get a massage near the beach. We were assured that they were all clean, licensed, and professional- essentially, we could chose any of them and it would be OK, there wasn’t one “best” one and there weren’t any to avoid in this area. (There were some to avoid in a different area, however! And we did.) We also knew that they all take walk-ins, so we decided to do the beach first while the sun was still out and figure out the massage thing later. Much like in KL, Phuket was clear and sunny in the morning and cloudy and rainy in the afternoon…at least the weekend we were there. With our “plan” set, we were ready to get Day 3 underway!

The only problem that still needed a solution was what to do with our bags. We did just pack our backpacks for this reason, but if it was possible to leave them at the hotel, that was preferable than dragging them to the beach. Our favorite front desk clerk provided a fantastic solution: we could leave the bags in their secure storage room for the day. The hotel had a shower in the pool area that we could use when we got back, and they would give us clean towels. Problem solved! We tipped this guy way too much, too, but he really earned it. We complimented him profusely to his boss before we left as well.

Patong Beach, from sand level.

Patong Beach, from sand level.

We had breakfast at a place on the beach (more pancakes!), the same place we had lunch on Friday, and then headed down to the sand. Apparently before the military coup in May 2014, local people used to rent umbrellas and beach chairs along the beach. But since the coup, the government has banned such ventures. I’ve read that perhaps they are looking for greater regulation on the industry and/or perhaps they want to make it a government-run enterprise to collect (more) tourist dollars. On the message boards I looked at, some tourist regulars to Phuket are furious about this, but not having been there before to form an opinion, we didn’t really mind. We brought towels from the hotel and staked our claim to a patch of sand. We each took turns swimming while the other one sat on the towels with our camera and beach bags. The water was perfect and so salty! Growing up on the Atlantic, I thought ocean water would be ocean water- with some variations in temperature of course. Not so. The Andaman Sea was very unlike what I am used to- the salinity was much greater, and the salt felt…less coarse. Sometimes in the Atlantic it’s almost as though you can feel the individual grains of salt on your skin; we didn’t have that sensation here at all. The waves were nice and very fun to play in- great body surfing waves. We spent a fantastic couple of hours between the sand and the water.

The two women walking, both wearing pink hats, were selling various items.  See how close together they are?

The two women walking, both wearing pink hats, were selling various items. See how close together they are?

Another big difference in beach culture was all the people selling things on the beach. My hometown is pretty well known for its beaches, but outside of the snack bars and the occasional Italian Ice stand, people don’t really (openly) sell things. It’s also worth noting that the few vendors that do exist are in relatively fixed spots; you need to go to them if you want something. In Phuket, people walk up and down the beach trying to sell you things. We saw sarongs, carved wooden trinkets, wooden baskets, jewelry, friendship-style bracelets, and lots of other actually useful things like sunglasses, sunscreen, towels, and snacks. (It was interesting that they tried to sell us sunglasses even though both of us were wearing sunglasses.) It was annoying that there were so many people selling stuff because they just kept coming! They were only like a minute apart from one another, it was like a parade! The other reason it was really annoying was they would really give you a hard sell. There is a polite “no thank you” hand gesture in Southeast Asia that I have grown quite fond of. It’s almost like waving at someone, but with a more rapid back and forth movement. It’s usually sufficient to refuse the street vendors in KL, but the vendors on the beach would stand right in front of your towel for a solid 30 seconds or so, even after getting the polite “no thank you” gesture. 30 seconds might not sound like a lot of time. But try staring down someone for a full 30 seconds, while that other person ignores you. It’s just a touch longer than feels comfortable for American politeness standards.

There wasn’t a great deal of open beach sand between the edge of the water and the “sea wall” in front of the restaurants, enough for about two rows of beach towels. As the tide was rising, there were one or two waves that lapped at our towels, so we scooted back a little but we didn’t have any more room to go back farther. When Micah was swimming, there was one really substantial “rogue” wave that totally swamped our towels. I had all I could do to lift up our camera and t-shirts in time. Our towels got soaked, and our beach bag got soaked…the beach bag was OK because we bought a waterproof bag before our island excursion (more on this later). We tried to get sorted out as best we could, but it was hopeless. We decided at this point to rent a bamboo mat. Our now-favorite restaurant had a small piece of beach in front where they rented mats for 100 baht. We noticed it on Friday and again earlier that day, but elected to sit on the beach proper, with our toes in the sand as it were. But at this point, we didn’t have a lot of choices. 100 baht is only about $3 USD, but we weren’t sure whether that was per hour or what the time frame was. When Micah asked how long the rental was for, the manager shrugged and said “All day.” So for about $3, we had our own mat, towel, pillow, and small table for as long as we cared to stay there. Plus, it was mostly in the shade, which was good for me and my fair skin at that point, AND it had service to the restaurant. We hung our sand-and-water logged towels on the sea wall and happily camped out for a bit longer…now with an ice-cold beer in hand! At this point I could see the utility of being able to rent a chair and an umbrella. After a few hours in the sun, a shady spot was nice. Another perk of our new spot was that far fewer vendors approached us. We still were approached, but it was not as frequent.

View from our rented mat.  You can see the neighboring mat in the corner.

View from our rented mat. You can see the neighboring mat in the corner.

We continued taking turns swimming and sitting for a while longer when it started to rain. We had a few drops here and there all morning, but this was a no-doubt-about-it rainstorm. It was time for a late lunch and to consider leaving the beach for massages anyway, so the rain came at the perfect time. We had lunch at the bar while it rained and, during a break in the rain, we were off down the road to find a massage at one of the dozen or so small spas near the beach. Micah had seen one earlier that looked good to us and they had availability right at that moment, so we chose them. We were the only ones in the front room, which was really nice. We chose 30 minutes of reflexology and 30 minutes of Thai massage. We can’t remember how much we paid, but it wasn’t more than $20 USD each. If we had more time, an hour of each would have been amazing. The reflexology was fantastic, hands down the best foot massage I’ve ever had. It also converted Micah, who was concerned that it wouldn’t be worth the time or money. When it was time for the Thai massage, they brought us back into this curtained off cubicle. I have never had a Thai massage and did not expect the full contact nature or the active participation on my part. It did feel really good, and I know that it realigned my body and opened up my systems because I had cold symptoms the next day- I’m convinced from junk getting processed out of my body because I was totally fine after a few hours of rest and a whole lot of water. Maybe because we only got 30 minutes instead of an hour though, it didn’t feel as completely relaxing as I was expecting. (Granted, I don’t have a lot to compare with it, I’ve only ever had one other massage in my life.) It felt like the thing to do when in Thailand though, get a Thai massage, and we’re both glad that we experienced it. I would definitely do it again when/if we go back to Thailand, but for a full hour.

This palm tree has nothing to do with the rain.

This palm tree has nothing to do with the rain.

As we left the massage, however, it started pouring rain. Just a straight downpour. We had brought umbrellas and rain jackets with us…and left them in our bags at the hotel. With no other choice, we started trekking back to our hotel in the driving rain. Not for the first time, my eagle-eyed husband saved the day! Micah spotted some ponchos through the door in a convenience store and we bought some for a couple bucks. With our ponchos on, and the camera tucked safely into our new waterproof bag, we were still drenched at the end, but considerably less worse for the wear.

Now, it’s time for the waterproof bag story. The day of our jungle trek, we had borrowed a waterproof bag from our guide. We were totally sold on the utility, and sometimes necessity, of having one of our own. But we didn’t have an occasion to use it immediately, so we put off buying one until we thought we’d use it. On Friday night, after we decided to do the kayaking excursion, we decided it was now time to buy a bag. We figured we could buy one at the “night market” and if not, there was a regular mall next to it that would probably have a sporting goods store of some kind. I had not done any research on what I should expect to pay for the bag, so we were a little bit at the mercy of the stores in terms of whether it was a reasonable price. (Also, since Patong Beach is a very touristy area, I completely expected an elevated tourist price, rather than a reasonable price.)

In Thailand, and apparently in many parts of Southeast Asia but not in KL for some reason, shoppers are expected to bargain. Bargaining culture is very foreign to me. To me, the price is the price. If I don’t want to pay the price for that item, I just don’t buy it. It would never occur to me to try to bargain for it. (Sidebar: I have asked my mechanic to work with me on a high estimate repair before, but I can’t imagine wanting to buy an item in a store and offering less than the price marked. Also, negotiating seems different than bargaining. Negotiating on a high estimate repair, for example, requires something on my part, I feel. I am entitled to negotiate because I have been a loyal customer and will continue to be a loyal customer. I wouldn’t try to negotiate if it was the first time I had been to the shop. To my mind, anyway.)

So as we walked through the market, we saw that all of the shops in the market carried the waterproof bags we were looking for, presumably for tourists who need them for these types of excursions. I felt pretty confident that they would all be priced similarly. We chose one, and also a koozie with the logo of one of the Thai beers we had drunk. The shopkeeper quoted us a price of 600 baht, which was around $20. That seemed reasonable and matched up pretty well with what I thought the value of the bag was. Most importantly, I felt really uncomfortable bargaining, even though I know it’s culturally appropriate. If I feel the price is a fair value, aren’t I accusing the shopkeeper of being greedy or something if I offer a lower price? I couldn’t do it. So I handed her the 600 baht and her face lit up like she had hit the jackpot. She recovered her poker face quickly though, and then tried to sell me anything else I glanced at. Because now she knows she can tell me any price she wants! Definitely a tourist faux pas, but I still feel OK about the value for the cost, even if I could have saved $5 or something. Considering that the bag had now protected our camera three times (once on the kayaks, once when our towels got swamped, and now in the pouring rain), 600 baht seemed like a great value! (Sidebar: Looks like I can get similar bags for $15-$20 USD. Given the fact that we were in a tourist area and should expect to pay more, I still feel OK with the price we paid. Or maybe I am just trying to justify not bargaining.)

After our walk in the pouring rain, we arrived back to our hotel with about an hour and a half before our cab was scheduled to pick us up. Our timing was absolutely perfect. Any longer to wait and we would have been bored, any less time and I think we would have been stressed. We showered, changed into dry clothes, and sat in the lobby with one last beer and our books, listening to the rain on the metal roof outside. It was a fabulous way to end our Phuket adventure.

Happy and relaxed after our day at the beach!

Happy and relaxed after our day at the beach!

Or we thought we were at the end, anyway. The hour drive back to the airport was…eventful. The roads are twisty and people drive too fast, plus the weather was still terrible, we both felt very uncomfortable. I didn’t think the driver was reckless, per se, but I also wished that the conditions and/or his speed were better for those roads! It also got very dark, very quickly in Thailand. Even though it was only about 6:00pm, it was just as dark as if it had been the middle of the night. Allegedly this is true all along this latitude, including in KL, but because we are in the middle of the city, with all the ambient light we aren’t really aware of it very much. We arrived at the airport safely enough, and with plenty of time to find where we needed to go. And then we remembered the lack of signage at this particular airport and the lack of food at the KL airport. We found a kiosk, printed our boarding passes, and then got some terrible airport sandwiches.

Getting from the check in area to our gate was easily the most frustrating thing we have experienced since leaving Texas, including our unexpected 12-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way over. With our boarding pass and our passports we expected to be able to enter the international part of the terminal so we could go through customs again. We were physically stopped (quite literally- hands on shoulders restraining us) at the doorway and told we needed an international stamp to pass through. Really? The fact that our boarding pass has us landing in a different country isn’t enough to indicate that we need to be in the international terminal? Fine, I have no desire to end my trip in a Thai jail controlled by the military government. Now where do we get a stamp? They made a vague “over there” gesture. Awesome. We found an information desk and that person was much more helpful and directed us to the specific counter and line we should stand in (counter 17, 18, or 19). Stamp acquired, we made our way back through the well-guarded doorway into the terminal.

This airport was the reverse order of Kuala Lumpur. First we went through security, then we went through customs and immigration. At security, my bag got flagged for an inspection. With our patience completely waning, I tried to understand what they were looking for. They said, “Scissors?” Crap. My travel manicure kit has a small set of scissors in it. It didn’t even occur to me to check the carry on rules for our flight back, just for leaving KL. We have been able to carry manicure scissors and nail clippers for the last several years in the US, so when it wasn’t a problem leaving KL I guess I assumed it wouldn’t be a problem more generally. After they found my scissors and consulted on the rest of the kit, I was allowed to keep the nail clippers and tweezers and finally allowed to proceed on to immigration. This entire experience was made much more difficult and terrifying for me because of the language barrier, I didn’t really know what was going on or what rule I had broken or what the possible consequences would be. It was difficult and frustrating for Micah because this was my second offense in having sharp objects confiscated from my carry on, after I forgot a pocketknife was in my backpack on our trip to Massachusetts this summer. Note to self: just don’t carry any objects sharper than a ballpoint pen in the future.

DQ in Phuket airport!

DQ in Phuket airport!

Nothing horrible happened at immigration, fortunately. We had our exit cards filled out appropriately and so other than waiting for 20 or 30 minutes, we went right through. Once through security and immigration, we had about an hour before our flight would start boarding. Micah enjoys trying different varieties of scotch, so he took the opportunity to peruse the duty free store and pick up one from a new region. Also, the availability to acquire alcohol in Kuala Lumpur is limited, and it’s really expensive when it’s available, so taking advantage of the duty free store seemed smart. We each took some time to just walk around the terminal and loosen up after the stress of “the scissors incident.” Our gate got moved, right before boarding, but people had already started to queue up. It didn’t appear we had to check in again at the gate, like we did in KL, it just looked like they were waiting in line to board. So when we got to the new gate, we stood in the line too. Boarding was a free for all and the least efficient way to board a plane I have ever experienced.

The plane took off, the flight was fine, and an hour and a half later we landed in KL. We made it through customs and immigration there with no problem, and I got a new social pass for another 90 days. So yay, the real purpose of our trip was accomplished! When we got to the train terminal to buy our tickets back to the central station in KL, we were informed there was one departing in about 2 minutes. Challenge accepted! We sprinted down the stairs and onto the train just in time. From the train station in central KL, we had to take a cab the rest of the way to our hotel. This ended up being better than taking the subway because it was really late and the cab would drop us off right at our hotel. A really cool moment when we were getting out of the cab was that the night concierge started to tell us how to get to the front desk for check in (front desk is on the second floor), but then recognized us and said, “Oh! Welcome back!” It was nice to be remembered and welcomed; living in a hotel- while very often great- is sometimes very impersonal as well. By that point we were exhausted. It was 1am and Micah’s alarm for work the next day was going to go off way too early.

Ranger Duck refused to get up on Monday morning.  He had the right idea.

Ranger Duck refused to get up on Monday morning. He had the right idea.

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Phuket Part 2: Bond, James Bond, Island

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Read Part 1 here!

Phuket is an island in the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean. It is apparently Thailand’s largest island, as well. (If you would like a visual reference, our map under the Road Trip page has been updated!) When we arrived in Phuket, we had very little idea of what to do, other than sit on the beach and get a Thai massage (but not simultaneously). We knew there would be lots of water activities available, and decided to wait until we got there to choose our adventure. On Friday night, before we left for dinner, I asked our favorite front desk clerk at our hotel for suggestions on things to do and excursions to take for the next day. Several tours were recommended, but he advocated for one tour in particular because they had already arranged a group rate for their hotel guests for the next day. The group was large enough that the discount was a little more than half off the published rate. Even if it was a racket, the cost was low enough that we felt fine about it- around $68 USD for both of us, including lunch and as much bottled water as we wanted. We didn’t think we could get a better deal from any of the other agencies selling tours, and half the point of choosing that hotel was to let them arrange the excursions and take the pressure off of us. So we booked an Island Kayaking excursion to James Bond Island!  I will openly admit that half of the appeal was kayaking and the other half, perhaps slightly more than half, was the James Bond link (for Micah anyway).

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Day 2 in Phuket started bright and early for our adventure. We had an early pick up, around 7:45am, so that gave us a good excuse to leave Pleasure Island… I mean Bangla Road… the night before. We set our alarm for way earlier than anyone should have to get up on vacation and headed downstairs. The good news is that our hotel provided a complimentary hot breakfast. The really good news for me is that they had pancakes! And bacon! Pancakes are my favorite weekend breakfast and our hotel in KL does not have them. Ever. Yes, I could make them myself. But with free breakfast at the hotel, it’s just easier and nicer to have someone else make breakfast and then clean up. The downside is never getting to choose what’s for breakfast. Bacon is another thing our hotel does not have since they feature a halal menu. Don’t judge me, but I am indifferent to bacon. It’s less that I don’t like it at all and more that I don’t enjoy it enough to bother eating it. Micah, however, likes bacon the way that I like pancakes. So we both were thrilled with our breakfast treats and could have happily continued eating pancakes and bacon for the rest of the day.

Only one boat is next to the dock (clearly), so they had people walk across the stern, loading the outside boat first.

Only one boat is next to the dock (clearly), so they had people walk across the stern, loading the outside boat first.

The group from our hotel included a really nice couple from Canada that we made friends with and 9 other tourists from China. We all loaded into a van to go to the marina, around an hour across the island. On board the boat there were other tourists from India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Russia, Italy, and probably other places as well. It was like a mini UN! I would guess there were about 30 people, all told. At the marina, there were probably 15 boats each going to various destinations. It was amazing to see the organization involved, to get that many people from buses and vans, into a relatively small marina area on the island, and then sorted into the various boats. In the line of boats pictured here, the passengers came onto the dock and then across all of the boats to the outside-most boat. They loaded that one first, and then started on the next one in. As that second boat was loading, the first one cast off and headed out. They had all the boats loaded and underway in around 30 minutes.

This island gets it's name because it looks like a person laying on his/her back sleeping, with the head at the right of the image and feet at the left.

This island gets it’s name because it looks like a person laying on his/her back sleeping, with the head at the right of the image and feet at the left.

Most, if not all, of the islands were covered in thick jungle.

Most, if not all, of the islands were covered in thick jungle.

The weather wasn’t picture perfect, by any means: it was overcast and it rained periodically. But I love being on the water. Any time on a boat is a good time, in my opinion. I was personally OK with not having a sunny day. I am the kind of person who does not get a tan, ever. I burn. I have to wear a high SPF, and if it were sunny I probably would have gotten burned anyway. So having a little cover from the sun was just fine for me! From the marina, it was about an hour cruise out to the first island and we really enjoyed the ride. We saw many islands along the way, some of them the tour guide pointed out by name. They all looked basically the same: hills covered with jungle sloping down to cliffs on the ocean. All were really beautiful.

There were 4 stops, on 3 different islands, each for about 45-minutes. The guide let us know that at the first two stops we would have a guide to paddle us around in the kayak. At first we were really bummed that we wouldn’t be doing the actual kayaking ourselves, but we realized quickly that we would get to see and do a lot more with an experienced guide paddling. We went through caves and lagoons, some with really narrow openings and low ceilings. It was really pretty and something different that we wouldn’t have gotten to see if we had been paddling ourselves. There were 15 or so kayaks just from our boat, plus three or four other boats with at least that many kayaks at each stop. Trying to navigate around and through the crowds would have been very tricky.

Here are some of our favorite pictures from these two stops. (I’m breaking them into segments because we took so many pictures. More pictures, from the whole weekend, are on Flickr, accessible here or from the side bar to the right.)

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Before the second stop the tour guide said the paddle guides would be going back to Phuket after this stop, so we could tip them if we thought they did a good job. We haven’t really tipped anyone in KL because service charges are included in restaurant bills, typically around 10% of the bill, and it was the same in Thailand. 10% is less than we would normally tip in the US, but tipping culture is just different over here. You only tip if someone performs a service for you, like paddling your kayak around the islands, so we didn’t really know how much would be appropriate. Micah and I thought 300 baht, a little more than $9 USD, felt about right based on the cost of other things we had purchased. We asked around and others were planning to tip quite a bit less, less than 100 baht. We revised our plans and decided we felt OK with 200 baht, about $6 USD. It was still a lot, but we felt really uncomfortable tipping less. When Micah put the bills into the guide’s hands, his whole face lit up. I think he felt like he hit the jackpot! Yes, we were the sucker American tourists who spent too much. Oh well. $6 USD doesn’t feel like a large tip by our standards at all, even though it clearly was by theirs. We talked about it a lot afterwards and we still aren’t sure what the solution is: tip according to your own cultural standards or tip according to the local cultural standards. The decision making factor for us was the cost of a beer, a tip that could buy about two beers seemed appropriate to us.

The long boats that took us from our tour boat to James Bond Island were brightly painted.

The long boats that took us from our tour boat to James Bond Island were brightly painted.

The third stop was James Bond Island! Actually, the third stop was Khao Phing Kan, the island that surrounds James Bond Island. It’s the island that serves as the bad guy’s lair in Man With the Golden Gun, a Roger Moore-era Bond flick. Our tour boat anchored a ways off shore and a longboat came to take us to the island. The island has as many tacky tourist trap shops as could fit the length of the beach. It also had a lot of really beautiful rock formations and caves. We only had about 40 minutes to explore the island and wait our turn to take pictures. (This was actually really civilized. You could wait in a small line to take a picture with the island in the background, without other tourists crowding in. You took the picture for the people in front of you, the people behind you took your picture. I have no idea how this convention evolved, but I like it!) In truth, we could have used about 10 or 15 minutes more to have time to appreciate the beauty and take it all in. Beyond that, I don’t know what we would have done with any extra time. It wasn’t a very big place.

Our last stop was to the “monkey area,” it’s a beach on the other side of one of the first two islands we explored. At this stop, we were allowed to paddle our own kayaks to the beach and swim a little. We only had 30 or 40 minutes, so not much time at all. At each of the first two stops, the guide started his instructions with, “Is everybody having fun? Is everybody happy?” When we all inevitably cheered, he would say, “Well if you are happy enough you can jump off the boat.” The first time we understood this the way you’d tell someone who was annoying you to go jump in a lake, it seemed like an odd thing to say to a tour group. The second time he said it, Micah went over and said, “Are you serious? Can we really jump off the boat?” The guide unclipped the cable on the rail and Micah jumped in! It looked like a lot of fun, but one of us had to keep the camera dry. Before the last stop when he offered to let us jump, I took him up on it. It was really fun! The water was bathtub warm and extremely salty.

The rest of the monkeys were apparently sick of tourists, but this guy was waiting for us!

The rest of the monkeys were apparently sick of tourists, but this guy was waiting for us!

We collected our kayak and paddled to the beach to see the monkeys. There was one monkey sitting on the beach, apparently waiting for our tour guide. The guide was about 15 feet from shore when he started yelling, “Monkey! Monkey! Monkey! Banana? Banana?” The monkey apparently knew this drill because he ran over towards the guide and hopped into his kayak before the guide had even landed it. The monkey sat in the boat patiently eating his bananas and letting us take pictures of him for a few minutes.

While we were swimming and playing in the water, we witnessed a really special event. The Pakistani gentleman on our tour and Micah had chatted several times on the boat. He came over towards us on the beach, wearing a life jacket and he splashed around a little bit. Then he stood up, walked to the shore and took off the life jacket. He came back into the water and swam around again for a few minutes before putting the life jacket back on. At this point, it was time for us to head back to the tour boat. After we had all done our best to dry off and change into our dry-ish clothes, the man sought Micah out and said, “That was my first time to swim.” He was so happy and so proud of swimming; it was really extraordinary to be a part of- both to witness it and to have him tell us specifically. He was probably about 60 years old, how brave of him to try it!  His wife on shore must have been really nervous, I know I would have been if I were in her position.  It was a very special moment.

Coming Up: Beach day and how (not) to bargain.

Phuket Part 1: Planes, trains, and automobiles

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Micah has a work visa, so he is allowed to stay in Malaysia for the entire year. I have a social pass, which means I am not allowed to work and I am only allowed to stay for 90 days before leaving the country. Fortunately, a “border run,” a weekend in a neighboring country, counts as leaving the country. Also fortunately, Malaysia is very close to many other countries in Southeast Asia and the travel is relatively cheap. My original 90 days is up at the end of November, so we decided to make our first excursion to Phuket, Thailand and spend a few days on the beach. Originally, we chose the dates and location to see the Loi Krathong celebrations. We considered Chiang Mai and Bangkok, but we read that Patong Beach in Phuket also has a big celebration. The cheaper airfare to Phuket made the decision. Unfortunately, whatever I was reading did not have the dates updated for 2014 or had the wrong information in general. We missed the festival by 1 day. We were really disappointed in missing out, but what can you do. Chalk it up to rookie travel planning, I guess.

But how are we supposed to get our surfboards to the airport??

But how are we supposed to get our surfboards to the airport??

The flight is only about 1.5 hours, so we planned a relatively early flight out on Friday morning and a relatively late flight back on Sunday night to maximize our time away. (This turned out to be a great choice.) A cab is not much more expensive than public transportation, but since we had the time to take public transit, we decided to do that. We took the subway from near our hotel to KL Sentral, the central train station and a train from KL Sentral to the airport. The express train had comfortable seats, it was air conditioned well, and overall it was a good ride with some nice views along the way. Carrying a backpack it was really easy, with anything more than a carry on size bag, the few extra ringgits for a cab would be worth it.

We arrived at the airport around 08:00am, with our flight around 10:15am. We had planned on grabbing something for breakfast at the airport, not knowing how the timing of the trains would work in our favor (or not), and we hadn’t even had coffee yet. The train terminal at the airport had a lot of choices, and the airport itself had a lot of choices. But we made the decision to first go through security before finding something to eat, not knowing how the various lines and screenings would impact us. The customs screening didn’t have a line, so it was quick to get through. In the US, I think customs and security are relatively close together. At least at the airports where I have traveled internationally, I don’t remember them being two vastly different screening areas. Here though, we got through customs and it looked like we had entered the terminal. There were newsstands and small shops, restaurants, places to sit and lounge while waiting for your flight…no sign of a further security screening. We decided to find our gate before acquiring breakfast, so we just kept following the signs. At this point, it’s looking less and less like the main concourse and more and more like a regular airport terminal hallway, and then we find security. The security procedure is the same as in the US, so that made it easier because it was so familiar: put your stuff on the conveyor belt, small toiletries are OK as long as they are in a separate baggie, no other liquids. You were allowed to keep your shoes on, so that was nice. Security managed, we kept on our way to our gate. Now there are just gates and seating areas, no more newsstands or shops and definitely no more restaurants. We passed a Dunkin Donuts and a small coffee cart near our gate, and that was it. The coffee cart was from a café chain we have seen in KL but not tried. They offer mostly Western food and it seems pricey, we could only imagine that the airport prices would be worse. We started at Dunkin Donuts where we tried to order egg sandwiches, but there was only one guy working and he said he couldn’t make any food; we could just have donuts. I like donuts, especially Dunkin Donuts, but we both wanted something with more nutritional value. So we went back to the coffee cart where they only had scones and muffins in the way of breakfast food. But we struck out, again. No muffins left, no scones left, only sandwiches- lunch type sandwiches, like chicken or tuna. We did end up with mochas, at least, but still nothing to eat. First airport cultural difference noted: No real food once you are inside security.

Getting a little stir crazy at the gate before boarding.

Getting a little stir crazy at the gate before boarding.

We waited in the seating area outside our gate for the flight to begin boarding. We soon noticed that people were bringing their boarding passes to the desk and it looked like they were checking in…again. I haven’t had to check in at the gate for what feels like a very long time, I barely remember doing that at all. Second real airport cultural difference noted: check in before your flight to go through security, check in again at the gate. We were confused about the purpose, but we did what everyone else was doing and handed our boarding passes and passports to the agent. She ripped off the half that they usually take at boarding and we sat back down and waited for the boarding announcement. It felt really strange to do that, but no one else seemed to think it was even remotely unusual. When the boarding announcement came, we couldn’t hear it very well and coupled with the locally accented English, we weren’t really sure what was going on. I would swear they only asked for certain rows, but nobody was moving besides the handful of premium seat folks. So we asked the agent at the gate what rows they were boarding. He just said, “Yes!” That was strange. We showed him our boarding pass. “Yes, OK! You may board!” Well…OK then…so we boarded.

The flight itself was fine, nothing out of the ordinary. When we landed in Phuket, we deplaned on the tarmac and got on a shuttle to take us to customs. Once we entered the customs and immigration building it was mass chaos. People were waiting in a “line” that snaked all the way to the door, and I use the term “line” loosely here. We got in it, not seeing any other options. There were no signs, in any language, suggesting where we should go. I was expecting a “Thai residents” line and an “everyone else” line, because that is what I’ve seen before, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. We didn’t know if we were in the right line, we didn’t know if there even was a right line. It wasn’t at all clear that we were where we needed to be, but it also wasn’t clear that we had other choices. It was really frustrating, mostly because we felt like there was no organization and we felt so out of our league in terms of “are we doing this right?” It was also frustrating because there were no restrooms inside customs, and we still hadn’t had anything more than a mocha since dinner the night before. I think if we weren’t grumpy from not having eaten, and if we had been waiting in a clearly marked queue, it might have been different. Still boring and frustrating, but at least not so nerve wracking. Eventually, they opened another desk, which helped with the huge crowd. We got in the line for the new desk and trusted that if we were in the wrong place, someone would direct us to the right place eventually. Fortunately, about an hour after landing we cleared customs and immigration and were allowed to enter Thailand. (That’s a weird convention. Were we not in Thailand when the plane landed? Are the runways and customs building on some sort of no man’s land?)

Runway in Phuket.  We haven't cleared customs and "entered" Thailand yet, so apparently this isn't really Thailand.

Runway in Phuket. We haven’t cleared customs and “entered” Thailand yet, so apparently this isn’t really Thailand.

Next adventure: getting to the hotel. I knew that you could get a taxi from the airport to the area where our hotel was for a set rate of 800 baht, around $25 USD, and I knew that there was a designated counter to get such a taxi at the set rate. If we tried hailing our own cab, we could end up paying a lot more. So we found the counter, bought the ticket, and were directed outside. It was a little intimidating to figure out where to actually get our cab, so I just held my ticket in front of me as we went outside and assumed someone would find me. This is pretty much what happened. We were waved over to another desk, where the agent checked my ticket, and she gestured vaguely “over there” for us to get our cab. There was a curb and loading area “over there” and also a crosswalk and another loading area across the street. We started walking and quickly realized we needed more information. I hate asking for help. I would much rather figure things out on my own than ask for help. Not the best strategy in life for getting things done efficiently, I admit. But I know when I’m over my head. I went back to confirm where we should go. We crossed the street, still with the ticket visible, and sure enough a driver greeted us, took our ticket, and brought us to his cab. The cab driver was very friendly but he didn’t know where our hotel was. I had the address written in English, but couldn’t find it written in Thai. He took us to “his friend” at a tour agency to check the address. I had read that cabs frequently do this, to sell you excursions or hotels, and I had mentioned this fact to Micah. We agreed we didn’t want to buy anything at the agency, because we wanted to make whatever arrangements we decided to make through our hotel. An agent came out to confirm the name and address. She returned a few minutes later, offering to arrange our transport back to the airport at the same rate. This seemed like a good idea to us, to get the regulated rate rather than take our chances, so we accepted. “Please come inside then, so I can finish arranging it.” Seemed reasonable. Micah said, “She just got us out of the car and into the tour agency where she can sell us stuff.” Dang! Sometimes I am so gullible, even when I know it’s coming. I’m proud to say that we did stand strong inside and did not buy any of the tours that were offered or anything else beyond our return trip. We reserved a cab for the way back to the airport, got back in our cab and to our hotel.

IMG_3997WMAt this point, it’s about 1:30pm. We have only had a bottle of water and a mocha all day. We aren’t even sure if we can check in to the hotel because check in isn’t supposed to start until 4. It seemed like a good idea to ask, anyway, and it turns out our room was ready! We dropped our bags and headed out to find the beach and find lunch. Our hotel was about a 10- or 15-minute walk to the beach. The benefits of being young, healthy, and adventurous: cheaper hotel a little farther away from the main attractions if you are willing to work a little to get where you want to go.
There were plenty of places to eat right along the beach, all with equally good views and I assume comparable prices and menus. Now the difficulty would be choosing one. My dad traveled for work quite a bit when I was younger, and when we went on family trips, I learned a very important rule: “Choose the restaurant with the most trucks. Truckers know where the good food is.” In a foreign country, we have expanded this rule to “Choose the hawker stall with the most local people, the locals know where the good food is. Or at least where it won’t make you sick.” In a tourist area, this gets further expanded to “Choose the place with the most people, period. We can’t all be wrong!” It turns out that we made an excellent choice and ended up back at that restaurant several times over the weekend. We had excellent curry for lunch and then stayed there drinking beer for a little bit, watching the ocean. One food service culture difference in Southeast Asia that I really like is that you have to flag down the servers, they don’t ask you every 10 minutes if you’re doing OK or if you need anything else. So you can sit there and drink your beer or eat your lunch or whatever and no one bothers you. When you want something, you raise your hand and someone comes over. It was a really nice, relaxing afternoon. We walked up and down the beach for a while and then headed back to the hotel to regroup, shower, and get ready for dinner.

How many things can you identify?  We were told it was all chicken or pork.  The 4 things we tried were really tasty!

How many things can you identify? We were told it was all chicken or pork. The 4 things we tried were really tasty!

The clerk at the front desk was really helpful. He grabbed a pre-printed map of the town drew us places to go, and places to stay away from. We specifically asked for street food and good local food, and he recommended the “night market” for street food. (I’m using quotes here, because he called it the black market. Black market in Southeast Asia does not seem to have the same connotation as it does in the U.S. Sure, you can buy “off brand” merchandise, but it’s all perfectly legal. In KL, they call similar markets the night market, because it’s set up in the evenings.) The night market did have great street food. We chose some satay (meat skewers) and noodles. I thought the noodles looked like Pad Thai, which is my favorite, and I was very excited to try it. I was beyond disappointed to find out they were just regular noodles though. We had bought two portions of it, but neither of us liked it enough to eat even half of one portion. So we went back for more satay and continued walking around. The satay was excellent, really delicious. We stuck with chicken and pork, though I kind of wish we had tried the octopus. But the stand we chose had a huge line of locals, while the stand selling the octopus seemed to have very little customers. (Remember: Always go where there are more locals, so no octopus satay for us.)

Octopus skewers

Octopus skewers

After dinner, we headed over to Bangla Road for a drink and some people watching. Bangla Road is the nightlife district, where the morals are more than a little loose. Living in Austin, we’ve been to a pretty good nightlife district on Sixth Street, but Sixth is nothing in comparison to Bangla Road. There were bars upon bars upon bars with strip clubs and other establishments advertising risqué entertainment- something called a ping pong show, we didn’t get the details- and many of the bars had stripper poles with girls dancing on them in full view from the street. Remember that island from Disney’s Pinnocchio? Pleasure Island, where the boys can do whatever they want and don’t have to follow any rules? That’s what Bangla Road is like. If you have a particular vice, any vice at all, you can indulge it on Bangla Road. And it’s all easy to find. You can’t take more than two steps without someone trying to sell you something, a trinket, a cigarette, a show, some “company”… Micah swears he saw someone with a list of prices for various illegal drugs.

Ranger Duck on Bangla Road. He likes to double wing his cocktails.

Ranger Duck on Bangla Road. He likes to double wing his cocktails.

We knew that all of this was what happens on Bangla Road, so we weren’t exactly surprised. I guess we were a little surprised in the extent of the hedonism, because reading a description about it and witnessing it for yourself are two very different things. What did surprise us, was the ubiquity of Cyrillic signs. Apparently Phuket is a very popular place for Russians to vacation. We saw nearly as much writing with the Cyrillic alphabet as we did with the Roman alphabet. Bangla Road featured a Russian Bar (that was the name of it, “Russian Bar”) advertising Russian strippers. Our theory is that this is where Russian mobsters go to retire.

Bangla Road also had street performers, some better than others.  This break-dance troupe was pretty good!

Bangla Road also had street performers, some better than others. This break-dance troupe was pretty good!

We picked a bar that was open to the street so we could people watch. We also thought we would be out of the way of the people selling things, but it turns out that the people selling trinkets walk right into the bars. The bar we chose had around 6 different serving areas with seating around each of them. Each serving area had a small shrine above it. I’m guessing they were Hindu, because the one I saw looked a lot like Ganesha, but I wasn’t close enough to get a really good look. While we were sitting there, one of the bartenders got up on a platform, prayed, took down all of the garlands that were hanging there, cleaned the shrine, and then hung new garlands. A little while later, one of the dancers at the bar brought over several garlands. The bartender hung them up, said a prayer, the dancer said a prayer, and then she went to work. They did this just as casually as if the dancer had asked for a glass of water. The contrast of a prayerful space quite literally in the middle of a den of hedonism was really incongruous. It was both strange and beautiful. Even a week later I’m still a little at a loss for words to describe it.

The nightclub life is not for us anymore, so we made it an early night. We were also ready for another shower- preferably in penicillin or, at the very least, hand sanitizer. I shudder to think about what we could have acquired if certain types of communicable diseases became aerosolized, if you know what I mean! Besides, we had a big day of island hopping coming up! And if there’s one thing you don’t want to be on a boat, it’s hungover.

Coming up: our Island Kayaking Excursion, and how to tip in a country where tipping is not generally a thing.