When I found Stacey at the Bangkok airport (she had flown in from LA), she was sitting outside a Burger King. We screamed, hugged and said our hellos as my eye wandered over to the Whopper menu. It’s amazing how much you crave something when you can’t have it. “Do you mind?” I asked her. “Of course not,” she replied and I quickly got in line to order the #1: a Whopper with cheese, fries and Coke Zero. I can’t even begin to explain how good it tasted. I was home again, even though fast food isn’t a regular occurrence in my life. The spectacle of me gobbling the burger and fries was over quickly and we made our way out of the airport, but not before stopping at an ATM to get cash. I didn’t check the exchange rate before leaving, but usually ATMs will give you options for different amounts to withdraw, which serve as a good guide. The max at the ATM was 30,000 baht, so I thought I was safe choosing 20,000. Turns out, that was over $600! Who accidentally withdraws $600 from an ATM and doesn’t realize it for two days? Me, apparently.
Our apartment in the Sukhumvit neighborhood was perfect. I found it on Airbnb, a favorite site of mine for accommodations. If I can find an apartment when traveling, that’s usually my preference. They’re often cheaper and offer more amenities like a full kitchen and living area. The building even had a pool and gym, all for less than $50/night. There were also a slew of restaurants within walking distance, as well as the Sky Train and underground metro. Coming from India, these comforts did not go unappreciated. I screeched when I saw the bathtub. And there was toilet paper! Perspective counts for a lot.
It was at the Grande Palace on day two when we had our first cultural experience: the Bangkok scam. Arriving by taxi, the driver pointed us in the direction of the entrance, but once we started walking towards it, an “official” told us we had to buy tickets at the other entrance. When we approached the new gate, another “official” told us it was a Thai holiday and the Grande Palace was only open to locals for a prayer service until 4:00, after which it would open to the public (it was about 2:00 when we got there). Hmm, I thought I read it closed at 3:30. But before I could question, the guy led us to a tuk tuk that would transport us to the pier for the rock-bottom price of 10 baht (about $.30) where we could take a one-hour tour of the floating market, then return to the Grande Palace by 4pm when it would be open to all. The simplicity made it tempting, but something felt off, so I asked the driver how much to go to Wat Po, which I knew was right around the corner. “100 baht,” he replied. The pier was much farther than Wat Po, revealing that it was a scam to get us to the floating market with each player receiving a kickback. We quickly walked away and headed to the original gate where we found the palace very much open to everyone. Lesson one: don’t trust anyone who says something is closed (ugh, I knew that one!!), and be wary of tuk tuk drivers with very good English. When Stacey and I left the Grande Palace, we saw the same guy talking to a group of tourists. In a loud voice I said, “Don’t let them take you to the floating market- it’s a scam”. We continued walking and the four Italians followed us, asking for more information. We recounted our story, which they were familiar with since they had been told the same thing. They were grateful we steered them away, and we were happy to keep those baht out of the scammers’ pockets.
I could devote many, many words to the food in Bangkok, but I’ll save that for a separate post. Stacey isn’t the most adventurous eater, which actually worked out fine because I was so happy to eat anything other than Indian food, I was perfectly content with Subway. Let me rephrase- I was THRILLED with Subway. Italian? You got it! British pub? Sign me up! I knew I’d be alone in Bangkok after she left, eating at street stalls, so I wasn’t concerned about our disproportionately Thai-less meals.
Early Christmas morning we flew to Ko Lanta, an island in the Andaman Sea near Phuket. I chose Ko Lanta because it was more low key than other islands in the area, and neither of us wanted to be surrounded by drunken 23-year-olds. It was also the peak of high season and we wanted to keep the prices within reason. Lantas Lodge Resort on Klong Khong beach was to be our home for the next week. Little bungalows dotted the property, and their bar/restaurant extended into the sand. Chairs, umbrellas and beach towels were provided for guests, which we took advantage of most days. Ok, we took advantage of them everyday except for that day.
Deciding we should do something other than lie on a beach, we booked a one-day excursion to another island for kayaking. Sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not outdoorsy, nor athletically inclined. This trip confirmed both. First we took a truck to the dock and got on a longboat with another 8 people for the 30 minute ride. The boat trip was windy and choppy and we got soaked from water spray. Many of us used the life jackets as a shield from the ocean that was intent on joining us in the boat. I was pleased this was someone else’s idea (a brilliant one at that), as it made me feel a little less wimpy. We finally arrived at a beach cove where kayaks awaited us, so we paired up and jumped in. I knew you had to use your arms to paddle and steer the stupid thing, but I had some romanticized vision of what that actually meant. People kayaking in photos always look so happy. I strategically sat in the back and perhaps… just perhaps I took a few breaks to let Stacey command the vessel solo. We rowed to another beach, got out and stood there. Then we got back into the kayaks and rowed to a cave, where we got out and stood there. It was pretty, but not pretty enough to warrant all the work it took to get there. It was at the cave that the kayaking portion of the day ended (aw, bummer!), and we went to yet another beach by longtail boat where we ate lunch. We spent about an hour there, which was a disproportionate amount of time, and the people from our boat were clearly bored. I, on the other hand, found a hammock where I remained until it was time to ship off again. Lunch and hammocking was the best part of the trip… which I could’ve done 50 steps outside our bungalow. Yes, sometimes you need these gentle reminders.
The food at the restaurants along the beach was just so-so with the same Thai and “American” offerings at each of them: burgers with fries, chicken sandwiches, pasta, pad thai, stir fries and curries. There were, however, a few standout places. On Long Beach, just north of us, is a pub called the Irish Embassy. It’s run by an Irish expat and she serves up huge portions of delicious pub food. One dish would’ve been more than enough to share, but we were unaware and each ordered our own. I had fish and chips, and Stacey had housemade bangers and mash. Both were fantastic, although we barely made a dent. Another great place just up the road from us was a Greek Taverna, owned by a Greek family. Again, the portions were huge, but the food was so good we ate there three times. The pita was more like pizza crust, hot out of the oven brushed with olive oil and oregano. Served with super-garlicky tzatziki, it was beyond addictive. I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat regular pita again! That paired with a fresh Greek salad was the perfect lunch.
Stacey and I made friends with our Norwegian neighbors (Ko Lanta is full of Scandinavians) who introduced us to this nice Canadian couple. We met them all at a bar one night near our hotel, then again on New Year’s Eve. Lots of people gathered on the beach just before midnight, but it was still pretty tame. Sending lanterns into the sky is a big thing, and they’re just gorgeous. You light a small coil at the bottom of this big, thin paper lantern. Once the hot air expands under the paper, you release it, and it floats up into the sky. There were hundreds of them in the sky that night, which unfortunately photos couldn’t capture. Fireworks accompanied, and the sky was ablaze with light. Beautiful.
The next afternoon Stacey and I started our journey back to Bangkok where we would have one more night before she headed home. The taxi ride to the Krabi airport with two ferry crossings took about two and a half hours, followed by an hour flight, then an hour-long taxi ride back to Sukhumvit. I booked a small guesthouse instead of an apartment since it was a little cheaper for one person, although not by much. I planned on staying there after Stacey left, but the place wasn’t great so I ended up relocating to the lovely Room@Bangkok guesthouse which was run by a Belgian expat. The next day Stacey flew back to LA, leaving me alone. We had such a great trip and I was bummed she left, but I came to find out you’re never really alone in Bangkok.