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  • Taiwan by Mitch Burbick 2011

    One of the best things about working about Super English is the huge amount of time for vacation that you get. Thailand’s infamous for random Holiday’s scattered throughout the calendar work year but as far as allocated time off for traveling and basically doing whatever you please besides working, Super English offers the most. They’re unpaid, but what are you doing in Thailand if you’re looking to make a bunch of money? We get almost six weeks off around March and April and the entire month of October. I made use of my month this last October and went to Taiwan.

    There’s a lot of SE Asia that I’m going to unfortunately leave without seeing. Taiwan is definitely not the usual vacation go to and while I’ll say it was a really tough decision to head there over Vietnam, I won’t say that it wasn’t worth it.

    I found a ticket from Bangkok to Taipei with Air Asia for just under nine thousand baht (around $300 U.S.) which for a roundtrip 5 hour flight each way, is a screaming deal. Got into Taipei around 7 at night and took a bus from the airport to the train station, about an hour away. You’ve got to give it to Taiwan, they’ve got busses and trains fast, on time, and just generally nailed down. At the train station I was able to buy a ticket on the high speed train to head down the east coast to Hualien, a town that two of my friends from university work in.

    Friends, Taiwan is beautiful. I had never spent time thinking about it, but holy mother, it’s something to be explored. I spent just over 3 weeks there living on the coast with my friends. We rode motorcycles through canyons, saw waterfalls pouring down the sides of mist covered mountains, sat in a hot spring next to a raging river, hunted jade in the rain while knee deep in cold water, surfed typhoon waves and drank a lot of Budweiser out in front of 7-11’s.

    The country has a little bit more than 20 million people, 11 million of which live in Taipei. The country’s not huge, you can ride a motorcycle around the entire thing in a couple days. The middle is basically a giant chain of mountains with one road running through along a gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon in beauty. With the exception of one or two larger cities in the south, most of the towns are pretty small. It was easy to feel at home after just a short period of time there and I understood why even after two years, my friends had no intentions of leaving.

    There are a few large chain ESL schools operating in Taiwan, HESS being the largest. My friends work for them and they like it alright. For them, after the first year, the job has turned into a way to stay in the country while learning Chinese. They teach kindergarten in the morning, have a 4 or 5 hour break during the day, and return to work at 4 or so to teach a few hours of private classes every night, not unlike the classes at Super English.

    The cost of living seems to be a bit more than it is in Thailand, but altogether, I found things prettyreasonably priced. Definitely more than they are around here in SE Asia, but in no way as much as back home, Japan, or even mainland China.

    A nice thing I really enjoyed was the weather. Over October it was cool and a bit rainy, but in no way was it like the rainy season we have here in Thailand. The summers are pretty hot and humid, but their winters are actually cold. Coming from America’s west coast, it was kind of like being back home for a little bit. The trip was great. I’d recommend to anyone looking for a vacation a little different than the usual SE Asia circuit to check it out. Flights are cheap, food and staying are pretty cheap, and if you’re
    looking for an adventure, rent a bike and try to make it around the island in a few days stopping wherever you see fit. And don’t’ forget Taroko gorge. It’s definitely a must see.

    Coming home to Thailand though, like always, was great. I’d missed the delicious Thai food, the cheap beer, the quirky night markets and all the subtleties of the day that make Thailand such a great and fantastic place to live and work.

  • Ang Thong National Marine Park by Mike Rogers 2011

    It seems like there are many days off in the semester that stretches from October to March. This semester, in addition to the numerous holidays there were days canceled for rain, days canceled because the school told us they were, and of course days where the student will be testing. Some of these you do not know are happening too long in advance and thus are tough to plan for, but some, like the mid-term testing days, are much easier to plan for. Knowing that these were coming up I began to search for places to go camping in the 400 baht tent I had recently purchased. Soon, a suggestion from the tender of bar at our most frequented bar came and was irresistible, Ang Thong National Marine Park. This is a stretch of dozens of islands that are only an hour and a half ferry ride from Koh Samui. They are mostly covered in jungle and host some pretty cool features including a piece of ocean that appears completely land locked (in fact it is connected by an underwater cave) and some stunning cliffs on many of the islands.

    The boats for the islands leave once a day around 8am from either Samui or Koh Pangang. This almost presents a problem because to get to either Samui or Koh Pangang requires a 5 hour boat trip, but luckily, the ferry system provides and excellent and only mildly inconvenient solution, the night boat. The night boat leaves Surat Thani at 11pm and gets to the islands between 5 and 6am. On weekends, or the nights before a Full Moon Party the night boat is sometimes synonymous with party boat, but on a Wednesday evening it was a pretty laidback affair, no fighting for position on the mats, and no tourists attempting to be constantly drinking for 48 hours. The night boat doesn’t provide a good nights sleep, but it does make the ride slip by when you are in and out of consciousness. I arrived (and woke up) shortly after the sunrise and Koh Samui was soaked with that beautiful post dawn light that only exists for an hour or so a day. Buying the ticket to the Park was easy, the ticket is round trip includes a lunch, a tour, and access to the company’s kayaks and snorkeling equipment. The boat to Ang Thong was one of the few times I have been cold in Thailand, but this was as much due to the movement of the wind as it was to the on and off rainthat was falling.

    By the time we came into view of the islands the rain had become fairly constant, though not heavy. We got off the boat on an island that is famous for having a large lagoon in the middle of it. It looked somewhat like a movie volcano top, tall walls surrounding the hole in the middle. There is a small hike up stairs to get over said walls, which was mildly precarious due to the rain making it a little slippery, but only about a 3 on the danger scale. The lagoon was beautiful and lived up to its name, The Emerald Lagoon, the water was a deep green and it was surrounded by lush jungle. When I had had my fill of looking down at it, something that happened rather quicker than it might have due to the press of overweight and shirtless tourists that were beginning to fill the viewing platform, I walked down to the water. I wasn’t certain what to expect, I suppose I thought the water would be cloudy, and I might see a small, boring fish or two, but this is what I should have expected if I were going to a lake in central Maine, not to a lagoon on an island off the coast of Thailand. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. Sea Urchins sporting huge spines dotted the rocks, dozens of small fish were darting around, an intimidating large fish strolled out from under some rocks and swam under the plat form I was standing on just as a beautiful, multi colored sting ray glided in from deeper waters. I was taken aback. It turns out the Emerald Lagoon was created by a massive sink hole collapsing, and while it looks to be completely land locked it is actually connected to the ocean by an underwater cave, making it possible for the wide array of sea life to make its way in.

    The stop at this island was actually fairly short, only an hour or so and we were getting back on the boat and having lunch, a good but unremarkable masaman curry. The next stop was the last of the day for me, as it was on the island that I was planning on camping on. This island has three natural attractions, a long, fine sand beach, a limestone cave, and a hike up to a spectacular view point. They offer some snorkeling equipment, but after trying it out for a few minutes I found this to be pretty boring, there was no coral or exciting fish, only clear water, white sand, and some seaweed. I decided to check out the cave. It is a short hike up to the cave but a fairly steep one and enough of a challenge that the people that were trying it in flip flops or bare feet usually turned around pretty quickly. The hike was made more interesting by the rain having turned any dirt into slippery mud, and any rock into a very short water slide. But, the hike was short and simple enough that it wasn’t really a problem. The cave was interesting, but not mind blowing. The stalactites and stalagmites had some crazy shapes and patterns, but my appreciation of caves is not great, it seems like caves the world over are pretty similar. This one was a bit nicer because it was quite open allowing a good amount of natural light to illuminate it. The way back down the trail was actually a little easier than the way up because of a rope that ran along most of the trail as a means of supporting yourself down the steeper, and currently more slippery, sections.

    By the time I got back the boats were starting to leave and the rain seemed to have finished for the day, so I went to see the ranger to talk about where the best place to pitch my tent would be, and to pay for my over night stay. He let me pick the driest spot I could find, and charged me 30 baht for the night, or the equivalent of one American dollar. Pretty good deal for a spot in paradise. By 3:00 the island was almost completely empty, with only the rangers, maybe five other tourists and me. I took a walk on the beach and around 5:00 I started eyeing the hike up to the view point, which was closed due to the rain. I looked at the sign, and found it was only a 500 meter hike, “chump change” I thought, “It must only be closed to out of shape and aging tourists, not to a spritely young lad like myself!” and so after setting up my tent I popped on my hiking boots and took off. There are four view points, at 100 meters, 200m, 300m, and one at the very top. This was another trail that had a rope provided for assistance in getting up and down it, and as it turns out it was needed. What I had neglected to notice on the sign was that despite being only a 500m hike, it was 262m vertical, meaning that for every two meters forward, I went one meter up. This would be tiring on a normal day, with out a doubt, but the days rain added a bit of a thrill to the whole process. The views were amazing, getting more impressive at every landing, and as I was in the jungle and the jungle always seems to provides something interesting, there were also a lot of monkeys. Dusky Langurs to be specific. At the second scenic overlook I was surprised to find one sitting on a branch only five feet from me, calmly eating leaves and occasionally looking over its shoulder at me. These Langurs are most recognizable by the white rings around there eyes which give them a very intelligent look. After soaking in the monkey’s company I started back up the trail, and began thinking about how amazing the sunset would be from the top.

    The top was stunning. Islands, at least a dozen, stretched out into the ocean, disappearing into the haze shimmering on the water. As I was standing there, soaking in the evening light I was surprised by a monkey. This time it emerged out of the bushes behind me stood, perhaps 10 feet away staring at me. A rather haunting thing given the wise aura that the white rings around its eyes gave it, and after ten or fifteen seconds it turned and moved past the “No entry” sign, and left my sight. I was still processing what had just happened when the monkey popped back up 10 feet further up the mountain and again turned to stare at me. Again it disappeared and again it popped up and stared at me only a few feet farther up the mountain. I am not a big believer in signs, but this was quite bizarre. The strange behavior of the monkey, combined with my desire to ignore the "no entry” sign and climb higher meant that there was really only way to interpret this, I should follow the monkey. So follow I did, and it was immediately apparent why the rangers did not want travelers going up that way. The rocks were sharp and there were many sudden dips and drops well designed for knee breaking and if you tilted and fell to your right you would end up with a good long time to make some peace with the world before crashing into the forest below. I climbed for about five more minutes until I came to a spot that I might have been able to pass if I had been well versed in parquet, and stopped. The monkey wasn’t there waiting to deliver some life message to me, but there was gold. Not coinage or jewelry but an entire island of it. One of the islands had a large, bare cliff facing west; the light of the setting sun had fully caught it while I was climbing. I was told when I was younger that the hour before sunset was called the golden hour for photographers, because the light was so soft and so unique that it produced some of the best pictures possible. This was the golden hour.

    The central island on which I was staying had a visitor center, some bungalows and a restraint. There are probably between 10-15 staff that live there, and from what the very kind, and sociable ranger told me there are rarely more than 6-7 over night visitors, meaning this is a very low key place. The food is fine, though a bit over priced, but as the only other food to be had must be either caught or swam for its tough to complain. The Ranger’s name is Gon, an interesting man who has a background in engineering but after visiting a friend who had been working on the island decided that he much preferred a calm island life. He does some pretty amazing things with a stick which he spins around his body at an impressive rate (occasionally lighting it on fire, though I didn’t see this in person, only in photos) and spends most evenings sitting outside the restaurant playing guitar. His songs range from American hits to pieces of his own composition, most notably a soon to be world wide hit called “Don’t eat my Cat” (you can find it on youtube by searching “Don’t Eat My Cat (Linda)”, very entertaining). All in all this is an easy, relaxing and beautiful trip to take, one of many readily available to a Surat based adventurer.

  • Soaring About the Treetops by Erica Ambrose 2008

    Last weekend I had the amazing opportunity to fly through the treetops of the Thai jungle on Koh Samui. It was one of the most exhilarating, and slightly frightening experiences, of my life. A company called Canopy Adventures offers the ride of a lifetime on a series of 6 zip lines running through the jungle. This excursion is not for the faint of heart. The ride up to the site was almost more dangerous than the zip lines were! They run 4 trips a day that last about 3 hours in total. The cost is 1700 baht.

    Our trip began at 2:00 p.m. which was a lovely time for an excursion for those of you not interested in dragging yourself out of bed for a 9 a.m. day trip. The first half of the journey was run of the mill. Then things changed as the roads became half paved but mostly gravel and fairly rough. We all had to keep alert to avoid getting whipped in the face by tree branches. As we continued our ascent the road became more and more bumpy and we were all holding on to whatever bars were available. It was a rocky ride most of the way up. Then we passed a sign that read “No vehicles beyond this point”. The road was essentially straight up and covered in boulders and decidedly not flat. This did not stop our driver from forging ahead. Thankfully we all arrived unscathed if only slightly jittery.

    We were then suited up with our equipment. We each received a harness with numerous carabiners and clips, as well as a pair of work gloves that had seen better days. We were told they were for braking. Braking? We have to brake? We then marched up a mountain in the boiling heat for about 15 minutes and past a gorgeous waterfall. When we got to the 1st platform we stopped to rest and did some basic zip line training. We all got instructed on how to brake so we would not come slamming into the platform after the first zip line.

    Reaching the top of the platform was exciting and slightly unsettling, looking down we realized we were about 200 meters above the ground, and the platform was none too steady! We also discovered we were above the tops of many trees, above the canopy indeed! Our guides assured us it was safe and away we went one by one jumping off the platform and zipping through the trees. The first jump was the toughest because I was concerned about actually braking and not screwing up! All went smoothly. By the second jump I was able to relax and enjoy watching the jungle fly by. The third platform was very steep and fast and was the most fun, but also the most frightening for those wary of speed. When we reached the fourth platform our guides said if we were brave enough we could jump without holding onto the zip line and experience a second of free fall. I leaped at the opportunity, and it was well worth it. The feeling of throwing yourself into the abyss if only for a moment is amazing!

    Our Thai guides were very comfortable on the zip line and put on a show by zipping upside down and braking with their feet. Knowing a few things about high ropes safety, this is very dangerous. Our guides also enjoyed scaring us by jumping off the platform before we were unclipped, thus shaking the zip line, which made the entire platform shake and sway. It was crazy! “Safety First” is not the motto of Thailand. All in all it was a great trip, and an experience I will not soon forget. I would recommend it to anyone with an adventurous spirit.

  • October Break: Malaysia to Ireland and Back by John Phelps 2009

    A hot bowl of rice with a cold glass of water for dipping. That is what I thought an unpaid, month
    long vacation would mean for me in Surat Thani. In the States, I had the luxury of two whopping
    weeks off, paid. Of course, I had to buy the tickets for the guilt trip from my employer and do all my
    work in advance first, and probably not end up taking all the time I would have taken off. Many
    language schools in Thailand give you a contract that includes paid time off, but it is nowhere near the
    amount of time you get with Super English. So, does it turn out to be an experiment in asceticism?
    Or, can you actually vacation the whole month, given the salary you have earned? Drop that hot
    dipped rice, kids, and pack your bags! You have plenty of time and cash to travel.

    This October will be the end of our first year-long contract, for my wife and I. So, we each get our
    25,000 baht bonus. On that 50,000 baht alone, we just bought tickets on Air Asia to fly to Kuala
    Limpur and then to Ireland, round trip. But suppose your contract doesn't end in October, so you
    don't have the bonus cash. That leaves you with what you have saved from working the
    May-September term. If I subtract that sum from our savings, we will have saved about 75,000 baht.
    This is from a living-it-up to a modest degree lifestyle. Janet and I go out every weekend to
    restaurants and bars, and eat just about every meal during the week from a food stall, the night
    market, or a cheap rice and noodle shop. We pay for yoga lessons, gas for the motorbike, and utilities
    and rent for our home (we are not in Super housing). We get a two hour massage every two to three
    weeks, and buy an enormous amount of cappucinos and iced coffee from a variety of fine coffee shops
    in town. We are penny-pinchers like Madonna is a nun. And still we are able to save money.

    Surat Thani is a great place to be, when it comes to cheap flights. We can take a night train to the
    Malaysian border, then a six to eight hour bus ride to Kuala Limpur from here. However, Janet and I
    are flying, because it is just slightly more expensive and much more comfortable. When it comes to
    international flights, we did our research for a few weeks. Flying out of Kuala Limpur is 15,000-20,000 baht cheaper than the cheapest flights out of Bangkok, to Europe. Our direct flight, round trip, from Kuala Limpur to London Stansted was 42,000 baht. Of course, Thai money has a sad exchange rate once you are there, so we have to be pretty cheap travelers. No two hour massages until we get back.

    Question: Why would we fly to Europe for our vacation when we live in South East Asia?

    Answer: (guess before you read the answer, written backwards)
    .nac ew esuaceB

    Not to be sassy, but it's true. There are so many places to see here, and we have enjoyed only some
    of Thailand and Cambodia to this point. We will see a bit of Malaysia on our way out and back, but
    not as much as we plan to see in the next year. We are in no rush, because we have decided to stay
    and work here another year. Janet and I plan on seeing Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and more
    in the next year's vacation time. Meanwhile, we've got a wedding to go to in Belfast and parents to
    buy us a Guinness in Dublin.

  • October Travel Plans by Mitch Burbick 2010

    Oh glorious month of October. You have always been good to me. Back when I lived in Washington you were full of maple trees bursting with orange, yellow and red, dark skies, rapidly shortening days, and pumpkins glowing with a soft orange light. You have rarely been a disappointment and I don’t think that track record is going to be broken this year seeing as how as Super English teachers we have the entire month off. Like no work at all, which means plenty of time to travel for the entire month. Other schools in the area get a week or two off, but nowhere near the amount of time we’re able to enjoy. This also holds true for the summer break in March, April and some of May. I think it’s more than fair to say that Super English teachers get the most time off out of any other schools in Surat Thani.

    Oh October, how you continue to shine.

    This is of course isn’t without the slight misfortune of not getting paid for the entire month of October, but with a little bit of foresight and planning, this issue becomes a nonissue unless you plan on spending your entire savings on a plane flight to Europe like a certain couple roommates may or may not be doing. But really, it’s up to you.

    Now, because you asked so kindly, I will tell you about my plans. My last day of teaching is scheduled to be just before the beginning of October and I will be going to Bangkok for a few days of imported beer scavenging and Mexican food eating before hopping on a flight to Taipei, Taiwan. This isn’t just a puddle hopper jump, at 5 hours away by flight, it’s a fair distance. It’s like flying from one side of the United States to another. Air Asia is the undisputed king, queen, prince and entire royal family of low cost flights throughout this part of the world and at a roundtrip cost of just about $300, leaving the slightly frustrating inability of their website to accept my credit cards out of it, can do no wrong by me.

    (Reader’s note: There are plenty of places around town that will book the flights for you - for like a $2 dollar fee - if you simply give them cash. Certain teachers even report that you can buy flights at 7-11 so don’t fret.).

    I see you sitting there reading this with the question ‘Why Taiwan, is Thailand really that boring?’ already forming in your mind, but relax, I won’t even make you ask it.

    I have two friends from University teaching in Taiwan that I desperately want to see. They’ve been there for a couple years, ever since we graduated really, and for me, the opportunity to see both a new part of the world AND these people is worth the cost of leaving the country for this break. They live in a town on the east side of the island called Hulein where there is (supposedly) epic surf and a hefty amount of motorcycle to be ridden. I am told there are great big forests to drive through, weather cold enough to wear jeans, a flannel, and a hoodie in (almost worth the cost of the flight right there), great big cliffs to jump off and plenty of delicious not-Thai beer to over indulge in.

    And now, please don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying Thai beer is bad, I’m just saying that if your beer standards have been more or less put on the floor and jumped on, and you like poor tasting inexpensive beer that more or less does the job, then it’s your kind of beer. That’s all I’m saying.

    So, as far as actual travel logistics go, getting to Bangkok is so easy that I’ve actually seen a monkey do it. You can take a bus or a train or a plane. The flights are around 1,100 Baht and take an hour while the trains and busses vary depending on time and class but are usually around 550 Baht and take ten hours, sometimes more.

    Getting to the Surat Thani airport requires either a friend with a motorbike, 300 Baht and Super English’s superstar Thai assistant Wen, or catching an hourly bus from downtown. The train station is actually in the neighboring town of Phun Phin (ph’s are unfortunately not pronounced as f’s here, just as p’s, taking a sizeable amount of joy out of saying Phuket) and you can get there on a bus leaving every half hour from the bus terminal in the center of town. All very easy.

    Safe travels. Cheers!

  • Travel Plans by Brittney Johnson 2008

    I am so excited for the upcoming vacation. We have all of October off. A full month to do whatever we want….so many possibilities. I’m on a budget. In fact, when I travel, I’m always on a budget. I don’t like paying a lot for a room when I’m never there. I like to get out and see where I am and eat the local cheap food.

    I traveled to Thailand November of 2009. I was here for 2 weeks. Thailand had been my top destination to travel to for years. However, I ended up being disappointed. I was with two friends and they wanted to go the easy, hassle-free way to travel. So, we purchased a tourist package. We hit the hot spots. Transportation and accommodation were all included in the package. We went to all of the most traveled places. We went to some beautiful places, I didn’t see any of the authentic Thailand. We mostly saw westerners acting crazy.

    So, I’m excited to see a different side of Thailand this time. I’ve been living in Surat Thani for almost three months now. I feel at ease getting around and with the people, so I hope that will help while I travel throughout the country.

    My roommate, Amy, and I plan on going up to Chang Mai and Pai for at least 1 week. We are going to travel by train up north. It’s going to be a long trip. We’ve heard amazing things about both places. Mountains, cooler weather, hiking, trekking, and being outside, surrounded by nature. There are several teachers from Surat that plan on making it up to Thailand. So we are planning on meeting up dates.

    We then plan on staying a few nights in Bangkok. Amy has some friends from England coming so we figured that is a good place for them to start. I look forward to doing some shopping, eating, and getting some cheap dental work done.

    After Bangkok, I hope to go to Kho Tao to get my Advanced PADI certificate. I’ve heard mixed reviews about diving in Kho Tao, so I think I better see it for myself.

    Once I have my advanced certificate I want to go to The Similian Islands. I’ve read that it is the best diving in Thailand and in the top 10 best diving locations in the world. You can only go to the islands certain times of the year. It’s not cheap, but I always find a way to travel cheaply so I’m sure there is a way.

    I am also dying to go rock climbing and Krabi & Railay are famous for their rock-climbing activities. I went to Railay about one month ago and it was absolutely gorgeous! You have to take a 15 minute boat ride from Krabi. It’s not nearly as touristy as Krabi. There are no chains or fast food. I can’t wait to go back there!

    I also have a friend coming to Thailand in October so I will meet up with her at some point. I’ve never been to Kho Samui so that is an option for us. I’m looking forward to relaxing, sleeping in a bit, exploring, reading, diving, swimming, eating good food, being active, meeting new people, and so much more. I’m excited to see how different parts of Thailand are. Now that I live here, I think I will appreciate Thailand much more than when I visited the first time. Thailand is really starting to feel like home and I’m really falling in love with the country and its people. There is so much to look forward to! What an incredible job I have!

  • Vietnam: Not just a war by Tristan Rentos 2011

    Due to the generous amount of holiday time that all Super English teachers receive (the most of any language school in Surat) we have a wide selection of travel destinations to choose from. This year, Chris and I went to Vietnam.

    This wasn’t my first time in the ‘Nam, nor will it be my last. This country is truly something special. The sad fact is when most people think of Vietnam, the next word that pops into their head is ‘war’. These words seem to go hand in hand, such as ‘pint of beer’, and ‘hot and spicy’. For many people, especially the older generation, this is what Vietnam is - a war that was fought over 35 years ago and defined a part of their lives back in the day. For me, Vietnam is about two things – the atmosphere and the scenery.

    Let’s get one thing out in the open: I have been to Vietnam twice, spent most of my time in the north and I have never been openly racially vilified or been a victim of any crime. I am not an American, but sometimes people jump to the wrong conclusions. OK, so we all get charged more than Vietnamese people when we’re out and about, but Vietnam is not alone in having a dual pricing system (Thailand does this as well). As for the inevitable comparison between Thailand and Vietnam, they are two totally different countries with different cultures and histories. Vietnamese food is less spicy than Thai food, and has more of a Chinese influence. I will say one thing though – thanks to French influence (they ‘managed’ the country for a few years as part of French Indochina) the Vietnamese bake excellent bread, brew very tasty coffee, and most importantly have really good domestic beers, in my opinion far superior to Chang, Singha and Leo that we have in Thailand. Saigon Export (black label) isn’t just a good Vietnamese beer, it’s a good beer full stop. Oh, and ladies, the chocolate is excellent!

    If you are a Super teacher living in Thailand, I would suggest that you confine your traveling to the middle and north of Vietnam, simply because the south of Vietnam is too similar to the south of Thailand. The beaches are better in Thailand, there is better tourist infrastructure in place and Saigon is trying a bit too hard to be like Bangkok (you might as well just go to Bangkok and have the full ‘Sukumvit’ experience rather than the junior version in Saigon if that is what you’re after in a holiday). The middle of Vietnam, however, is not similar to Thailand and has some real gems. Even if you don’t get a suit made up, Hoi An is such a beautiful old town that you will find yourself walking around for hours looking in every nook and cranny for that one souvenir that you just have to take home with you. Hue is the old capital of Vietnam, and the old citadel is well worth a look if you’re an old building buff like me.

    Now the north, in my opinion, is the highlight of Vietnam. I’ve been banging on about this for years, but Hanoi is the best capital city I have been to anywhere (yes, that includes Canberra, the capital city of Australia which is about as interesting as dry toast). The old quarter, famous for its shopping is literally a maze of lanes and side streets, with one particular product being sold by multiple vendors on one street (for example, on one of the streets north of Hoan Kiem lake every vendor sells shoes – just shoes – on the entire street). As with Hoi An, you will want to just walk around for hours on end, looking in every shop for that special find. The lake itself is a nice place to sit and relax, and the baguettes, coffee and tree lined boulevards make for a relaxing place to collect your thoughts, despite the crazy traffic.

    I won’t go too much into Halong Bay, because both times I’ve been there it has been foggy and I haven’t seen much to write about (better luck next time I hope). Right up in the northern mountains on the Chinese border is a town called Sapa, and this is Vietnam at its best. You cannot go to Vietnam without going to Sapa, because these are the best views you will see outside of the Nepalese Himalayas (and yes, I’ve been there too). Basically you get the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a town on the Chinese border, then get a connecting minibus to Sapa. You find a hotel, dump your bags, then venture out to a coffee shop and talk to the charming minority villagers who try to get you to buy souvenirs. In winter, several cafes have an open fire going, it’s like being in the Swiss Alps without the massive price tag or the skiing. You can hire a car/motorcycle and explore the local villages, which I highly recommend doing. I have never been to a place with better ambiance than Sapa; if someone told me that I had to spend the rest of my life there I would be very happy.

    When it’s all said and done, Vietnam is far more than just a former cold war battleground. You couldn’t have a better holiday in your very best of dreams.

  • Gili Islands Indonesia by Chris Ansell 2009

    Another month, another break. Well, this break was actually spread over two months (the end of December and the beginning of January) but you get the point. Working for Super these past fifteen months I feel like I’ve been on as many holidays as all my friends back home put together…which may actually be about fifteen! Our final break before the two-month sprint to the end of the semester took place as the sun was setting on 2010. Eleven days to venture as far and wide as we desired….

    I have always spent New Years Eve on an island. Most have been spent on a medium sized island called United Kingdom. One was spent on a super big island on the other side of the world from my home but not too dissimilar nonetheless; Australia. Last year was spent on a pretty small island in the shape of Ko Lanta just off the west coast of Thailand. This years was spent on by far the smallest island to date however when I found myself on Gili Meno. (The name Gili even translates as “Small Island”). Meno is one of three islands just off the coast of a slightly larger island, Lombock, which itself is off the coast of an even larger and well-known island called Bali (it is to here which you would fly into from Thailand to reach the Gili’).

    The transport system on the Gili’ is reasonably simple to understand and negotiate. There are no traffic lights, round-a-bouts or even tarmac roads for that matter. Indeed, you will find no cars or motorbikes. Even police are absent! Instead horse-drawn carts line the side of a sandy track under the shade of palm trees close to where the long-boat arrives and departs with it’s twice daily hoard of people sporting Deuter and The North Face backpacks (or little pink handbags in the case of one unlucky passenger cruelly made to carry his girlfriends Christmas present for the entire trip). Not that transport is required at all. By foot (minus the bags) it is possible to stroll the circumference of each of the islands in less than two hours. And dependant upon which of the three islands you find yourself, you will discover a varying number of little cafés/restaurants/bars and bungalow accommodation. Gili Air is the closest island to Lombock and the smallest too. Here you will be met by only a handful of locals trying to persuade you to spend your time in their bungalows. Mr. Lucky of Lucky’s Bungalows will suggest coming with him as “you will be able to watch the sun set every evening in the cool breeze that you don’t feel on the east side. Do you like to smoke? We have if you like!”. “But his are 150,000 per night. I give you 80,000 with breakfast” counteracts Mr. Mussan of Mussan bungalows. Our budget makes our choice for us and after satisfying Mr.Lucky with a promise to head over to watch the sunset on the west side with him later we set off to lay our heavy bags down(and of course our not so heavy little pink ones).

    As with a lot of the small islands found off of the Thai coast, accommodation on the Gili’ is rather basic. The electricity doesn’t function the full 24 hours of the day and you must get used to brushing your teeth and showering using salt water (fresh water accommodation can be found but obviously at a higher price). For New Years Eve we decided to change islands having spent two days on Gili Air already and with a flight back to reality quickly approaching. John and Janet took the early morning long-boat (a fifteen minute voyage) across to the middle of the three islands Gili Meno. Brittney and I failed to make the crossing without getting a little wet though. We found ourselves 20m under the oceans surface with flippers on our feet and tanks on our torsos! Scuba diving here is world-renowned and at $35 a dive, is an opportunity tough to pass on. I was down for just fifteen minutes because of equalizing problems but saw some stunning coral in this short time. Brittney got full use of her tank and saw some giant turtles along with a plethora of other fascinating looking fish. We made a quick detour to the largest island Gili Trawangan (known as the party island) as this is the only one with an atm machine. After paying the scuba people (who very kindly wavered my payment due to the problems I experienced) we were dropped off on Gili Meno to join up with John and Janet who we found gazing out to sea sipping on Avocado shakes. After some great seafood “Nasi Chumpor” for lunch we set out in search of a bar to sink some happy hour beers and watch 2010 come to a close. Our last supper of the year was a healthy affair and consisted of some nutritious vegetables such as onions, peppers and mushrooms. A tropical storm created some epic scenes on our walk home where pitch-blackness suddenly changed to bright whiteness with everything becoming illuminated. On those sporadic occasions the place appeared as a Tim Burton film set. Lightening crashed down, fireworks shot up and thunder deafened us all. A monumental end to a holiday and a magnificent beginning to a new year.

  • Bali by Brittney Johnson 2010

    I am very fortunate to live in a country with many holidays and to work for a company like Super English that allows it’s employees to take full advantage of those times off. My school was closed for Christmas break, so my fellow teachers/friends and I decided to take advantage of the super cheap promotion on Air Asia. We scored round-trip tickets from Phuket to Bali for $120. Thailand is such a strategic location for cheap holiday trips! Other schools in Surat Thani were not closed for the entire Christmas break, so I felt very lucky that we had that time off. Christmas and New Year’s are my favorite holidays, so I was excited to be able to spend them with close friends! Janet, John, Chris and I left December 27th, early in the morning, so early that we decided to sleep in the airport that night. Needless to say, we are budget travelers.

    Bali is an island in Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population than any other country in the world, with approximately 202.9 million. However, Bali is a Hindu island. So, it’s totally different than it’s neighboring islands. Bali is kind of like it’s own country. They have their own language and religion. Even the archicture is very different than other Indonesian islands. It’s a truly fascinating, beautiful, charming, spiritual place. The people are incredibly friendly, warm, English speaking Hindus. You can hardly pass a Balinese person without them giving you some sort of greeting or asking you a question. They are genuinely interested in knowing you.

    As soon as we arrived we had some errands to run in Denpensar, the capital of Bali. Then we headed north to Ubud. I’m sure you’ve heard of Ubud by now. It got put on the map due to the best selling book and now movie starring Julia Roberts, “Eat, Pray, Love.” It’s kind of a shame that it has become such a popular tourist destination. I was in Ubud one year ago, and although it was still touristy and crowded due to the high season, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was this year. However, Ubud still has tons of charm and uniqueness.

    As soon as we booked our homestay, being the budget travelers that we are, we began the search for some cheap, local food for our first meal. I had been raving about how good the food was to the others. They had high expectations. And I must say, the Balinese food did not disappoint them. We ate local, cheap food the entire time we were there. We could have decided to treat ourselves to an expensive, nice, western meal, but we liked the local food too much. The local dish is called Nasi Campur. It’s different each time. It consists of rice, vegetables, beans, tofu, tempe, chicken, fish, pork, nuts, coconut, spicy or peanut sauce, etc. You get to pick what you want inside. Then they wrap it up in a banana leaf. All of that for about $1. There’s such a variety that you never get tired of it because you get different fillings each time.

    So, we spent the evening walking around town, eating Nasi Campur on our balcony by candlelight and washing it down with some Balinese beer. Then we went for some tea and shisha. The next morning we woke up to a delightful breakfast of Balinese coffee, banana pancakes, Jaffles and fresh fruit salad. We then got a taxi and headed up to the northern coast to Lovina. Some local people told us it was a really beautiful black sand beach town. The 3 hour drive was a beautiful ride through the central part of the country.

    We got a good deal on accommodation. That night we walked along the black sand beach and had a couple local beers and local dinner. We ate and drank on the beach. Lovina was nice, but we decided later that we would have rather of stayed another night in charming Ubud. We decided to leave super early the next day (5am) to start the journey out to the Gili Islands. The Gili Islands are not part of Bali, but are part of Indonesia. They are tiny islands off of Lombok. We ended up having an incredible New Years on the Gilis!

    After the Gilis we returned to Bali one day before our flight. We all agreed that we would like to spend our last night in Ubud. We couldn’t get enough of it! We got in early evening and found a decent homestay. Most of the homestays in Ubud range from $10-$20, and they all include breakfast. They all have a huge garden with ancient statues of Hindu religious figures. All throughout the day, people are setting out their offerings of various flowers, food, and insence in a bamboo basket. You can’t go very far without seeing a temple. Ubud is filled with art galleries, designer boutiques, bookstores, coffee shops, local and western restaurants, stores with handcrafted items, markets, etc.

    Our last morning, we woke up early to observe the morning market scene. People were busy selling breakfast and Hindu offering items. We grabbed our last Indonesian food to go to have later on the airplane (since Air Asia doesn’t serve food or drinks on any flights).

    We spent one week in Indonesia and had an remarkable trip. I was just as impressed the second time around to Bali as I was the first time, one year ago. Even though we were on the go quite a bit because we wanted to see so much, it was still a relaxing holiday. It’s the Balinese way of life. There’s no rush. They take time to talk to people. I’m sure I will find myself in Bali again. And I look forward to it.

  • Jungle Trekking in Chiang Mai by Brittney Johnson 2010

    My roommate and fellow teacher decided to go to Chiang Mai over the October holiday. We had both heard amazing stories about jungle treks. So, we decided to shop around for the best trek deal. We stopped by several tour agencies. There were so many to choose from. There were 1 to 3 day treks and included different activities in different locations around Chiang Mai. Each one we went to got cheaper and cheaper for the kind of trek we were looking for. We finally agreed that the last one we went to was cheap enough (1000 baht). It included everything all of the more expensive treks had. The package included 3 days, 2 nights, transportation, 7 meals, accommodation, elephant ride, experienced guides, white water and bamboo rafting. We were picked up early in the morning. We met our fellow trekkers (a good mix of Irish, French, Canadians, Americans, British, Chilean, and Scottish). We drove about 45 minutes into the jungle. Then we started on our 4-hour hike. Some of it was intense uphill trekking. All of it was breathtaking. We walked through rice patties, up mountains, through water, and other kinds of terrains. Everyone got extremely dirty and sweaty. When we arrived at the elephant camp, where we would be sleeping that night, we all got on an elephant and went through the jungle. Our guides then started preparing our dinner while we all had a chance to take a much-needed shower. We ate a delicious fresh meal of vegetables and chicken curry. Everyone hung out and went to bed just as the rain started to pour. The next day we woke up to a breakfast of coffee, tea, toast and eggs. We then had the opportunity to wash the elephants. This was definitely a high light for me. We got to scrub and wash them in the muddy water. I got on top of the elephant and washed his ears. They are amazing animals!! We then started on another hike to a waterfall about 2 hours away. On the way to the waterfall, our guide came in close contact to a cobra snake! You know it’s a scary situation when your guide is completely freaked out! He yelled to us to “GO BACK!” He was pushing the person in front of him to hurry up and became a rippled chaotic effect. So we ended up having to take a long way around to get the waterfall. But it was worth it! We had time to relax, swim, eat lunch, and go down a natural waterfall slide. We then hiked to our next location, about 3 hours away. It was a long difficult hike. We were all exhausted and starving by the end. We went to an authentic Luha tribe village. When we arrived, children were playing football. Everyone seemed friendly. We weren’t the first foreigners they had seen. In Thailand, Lahu are one of the six main hill tribes, and their population is estimated at around 100,000. Their name means "Mussur", meaning hunter. Their settlements are usually remote from roads and towns, due to their strong commitment to the maintenance of the Lahu way of life. We stayed in a traditional Lahu style house. Lahu houses are high raised from the ground because it used for keeping the firewood. While less importance is placed on the extended family than in other hill tribe communities, the Lahu are still strongly committed to principles of unity and working together for survival. Lahus may have the most gender-equitable society in the world. There was no electricity so we had to do everything by candlelight. Our guide, Tea, made an amazing meal of potato curry and long beans with rice. Some of the kids from the village came around and sang Thai songs all dressed up in traditional Lahu clothing. We slept on mats with mosquito nets. We woke up, had breakfast and set off for a short morning trek. We then went white water rafting. I always enjoy rafting, even if it’s only a 1 or 2 category. We immediately went on a bamboo raft and ended our trek at the Long Neck Village. It was a challenging, beautiful, exciting, and rewarding experience. You learn to go “without” things. It makes you appreciate what you do have. I recommend that everyone try a trek in northern Thailand. There is something for everyone! I would definitely go on another one! You get the chance to meet people from all over the world, see beautiful nature, push your physical abilities, and stretch yourself in many ways. I’m not sure how long these treks will be “authentic.” It seems that they are getting more and more popular with tourists. So, I’d try to go on one as soon as possible. It was an amazing experience and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go.

  • Train Travel from Surat the Rules by Chris Ansell 2009

    The first rule of traveling in Surat by train is that you do not talk about traveling in Surat by train…

    Okay, my name’s not Tyler, and I guess it would be a rather short and useless article if this really were the first rule, so…

    The first rule of travelling in Surat by train is: bring a book!

    The trains in Thailand are late 99.9% of the time: Enough to send the most patient of people off the rails. They will then invariably take longer than the suggested time shown on the timetable. Surat to Bangkok, for example, is a journey that according to the people who produce the timetables should take about 9 hours. In my experience it has always taken closer to 12 hours. Mitch and I were left to wait 3 hours at Surat’s station (Phunpin) on one trip to Bangkok. There is no entertainment at the train stations or on the trains so be sure to bring some. A book is perfect. Easy to pack, not expensive (so no fear of it getting stolen) and will probably help you get to sleep, which leads me to rule number two…

    The second rule of travelling in Surat by train is: pack a blindfold and earplugs!

    These are not to be used as part of a sexual game (you will be removed from the train by a mean looking inspector whether you are at a station or in the middle of nowhere) but instead to block out undesirable light and noise. No stay in Thailand is quite complete without a journey upon a night train and the journey to Bangkok from Surat is one that just about every teacher will (and should) do at least once. A sleeper class ticket is the only option as sitting in a seat all night next to a snoring old Thai man isn’t really an option at all at only a couple of hundred baht cheaper. All you will have to decide upon is whether you would like an air con carriage or one with fans. I have always gone for the cheaper fan option and temperature wise it has always been fine. The upper bunk is for some reason usually a little cheaper than the lower bunk but size wise (which is certainly an issue to consider for a 6ft5 guy like me) they are the same.

    So why do you need a blindfold and earplugs? Well, the lights are left on the whole night and although there is a sheet/curtain you can pull across your bunk it certainly doesn’t cut out all light. People get on and off the train throughout the night and the guard will walk up and down the train too so if you are a light sleeper then this is why earplugs may be a wise addition. It is also rather likely that in a carriage of 30 people at least 4 or 5 of them will be heavy snorers!

    The third rule of travelling by train in Surat is: keep your valuables close by!

    I am not saying this from personal experience but feel like I should mention it because I am supposed to. It is sensible. There are racks for luggage on the outside of the bunk beds right next to the walkway. Easy pickings when your curtain is pulled shut. Phones, wallets, passports, cameras and laptops should be kept inside your cabin bed.

    The fourth rule of travelling by train in Surat is: bring snacks and water!

    No food is included in the price of the ticket although there is usually an option to order food from the restaurant carriage when you are purchasing your ticket. The last thing you want to be is sitting on a train travelling wanting something to wet your mouth or tie you over until you can get a proper feed at your destination. People do come on at all the stations selling small snacks (usually fried rice / fresh fruit / crisps) and drinks (tea / coffee / water / beer) but at obviously inflated prices and questionable quality. Bring stuff you know you like: Problem solved.

    Ps.
    Day train v Night train

    The night train is the obvious choice most of the time as it saves wasting a day sitting uncomfortably wishing you were just about anywhere else (other than in the back row of a minibus – see Tristan’s article!). The advantage of the day train is that the scenery along the way is attimes stunning and you will miss it all on the night train. If you end up taking the day train at any point in your stay be sure to have your camera by your side!

  • Kuala Lumpur in Our Backyard by John Phelps 2009

    Though once in Thailand you may not want to leave, Kuala Lumpur is a cheap travel hub and well worth a visit. I recently passed through for just two days. I left with a fascination that will bring me back soon. It resembles a Western European and an Asian city at the same time. With bakeries and flower shops, sidewalk cafes and chic restaurants, street dogs and friendly police, you may get confused about what continent you are visiting.

    Air Asia's super cheap flights to Europe are what brought my wife and I to KL. I figured we would break up our travel time after a train trip from Surat to Had Yai and another flight to KL by resting a night and seeing a few things before taking a fourteen hour plane ride to London. Once in the airport, it's only a few dollars to take a bus into the city central station (KL Sentral). Most of the cheap places to stay are in the hip China Town, just a few metro stops away (Pasar Seni). Getting off of the metro here, we called Wheeler's Guest House to get directions. In a grand gesture of hospitality, they sent a staffperson to the metro station to meet us. And this is a cheap backpacker's hostel! He greeted us and we walked through the aromas of roasting chicken, bouquets of flowers, and fresh bread that emanated from all the small shops in the bazaar area. My wife and I had been exhausted after our long day of travel, but were reinvigorated by the plethora of different people to watch, foods to taste, and other-worldly sites to see. The National Mosque loomed across the metro tracks as we headed across town to see the Petronas Towers. The largest mosque I have ever seen, it is so solemn it makes you pause in the middle of all the bustle.

    Arriving at the Petronas Tower's Metro Station, we pop out of the narrow corridors into an ultramodern shopping mall. If the Jettson's go shopping, this is the place. We walk into the Prada store just to be posh. We assumed a posture of affluence and examine several keychains that cost about a hundred dollars. Since we didn't come to add to our complete fall selection of teacher clothes, we walk out of the mall in search of one of the highest skyscrapers in the world. We scan the skyline, but can't seem to see them anywhere. Turning around, I see that we have just been standing underneath them. These towers are one of the top must-sees in South East Asia. You have to see both sides of the spectrum, the crumbling towers of Angkor Wat and the impossibly climbing Petronas Towers. Thailand is an amazing place as a base to travel from, to be awed by the ancient and the cutting edge of the modern.

    We were not able to visit the Sky Bridge (the highest point you can go in the Towers) because we missed the last tour. You have to get to the visitor's office around 7:00 AM to sign up for a tour, as they have a huge line all day after that. We made a note to allow time for that next time. We walked towards the walking streets around Times Square. Escalators lifted us over busy intersections. Smiling policemen approached us to ask if we needed directions. We were starving as we headed towards China Town again, so we sought out a place that looked to have the most typical Malaysian food.

    We were seated behind a large pack of businessmen smoking clove cigarettes. The waiter came and I asked for what the businessmen were eating and drinking. The waiter brought us two plates of fluffy rice with chicken and two glasses of te tarik. Eating the fluffy rice was like eating confection-ized air, and chicken was amazing. Te tarik is a bubbly milk tea that made everything go down well. We resumed our walk with full stomachs until we got to another approximately six by six city block walking street area in China Town.

    Huge paper lanterns of every color announced the main drag of the area, along with the everthickening throng of shoppers and party-goers. We walked into the center of it and sat at a sidewalk cafe to do some people watching. Stalls along the walkway selling every type of shoe, knife, and electronic gadget were doing a booming business. After sitting awhile, we walked and browsed until our feet were weary. Eventually we made our way to bed and left much of the city unexplored, knowing that KL is just in our backyard, waiting for us to come back.

  • Escaping to the Beach by Emily Nass 2010

    Living in Surat allows teachers to enjoy several beautiful beaches hidden form the tourist eye. On a recent girls weekend, several Super teachers stumbled across the well-kept secret of Chumpon. Since it is a few hours further than Khanom, a popular teacher destination, it stays extremely quiet and relaxing. The city of Chumpon is around three hours train ride from Surat Thani. The train is extremely convenient since you can leave Friday night after teaching, unlike most bus schedules. Since the trip is so short the second class “seater” is more then adequate and immensely cheaper then a sleeper car. After a short taxi ride to the station be prepared to wait a bit for a train, since they are seldom on time. Not to worry however since the station is well equipped with places to sit as well as food and drink stands. Once on the train sit back and relax.

    If you opt for a late night train staying in Chumpon for the night is a good idea. The Foreign Bar offers twin bed rooms for two hundred baht a night and is a short motorbike taxi ride from the station. The next day the beach is only a shuttle ride away. The town of Chumpon resembles Surat in many ways, minus the close proximity to the beach. For girls weekend we stayed at the MT RESORT. It was wonderful! The resort has it’s own stretch of beach next to the pier heading out to Kho Tao. Even though the resort is right next to the pier the beach stays surprisingly isolated, a wonderful bonus for any teacher. The bungalows are small but have their own bathroom. The restaurant opens right up to the beach showing off an impressive sunset. The best part of the resort has to be the free kayaks. There are several small islands out in the bay that can be kayaked to. If you are ready to spend a few hours in the sun, it is beyond enjoyable.

    If you wish to venture past the beach and kayaks you can rent one of the resorts motorbikes and head into town. The road into town holds a feast for the eyes as you travel down empty roads through jungle and beach side paths. When you live in Surat there is a joy when you find little gems of beaches and parks. Chumpon is such a place. It is well worth the extra travel from Khanom when you are wanted something affordable but different from the usual escape. Without a doubt this small stretch of beach will satisfy any want for a relaxing weekend getaway.

  • One Day in Macau by Peter C. Meltzer 2010

    I’ve wanted to go to Macau for a long time. I went to Vegas when I was 17 and it left quite an impression on me. Even though I couldn’t gamble I still thought the place was great fun. And steak dinners for $2.99??? I was ready to move there. Macau is supposed to be the Vegas of the East, so perhaps my expectations were too high. I had heard good things about Macau. I was expecting something similar to Vegas. I went into several hotel/casinos and what I found is that Macau is not Vegas. Not at all. Here are some the main reasons why:


    The Fun Factor: Vegas is designed to be fun. More than the ostentatious design of many of the hotels, there are public attractions all along the Strip. It’s colorful, lively, and different. Macau has none of that. The hotels are just hotels. They sit close to one another, but they are simply cool looking buildings. Very few people are walking around. It feels like an industrial zone. There are no colorful signs, no neon lights, no charisma, and no feeling. It is not a “fun” place.

    The Gambling: If you walk into a Vegas casino you are greeted with a gigantic room of lights, sounds, music, friendly waitresses and dealers, etc. More than that, you have a plethora of gambling options to choose from. Slot machines, poker, blackjack, and the list goes on. It feels like an adventure. You walk into a casino in Macau and it’s more or less the opposite. The room is sort of small, silent and kind of dark. It does not have flashing lights or any music or any waitresses. I found baccarat, poker (no one was playing), slots (all digital and complicated – I played and somehow managed to break even although I have no idea how or why), and blackjack (I was the only one playing) and that was all. Nearly every table there was dedicated to baccarat. I knew baccarat was the game of choice in Macau prior to going but I was still surprised that the entire place was more or less devoted to just that. And it certainly was. Tables were filled with Chinese people smoking and playing baccarat. No talking, no smiling, no drinking, no distractions. Just baccarat at several hundred dollars per hand. It’s not for the part-time gambler. As far as I could tell, the Chinese approach gambling as a way to make money, not to have fun. That attitude permeated the whole place. Everyone was there to try to make money and nothing else.

    The Dealers: I didn’t gamble in Vegas but my general impression of the dealers there was that they were human beings. I am not sure about the dealers in Macau. They rotated dealers every 10 minutes and not a single one of them ever smiled, ever showed surprise, ever made a comment, or did anything besides stand there and deal out cards. It was unnerving. It wasn’t just because they didn’t speak English. They didn’t interact with the Chinese people there either. The dealers in Macau are the closest thing to zombies I have ever seen. I even had a Joe Pesci “Casino” moment when they switched dealers and the new one was even more lifeless than the last one. I actually said, “Where did they find this (expletive) beauty?” before I could stop myself.

    Did I win? At one point I was up a little bit in blackjack, but it was such a small amount that I figured I’d keep going. And that’s how they get you. Eventually it was all gone, although it wasn’t very much to begin with. On the plus side, I certainly got any interest in gambling out of my system. Macau is so bleak, so not fun, so serious, that you eventually sit there thinking “I already feel like I am losing just by sitting here.” There is nothing to distract, which is perhaps the secret of Vegas. You can sit there for hours because it feels like minutes. They’re peppering you with free drinks, snacks, flashing lights, and the cheers of people winning. In Macau they came around with a cart offering small paper cups of stale tea. Nobody smiled, nobody cheered. Nobody was having fun.
    In short, it was the anti-Vegas.

    Anything else? Once you leave the casinos and walk a bit you get into the center of Macau, which is Old Portuguese style architecture. It’s interesting to walk around there with the other several thousand Chinese people and look at the shops. You can cover all of it in a few hours. There are little shops everywhere selling Macau’s specialty, the pork chop sandwich. Now, I didn’t try it but all it looked like was a grilled pork chop in a bun. There wasn’t any sauce, cheese or vegetables. Just a pork chop and bread. People were lined up in droves to buy them. To me, that kind of sums up Macau: it’s crowded and may be alright, but in comparison to most other things it’s actually pretty
    boring and kind of disappointing.

    The Final Say: Unless you’re a millionaire who loves to gamble in a very serious way, in which case I’m sure Macau can roll out some serious red carpets, I don’t see the place as being that exciting. It’s a hassle to get there, expensive to stay, and there’s little to do besides sit around a table with gloomy people and try to make money. Go to Vegas instead and enjoy yourself.

  • Surat Thani to Cambodia by Mitchell Burbick 2011

    From Thailand, there are two ways to get to Cambodia. Well, maybe three if you count a boat, but I don’t know anyone who’s done that so let’s stick with either flying, or taking ground transportation. I looked into flying, but for me and probably most others living on a Thai teaching salary, it’s ridiculously expensive. There are some cheap flights into Penomh Penh, but that wasn’t really going to be the focus of the trip, and flying into Siem Reap just didn’t make fiscal sense. I’d only heard horror stories from friends about the long and hellacious trip to get from Thailand to Cambodia but because it made the most sense, we decided to go for it.

    If you’re starting in Suratthani, the first thing you’ll have to do is get to Bangkok. To me, it made sense to get the whole trip over with in one go, so I took a night train, but if you want to burn a night in Bangkok you can always take a day train. The night train, depending on whether you get a sleeper, will set you back anywhere from around 570 – 700 baht. There are five or six trains leaving Phun Phin (the train station just outside Surat) every hour from 5pm to 8pm and these will get you into Bangkok’s Hualomphong station around 6 in the morning.

    And now for a friendly reminder: trains in Thailand are always late. I’ve been on some that arrive within 20 minutes of the time stated on the ticket, and some that have been as much as 5 hours late, so always just give yourself a lot more time than you think you need and plan accordingly.

    Once in Bangkok you now get to choose between taking a train or a bus from Bangkok to the border town of Arranyapathet. If you choose to take a train you can hang out at the station until the next one leaves. There are all sorts of very friendly information people milling around in neon shirts that speak fantastic English and will be able to answer any questions you have. I was told the next train was leaving for Arranyapathet at 1 in the afternoon and didn’t fancy spending 6 hours at the train station, so I opted to take a bus.

    If you choose to take a bus you’ll have to get yourself to Bangkok’s Northeastern Bus Terminal which is called Mo Chit. From Hualomphong you can either take a taxi or hop on the subway. At around 40 baht, the subway’s probably a little cheaper and you can ride this to the second to last stop where you’ll get off and then catch a quick ride via taxi at another 40 baht to the bus station. Just tell the driver Mo Chit, and you’re golden.

    Once at the bus station you can ask at the information kiosk for the booth that sells the tickets to Arranyapathet or just look around, it’s pretty much straight ahead and center against the back wall when you walk in the main doors. There are buses leaving through the day starting at 6AM and finishing around 5PM and a ticket will run you 212 baht. It’s supposed to be a 4 hour ride, but the two times I rode it took somewhere a little over 5, which still isn’t too bad because it proved to be one of the nicer buses I’ve taken in Thailand. The air conditioning worked, the seats reclined, and the speakers were only pumping Thai pop music for somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the time.

    At the end of this ride the bus will kind of unceremoniously dump you off in the middle of what looks to be a nowhere town. Tuk tuk (little truck taxis) drivers will accost you asking you if you’re going to the border. Try hooking up with some other people heading that wayto get a better fare. It’ll be somewhere between 50 and 60 baht. Now here’s the sneaky part. The tuk tuk drivers WILL take you to the border, but only AFTER they take you to one or two places where shady people will try to sell you visas at an inflated price. Just insist on being taken to the actual border, and don’t listen to a word they have to say. People were telling us all kinds of garbage about how if you don’t already have one it’ll cost more at the border, or that we couldn’t get the visas at the border that particular day and on and on. Just stay strong and don’t get out of the tuk tuk until you’ve arrived at the border.

    You’ll be dropped off a little up the road from the border station, so just get your stuff and start walking. Because gambling is illegal in Thailand but not in Cambodia, you may pass signs warning that leaving the Kingdom of Thailand to gamble is in no uncertain words, a bad idea and may lead to fines, and I’m not joking, death. Whether that’s the intention of your visit to Cambodia or not, you will pass through a Thai border building where it seems like smiling will get you thrown into prison. After this continue on and you’ll come upon a Cambodian border checkpoint. You’ll have to fill out some paperwork, present your passport and a passport photo (don’t’ forget the photo and make sure you have at least a full empty page in your passport), $20 U.S. dollars and within a few minutes you’ll be on your way with a 30 day Cambodian tourist visa. These guys will try to tell you that you need to pay them $5 or a 100 baht extra to get it quickly, but stay firm, point to the sign above the window stating the price and don’t take their crap.

    From here it’s a matter of deciding whether you want to take a bus or a taxi (read 1982 Carolla driven by an insane and just maybe half blind Cambodian person) to your ultimate destination. I was heading to Siem Reap and was able to get three other people together to split a taxi with at $12 U.S. a person for a three hour ride. If you choose to take a bus, the tickets were around $9 U.S. and I’ve heard it takes significantly longer than a taxi, but if you’re travelling alone, it’s probably the cheap option.

    Hooray! You’ve done it. You’re in Cambodia. Go check out Angkor Wat and Penomh Penh and all the other goodness the country has to offer. You can shoot large automatic guns, and if you pay enough, it may just be possible to shoot a cow. Seriously, it’s like the Wild West out there.

    Getting back is essentially the exact same process in reverse. Take a bus or taxi from whatever Cambodian city you end up in to the Thai border and find a bus or train to get you back to Bangkok or wherever your next destination is. Just walk towards the buses lining up and hop on the next one leaving. I left Battambang, Cambodia at 7AM, got to the border around 10AM, caught an 11:30AM bus right across the border to Bangkok, got into Bangkok around 5pm and then was able to get a taxi from the Northeastern Bus Terminal Mo Chit to Hualomphong where I was in time for a 7:30PM night train leaving Bangkok for Suratthani.

    There you go. Happy travels.

  • Hong Kong by Peter C. Meltzer 2012

    Hong Kong is the most crowded, intense place I’ve ever been in. Everywhere you go, no matter what time, it is crowded. Not normal crowded. Overcrowded. You go out on the street at 11 pm and it’s crowded. You can’t get away from it. It’s not easy to adjust to if you’re not accustomed to it. Take the subway trains, for example. They run every 2-3 minutes like clockwork and every train is at least 10 cars long. And every single train is packed with people. Just thousands and thousands of people on every train. You can’t really wander aimlessly or slowly in Hong Kong because there will be a build-up of several hundred people behind you within a few minutes. You have to know where you’re going and how to get there, otherwise you’ll be trampled by the other thousands of people going every possible direction. You can’t slow down. If you do, someone will try to speed you up. I had an old Chinese lady push me because I wasn’t going fast enough for her while lifting a stroller over a subway turnstile. I nearly decked her. Then I remembered my Thai-ness and settled down. But the immediate reaction was still there, and the reality is it’s hard to avoid because you’re so rushed and pressured going from
    place to place. There is no “Jai Yen-Yen” (calm heart) in Hong Kong. So getting back to Thailand was a relief.

    The skyline is crowded with buildings. Every building is a skyscraper. Giant apartment buildings stand in large clusters like trees in a forest. They’re built everywhere; next to the water, on hillsides, on top of mountains, on islands. Most of them are very modern and impressive, as is all of Hong Kong. It is definitely a modern city with all the modern amenities. People aren’t exactly friendly, but they aren’t that unfriendly either. The easiest way to describe them is that they don’t really care. They don’t try
    to be nice in a shop (or most other places) because if you don’t buy anything someone else will be along shortly. It’s a bit of jolt coming from Thailand where such an emphasis is placed on charming smiles and friendly attitudes. Again, it was nice to return to Thailand after 9 days with the Chinese.

    We took in quite a few of the sites and attractions, like Disneyland and Oceanpark. Unless you havea 5 year old in tow, skip Disneyland. It’s expensive, small and (you guessed it) crowded. Every ride has a 1 hour wait, even a merry-go-round. Kind of ridiculous. Solo definitely wasn’t feeling that place. He said no to everything until 5 p.m. at which time he decided he wanted to try a few rides.

    Instead of Disneyland, hit up Oceanpark. First, it’s less expensive than Disneyland. Second, the journey there is shorter and more exciting. Quick, get on the train! Quick, get off the train! Quick, get up the stairs! Quick, buy your bus tickets! Quick, get on the bus! Quick, find a seat! And so on. If you slow down someone will cut in front of you and another couple hundred will follow. Once you arrive at Oceanpark it gets a bit easier. It’s still incredibly crowded, but the park is split in two. One half is at the bottom of a mountain and the other half sits on top of the mountain, literally. Awesome. The more intense rides are on top of the mountain and add another level to doing something like riding a coaster. Riding a coaster is pretty fun, but riding a coaster that shoots out over the water at several hundred feet is even better. Oceanpark also has animals and an aquarium, so there is something for everyone. It’s a pretty cool place and was everyone’s pick for best thing we did in Hong Kong. I recommend it.

    Another thing I would recommend is the food. Lots of good, accessible food in Hong Kong. Any kind of food anytime of the day. It wasn’t very spicy and didn’t come with much in terms of sauces so Jeab was pretty bored (she ate som-tam for about two weeks straight after we got back) but there was a good amount of variety, if you looked. If you didn’t look and explore you would probably end up eating noodle soup a fair amount, because that is everywhere. Noodle soup with no extra spice or sauce, which is a bit bland after living in Thailand. But if you did explore you could find yourself in some pretty interesting places. I found a dim sum place where I was the only white guy and nobody spoke English. I went back twice.

    Hong Kong is expensive, as one would expect from a metropolitan city, so if you go better be prepared to spend a lot of money. Hong Kong is famous for its shopping, which was a major point of attraction for my wife, but she was sorely disappointed. Almost everything is designer labels and designer prices. Huge shopping malls with one fancy name after another. We found a couple of markets but they paled in comparison to Bangkok in terms of quality, quantity, choice, prices and environment.

    Bottom line: in almost every big city category I would recommend Bangkok over Hong Kong. It’s bigger, more relaxed, cheaper, and friendlier. Hong Kong does offer more interesting scenery than Bangkok, as well as much better museums. Besides that, I would give the price, food, shopping, attractions, transportation, and people edge to The Big Chili.

  • CAMBODIA: Siem Reap, Angkor, and Phnom Penh By Blake Schlaich 2012

    Teaching in Thailand with Super English has many of the same excellent perks as teaching in America does. The best, in my opinion, is the vacation time. In the States, most teachers get holidays and the summer months off. In Thailand, SE teachers are off from the beginning of March to mid-May (Thai summer is hot, especially with no A/C and 55 students per class), as well as all of October (when the rainy season hits the hardest). Teachers at other language schools aren't as lucky. This super bonus allowed me to travel for four weeks last month, paid. I went diving in Koh Tao, raged in Bangkok, experienced the filthy skeeze that is Pattaya, watched a fire show in Koh Samet
    (my eyebrows were nearly singed by a disobedient, flaming bow-staff that decided my face was a better landing target than its owner’s hands), and hiked a five-tier waterfall in Kanchanaburi. I don’t have the memory (thank you, Singha beer) nor the patience to write about each and every one of these places. I do, however, want to share a little bit about final leg of my October travels, which was to Cambodia.

    I was only able to spend about a week in good ol’ Cambo and I wish I’d had more time. To me it’s the wild west of SE Asia. Still recovering from the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it is not nearly as developed as its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The air is constantly filled with dust from the unpaved roads, waterways flood because of the lacking infrastructure, and there’s evidence everywhere illuminating the unbelievably widespread poverty. My roommate, co-worker, and travel dude-bro, Ryan gave a pretty accurate, yet not-so-delicate description, “Cambodia is a dirtier, cheaper version of Thailand”. This is true, but it’s also a lot more.

    Everywhere I went the people were exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy. In guesthouses and restaurants the service was far better than in Thailand (but the food didn’t hold a candle). Everything costs a dollar or less. Everything. Draft beer, 50 cents. Food, a dollar. Tuk-tuk, a dollar. You can even find dorm-style hostels to stay in for… a dollar.

    Because of the floods and my loathing of 15-hour bus rides, I decided to pay the extra 50 bucks and take a flight from big, bad Bangkok to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The flight only takes 55 minutes but it’s a bit more expensive if you’re traveling on a strict budget. The cheapest option is to take the bus from Bangkok to the border, and from there head to Siem Reap in Cambodia. For more on getting there, Mitch wrote a great article on how to get to Cambodia here.

    Siem Reap...

    Which city you hit first depends on whether you fly or take the bus. Most flights go in to the capital city of Phnom Penh, whereas Siem Reap is much closer if you bussing it. I’ll talk about Siem Reap first.

    I ended up spending about a week in Siem Reap and I loved it. Siem Reap is a small, old town in northwestern Cambodia. It’s name means the “Flat defeat of Siam”, referring to a victorious battle the native Khmer people had over the Siamese (of course, Siam is now Thailand).

    It’s a quiet town during the day, but starting around 6 pm, there’s a large night market where you can buy anything from a traditional Cambodian scarf to a knock-off Rolex (I bought a fresh Breitling and some Ray-Bans for next to nothing). Around 9 pm Pub Street comes to life. This is where the tourists convene and where you’ll find restaurants and bars booming until the early morning hours. Even with the tourism, most of the people are still very poor, so you get a bit of the usual bombardment of beggars and street hustlers, but they’re harmless. For the most part everyone is extremely nice and speaks surprisingly good English. Everything is super cheap from food ($1 to $3 USD) to accommodation ($1 to $5/ night).

    Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination primarily because it’s “the gateway” to the Angkor region (where Angkor Wat is located). Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. The ruins are still there and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in thousands of visitors each year.

    The best part of Siem Reap was by far being able to see the 1000-year-old ruins and temples of Angkor. I have to say that it’s probably one of the coolest things that I have ever seen in my life. It’s like the Grand Canyon, words can’t describe it and pictures just don’t do it justice.

    We rented bikes for a buck, but you can hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day for as cheap as $6 and they’ll take you where ever you like. There is an admittance fee to the park and you can choose between a 1 day ($20), 3 day ($40), or 1 week ($60) pass. Ryan and I paid $40 each for a 3-day pass and saw just about everything that there is to see. Guides are also available all over town as well as inside Angkor and they usually run around $8 for the day; tours booked through a travel agency will be a bit more. We decided against it because we wanted to move at our own pace, but I am sure that there are plenty valuable pieces of information and history that would make hiring a guide useful.

                              

    I swear if Indian Jones and Lara Croft had an extraordinarily good-looking love child, it would be me (*Speaking of Tomb Raider, they filmed it in Angkor). Nothing is roped off, so you have free reign to hike around and climb on whatever you want (just don’t get caught). Some of the temples, buildings, and walkways have been restored but most of it has been left basically untouched for the best part of a thousand years. It was like being inside of Mortal Kombat. I was half-expecting Scorpion to run around the corner looking for Sub-zero, “Hey man. You seen a ninja ‘round here… wears a blue mask… likes to make stuff cold?”

    Phnom Penh…

    The most efficient way to get from Siem Reap to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is by bus. Other options are private taxi, by plane, and there’s even a boat; all leave several times daily. Again, for more information on getting there, read Mitch’s article scroll down. Ryan and I traveled by bus and it took about 5 ½ hours to reach Phnom Penh (leaving Siem Reap at midnight).

    Phnom Penh is a big city but it lacks the glamour of a metropolis. There aren’t many skyscrapers, it’s built on a nonsensical grid system, and honestly it just didn’t seem that impressive (to me, at least). The traffic and pollution are horrible. I highly recommend wearing sunglasses and having a scarf or something to cover your face with while riding in a tuk-tuk. The dust and filth in the air, stirred up from the dirty streets, is like nothing I have experienced (not even in Vietnam or Thailand).

    With that said, Phnom Penh is an amazing place and I did enjoy the time that I spent there. It’s located where the Tongle Sap meets the Mekong River and every morning from sunrise til 8 am, you can see hundreds of people on the riverfront beginning their days with aerobics and yoga. There are hotels, guesthouses, and hostels all over the city for an array of prices. While I was there, the people seemed to be a little standoffish at first (city-like, I guess), but were really just as nice and friendly as everyone in Siem Reap.

    As should be expected, prices are a little bit higher in the capital city, but everything is still dirt- cheap. It’s the difference of paying $1.50 for a tuk-tuk, opposed to $1.
    Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Phnom Penh. After failing to be able to change my flight, I was forced to take a bus to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap the day before my flight left for Bangkok. This gave me from about 6 am until 4 pm (on the day of my departure) to see and do everything in the city that I wanted to.

    Ryan and I hired a tuk-tuk for $12 and he took us to the Killing Fields, S-21, and the shooting range (which altogether was quite a distance). Travel companies and hotels can book tours for you for a few extra bucks. If time or budget is limited, than I would recommend that while in Phnom Penh you HAVE to see the Killing Fields and S-21. I caution you that it is shocking, disturbing, and depressing, but I think that it’s informative and important to see what these people have been through. (*Note: I have been told that the Royal Palace, Russian market, and riverboat tours are worth seeing, but I didn’t get the chance to.)

    The Killing Fields were about 35 minutes outside of town. For a $2 entrance fee you’re allowed in and can see where the Khmer Rouge mercilessly massacred so many Cambodian people. For the history of what happened with the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, you can read more here. The audio tour was incredibly informative. It allows you to move at your own pace between the marked sites (including mass graves, execution areas, and a huge collection of human skulls), which were shocking. I even found a human tooth in the dirt, recently washed up to the surface by rain. After the tour (which takes about an hour), we bought some incense for the shrine and monument, and then checked out the museum near the exit. As hard as it is to stomach, I am really glad I got to see this. I learned a lot and have so much respect for what the Cambodian people have had to overcome.

    S-21 was not much easier to see. It’s a high school turned torture prison camp. This is where the Khmer Rouge would torture people. It causes the same distress as the Killing Fields, and after 20 minutes, we decided to leave.

    Our final stop of the day was of a brighter hue. On the opposite side of town our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the shooting range. Talk about kids in a candy store; they had everything! I had only shot a gun once in my life before, but I have to admit, the mere site of machine guns and RPG’s got me more than a little excited. Although we opted not to, the option was available to shoot a rocket launcher at a live cow (for $350)! Our budgets and morals didn’t allow for that so we opted to pay $130 US (total) to shoot 20 rounds out of an AK-47 and 50 rounds from a Russian machine gun on a tripod. Rambo would’ve been jealous. Firing these bad boys and blowing coconuts to smithereens was a pretty cool experience and the grand finale to the whole Phnom Penh escapade.

    I had a great time in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. While vacationing from Thailand, I’ve also been to Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, and Cambodia is my favorite. My only regret is not spending more time there. The food, the historical sites, the prices, and the people are all fantastic and I would recommend visiting to anyone that gets the chance.

    My recommendations for accommodation:

    Siem Reap:
    *Smiley’s Guesthouse… www.smileyguesthouse.com. This place was great. French colonial architecture and a giant courtyard make it feel more like a nice hotel than guesthouse. It’s family owned, there’s a restaurant, computers with free Internet, and the staff is insanely nice. Smiley’s is only a 10-15 minute walk or a $1 tuk-tuk ride to the night market and Pub Street. It’s $5/ night for a bed with private bathroom and a fan or $15 if you want air-con. *The Garden Inn… www.siemreapgardeninn.com. I didn’t stay here, but I talked to a lot of people that did. You can’t beat the $1/ night dorm beds if you’re on a budget.

    Phnom Penh:
    *The Mad Monkey Guesthouse… www.phnompenhhostels.com. This place is awesome. It opened in early 2011 and is run by four young Australian (I think) guys. It’s clean, the food is good, and the staff is great. There’s a sweet rooftop bar upstairs and you get a free Angkor draught beer with check-in. It’s also in a good location to other guesthouses and bars and is walking distance (or a $1 tuk-tuk ride) to the riverside. Prices start at $5/ night for a dorm bed.

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  • Koh Mook Travel Article by Blake Schlaich 2012

    Anyone visiting Thailand has to experience the hot spots.  You can’t come to Thailand and not experience the madness of Kao San Road or a Full Moon Party.  There are good reasons why places like Koh Phangan and Phuket are always flooded with tourists; they’re beautiful, they offer tours, activities and a booming nightlife, and they cater specifically to travelers.  But after living in Thailand for over a year now, I’ve grown to appreciate the lesser-trafficked locales.  Once in awhile, it’s nice to take a detour from the beaten path and visit a place that’s not yet littered with backpackers and covered by seedy bars and hotels.  It’s refreshing.

    The second week of December was [another] 3-day weekend.  A few fellow Super teachers and I headed out to a small island on the Andaman coast of Thailand called Koh Mook (or Ko Muk).  Koh Mook is in the Trang province of Thailand, south of Phuket.  For us, it was a few hours in a mini-bus to Trang town, another hour-long ride in a hired pickup truck to the pier, and then a short ferry cruise over to the island.  A bit of a trip, but so worth it.

    When we arrived it was raining, but it didn’t take away from the island’s natural splendor and magnetic charm. It is largely undeveloped accept for two villages, one on the east side of the island and one on the west. There are no more than a handful of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars. You can find few dive shops along the beach, and maybe two or three private resorts. There are only 2,000 inhabitants on the whole island, mostly fisherman and their families. Koh Mook is also home to the “Emerald Cave” and prides its waters as being one of the last sanctuaries for the Dugong (a relative to the manatee). Other than the income Koh Mook draws from tourism and fishing, the
    locals also profit from harvesting the thousands of rubber trees that cover the entire island. Being on a budget, we opted to stay at Mookie’s(http://mookiesbar.blogspot.com/p/welcome.html) Guesthouse. They’re known for having cheap accommodation and a friendly staff. Just off of an unpaved road in the middle of the jungle, it seemed like a nice,quiet place to make our headquarters for the weekend.

    We checked in with the owner, a nice European guy and his Thai wife put their newborn baby down to nap in a hammock while she got our lodging ready. While waiting, we sat at the small restaurant and bar, watched the rain, and tested Mookie’s claim of having the coldest beer on the island. There were vacant bungalows available but for a few baht less we decided to go with the “tents”. It being the rainy season, I originally wasn’t too keen on this. To my surprise, it ended up being much nicer than your typical campsite. Each tent was already set up for us and covered by a thatched roof. Inside there was a full bed, an electric fan, and a lamp. Not bad for $5 a night.

    The rain finally subsided and John, Janet, Brittany, and I walked a couple hundred yards down to the beach. The waters are some of the clearest I’ve ever seen and the sea is rich with fish, coral, and other marine life just off shore, making snorkeling easy. We swam in the ocean. We sat in the sand. We watched the sunset. The red sky and purple ocean stretched on forever like they were racing to a finish line at the horizon. A seafood dinner on an ocean-side cliff and a few tall beers sent us to bed. Nights like that remind me to be thankful.

    The next morning we packed a day bag and hired a boatto take us to various snorkeling spots and then to the island’s star attraction, Morakot Cave. The cave, also known as the Emerald Cave, is located just off the western shore. Its mouth is on the face of a seaside cliff and only accessible by water. Deep inside, the cave opens up into a secret white-sand lagoon enclosed on all sides by towering walls of limestone. It’s like being inside of a volcano. The only way in or out is by swimming in from the ocean and through the cave’s passageway. As the sun above shines down on the lagoon,the water becomes a radiant emerald-green giving the cave its nickname. What gives the cave even more charisma is that it was used as a hideout for pirates and as a place for them to stash their treasure. So in the spirit of true Goonies, we packed a day bag and set out on the seas. Our backpack carried only the bare necessities: two bags of potato chips, one bottle of water, a Santa hat, one pocketknife, one machete, and two bottles of rum. Because you can’t go on a pirate quest without rum. Or a machete.

    We snorkeled for a few hours at various spots. It rained the whole time but that didn’t matter underwater. Our boat guide made a brief stop for us at a deserted island where we each took pictures with the Santa hat for Christmas. Then, we swigged our rum and headed over to the pirate cave.

    The boatman stopped just outside of the cave’s entrance and we hopped in the deep green water. We swam inside and were enveloped by the pitch black. After swimming for about 30 meters in the darkness we saw a small light. We followed the light and it grew until we were inside the secret lagoon of the Emerald Cave. We hung out inside for a bit just taking it all in. The only other people there were two guys we’d met earlier that kayaked in. There was a real feel of secrecy and seclusion. We took some pictures. John and I had a pirate fight. Then it was time to swim back out into the world.

    We capped off the trip with a good night out at Chill Out bar. We were able to see the lunar eclipse in sky from where we laughed and drank on the beach just outside of the bar. Not a bad way to end another weekend just a short trip from Surat.

  • Traveling in Southern Thailand by Tristan Rentos 2009

    Let’s call a spade a spade here – we’ve all come to Thailand to do a bit of traveling (when we’re not doing our very best teaching English, that is). What’s the best way to go about this? In my two years of living here I’ve picked up more than a few tips, here’s what I’ve learnt.

    Note: If you are interested in train travel, have a read of Chris’s article - I’m sure it’s on the SE website in the travel section. I will be focusing on buses and boats.

    OK, firstly the basics. Surat has two main bus stations, they are called Talad Kaset 1 and 2. They are located on Talad Mai Rd, which is the road that Suratpittaya and Thidamaepra schools are on. Talad Kaset 1 is for local travel around Surat only, so you won’t be catching the bus from there. Talad Kaset
    2 is where to get the bus to the main tourist haunts, namely Krabi, Khanom, Khao Sok National Park, Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, *Phuket (more on Phuket later), Hat Yai etc. You have two choices – the public bus (big bus) or a minibus. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH – DO NOT TAKE A PUBLIC BUS UNLESS YOU HAVE TO! Public buses stop every 5 minutes to pick up or drop off a local, they are always dirty, overcrowded and the air con/ventilation system is always inadequate. Also, because they go through the towns they never take the most direct route! I have calculated that a public bus is almost always 2 hours behind a minibus. Yes, a minibus is around 100 – 350 baht more expensive but unless you have a car then this is the best option. When you do get in the minibus, sit in the seat next to the door as it has the most legroom. Yes, you will have to get out
    when a person gets off but it’s worth it, trust me.

    If you do get travel sickness, buy some Dimin tablets from 7/11. They are in a small blue packet, and cost 10 baht for two tablets. Only take one tablet 30 minutes before you travel, don’t take both unless you want to end up like Jessica on the boat to Samui. Tickets for minibuses can be bought at any of the tourist outlets at Talad Kaset 2, the more Thai you can speak the better because they have made more than a few mistakes on my tickets over the years (e.g. wrong time or date).

    Phuket deserves a paragraph of its own, because this place is another world compared to Surat. Firstly, never take the public bus to Phuket unless you have an iron stomach, because it goes over the mountains near Khao Sok and it gets a bit twisty in the corners. When you get there you will be swamped with offers from tourist touts. All I can say is do your research before you go because unless you have a Thai person with you these touts will try every trick in the book to rid you of your hard earned cash. Most prices in Thailand can be negotiated in half, even in Bangkok, but in Phuket these guys are steadfast and expensive. Even tuk tuk drivers will charge you a flat rate and stop at their cousin’s jewellery shop to ‘say hello’ and try to make a few baht commission along the way. If you
    want to make them go away, here’s what to say:

    - Pom/chan mai nak tong tiao ka/kap (I am not a tourist)
    - Pom/chan mai son jai ka/kap (I’m not interested/don’t care)
    - Mee rong raaam layo ka/kap (I already have a hotel)
    - Mai ow ka/kap (no thank you)

    If you go any stronger than the above then you are being very rude and I wouldn’t recommend it. Most tourist touts and tuk tuk drivers are honest people just trying to feed the family, but it’s the bad apples you have to worry about.

    Now, what about the islands? You have a few options here. The night boat goes to Koh Samui/Phangan/Tao, you can catch it from the pier opposite Milano’s Pizza. This is the cheapest option, but true to its name the night boat takes all night, so if you don’t like boats you will need a better option.

    In my opinion, the best option to get to Samui is on the Seatran Ferry. This is a huge boat that leaves from Don Sak pier, which is around one hour out of Surat. You can buy tickets from the PC Service Station, which is 2 doors down from Suratpittaya school. The ticket costs 230 baht and includes a bus ticket to Don Sak and the boat to Samui. When you get to Samui, you will land in Nathon. Walk to the end of the pier and catch a tuk tuk to wherever you want to go (probably Chaweng if you’re a bit of a tourist) – it should cost you around 60 baht. If you want to go on Phangan (where the full moon party is held) or Koh Tao then you can catch the Lomprayah Ferry from a pier near Big Budda on Samui, it’s easy to find.

    Final comment – if you want to escape the tourist touts and the crowds that come with them (as well as the ridiculous prices), go to these places: Khanom, Railay (in Krabi), Khao Sok National Park, Songkla, Koh Lanta Noi, PhangNa and Chumpon.

    Enjoy your holiday!