Southern Thailand...or bust!

Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan, Thailand

Flag of Thailand  ,
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ah Thailand...the land where our rose colored lenses that we were viewing the world through were smashed, crushed, mangled and pulverized... the land where our dreams of utopian world travel went rolling down the highway at 100 kilometers per hour with the rest of our backpacks.

So needless to say, our introduction to Thailand was impressively bad.  Our travel plan was to get from the island of Langkawi (on the west coast of Northern Malaysia) to the island of Koh Phangan (on the east coast of Southern Thailand).  Our itinerary went something like this - (each part with a quick summary of our experience): 
1) mini van from hotel to ferry   (confusion)
2) ferry from Langkawi Malaysia to Satun Thailand (inappropriate entertainment, and seats made for little people)
3) Immigration from Malaysia to Thailand (wrong information)
4) car from port to bus terminal  (more confusion)
5) mini van to Hat Yai (cramped, hot as hell)
6) wait in Hat Yai mini-van terminal (hurry up and wait)
7) mini van to Surat Thani Thailand  (darker deeper hotter scarier hell)
8) walk to ferry  (scam artist with a smile)
9) overnight slow ferry to Koh Phangan (crowded smelly slow painful hell)
10) pick up truck to hotel (thank god he showed up)

We traveled on October 31st... Halloween back in the United States.  As our travel debacle got more and more ridiculous, I couldn't help but think that this was all a BIG TRICK with NO TREAT in sight.

So after a confusing start due to the typical traveler's language barrier issues, we embarked upon an "entertaining" ferry ride from Langkawi Malaysia to Satun Thailand. For our viewing pleasure, the featured presentation shown in the middle of the day with families on board contained mostly scenes where women were abducted/drugged/forced into prostitution/raped repeatedly by their father/later murdering their father.  (This would be an appropriate moment to mention that kissing is considered to be too scandalous to be shown on Malaysian television due to immorality issues!)  In addition to our mental discomfort, was our physical discomfort.  The ferry seating lacked adequate distance between rows of seats for anyone with remotely average sized legs...we could not actually sit in the seat unless we moved our knees at an angle to consume our neighbors' leg space. 

After we arrived at the port, we went through immigration, and that's where we were hit with the news.  Rather than receiving the 30 day visa-on-arrival at the Malaysian-Thai border that we expected, we could only receive a 14 day visa-on-arrival (our official information was obtained from supposedly "reliable" sources).  Crap!  We would have to do some creative thinking....we now saw a "visa run" looming in our future, which meant in less than 14 days we had to cross into neighboring country and and then return to Thailand to receive another 14 day visa so we could LEGALLY stay in the country until our plane left Bangkok for Japan 30 days later.  Our other less attractive option was to stay in Thailand and overextend our visas by two weeks and pay $600 or so in fines, which just might piss off the immigration official enough that he blacklists us from ever returning to Thailand again.  We decided we had to solve our visa crisis at a later time, and pushed on through our next round of confusing language barrier issues to locate our correct transport to the van terminal. 

We boarded our first mini van from hell which consisted of 13 travelers in an 11 passenger van +  all the backpacks + weak A/C.  This equated to three long hot hours of travel to get only halfway across the Thai peninsula to Hat Yai.   When we finally arrived in Hat Yai we found ourselves in a tiny waiting room where we witnessed a high turnover of travelers, but yet the staff could not tell us exactly when OUR transportation would depart from this location. So we made the best of what turned into 90 minutes, scoring some food next door. 

Then the real hell began as we boarded another min-van for a 4 hour journey on to Surat Thani. Not surprisingly, soon after we started rolling down the highway, our
second overstuffed mini-van exploded at the seams and the back door went
flying open, releasing all of our backpacks to go rolling down the
highway behind us.  We screamed for the driver to stop, and a couple of
us went running down the highway to retrieve our backpacks. 
Incredibly, when we returned with our items (sans the help of our
lovely driver), he was actually mad with us, snapping at us in broken
English, trying to just jam the backpacks back in. At that point, Keith
who was trying to help him strategically repack the backpacks, had to
yell back.  Whether or not our driver understood the EXACT translation
of what Keith was saying we will never know, but the tone in Keith's
voice made it clear-  "A#$%&*!!?!!"  (If our mini-van had one of those bumper stickers that ask you to report a driver, I would have used it!)  Then things somehow took a turn for the worse...a couple of hours later our driver got out of the mini-van, and a new driver took over.  After our first driver's performance you would think this would be a change in the right direction.  But in a NUT shell, the second driver  of this mini-van was definitely CRAZY.  And it wasn't just the crazy look in his eyes, or crazy mean face that earned him the CrAzY title.   As we slowly approached our destination, he stopped the van multiple times to jump out and 1) have multiple cigarette breaks 2) urinate on the side of the road  3) order food  4) get a drink  5) gamble  6) converse with friends, strangers, space aliens... and let's not forget the one that clinched his "CRAZY" title --> 6) converse with himself.  He actually argued with himself a couple of times and won the argument.  When we finally got to Surat Thani, we were all clawing our way out of that van with our tread-marked backpacks.

Thankfully, we were greeted at the van depot with a welcome sight- the receptionist's smile appeared warm, and well...normal.  We breathed a sigh of relief that this stop was promising to be better.   She prepared our tickets for the overnight ferry to Koh Phangan, and said that when her office closed at 9:00pm one of her staff members would walk with us to the ferry terminal to point us to the correct 11:00 pm ferry.  Lastly, since it was an overnight ferry, we would need to "upgrade" if we wanted a bed instead of a seat for an extra 200 Baht each ($6 American) in addition to the ticket that we had already purchased at the travel agency in Malaysia.  Keith and I quickly decided that we wanted to arrive to Koh Phangan with enough rest to enjoy our day, and for just $6 each a bed sounded like a worthy investment.  When the office closed at 9pm we were dropped off at the port.  When we got to the ferry entrance, we were assigned a bed number, AS WELL AS the backpacker in our group who decided to NOT go for the "upgrade" to a bed.  Hmmm, interesting.  Of course, once we boarded we quickly realized that there was no such thing as an "upgrade".  The only thing you could get was a bed since there were no seats to be found on this overnight ferry.  Realizing that we had just been scammed (yes I know- it is "only" $6- but it is the PRINCIPLE), the boys ran back to the office to recover our unnecessary "upgrade" payment.  But of course by now the office was locked up and the staff was long gone.  And finally, the overnight ferry proved to be an adventure in its own right.  The ferry appeared to me like what I imagine might have originally been a cargo ship, modified to an overnight ferry by placing sheets of plywood in the middle, and numbers painted a slim 12" apart to represent each person's "bed" space.   And no comment on the bathroom amenities.  The ferry was packed tight with sweaty travelers and their backpacks and locals.  Exhausted from the day, we both actually fell asleep for most of the boat ride. 

When we arrived at the port, we were SO HAPPY to see that our guesthouse's transport was actually there to pick us up.  I had emailed the guesthouse multiple times, each time with a new "corrected" pick-up time... every time we asked a travel rep along the way as to exactly what time our ferry would arrive in Koh Phangan we got a different answer.  **Side Note**:  For the record, when we purchased this entire trip from a travel agency in Langkawi (as did all the other backpackers on this journey), we did so because several sources indicated that using a mini-van rather than train for this particular itinerary was the better, faster method of transportation, but we quickly learned that this was not the case. 

********************** travel rant is over!  Thanks for sticking with me through all that...*******************************************
After ALL that, boy was it worth it!  Koh Phangan was beautiful!  The place where we stayed (Sabai Beach) was a big splurge on our part...since we were splitting the room with our friends Fabian and Julia, it worked out to be $30 a night for us.  (Most of the places we have stayed are $10-$15 a night.) But it was worth it for a little spoil session as this place had hot running water, A/C, was incredibly clean, brand new, located on a blue-green water, fine sand beach with a grove of trees offering shade on the beach, and my favorite - breakfast included, that was seriously the best breakfast I have had in a month and a half (I've never been so excited about muesli with fruit and yogurt in all my life).  The first day we were on Koh Phangan we felt like we were in heaven.   The next day our friends Fabian and Julia arrived at the guesthouse...sharing their tragic tale of an EVEN WORSE experience than ours!!!  We couldn't believe it!  Hearing their sad story made me realize that we really didn't have it that bad after all.

Putting our travel tragedies behind us, Fabian, Keith and I rented mopeds to tour Koh Phangan to check out the northern beaches.  Since that night was going to be the full moon, the high tide engulfed the beaches, not leaving too much room to lounge on the beach. Plus the surf was too rough for us to snorkel and see anything decent, so we opted to just explore.  Our favorite discovery was when we stumbled upon a resort name that made us laugh, it was bearing our new favorite traveling mantra that we picked up from Fabian:  "Why Not".   We also saw the Kuan Yin Shrine, a colorful Chinese Buddhist temple located on a hill top in Chaloklum Village overlooking the island.   Several years ago, a woman from Bangkok had a dream where the Chinese godess Kuan Yin told her to build a lighthouse for the fisherman of Koh Phangan.  The lady then told a monk about her dream, who then helped spread the message of her dream to all around.  So many donations flooded in as a result, that they were able to build the great Kuan Yin Shrine.  It was breathtaking to see.

After a great day, we were ready for a great night...that night was the legendary Full Moon Party. This event takes place every full moon on the beaches of Haad Rin on the southern side of Koh Phangan.  There is music, dancing, "buckets" to drink, and my favorite, poi spinners.  I went prepared to the party, with my glow poi ready to spin.  Fab, Julia, Keith and I had a great time that night...walking the beach, taking in the sights, dancing, and spinning poi. The boys discovered an adult sized slide that launched them onto a pile of mattresses.  We met people from all around the world who had made the pilgrimage for full moon party.  We coincidentally ran into a friend we had made at Ashram Gandhi in Indonesia.  Throughout the night, we were drizzled on a few times, but that didn't dampen the festivities.  This strip of beach has built out large areas that were sheltered from the rain in case the weather didn't cooperate. 

For the next couple of days, it got a little "monsoony" as the rain would not let up.  But this didn't deter us from checking out our first Muai Thai Boxing match.  Muai Thai Boxing is like traditional American Boxing, but add in some flying fancy footwork and karate-style kicks.  I remember watching a TV special on kids training to become Muai Thai Boxers and how they would kick tree trunks to toughen their shins.  We got to the fights early, scoring our ringside *second* row seats.  Personally, I was hoping people would occupy the first row seats and serve as our splash guard if things got really rough.   Once the matches started, I have to admit that I found it challenging to watch the fights without flinching.  A few of the first matches ended early, with a couple of quick and painful looking knock-outs.  But Keith's inner Boxer was in all his glory.  Having Keith next to us ringside was by far the best seating for Fab, Julia, and I as Keith's trained eye was able to point out technical things that we were unaware of.  This match got Keith really fired up to find a Muai Thai facility to train in while we were in southern Thailand.

Off the southeast coast of Thailand is a cluster of islands, three of them well known to backpackers:  Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui.  Fabian and Julia caught a boat next day to Koh Samui, where Keith and I would be meeting up with them in several days.  But first, we wanted to check out Koh Tao so we decided to part ways for a little while and catch our own boat to Koh Tao.  Here's a little advice for the weak of stomach- do NOT go on a boat from Koh Phangan to Koh Tao right after a full moon and several days of storms.  When our boat hit the open sea, conditions got scary.  You know things are not good when people are sobbing, one girl had a freak-out "we are going to die out here on this ocean", and the crew starts handing out life jackets and vomit bags, and *literally* every other person around you is vomiting.  The sights, smells, and sounds made for almost two hours of hell.  I told Keith that they are going to have to helicopter my dead body off of Koh Tao island if we are ever leaving Thailand.  I had never actually seen a person use a vomit bag before, and now I was surrounded by dozens of people with their faces buried in a bag.  My saving grace was that I had taken some anti-nausea medication...which unfortunately put me to sleep for the rest of the day. 

So our Koh Tao experience can be summarized in one word:  RAIN.  We were somewhat bummed because it limited our ability to experience the beautiful beaches on this island.  But we did put on our rain gear and venture out to check out the surrounding town on foot.  It is a cute funky little beach town that we enjoyed exploring despite the weather.  One day, an advertisement was handed to us promoting the Koh Tao "Queen" stage show taking place that evening.   Later at the performance, we were stunned as we watched at the famous "girly boys" of Thailand... these men could have easily put Miss America to shame as they all appeared to be serious contenders for some upcoming beauty pageant.    I felt like I needed to immediately run home and spruce up by throwing on some fake eyelashes and size 10 spiked high heels.  Not only did they look like living breathing barbie dolls but they could do incredible dance routines in those stilettos!  I was taking notes.

Courtesy of the relentless rain, Keith and I got a little bored.  As Keith's chin hair grew longer, I kept joking with him that our travel adventure was an opportunity to go funky and sport a mohawk to match his wacky beard.  Finally, Keith conceded and said Why Not?  With our electric clippers in one hand, and my fingers crossed on my other hand, I started to buzz up the sides of his hair.  It was getting funkier and funkier with each razor passing,  Keith's mohawk-in-the-making clearly demonstrating that things sometimes must look much (much) worse before they begin to look like a good kind of funky.  And that's when it happened.  The razor died.  Permanently.  Looking at Keith, I realized I made a good career choice by not becoming a barber.  Keith set out a couple of minutes later to find someone to smooth out the rough spots.  I stayed behind, happy to do some blogging.  A couple of hours later, Keith had still not returned and I started to get worried.  Normally, Keith's haircuts are really quick. I figured the mohawk might be a little more labor intensive that a standard buzz cut, but I had already done half the work.  Just as I was about to start looking in some Koh Tao gutters for my husband, he returned... Looking like a rockstar.  I was stunned...not only did the barber give him a bad ass mohawk, he had dyed his mohawk BLONDE!!! ...  WHY NOT is right!

So my rockstar husband and I decided to escape from the rain in Koh Tao and take the quickest speed boat we could find to Koh Samui on the next fair weather, *calm* water day.  I took my last anti-nausea medicine anticipating the worst.  Mercifully, the boat ride turned out to be not that bad.   We hopped over to where Fab and Julia were staying on the southeast beaches.  We joined them at the Seabreeze, a little budget (backpackers) guesthouse on the beach, who's owner also ran a fancy pants hotel right across the street- with a swimming pool we had all been granted access to.  I was sold.   Fab and Julie liked Keith's haircut homage to the traveling mantra of "why not'.  Keith found his Muai Thai training facility and joined them for his first training session.  Keith came home grinning from ear to ear.  It was a challenging workout, he even got some sparring in with a couple of Muai Thai fighters.  Although he did feel a little concerned that he might not be able to move for the next couple of days because it had been a couple of months since he last boxed.  The next day in an effort to stave off what athletes know as "delayed onset soreness",  he opted get a Thai massage.  Thai massage is more active than a regular Swedish massage, in that the therapist engages you in stretching, and moves you around to improve circulation and mobility.  On Koh Samui, most places have massage decks located right on the beach offering one hour sessions for a bargain 200 baht ($6 American).  

One day Keith, Fab, Julia, another traveler Catherine, and I rented a car and driver for the day to check out the island ($9 each for the entire day!).  It was Fab and Julia's last day before they returned to Switzerland, and Julia really wanted to do an elephant ride before they departed.  I've never been on a horse, and so I have no basis for comparison, but the elephant ride was tranquil as he slowly lumbered along down to a river and then back, flapping his ears and swinging his trunk along the way.  I was surprised at how tough the elephant's skin was, and that his head and neck were covered with bristly stiff black hairs.  At one point our elephant trainer hopped off our pachyderm express and invited Keith to sit on the elephant's front shoulders.   After Keith's elephant driving school experience, we made our way to a scenic waterfall.  Next stop on the island was a place that had a crocodile show, bird show, and scorpion & snake show.  The crocodile show was a bit of a nail bitter as the crazy Thai animal trainers would repeatedly place objects past the croc's jaws all the way into the croc's throat and then retrieve them, with a grand finale of one performer placing his head all the way into the croc's mouth.  The bird show was entertaining as they all did some cute tricks, and Keith's blond mohawk and unique goatee made him an easy target as he was selected to be part of a skit where the bird magically knew which cup a ball was hidden under.  The scorpion & snake show opening act was freaky since the performer walked out with her entire body covered in live scorpions, and then several minutes later opened her mouth to reveal one more live scorpion hanging out inside.  (That'd be one great way to freak out your date one night!).  As we made our way out towards the exit we were hit with a harsh reality check, and we were all immediately upset that we had spent our traveler's dollars on an admission ticket to financially support this particular business.  We saw several tigers locked up in cages that were sooo tiny that there was no way that they could even stand up inside.   Their quality of life was not looking so good.  I suspect that Thailand's animal rights activists do not have a large lobbying power like they do elsewhere.  After we went to the Golden Temple, located on the beach front.  Later that night, Keith and I went on to see the Big Buddha of Koh Samui. It was beautiful and colorful and well...big! 

We spent our last day in southern Thailand just taking in the beauty of the beach, and Keith had one more training session of Muai Thai boxing.  Interestingly enough, he saw one of the Muai Thai boxers training there that had been one of the first guys knocked out in the fights we saw in Koh Phangan.  (Keith decided to keep it to himself that he had attended those matches and witnessed his quick defeat.)

Keith and I decided to make our "visa run" by spending a week in Cambodia, since we couldn't legally stay in Thailand until our departing flight to Japan at the end of the month.  We had heard so many great things about Cambodia from other travelers along the way that it was an easy decision to go there.  After our challenging journey from Malaysia to Thailand, we decided to cut out the joys of land and water travel for this particular leg of our trip, and fly to Cambodia.   Our flight from Koh Samui, connecting through Bangkok, and onto Phomn Penh Cambodia left at 6:00 am, so I set our alarm clock for 3:00 am.  THANK GOD Keith gave our pre-arranged taxi driver our room number.  I did a slick move with the alarm clock that I haven't done since my college years...I set the time, but then self-sabotaged those efforts by forgetting to actually turn the alarm on.  (Impressively smart move, I know!)  So at 4:00 am we were woken up to loud banging on our door...we jumped out of bed like it was on fire, shoved our stuff into our backpacks in record time, and ran out the door for our next adventure.
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Estrella on

Hey guys, great photos and great stories! We are back home, it was a bit hard leaving Thailand, we wanted to stay longer but could't reschedule our return,
We took a week traveling by road on our way home. Went through a few small towns, quiet, cold, very cold but were prepared for it.
Tomorrow we take off again (last days off), for a week to Monterrey, where my brother lives. There is a national park called Cumbres de Monterrey, lots to see. Hope to hear from you again.
Take care and enjoy!!!!

aundrea on

i'm pretty sure i saw you play with linkin park, keith!! but maybe not- not enough tattoos. maybe that will ome. one tends to change one's perpective when you're backpacking!;-)
the full moon party looks a little posher since i was there, but i bet you had as much fun!
thailand is so beautiful- i wish i could go back and do some real meditation in one of those temples....

Gary Mantalas on

Hey Guys,

Sounds like a great adventure! Wow you guys are so brave! My favorite place in Thailand was Koh Samui. I had a wonderful week there on the beach at a nice resort. But I just flew in by air without all the travel excitement . Also have some pics at the Big Buddha.

Betty Marchand on

Great write up I feel like I am there. What an adventure I am so jealous. This will be your stories for the rest of you life. You children and grandchildren will get tired of hearing the same story but Keith it beats the one about visiting the Vineland (Alphonse's story) lol. Just to let you know I am thinking of you and wishing you a very Merry Christmas and more adventue in the New Year. Love auntie Betty

Terry on

Dear Both

Candidasa must seem like a Sunday School outing - but you survived to send out -of-this-world photos ! (by the way i'm intrigued to know who was the CD person you met up with?)

Mathew on

Amazing pics! Your friend Jules is truly brave (or crazy!)! Thanks for the posts

Vince Falcone on

Seriously feel like I'm there...great write ups looking forward to the next ones...K-man how are your shins from the Thai boxers!? Nice "do" btw hee hee




cristin on

yey! so happy for you guys! cant wait to talk to you more about Thailand. thinkin of goin' i am! xoxo

Mom Judy on

I am so happy for both of you. You are having a great adventure and although it is in my nature to worry some (as you know son) I really am excited that you are having such a wonderful time. I love you both and will miss you this Holiday Season but I know you are together and happy and really that is all that counts in life. Living with Earl has been a wonderful experience so far and I do not see that changing in the future. We are having fun too and will have a great holiday. Love you bunches, just keep safe. Mom & Earl

Val on

So fun to read about all of your adventures! Keep 'em coming! Rad haircut, Keith!

djordi on


Nice work putting it all together! I's almost a book!

Beautifull photo's and crazy adventures.

Hahaha you guys rrrrrrock!!

Hope to see you in Sydney...

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