Category Archives: Preparation

Guide to island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand

Haad Khuad/Bottle Beach, Thailand

Islands hopped: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao

Duration: 2 weeks (May 2008)

Sawadee! (that means Hello! in Thai by the way)

Here is a guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  So why did I pick the islands in the Gulf of Thailand instead of  the more glamourous Koh Phi Phi or Phuket on the Andaman Islands side? Simply said, mother nature.  Depending on what time of the year you go, either the east or west side of southern Thailand will experience their monsoon season.  On the west coast (or the Andaman Islands), it often rains from April through to October.  On the east side where I visited, it rains mostly between September and December.

I didn’t have enough time to stay at different beaches on each island so I picked one beach on each island after doing some research in advance.  Do research which beaches to stay at depending on what type of experience you want.  Check out this site on a guide to Thailand’s beaches.  With the shear number of beaches and what each have to offer, you can spend weeks on the islands and have plenty of stories to tell your jealous friends back home!

Koh Samui – Chaweng Beach

  • Beach: I picked Chaweng Beach because it is the most developed beach on the Koh Samui and I wanted to be able to experience a mix of tourism and seclusion.  The beach was perfect – white sand and clear blue water.  There’s also enough shade from the palm trees to get away from the strong sun.
  • Accommodation: Jungle Club in Chaweng Beach.  I found this place online through sawadee.com and picked it because of it’s location away from the busy beaches of Chaweng.  Jungle Club is like a posh resort but at backpacker prices – the grounds are beautiful, well maintained and the staff are super friendly.  I stayed in the Jungle Hut which was very new and clean.  The restaurant opens out to a breathtaking mountain top view and there are plenty of places to chill (for example, in the gazebos perched on the edge of the mountain complete with plush pillows and lanterns or the sun chairs surrounding the infinity pool on the mountain edge!).  The staff are very friendly and welcoming and they definitely go out of their way to make you feel at home.  Travelfish.org and sawadee.com have lots of places to stay listed.  If you’re looking for more relaxation and peace/quiet, stay away from the main Beach Road area and out of Chaweng Beach where there is a definite party atmosphere.
  • Activities: beach and sun, do I have to say any more? Chaweng Beach is beautiful but more touristy than most beaches.  But then again, Koh Samui is more touristy than its neighbouring islands Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.  Beach Road, which is the main road that runs behind the beach, is especially busy with many tourist agencies, sunglasses stores, restaurants, bars/cafes and “Armani” suit shops.  Word of caution though: I doubt the store “Armane” which sells “Armani” suits is real.
  • Transportation: flew into Koh Samui from Penang, Malaysia via Firefly airlines.  A very convenient way to get to the islands from the mainland or from other islands is with Lomprayah High Speed Ferries.  This is the most popular company operating between the islands and the mainland.  They are very organized and a convenient way to go island hopping.  Since Jungle Club is perched on the top of a mountain, a 4×4 jeep is the only mode of transportation from the town below.  Within the town itself, it’s very easy to find songthaews, especially along Beach Road.  These go short and longer distances and are the cheapest way to get around (cheap as in less than $1).  If you don’t feel like finding/bargaining your own transportation, most accommodations can arrange transportation to and from the airport and the ferry dock (to get to other islands).
  • Food: Most resorts and places to stay have their own restaurants which have a variety of Thai and continental cuisine items on their menus (depending on the place) .  There are also multiple cafes along Beach Road which serve a mean mango shake.

Koh Phangan – Bottle Beach/Haad Khuad

  • Beach: I highly recommend staying at Bottle Beach for anyone visiting Koh Phangan or the Gulf of Thailand islands for that matter.  It is very secluded since it’s only accessible by long tail boat and has a sense of community since everyone knows each other. Walking down the beach, you’ll be greeted by name by locals and tourists alike.  As for the beach itself, the water is very shallow so good for wading around but be careful of the rocks.
  • Accommodation: Haad Khuad Resort (or more affectionately called Bottle Beach 3) in Bottle Beach.  There are 4 places to stay along the beach – three creatively called Bottle Beach 1, Bottle Beach 2 and..you guessed it…Bottle Beach 3 and are all owned by the same family.  The fourth place to stay is Smile Bungalows which is on the west end of the beach.  All are clean and have a range of accommodation from thatch huts that almost touch the water to larger 2 bedroom cottages further away from the beach.  I picked Haad Khuad Resort just because it was the newest one but walking around, they all seemed the same.
  • Activities: I’m a beach bum so of course, I just relaxed on the beach most days.  There’s also another nearby beach which you can hike to but be warned: make sure you stay on the path or else it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle (I did, which in hindsight is a funny story but at the time was pretty scary).  You should also have some cash on you because there’s a man who charges 20 Baht to cross through his land on the mountain which the path does.  At night in Bottle Beach, it’s a very different story! Each night, there is a poi fire show on the beach with dancers and drunk tourists who think they’re fire dancers.  You can also take part of the communal lighting of paper lanterns and drinking out of the communal plastic bucket of liquor (you do get your own straw though, we’re not savages here!).  And then there’s the Full Moon Party which Koh Phangan is famous for.  I’m not going to go into the details of what this is since I’ve heard and experienced too many crazy unbelievable stories to count so if you don’t know about it, just google it.
  • Transportation: The best way to get to Koh Phangan is via a high speed ferry.  Lomprayah (see Transportation section for Koh Samui above) is the most popular choice.  You can get around the island either by long tail boat, songthaews, taxis or by scooters (but be careful, the number of tourist deaths per year by scooter accidents is alarming).  It all depends on what your budget is and how adventurous you are!
  • Food: All four places to stay on Bottle Beach also have their own restaurant which serve delicious Thai food and ice cold drinks.  All the places are about the same in terms of quality of food so my suggestion is to try all 4 places.  Also, don’t forget to get an ice cold Singha while you’re lounging on the beach.

Koh Tao – Haad Sai Daeng

  • Beach: I picked Haad Sai Daeng after looking through Travelfish’s guide to accommodation.  It is less busy than most of the beaches in Koh Tao and the one thing that attracted me was their close proximity to Shark Island where you can scuba dive with reef sharks.  There are only 2 resorts in Haad Sai Daeng so it is very peaceful.
  • Accommodation: Coral View Resort.  The resort consists of multiple island huts and villas tucked in a little cove along the water.  I stayed in the Traditional Island Hut which was rustic and still very clean but not as spotless as the huts on the other islands.  If you have the cash and are sensitive to noises (especially from crickets and geckos), splurge for the villas.  The main positive was the dive center – Coral View Divers.  The dive instructors are all very friendly and the groups are small so it’s more personalized.  In fact, I was the only student with the Dive Master, Robert, who was super nice and patient since it was my first time scuba diving.
  • Activities: Diving, diving, diving! Koh Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to dive so if you have the chance, go diving! Most resorts have their own Dive Center who can arrange everything for you.  They offer a variety of courses and dives ranging from those who have never dived before to pro-star divers.  If you’re still uneasy going scuba diving, you can also see lots just by snorkeling.  Most resorts can either arrange a snorkel trip for you or rent out snorkel gear so you can swim around to your little hearts desire.
  • Transportation: Coral View was very helpful in arranging transportation for me after being herded off the Lomprayah ferry from Koh Phangan.  There was a driver waiting for me at the pier holding a sign with my name on it even though I never told them what time I would be arriving.  I can’t comment on getting around the island because I mostly stayed in Haad Sai Daeng and got around on foot.
  • Food: Delicious as usual.  The green curry at the restaurant inside my resort was amazing! And as always, accompanied by a mango shake.  The view from the restaurant also drew in tourists who weren’t even staying at the resort.  There are lots of places to eat around the pier in town which serve a variety of food if you’re all Pad Thai-ed out.

So there it is, a quick guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand! For more information, don’t forget to check out travelfish.org or look through the many travel guidebooks out there (my personal fav is Lonely Planet)!

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Questions to ask yourself while planning a backpacking trip

So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going.  But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy.  I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips  (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me.  However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.

 

  • Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book.  This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before.  Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country.  Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting.  For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively). 
    My 2 cents:
    I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s  etc.  Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).

 

 

  • Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life.  It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road.  Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city.  It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.

 

 

  • How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city.  If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking. 
    My 2 cents:
    Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc.  If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation).  It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights.  TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home.  Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.

 

 

  • What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa.  Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets).  Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).

 

 

  • What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets.  For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in.  Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions. 
    My 2 cents:
    Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling.  After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).

 

 

  • How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own.  It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through.  However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.

 

In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.

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How to safely travel without carrying around the drugstore

For many of us who take tylenol at the slightest hint of a headache, it may be hard to imagine traveling without the convenience of your neighbourhood drug store.  But when you’re running for a bus/train with a backpack weighing you down, you’ll be happy you were able to pare down your list to only the essentials.

The list below are some of the necessities for any backpacking trip but by no means is this list complete, so please consult your doctor.

  • Tylenol/Advil/whatever pain killer you fancy
  • Dukoral – traveler’s diarrhea vaccine, take in advance and keep in the fridge, get from doctor.
  • Hydrocortisone cream – good for mosquito bites and other random rashes, get over the counter.
  • Bandaids – can be used as tape too!
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Cipro(floxacin) – antibacterial for severe traveler’s diarrhea, get from doctor.  Never used it before but good to know it’s there.
  • Wet wipes/naps – clean wounds, dirty hands, bird poop (been pooped on by birds 7 times and counting so it does happen!)
  • Malaria pills – must-have if going to malaria affected regions.  Can get from doctor.
  • Over the counter antacid & anti-diarrhea – to avoid the dreaded ring of fire
  • Anti-nausea medicine  (Gravol) – good for bumpy bus rides, rough boat trips
  • Any other drugs you’re already taking (i.e. birth control pills, allergy medicine, etc)

To be on the safe side, do a bit of research before you leave to see how readily available medicine will be at the places you’ll be visiting.  For example, pharmacies in Thai cities can give you almost anything without a prescription.

In the end, stress causes most illnesses so as long as you stay relaxed and fully embrace the experience, a calm day in bed or at the beach with a good book will be all the medicine you need!

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Prepping for South East Asia

Sweating through SE Asia

Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Countries visited: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia

Duration: 2 months (May-June 2008)

Pros: very easy to backpack (good transportation network, wide range of accommodation available), safe for solo female travelers, super friendly locals and other tourists, comparatively clean (worse than Western Europe, better than India)

Cons: tout scams, geckos, mosquitoes/malaria

In our society of shortened attention spans, none of us can read through a paragraph anymore so here’s a list of how to prep for a trip to South East Asia (can be applied to most other trips too):

  1. Google map the region, you need to know how it looks like and how long it’ll take you. However long you think it will take to travel from place to place, double it so to avoid being rushed.
  2. Get a travel book. My bible is Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring. It is THE first ever “on a Shoestring” book. Tab/highlight places you want to see. Tip: if you don’t need the entire book, photocopy the pages you need and throw them away as you travel to save space.
  3. Visit travelfish.org. Print out the free guides for a list of accommodation.
  4. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site for list of World Heritage places to visit. The map helps narrow down the sites depending on what area you’ll be passing through.
  5. Get a student card if you’re still a student (or “borrow” one if you’re not but still look youngish). There are sometimes discounts for park entrance fees, transportation etc.
  6. Visit the doctor for vaccinations and travel medicine. Malaria medicine is required for parts of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I took Malarone which was more expensive but with less side effects. Ask for Dukoral which is a preventive diarrhea medicine. Yes, no one likes to talk about this “collateral damage” of traveling but it will happen so you might as well be prepared. For more information, see post on travel medicine necessities.
  7. Book your flight. I usually get an open-jaw ticket for the long haul flight only. Domestic and flights within the region can be booked while you’re traveling. For Canadians, visit TravelCuts for super friendly service.
  8. Get travel insurance if not already covered. Again for Canadians, I found TravelCuts (through RBC) had the cheapest insurance compared to the other banks and travel agencies.

You can choose to follow/not follow this list but if you’ve at least thought about the items above, you’re already on your way to an amazing trip!

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Mumbai: concrete jungle where Bollywood dreams are made of

Gateway of India, Mumbai, India

We finally made it to the big city and halfway through our travels without killing each other let alone argue besides the friendly bet here and there on “what time is it?” or “where is the Big Dipper?” So for those who bet that we’d be giving each other the silent treatment by now, sorry to disappoint you.

So where to begin, we left idyllic Goa 3 days ago for the crazy cosmopolitan city better known as Mumbai.  After our uncomfortable (well a least for Mike) train ride, we decided to treat ourselves with a luxury overnight AC sleeper bus.  Boy were we in for a surprise! When we first boarded, we couldn’t stop laughing! Each compartment has 2 beds but each bed is probably only a foot and a half wide and 5’3″‘ in length, side by side with no separation.  Again, for me it was fine (other than the AC water dripping on my arm) but for Mike, it was another story! He spent the night sleeping on his side and trying not to fall out of the upper level compartment where the only barrier between him and the floor 4ft below was a curtain.  On the bright side, imagine we weren’t travelling together and had to sleep like that with a stranger! Also, there was no bathroom on the bus so thankfully we made a pit stop since I was starting to seriously eye the Whiz Easy (thanks Tina and Tom!)

After a restless night, we finally made it to Mumbai and when we arrived, I knew we were now in a different India than we had experienced before. Mumbai is quite unique in that it’s such a modern and progressive city but still with an old world feel.  We noticed immediately that more people were speaking English, adopting western fashion, and embracing pop culture.  We   walked from the bus stop to our hotel 20 minutes away and in that time frame, we learned the art of crossing Mumbai roads.  There are roundabouts everywhere, some without stop lights and for us North Americans with stop lights and signs at every turn, it took some time to figure out that cars would generally slow down for you but still honk in annoyance.  It honestly felt like we were in a game of Frogger! Also, the streets don’t follow a grid and twist/turn through roundabouts so we often thought we were following one street only to realize 10 minutes later that we were on another street going in a completely different direction!

We’re staying at a lovely budget hotel in the  Churchgate area called Chateau Windsor Hotel – sounds classy right? It’s very clean, quiet and a full breakfast (eggs, toast, banana and tea) is only 60 rupees or $1.50! The location is perfect for walking to see the sights without being surrounded by tourists.

For the last 2 days, we’ve taken it easy and slept in since it’s way too hot and humid to go outside before 2pm.  When we do finally leave the comfort of our AC room, we’ve just been strolling around (while mastering jay walking in Mumbai streets – just follow the crowd!),  exploring all the sights in Churchgate, Fort and Colaba.  Some of the buildings like the High Court, University of Mumbai and Elphinstone College are such beautiful Gothic buildings with intricately carved pillars.  We also walked to the water to see the Gateway of India (think Arc de Triomphe but by the water) and the infamous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.  The funny thing is that they have metal detectors at the entrance for the Gateway but they’re not on so they never go off.  I guess the sense of security is what some people need.  We were considering going  into the Taj but considering that I was wearing a tank top and parachute pants and Mike was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, we didn’t want to pull a Homer Simpson and walk up only to casually turn around and walk away (Stonecutters episode for those who don’t remember).

We’ve also been doing some shopping here since we both brought the wrong clothes to India.  I found a fabulous store called Fabindia on Mahatma Gandhi Road (I swear every city in India has a Mahatma Gandhi or MG Road) which sells hand printed/dyed clothes that won’t look weird if worn back in Toronto.  In addition to traditional saris and kurtas, they also have a wide selection of tunics, dresses and scarves and all at a very reasonable price (bought a beautiful scarf for $10!).  So for those who want to know what clothes to pack for a trip where the temperature goes from cool to boiling hot (i.e. Asia, Africa and Europe in summer), here’s a general list of essentials (mostly for girls):

  1. 1 pair of shorts
  2. 1 pair of long cargo pants that can be folded up to capris or shorts
  3. 1 pair of flowy pants (fisherman/parachute/linen), two pairs if you’re going to a more reserved/religious region where you need to cover up (the second pair can double as PJs)
  4. 1 zip up hoodie
  5. 1 thin long sleeved shirt
  6. 1 or 2 t-shirts
  7. 1 or 2 tank tops (again, the second one can be worn for PJs)
  8. underwear to last a week
  9. 2 pairs of socks
  10. a sun dress for girls or a light collared shirt for guys (you never know when you need to dress it up!)
  11. running shoes
  12. flip flops
  13. a scarf (or you can just buy one)

These are just suggestions so tailor your packing list depending on where you’re going but whether you’re going for 2 weeks or 2 years, this is basically all you’ll need – until you get bored and buy/throw/give away some clothes.  What did your packing list look like? (feel free to post in comments section)

The food in Mumbai is not as good as we’ve been eating everywhere in India but it might just be that everything is more expensive and my unemployed budget can’t afford better places.  However, there are a couple of standout meals like the Chicken Tikka Masala Pizza at Pizza by the Bay (plus the view of the harbour is so refreshing) and a home cooked meal by Mike’s Uncle Raj and Aunt Geeta.  They were gracious enough to invite us over for dinner at their place in Nariman Point.  They must have thought that we were starving vagrants because we shovelled down soo much food – it was just so tasty and such a change to have home cooked food again.

I should mention that there are a lot of homeless people and slums in Mumbai.  We’ve seen whole families living on the sidewalk in a makeshift shelter cooking food on an open fire while the children do cartwheels for money from passerbys.  It’s very strange to see because Mumbai is probably one of the richest places we’ve been to so far and to see this level of poverty is quite sad.

Tomorrow, we’re taking off for Varanasi – we chickened out on the 30+ hour train ride and bought plane tickets.  I must say that Mumbai is such an interesting city that definitely requires more time to fully explore and embrace its unique way of life so I’m definitely going to be back!

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