EastforEaster: Day 6 – Hong Island tour

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Just like the previous day, we were served a decent breakfast by the cheerful Harvest House folk and though the pick up ( a different one) arrived slightly later than the day before (but within the timeband specified) we reached the pier on time. For this tour we had chosen a longtail boat, just so we had both experiences. Also helped that it was cheaper. From the previous day’s experience, we were traveling light – no extra set of clothes and just a towel in addition to our shoulder bag.

The long boat doesn’t lose much over the speedboat in terms of comfort – in fact it’s better if it’s a windy day since the speedboat shields most everything, but is definitely slower. Our first stop was near Red Island where we did some snorkeling. Nothing great. We then moved on to the Hong Islands Lagoon where the water was only waist deep and we could pick up starfish from the sea floor.

From there we moved on to a smaller island where we had another ‘buffet lunch’, this one not even in a restaurant, but just food they had packed from Ao Nang. We saw that the speedboat guys had lunch packets. :) It was announced that there was a ‘happy room’ available. My hopes had a sad ending after it turned out to be a toilet. I did wonder later about this usage after seeing a ‘Happy Beach’ though.  Hong Island was up next and we had about 2 hours to kill there, so we spent some time walking on the beach, lying down on that useful towel (beach mats at Ao Nang are only 100 baht, we later realised) and then snorkeling. Nothing much again, though I thought I saw one live coral. On the way back we saw this cave where apparently 2 people lived, collecting bird’s saliva to make the bird’s nest soup that was popular! They had provisions reaching them every fortnight.

We reached Ao Nang around 4.30 and thought we would go to Railay Beach to see the sunset. Patty had warned us that getting back would be difficult, but when we asked around, we were told that boats were available, though they would cost double at night.  The ferry left from Ao Nang and reached Railay in about 15 minutes. It cost us 80 baht each and the tides decide how wet you get. We had showered just a while earlier, and put on fresh clothes, so felt quite stupid. :|.

Railay (west) Beach was a more private one and we contemplated dinner there.The sunset happened soon after and it was well worth the wetness we had suffered. But when we went to check on the ferry, we realised that after 6, it was quite a difficult proposition, specially because they waited for 6-8 passengers before they would set out. After waiting for almost an hour, watching an increasingly choppy sea, and deciding we would dine at Ao Nang, we asked for a boat for ourselves. That set us back by a 1000 baht. Arrgh.

We wanted to explore the ‘left’ side of the beach (when coming from the hotel) since we had been frequenting the other side. Since it was dark, we couldn’t venture far and decided to dine at the Phra Nang restaurant. The mandatory Tom Kha Kai was followed by Pha Nang chicken and a Pad Priew wan (pork) with plain rice (figured that plain rice is the best way – in Cambodia and Thailand). Dream Cones round 2 happened – Ferrero was decent, but the Rum Almond disappointed. We walked back to the hotel slowly, finally buying D the large handbag that she had been eyeing for the last few days. And thus ended our last night in Siam.

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EastforEaster: Day 5 – Phi Phi Islands

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Harvest house served a decent breakfast as part of the deal, and we waited for the pickup. We also got ourselves a Krabi + surrounding areas set of maps from the hotel. We’d arranged our Krabi tours through Patty, who was extremely helpful on mail and whose execution was flawless. The pickup arrived on time, and stopped at a couple of other hotels to pick up other passengers before arriving at the Nopparat Thara ferry and depositing us near the toilet. Yes, unfortunately that was the standard meeting point. :O

We’d chosen a speedboat option for Phi Phi and set out from the pier at close to 9. After about 45 minutes, the first stop was Bamboo Island. The schedule then underwent a rejig and lunched at Maya Bay after we had visited Phi Pi Don and the Viking Cave.

Maya Bay made quite a pretty picture and the ‘buffet meal’ (about 6 items with a drastic cut if you’re vegetarian) probably felt tastier thanks to all the snorkeling that happened before we got there.

We halted there for close to 2 hours and then made our way to Monkey Bay for more snorkeling. There aren’t many corals to look at, but the fishes were pretty decent. Meanwhile, unless you’re terribly icky if you get wet by salt water or are extra fashion conscious, just wear your swimming trunks, take off the tee and jump in. We had brought an extra set of clothes, but it proved unnecessary.

We got back by about 3.30 and after some back and forth got ourselves a taxi to take us to Krabi town. That set us back by 1000 baht. Now, if you have time, a bus would be much cheaper and if you get delayed on the way back, you could still catch a tuk tuk or even a taxi, and still make some savings. It takes close to half an hour to get to the town, and we started at 5.30. Krabi’s market is more active on weekends, so we could only see a small sample, but the food did seem exciting. I only held back because I was hoping for an awesome dinner.

We then walked to the Vogue department store which proved to be a happy hunting  ground for bargaining, brands included. We had arranged for our cab driver to meet us nearby and take us to Ruen Mai. This restaurant provided one of the best meals during the trip. Our earlier research as well as the flight magazine had pointed to this as a great place and it didn’t disappoint. We tried our favourite Tom Kha Kai, Pad Ped – chicken, Choo Chi Pla (fish) and a pork fried rice. They also had this strange flavoured iced tea which got better as the ice melted. In a  show of high spirits, helped by Chang, we asked for everything to be spicy. A fantastic meal, but which also saw us hanging our tongues out of the taxi like dogs, because cool air could do wonders to a tormented tongue!!

We got back to Ao Nang and asked to be dropped off near the beach. Thanks to the dinner being well below the planned budget, decided to treat ourselves to some ice cream and some shopping 😉 Haagen Dazs would’ve cost us as much as the dinner, so we decided to try out Dream Cones. Presented with many options, we finally chose the Chocolate Brownie and the Chocolate Banana waffle cones. Both were awesome. On the way back to the hotel, we clicked the Krabi version of the tuk tuk and another Bangkok style one on sale!

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EastforEaster: Day 4 – Bangkok shopping, Krabi

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This day was reserved for the malls of Bangkok. Though we had initially thought we would scout MBK in the morning, grab a quick lunch and then spend an hour at Pratunam and get back just in time to catch the last flight to Krabi, better sense prevailed and we decided to concentrate on MBK. The lady at the Tango reception was extremely helpful. We were allowed to keep our bags in the hotel (checkout was at noon), and she also gave us directions on where to catch the BTS Skytrain. We had initially thought of taking a tuk tuk to Siam, and catching the train to National Stadium. But as per the new directions, we were asked to set off for Chit Lom station. As soon as we got out of the hotel, a tuk tuk driver approached us and I asked him how much it would cost to get us to Siam. Only 20 baht he said, because he had a sponsor who would take care of his bills for the day, and then proceeded to explain the catch. We would have to visit his sponsor’s factory on the way. We skipped the deal and began what turned out to be a rather lengthy walk to Chit Lom.

The ticketing system is pretty user friendly, but we still managed a slight embarrassment. We had taken a ticket to Siam, from where, depending on the time taken, we planned to figure out whether to use a tuk tuk or cab to National Stadium. So we took tickets to Siam. At Siam, we got out and decided to board the train to National Stadium. We were about to take tickets when we were told that the same tickets would be enough. Nice, we thought, until we got out at National Stadium and the damn gates wouldn’t swing for us. So we paid the ticket charge and walked right into MBK Centre, the train practically leaves you inside the mall!

We began looking around in right earnest and realised we had reached a ‘branded’ floor. Though there were heavy discounts, we proceeded downstairs to where we hoped we would get more bang for our baht. It took a long while to drag D away from that floor which had apparel, footwear, food and so on, but I had a sneaking suspicion we were missing something on the floors above. We managed a quick tour of those floors before we went for lunch and realised we should have timed ourselves better.

Lunch for the day was at the Black Canyon Coffee, selected after we realised that in general, only the pizzas had survived the Japanese restaurant invasion. The dishes were reasonably good, though the quantities were typically cafe-size. We had just over an hour to complete our shopping and in a mad rush we shopped more in that hour than we had in the 3 hours preceding it, and across floors. Our behaviour then vaguely reminded me of Arunachalam’s plot. I wished I had spent more time in the electronics floor and found a cover for the mobile. There were some awesome ones there, including Angry Birds, but in the only shop I managed to check in, they had pretty boring options for my phone.

We took the train back to Chit Lom and an awesome driver landed us at the hotel just in time. The hotel security called a cab for us and it took us to the airport at 1/3 rd the price we had paid for the first journey. Despite the baggage being 7 kgs over the 20 kg we had paid for (shopping indicator right there) Air Asia didn’t make us pay. Yay! On to Krabi!

There was quite some turbulence as we neared Krabi and some after we landed too – the driver who had come to pick us up waved the placard with D’s name at a rather large African American lady, and I couldn’t help bugging her. 😀

We reached Ao Nang in half an hour and in the last stretch, laughed at the grandiose names given to apartment like accommodations. Harvest House turned out to be in that lot!! But a helpful staff and a decent room was enough to dispel our crabbiness. The beach was just less than a km away and we dined at Eden, where an awesomely enthusiastic waiter ensured we had a good meal. Though the restaurant faced the sea, all we could see was a massive darkness. Our scouting revealed plenty of shopping options and we slept, all set for the sea trips on the days ahead.

Bangkok Notes and Budget

Currency: Baht. Do only a minimal conversion inside the airport. Rates seemed much better outside. eg. in the grand Palace complex.

Travel: Flight deals are many so you can probably check out the different ‘trip’ sites. Within the city, tuk tuks and whenever you can manage, BTS. There are detailed BTS maps on the web and it’s pretty easy to navigate. Also helps that they are faster and cheaper.

Food: Plenty of options, especially street food – you can fill your tummy for 200-300 baht. Restaurants would cost you (very generally) upwards of 350 baht.

Tour: We used Absolute Bangkok Tours who also gave us options of hotels to suit various budgets, and tour plans. They also made the booking for the river cruise. Our cost for the tour services came to 7300 baht (inclusive of hotel, driver, guide, entry fees, cruise) The service was reasonably good.

Shopping: There are malls and malls. We chose MBK basis our needs of the things we were shopping for and our budgets. :)

Resources: Wiki Travel, Travelfish

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EastforEaster: Day 3 – Bangkok

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It was a rainy morning when we left the lovely Siem Reap airport, made even more wonderful with free Wi fi. For some reason we didn’t have to pay the $25 tourist charge either. I am clearly a fan of this airport. We thanked our stars that we weren’t affected by the morning rains when we saw the faces of dejected tourists who had just landed.  Bangkok Airways, “Asia’s Boutique Airline” was indeed stylish and served us a good breakfast. (This was in addition to the breakfast at the hotel, but I’d always wanted to experience a double breakfast) Some good dining tips for Krabi were picked up from the in-flight magazine. We landed at Suvarnabhumi around noon and cleared immigration in a few minutes. This was an elegant, efficient airport, not as pretty as Siem Reap, but definitely more scalable. We picked a free Bangkok map (and airport map) and reached the public taxi counter where an uninterested aunty forced herself to fill a form and send us on.

The taxi driver proved to us that all over the world, there are versions of the auto guys in Bangalore who give first time visitors a well metered city darshan. This was despite the city map and a Google Maps print with point to point directions (in Thai too). He pretended he had lost his way, called a friend to get directions and even tried to take us past our hotel before we opened the door and forced him to stop.

The Tango Vibrant service apartments seemed a slightly grander version of the Ginger Hotels here. Despite being a self-help kind of set up, they provided excellent service and were an extremely helpful bunch of people.

We had arranged our tour with  Absolute Bangkok Tours. Our guide was supposed to meet us at 1.30 and she landed right on time. In the hired car, she introduced herself and after being faced by blank stares and rapid blinking, told us we could call her Nikki. :) Our first stop was the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha.

The thing to remember here is that all that glitters ain’t what it’s supposed to be. That doesn’t make it look any less opulent though. Despite being a Mallu and being bombarded by gold ads all my adult life, this was something! Meanwhile, Bangkok continued our walk-in-progress theme and the Palace was just the start.

The name of the king who built this is also borrowed from Indian royalty/ science fiction – Rama 1. The mural on the left is one from a long stretch that shows the Ramayana. Ravana continues his 4+4+2 head arrangement here too and this is the Rama-Ravana face off scene. (click to enlarge) There were some very interesting characters –  this one is half lion and half man, though an evil soul commented on Facebook that it was JLo. 😀

There was Garuda doing one of his regular snake stunts. The gold rush continued with some porcelain and jade for relief. We also saw a model of Angkor Wat. And we walked on. While getting out, we saw a tourist being sent back for wearing shorts. 😀 You can hire clothes from across the street though.

Despite the two breakfasts, we were hungry and went off to grab some street food near the Palace as we waited for the taxi. Pork, fish and mango for dessert. All absolutely awesome and only costing 20 baht each. The next stop was Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) which required a ferry crossing. We saw a monk who refused to endorse earthly signs even if they seemingly pointed in the right direction.

Wat Arun is another beanstalk to be climbed and a pretty steep one at that. But as always, a good view awaits you. We also saw a few monks who reminded me of a soft drink commercial from years back. The colour of their robes and the drink in their hand is the indicator. :) We crossed the river and proceeded to Wat Pho. Yes yes, I did ask D what for she was making me walk like this.

Wat Pho is another walkathon. We saw the reclining Buddha and I wondered if he had taken a tour too. I vaguely remembered a story I’d read in Tinkle/ACK about a mouse (?) which had set out to find the tallest Buddha. I thought this Buddha featured in it. I tried to remember the story as D dropped 108 coins in 108 vessels kept by the Buddha’s side.

There were also statues of Marco Polo – in what seemed like an extreme Chinese makeover, and another that seemed like Prabhudeva caught in one of his dance moves. The former is accurate and the latter was me seeing things because of excessive walking. But again, another place worth a visit for some beautiful Buddhas.

If I had any hope that the walking had ended, D dashed it when she subtly indicated that there was a good view from the Golden Mount. The view was definitely neat, but it also meant that I began seeing stars early in the evening. That cafe there must be doing great business!

Our penultimate stop for the day was the flower market. D was like a little kid who was seeing flowers for the first time. But I couldn’t really blame her – all sorts of colours, shapes and sizes and a bouquet’s worth of roses selling for 20 baht. Despite all the temptation, D didn’t ask me to buy her flowers. Mah wife is cool that way :) Nikki seemed to be on a shopping spree though.

We left for the last item on our agenda – the Chao Phraya dinner cruise. The sky seemed set for rain and we had about an hour to kill at the River City mall, where the pier was. As we sat inside the mall, too tired to walk, and munched away at the Foi Tong we’d bought earlier (vermicelli like dessert made from egg yolk), it started raining and continued as we got into the boat. We feared the worst. Dinner distracted us as soon as we boarded and we used regular buffet diversion techniques to manage the mobs at the counter. The crowd was a mix – from India, Middle East, Kenya, Bhutan and more, and in an attempt to please Indians, the lady massacred Bolo Ta Ra Ra and Munni!! Thankfully the skies cleared and we could enjoy the cruise despite not having ‘side-seats’. Our tuk tuk driver, on the way back to the hotel, an old man, turned out to be quite a speed demon. But it was a fun ride and looked forward to the shopping mania planned the next day.

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