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Koh Tao Island

After leaving Bang Saphan I headed directly to Champon to catch a catamaran over to the very beautiful island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.  Only 21 sq. Km, Koh Tao (turtle island) has surprisingly a lot going for it!  It boasts 2 of the top diving schools in the world and is considered one of the top spots in the world to dive, has several volunteer opportunities from being a “Trash Hero” to helping at the Animal Clinic and even some Marine Conservation programs as well.  In addition, it has 2 Muay Thai Kickboxing training facilities: Island Muay Thai (where I’m currently training and will write more about in another post) and Monsoon Muay Thai Gym.

The island itself is lush and green with a large variety of foliage and critters all around.  The beaches are breathless with clear blues and greens and abundantly diverse marine life to boot.  Sadly, the island does have a dark past as it is the site of the very unfortunate murders of a young British couple just last year in September that made news world-wide.  There are even websites dedicated to the “dark side” of Koh Tao, but so far I haven’t witnessed or felt any dark side to the island.

Like the two neighboring islands to the South of Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Tao also parties it up every full moon.  They call them “Full Moon” parties, which is really just another excuse to do what people do nightly here (party in bars) but apparently kicked up a notch.  Before coming I had heard the Government is trying to put a stop to them because of the drugs that also surface during the parties, but so far all the islands are still celebrating the moon phases.  The other two islands apparently also have half-moon parties and even new moon parties!  I haven’t experienced the Full Moon party here (the first one I will be present for is tomorrow night) but honestly have no interest to join the crowds at the bars for it.  See, while this place does have a huge party scene to it, my purpose here is to train in Muay Thai and get involved where I can in the available volunteer opportunities.  Guess I’m growing up a bit… Just a bit though;)

The expat community here is also huge!  Most are in their early 20’s and have come here originally just for vacation and ended up getting jobs and staying.  I would say honestly the population of people from the UK or Australia is possibly more than that of Thai’s and Burmese.  It is legal to get a job in Thailand as an expat if it’s in an area of expertise that a Thai local wouldn’t necessarily have, such as teaching English or in the case of Koh Tao, diving instructors.  One of the bummers in my opinion about having so many expats on the island however, is that the Thai culture seems lost a bit.  Many of the locals speak better English than most native speakers and while they may view it as a benefit for them, it’s hard to find locals who only speak Thai.  Hence why I wrote my other post on “Talking Thai” so I wouldn’t forget what I’ve learned so far!

As the island does boast some of the best diving in the world, there are dive shops absolutely everywhere!  You could probably throw a rock in any given direction while walking, and within only a few meters (depending on your location) could hit anywhere from 3-5 of them!  They really are everywhere you look, which makes it tough when trying to pick one to go with.  Everyone has their opinion on which is the best, and so far each person I’ve spoken to has named a different one as “the best”, lol!!  Though I do have my open water certification, I have yet to have done any diving as it’s been so long since my certification and I would have to do the refresher course AND for this month at least, I am tapped out financially on my extra-curricular spending.  It’s all about the budgeting!  Perhaps next month I’ll get into it, but for now, I frankly enjoy going to the beaches and simply snorkeling!  It’s free to snorkel on your own (though there are snorkel tours available too) and the variety of marine life seen snorkeling is impressive enough to me to stick with that for now.

Truth be told… while there are several beaches around the island I’ve so far only made it to two!  Sairee beach and Hin Wong beach.  Hin Wong beach is teeny and is privately owned so the owner (Mol of Mol’s beach bar) asks that each visitor either pays 50 baht (equivalent of just over $1.50) or buys a drink from the bar.  The snorkeling is unbelievable there and I keep returning for it’s absolute beauty and range of marine life!  Every time I go I see something new!  There are irradescent clams, blue-spotted sting rays, parrot fish, all sorts of damsel fish, christmas tree corals, anemones, puffer fish, and on and on!  Every time I go I also wish I had an underwater camera so I could share the beauty under the water!

Since I don’t have a motorbike however (the roads are absolute crap on the island and the other drivers are nuts to boot!!) I walk there, which is yet another way I get my exercise.  It’s a literal pain in my rear to scale the wee but very steep hill to get to the other side of the island, but it’s well worth it once there!!  While I do adore going to that beach, I also try to space out how often I go because inevitably I end up having some drinks at the bar then curse myself as I have to make the trek back over the hill, sweating my rear off (and hopefully some of the booze) to get back to my place.  Mol herself is quite the character too!  She is a native Thai but speaks English perfectly and even has a cockney accent when she drinks, lol!!

When I first arrived, I walked my way in the blistering heat from Mae Haad (where the boats all dock) toward Sairee and found very close to the Wat a place called Happy Bungalows.  For 400 baht a night I got my own bungalow with a bed, bathroom and little fridge.  When I first arrived I wasn’t sure honestly how long I’d actually stay.  My plan was to check out the two Muay Thai gyms and if I liked one, I would stay for a month to train.  If not, I would hang about for a few days to a week then head elsewhere.  Within 3 days I’d decided to stay and found a monthly rental with a kitchen through Bua Management.  Now almost 3 weeks in, I’m planning to stay for another month.  There are two reasons I came to that decision: first, I’m really enjoying the Muay Thai training and want to give it another month and second, one of my friends will be popping into Thailand to see me.  Since she is interested in diving, I figured I may as well stay put so at the very least she gets to do some diving in one of the best spots! 🙂

Eating Bat and The View

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Wat A Cave!

While there are several fabulous things to do while in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand, perhaps one of my favorites was visiting the Ao Noi Wat.  ‘Wat’ simply means Temple, but what sets this one apart from every other Wat I’ve been to so far is that it is located inside a cave!  In college I took a biospeleology class in college where we went all over the state of Texas and even into Mexico to different caves and the idea of finally getting back into one was thrilling!  Mind you, this particular cave wasn’t one that required to wiggle on your belly to get from one point to the next as it is quite large and easy to simply walk through.

I headed out about mid-day on my own to track down the Ao Noi Wat with a bottle of water, my camera and favorite all around walking shoes, my Keens.  The walk there really wasn’t all that interesting per se, since it literally was just walking along the side of the road.  The views however became more and more breathtaking as I got closer to the Khao Ta Lai Forest Park.  The beauty of the hills jutting out from the ocean was so beautiful and picturesque, I had a hard time continuing without stopping to take a gazillion pictures!

I walked past the over 150 year old fishing community of Ban Ta Monglai toward the Ao Noi community as the sun beat down on my skin making me wish for shade!  I knew I was going in the right direction, but I also knew the Wat was located in a cave, so some form of hill had to be ahead.  But as I walked past the fishing community and the Khao Ta Lai Forest Park, the hills disappeared.  The only ones visible were about 11 kilometers away in Myanmar (Burma)!  I continued to trek on however stopping every now and again to ask locals which direction the Wat was, and armed with the confidence that even they were still pointing for me to continue on, I figured some hill structure would have to show up soon.

As I didn’t have a watch with me, I honestly don’t even know how much further on I walked until some hills became visible again and until I finally hit Wat Ao Noi.  I was drenched in sweat from the sun and had been guzzling water as if my life depended on it (which let’s face it, it does!).  Finally I arrived at the base of the Wat and started an over 300 step climb to the entrance of the Wat.  The views of the town and beaches as I climbed were spectacular!  I will say that while most of the stairs up were in good condition, there were a few bits that had me worried as they were split in half and sliding toward the edge of the cliff.  Up and up I went until finally coming to the entrance where a box with 2 rechargeable flashlights sat.  A little sign said they were for the borrowing, and just to plug them back in when done.

Of course, the one thing I SHOULD have thought and known to bring (a flashlight) I didn’t, so it was really quite nice that they provided them there :).  I headed into the cave armed with my flashlight out of the sun and into the darkness.  I was literally the only person in the Wat and I won’t lie, at some points little bits and flashes of the movie “The Descent” went through my mind that at times freaked me out.  An especially heart-pounding moment was after I left the only naturally lit area of the cave and headed to the first reclining Buddha.  As I grappled with my camera while attempting also hold onto the rather large flashlight, the light flickered on something alive on the cave floor.  I immediately scanned the light back to what I had seen to discover 2 little black dogs!!  They lived in the cave!!

I sighed a sigh of relief upon seeing them as I called them over for a pat, but then had another second of slight panic as I wondered whether they could be rabid!  I mean, bats can carry rabies, bats live in caves and who knew whether the dogs had been vaccinated or if anyone actually took care of these dogs…  Luckily however they were very friendly and showed no signs of being rabid and quite frankly their presence made it easier to be the only one in the cave.  Because surely if some crazy creature crawled out of some crevice to attack me, they would bark first to alert me, right?? 😉

I carried along the length of the cave past the first reclining Buddha and to my surprise found a second next to a series of about a dozen large Buddha’s in seated position.  Along to the right of the seated Buddha’s was another walkway that led to another large area where tons of visitors had stacked rocks in a variety of patterns, making their mark to show they were there.  And in the very back of this last large room sat yet another Buddha watching over the whole show.

I spent probably twenty minutes (it’s not THAT large a cave) walking around and searching for various other avenues to explore while listening to the nothing sound of caves, linked in with little chitters from bats above every now and again.  I will say my favorite thing about caves is the nothingness.  There is no sound most of the time and when the lights are turned off, you could hold your hand an inch in front of your face and still not see it.  There is such a peace about caves that is so very hard to find anywhere else and being back in the environment again was so very delightful.

As I headed out of the cave, my two little protectors followed.  At the entrance I noticed that indeed there was dog food scattered about the entrance around two blue dog bowls (I hadn’t noticed this detail before) but I also noticed there didn’t seem to be any water source for them.  As one of the dishes was empty, I poured it full with water.  One seemed to be quite thirsty, the other not so much so again it was a good sign that they were being taken care of somehow.

I headed back to the ground floor as the dogs chose to remain behind and wait for the next cave guests.  Back on solid ground I visited the actual Wat of Ao Noi.  The Cave is simply where there are several Buddha statues, but the actual Wat isn’t in the cave, yet decoratively set along the base of the cave hill near a pond, the ocean and a monk community.  After visiting the Wat, I headed back toward my guesthouse back in Prachuap, stopping along the way at a very delicious (I should have gotten the name!!) restaurant with some of the best khao pad gai (chicken fried rice) I’d tasted anywhere.

I was quite shocked to learn that the whole trip only took me about 5 hours or so, including a leisure lunch!  I am generally quite a fast walker by nature, but even this surprised me!  One not so good outcome from having walked as far and as fast as I had, however was my feet.  It had been a long time since I’d actually worn my Keens and by the time all was said and done with the walking for the day, I’d developed quite a large blister on the bottom of my foot.  Luckily it hadn’t popped, but I wasn’t so sure the same could be said after the walk we had planned for the next day at Khao Lommuak…

On to Hiking Khao Lommuak

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A Real Gem

I’ve debated several times whether to actually give away the location of this next place we traveled to (are still are after a week, with no plans to jump up and leave just yet)…  I honestly can’t believe it hasn’t been discovered more!  While there are a handful of Europeans living here, foreigners are a very uncommon sight.  Thai tourists and locals (of course) are the ruling majority.  It’s just my kind of place to really feel like a part of the culture and life!

We bought tickets for the mini-bus to this gem of a place from Hua Hin, and though were told it would only be an hour wait for the bus to arrive, it turned into almost 2 before we even got on.  And when we did get on, the bus was so full that literally 2 of the passengers had people sitting on their laps, all the seats were taken AND 3 people had to stand (rather uncomfortably by the looks of it) in the aisle of the bus.  Essentially a bus equipped to seat 14 passengers had 19 PLUS our huge travel bags (which are about the size of a small human).  Luckily within the hour or so however people started exiting the bus, so space opened up a tiny bit to at least allow everyone to have their own seat.  I suspect that the bus was so crowded because of the upcoming Holiday of Songkran.

Once we arrived, we set off on motorbike taxis to a place called Ban Thai Hut, where we were told had cheap accommodations.  We settled on a tiny hut complete with a bed, bathroom, fan and TV (which we’ve yet to actually plug in or turn on) just a short walk across the street from the beach.  The place is absolutely darling, and while very rustic (there are some parts of the room we fear to put too much weight on just in case the floor falls through) it has been suiting our needs quite well.

Prachuap Khiri Khan is the name of this adorable town.  It consists of 3 semi-circular bays separated by jutting hills and islands.  Farthest to the North is the little Ao Noi bay then the Prachuap Khiri Khan bay and finally Ao Manao.  Each location offers so many outdoor things to do that it just boggles my mind when the locals say tourists only stay here for a couple of days because “there isn’t much to do”.  Seriously??  They have a Wat inside a cave in Ao Noi, beautiful beaches on all three bays, hikes to a Wat on the top of a hill in Prachuap, a hike to another tiny Wat at the top of another hill (Khao Lommuak) which gives the highest panoramic view of the entire area, plus snorkeling (I still have to check that out myself!) and within driving distance several day trips could be planned to surrounding National Parks!  There is so much to do around here that when you add in days to just relax and beach, you would need at least a week to get it all done leisurely!

But I digress…  This place really is darling though!  I would recommend it over and over but hope that even when it does get properly discovered, the integrity of the place as it currently is doesn’t get destroyed.  The weather is always delightful (though admittedly quite hot), the beaches are never overcrowded, the beach water is deliciously warm and refreshing and there is a ridiculous amount of fun sea life to play with (hermit crabs, clams, sand dollars, etc).  Seriously, what more could one ask for?

On to Songkran 2015

Back to Thailand

The Death Railway

Taking the advice of the owner of the Baan Are Gong Homestay, I headed to Kanchanaburi after several lovely days in Ayutthaya.  I opted to take the mini-bus there, which cost considerably more than the local bus, but it got us all there (other travelers included) in a fraction of the time.  By “considerably more” I mean it cost $12, which is only about $8 more than what the local bus would have cost, so really it was a teeny investment to save potentially an entire day of being on the road.

Along the way I couldn’t help but see so many similarities in the terrain that reminded me of Florida.  Were it not for passing the occasional Wat (Temple) here and there, and of course stores with names written in Thai, I would have seriously thought I was back in the Sunshine State.

Sunshine State???
Sunshine State???

After about 3 hours (with a 10 minute break half-way) we arrived in Kanchanaburi.  Kanchanaburi (among other things) is home to the Bridge on the River Kwai (part of the “Death Railway”), a war museum, and several war cemeteries.  Most people have heard of The Bridge on the River Kwai because of the novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle published over 60 years ago now.  Though I have read the book a LONG time ago, the significance and history never really hit me until I was standing on the ground where it all happened.  You read in school about the World Wars and all the countries involved, but it just doesn’t make quite the same impact on paper.

The Railway (which the bridge is part of) runs from Bangkok to Burma (now Myanmar) and was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 using slaves for its construction.  Slaves consisted of civilian Asians and Prisoners of War (POWs) from the Netherlands, England, Australia, America, New Zealand and Canada.  Over 100,000 slaves, just shy of 50% of the original population working on the railway, died during the project, hence it came to be known as “The Death Railway”.

Today the railway still exists and it even still runs.  Additions to Kanchanaburi due to the railway construction includes a War Cemetery dedicated to the almost 7,000 Allied prisoners who lost their lives during the project and a separate monument erected by the Japanese Army in February 1944 in honor of those who died.  Once a year in March, voluntary members of the Japanese community in Thailand assemble there for a memorial ceremony to honor those who perished.  So many lives lost again in cruel and unnecessary ways for the advancement and power of others.

There are two “main” roads in Kanchanaburi, one runs right through the center of the city providing easy in and out access and is lined with every possible business imaginable.  The second meets with the first, but veers off toward the River and runs parallel to it.  It’s the second road that dead ends at the Bridge and along this long road is where the majority of hostels, bars, Thai massage shops, and restaurants can be found.  Or in other words, it’s the main tourist strip.  Bars are a dime a dozen with several hanging signs that boast they will get you drunk for only 10 baht (about $.30).  Though I was actually smart and DIDN’T wander in myself to see if that claim was legit, I have heard from several others that yes, yes the advertisement is NOT false, lol!!

I stayed in a little hostel called the Green View Hostel right in the center of tourist-ville, but it was tucked back just enough off the road to drown out all the street noise.  For 200 baht a night I got a very large and clean private room with a private bathroom (SCORE!!!) surrounded by lush beautiful foliage.  I was practically the only one staying there during the 4 nights I was there and honestly it’s beyond me as to why because the place was absolutely lovely!!  I wouldn’t recommed any other place unless one was looking to spend at least twice what I paid so they could be on the River.

In general the feeling I got from Kanchanaburi is that it’s a “good ol’ boy’s” place.  There were so many older men from Australia or England staying year round because of their various Thai girlfriends.  I found it to be such a cliché really.  Mostly they stayed steadily drunk all day and shared personal stories about their lives and their girlfriends that I really never cared to hear about.  Unfortunately they were also somewhat unavoidable because every time I’d go to eat somewhere one or two would inevitably come to chat… whatever sign I had on my forehead that made them think I somehow cared to hear about their sob stories, I promise I tried multiple times to scrub OFF!

Luckily there were several others around who were pleasant (not from England or Australia interestingly enough) to be around and chat with.  But I will come back to that in a second…

I lingered in Kanchanaburi for 5 days, and honestly the only reason I stayed so long was because I just couldn’t decide what my next move/place to visit would actually be.  I had heard of the Erawan National Park where the famous 7 tier waterfall is and really wanted to go there, but I didn’t want to do a day trip because the earliest bus would get there at 10am and then we would have to leave again at 4pm.  It was possible to camp out there but reserving a spot was harder than doing my taxes!

The woman at Baan Are Gong recommended going to Sangkhlaburi to see the famous Mon bridge, but it was over 200 kilometers from where I was near the border with Myanmar (Burma) and the only way to get back to other places in Thailand like Chiang Mai would be to go back through Kanchanaburi (since the Myanmar border is closed currently) and that just seemed like a waste of time to me.

I just couldn’t decide.  I debated literally in my sleep and would wake nightly to conjur a new plan of where to go/what to do.  The logistics of it was killing me.  The only way to get to the Erawan National Park was from Kanchanaburi.  The only way to get to Sangkhlaburi was also from Kanchanaburi, even though the National Park is ON THE WAY TO Sangkhlaburi…. Grrr….. I was close to just saying “screw it”, I’ll skip going all the way up to Sangkhlaburi and will just show up at the Park and hope there is a place to camp available…

Then at lunch, the day before I planned to leave I met a lovely man from Germany.  We got to chatting and he told me he had just gotten back from Sangkhlaburi.  Excellent!  I can ask him if it’s worth it!  I posed the question and out came his IPad.  For the next 20 minutes he showed me picture after picture and mini-movie after, well, you get the idea.  Ok, ok.  I have to go there.  New plan (number 192): make the long haul to Sangkhlaburi first, then go to the Park (via another stop in Kanchanaburi).

For some reason, even though all the other plans just didn’t feel right, suddenly this one did.  And now I know why…

On To Sangkhlaburi New Year’s: Human Version

Back to Thailand