The journey south to Ko Samui was long and bizarre. We took an overnight train from Bangkok, and the train staff were silly and weird and made the night fun and confusing. After 16 hours of travel on all of the possible vehicles (including train, bus, ferry, and van) we arrived at our bungalow in Lamai Beach on Ko Samui, and hit the hay after a delicious Thai lunch because train sleep just wasn’t cutting it.
Ko Samui is kind of a strange place in that it doesn’t feel uniquely Asian or Thai. It was painfully touristy, and interestingly enough geared entirely towards Europeans. The restaurants were expensive, the beaches were lined in fancy resorts, and it had a distinctly trashy feel that was all too familiar after having lived in Myrtle Beach for four years during college. Make no mistakes, the island was incredibly beautiful. Mountainous jungle covered the center, and the sea was spotted with other distant green mountains in every direction. The sunsets were magical and the air smelled like vacation, but it could’ve been any tourist trap town, anywhere in the world.
We couldn’t help but giggle when we ventured out for dinner that evening and saw the open air strip bars and “happy” massage parlors. Thailand is well known for its widespread prostitution and it was out in the open on this island. Lonely men flock here in troves, and we saw them all around. Around six o’clock driving through the streets, many bars played host to small groups of women getting ready for the night with hair and makeup. Once the sun goes down, the music comes on, and they dance on poles in the middle of the bar… but without any gusto. It sort of made the whole thing feel sad, because the women didn’t seem like they wanted to be dancing at all in most cases. It’s hard to know how to feel about all this, because I’m not sure who’s being manipulated or if anyone is at all. What was more confusing was the number of families we saw vacationing on Ko Samui; the streets were crawling with children, more than any other place we’d been in ASEAN, and I couldn’t help but think: why here?
The following morning we rented a motorbike and set out to explore. We made our way to the grandfather and grandmother rocks, called so because they look like male and female parts. Thailand seems to have a bit of an obsession with sexuality and fertility, and it’s an important part of their culture. Despite their silly shape, the rock outcropping on the beach afforded gorgeous views, so we ate lunch at the bar settled right on the rocks. The Rock Bar was built more like a tree house then a building, with various levels of decks housing cozy tables and pillows on the ground. A lot of the bars are like this, and it’s quite comfortable. After some Pad Thai and fried rice, we got back on the bike to visit the jungle.
Along the way we stopped at the shrine of the mummified monk at the temple Wat Khunaram. The body of Loung Pordaeng has supposedly been preserved there since his death nearly 40 years ago, without major decomposition. I’m not entirely sure how this is possible, but it was creepy to see. His body is kept in a glass casket and worshipped by Thai people, many of whom view death as a chance to be reborn into a better life. Apparently his hair and fingernails still have to trimmed every year. Yuck.
After the monk we made our way to see a few of the many waterfalls in the jungle, but found our way to most of them blocked by fees, tours, and ticket prices. The waterfalls on Samui have, of course, been turned into tourist attractions. You can ride an elephant to go see one, or take an off road safari, but you certainly cannot drive. We visited a few of the off duty elephants, and they seemed pretty silly and happy, although it was hard to tell. We spent a good chunk of time then just staring at the beauty of the one waterfall that’s free to access before heading farther into the mountains.
Our next stop was the secret buddha garden, Tarnim Magic Garden. This bizarre little place is a grouping of statues created by a retired farmer many years ago in celebration of Thai buddhism. It had a distinctly fantastical feel, as if we stepped for a minute into fairyland. There were many small moss covered statues in the shapes of people and various animals surrounding a small stream with waterfalls. It was quiet and peaceful and strange, but fun to see. By the time we left the garden sunset was rolling in, so it was time to get out of the mountains which were scary enough to drive in the daytime.
We rode over to Chaweng beach, the louder and more touristy city on Ko Samui, and found an even seedier version of Lamai. While the strip bars were spread out and relatively nice in Lamai, we encountered an entire long street of sleazy establishments in Chaweng. As the sun was still up, there weren’t many tourists there, and we got a lot of strange looks from the groups of Thai women getting made up for the evening. It didn’t feel like a particularly safe or clean part of town, so we got dinner at 7/11 and spent the night in.
The following day we went to explore the other side of the island. We visited some temples with giant statues of Buddha, all of which were pretty awe-inspiring, ate at a local food market with many cheap and delectable street foods, and cruised around the island soaking in the sights. We also visited a spa and stuck our feet in one of those tanks with the fish that eat your dead skin. It tickled like you wouldn’t believe, and Keenen could barely sit still.
Our final day in Ko Samui was miserably rainy, and we were feeling done with the island anyways. During one of our meals we met a German man who had been vacationing to Ko Samui for 26 years! He said he’s watched the place change from a relatively untouched paradise, with friendly locals and cheap prices to the tourist trap it is today, devoid of culture and designed to please white Europeans. We stayed in all day and rested, binge watching Netflix. The next morning we boarded a ferry headed to Samui’s neighboring island, Ko Phangan.
Ko Phangan was much less developed than Samui, which meant it was cheaper and slightly less touristy. Where Samui caters to families and resort tourists, Phangan is dedicated completely to the young, partying backpacker. Every night there is a different organized party (waterfall, jungle, beach) but we came for the most infamous: the Full Moon Party. Every month at the full moon Haad Rin beach hosts the largest beach party I’ve ever seen, complete with body painting, fire dancers, Djs, and endless debauchery. This party in particular is famous mostly because of the insane things that have happened there, namely fireworks hitting people and bars going up in flames. Or those may just be rumors, who knows? But we decided we had to see it.
We arrived the day beforehand to settle in at Secret Hut Bungalow, which was perched on a cliffside and, despite the climb to get to the room, offered the most beautiful view of the sea. Our first night was a relaxed one. We spent the evening at Amstardam Bar, which had shockingly good food, great music, and a beautiful view of the sunset. We enjoyed good conversation and relaxed vibes.
The following day we set out to various markets around town looking for some clothes to wear to the party. We knew there was going to be paint, sand, and booze all around and we didn’t want to trash any of the clothes we brought with us. It turned out to be a frustrating trip, but in the end we found appropriate, flourescent, tacky party gear. As the hour for the party approached, we met several other young travellers and decided to get a taxi together.
The party was exactly what you’d expect and altogether overwhelming. The beach was lined with bars, all blaring different music (couldn’t they have coordinated?) and there were thousands of bros all along the beach. One side was more relaxed, people on psychadelic shrooms were tripping, those that got drunk too early were passed out, and people watchers (our crowd) were strewn about around the fire shows. The other side was unnavigable. Drunk twenty-somethings were packed in like sardines, pushed ever closer together by the rising tide and shrinking beach. We spent six hours people watching there, and witnessed people checking their passed-out friend’s pulses, a good bit of underwater (or sometimes out of water) public copulation, and uncountable hook ups.
The next day we understandably slept in, as we had been up until 6, and made our way back to the Amstardam bar for a relaxing sunset. It seemed everyone had the same idea, and the bar was chocked full. It didn’t make the sunset any less beautiful, though, and it cleared it out after the spectacle. We whiled away the remainder of the night there.
Our last day on Koh Phangan coincided with a national holiday, Songkran or Thai New Year! In the most awesome tradition I’ve seen yet, the Thai celebrate by having a humongous, nationwide water fight! It’s unbelievably hot during this time of the year in Thailand, and everyone needs a cool down. Outside of every bar, restaurant, and hostel there were groups of tourists and Thai with buckets of water, squirt guns, water balloons, and baby powder. They douse everyone that drives by. I even saw people dump buckets inside of a car! In the center of town the streets were blocked off, and next to a big stage playing music and giant buckets full of water that could fit two of me inside there was a giant gathering of people all armed with various ways of shooting water. In Koh Phangan the festivities only lasted for a day, but in other parts of the country they go for as long as week! I think this New Year’s tradition has easily got to be the most fun in history.
Before joining in on the festivities we drove to the northern part of the island, where there is a tiny satellite island called Ko Ma. During low tide a narrow strip of beach connects it to the main island, and you can walk between the two. We walked to the island and went snorkeling at the coral reef there. The reef was a little sad, nearly everything was dead. It was beautiful too, though, as the algae growing there and the murky color of the water gave it a very prehistoric feel. After the beach we went back into town to join in the festivities, then headed to the bar for one more sunset.
The next day was a long one. We caught a ferry, then a bus, then a private van all the way south through Krabi province to the island of Ko Lanta. Ko Lanta was easily our favorite of the three islands we visited in Thailand, and also the least touristy. We went to bed after dinner when we arrived, having spent all day lugging around bags and in long car rides. Our first morning, after a fantastic Thai lunch at Kwan’s cookery on the beach, we found a magical little beach bar that we adored, Fin’s. We liked it so much that we found ourselves there every day. Afterwards we visited Lanta Animal Welfare, needing to know why it was the number one activity on TripAdvisor for the island and number 3 for all of Thailand!
Lanta Animal Welfare is an extremely well run animal shelter that takes care of the strays on the island. Thailand, like most of southeast Asia, has A LOT of stray dogs. When you take a tour they introduce you to many of the animals, which are mostly adoptable, and you can take the pups on walks or cuddle with kittens. They also have volunteers from all around the world that live and work at the shelter. It was a fun visit, and much needed to get time in with our four legged friends.
Ko Lanta had a very relaxed and beachy vibe, with beautiful, pristine beaches. We spent most of our time there lying by the ocean, but we also explored the local habitat a little bit. The south of the island is home to Mu Ko Lanta National Park, where we hiked the beautiful, albeit a little expensive, nature trail. The trail took us up the side of a mountain and into the jungle. Peaking through the trees were gorgeous views of the sea and the lighthouse on the tip of the island. We also spent an afternoon ocean kayaking through the mangrove forest.
On our last night we were rewarded with the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen at Fin’s. The sky was a million colors and pictures can’t do it justice, but I will no longer roll my eyes at the reviews that say the sunsets in southeast Asia are the best in the world. It’s true. The next day we had a long journey ahead. We made the trip to Krabi only to wait several hours for a night bus to Bangkok. I expected the night bus to be terrible, but it was actually more comfortable than the train, and I slept better. Apparently they aren’t the safest way to get around, but we didn’t have any issues.
Happy to be back with Ben and Katelyn, we spent the weekend hanging out at their apartment. Together we went on a shopping spree at the infinite Chatachuk market, visited an art gallery opening, and had a couple tasty meals. We used the time at their place to plan the remainder of our trip, bought flights home, and rested for one our most anticipated parts of the trip: Angkor Wat.