From the full moon to the sea bottom

Rest and relaxation on the beaches of Railay had to end because we had to travel east. Ko Phangan to be exact.

Such is the site of the infamous Full Moon Party, an event that draws thousands of backpackers to this beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand to party as though there may never be another full moon. (To keep the tourists coming when the moon is a sliver, there’s also half moon and quarter moon parties as well).

We figured we would probably never get another chance (or be at the right age) to enjoy such a party again, so off we went taking a bus across Thailand, spending a night in a shady hotel in Surrathani followed by an uneventful two-hour ferry ride across.

Rather than stay right at the heart of the party region, we stayed in a nice bungalow on the beach on the other side of the island. Here, we enjoyed a couple days reading, snorkling and sitting in the sun.

Beyond backpackers looking to party, celebrating the full moon is actually pretty important in Thailand. Before heading off to the festivities, we watched some locals lighting floating lanterns on the water while others sent them flying high into the night sky. Such a pleasent start to the evening.

By 11 p.m. we were sitting in the back of a pick-up truck flying across the rolling hills of this pitch black island. It took nearly an hour to get across and my hands were pretty sore from holding on to a bar along the ceiling. We eventually switched vehicles (our truck apparently couldn’t handle the last hills for some reason) and arrived at our destination.

It was a town overrun with backpackers. They seemed to flow from all directions covered in bright neon paint and bright neon clothes. In their hands were brightly coloured plastic buckets with four or five straws hanging out the side.

A word on buckets. Across Southeast Asia, Thailand specifically, they sell these things called buckets. Cheap and potent cocktails, these concoctions are the drink of choice for backpackers ready to party.

Want to make your own? Go to your local liquor store and buy the cheapest whiskey or vodka mickey you can find and dump it in a bucket similar to that you would use to build sandcastles at the beach. Next, throw in a bunch of ice, then a can of Red Bull or Coke (or both). Stir it around, throw in a handful of straws, and that’s it. You’re ready to take on the night.

Other useful ingredients include a giant bottle of water and Tylenol for the inevitable headache you will suffer the next morning.

These are sold everywhere at the Full Moon Party and generally cost under $10 each. We were told that it was best to get it made in front of you at a 7/11 as some shady places tend to throw in unwanted chemicals and scary substances.

Armed with our buckets, we steeled ourselves to celebrate the full moon on a beach packed with neon, bodies, music and fire. It was a gongshow. No doubt.

We had a good time at the party and were still dancing on the beach at 7a.m. as we watched a beautiful sunrise. However, I do not think I will return to see this messy spectacle again. Yet, it is a definite stop on the backpacker route and I am happy we can check this off the list.

***

After a full day of rest, we left on a rocky ferry to the island of Koh Tao. Here, we would embark on a four-day open water scuba diving course followed by an additional two-day advanced diving course (since we liked the first course so much). Sara has some interesting background about our dive school here (a tale of murder, might I add).

We are now certified to dive up to 30 metres deep and we have learned underwater navigation and experienced the thrill of night diving (something that still sort of terrifies me).

Learning to scuba dive was a definite turning point in our trip as we fell hopelessly in love with a new (and expensive) sport.

As part of our classes, we took a lesson in underwater photography. Naturally, I was quite excited about this. Underwater photography is tricky as you have much less light the deeper you go (the photos below are 24 metres deep) and getting a good photo can be hard when you’re trying to float completely still. It’s something I want to practice more. Below are a few shots from one dive in Koh Tao (and a photo Sara took of me on a second dive).

I turned around and there was Sara with her regulator out smiling at me.

 

C'est moi. Sporting some nice hair.

Beaches. Monkeys. Jungle.

 

Railay Beach, Thailand

From Koh Phi Phi we took a ferry (about an hour longer than told) to the port in Krabi where we found a small 12-person boat that took another hour to the beaches of Railay.

Our boat stopped next to a submerged cement path and we took off our shoes and walked in the 50cm deep water with our backpacks for nearly 50 metres.

From here in soggy shoes we hiked uphill past rocky cliffs with mountain climbers hanging and stopped on the edge of a hot and humid jungle where we laid our bags at an empty reception desk. After a brief search we find a pretty laid back fellow with long dreids who takes us to our bungalow.

The first thing we notice in this humble wooden structure is the extremelly precarious steps – each thin narrow boards on a terrible angle with a handrail long gone replaced with a dozen nails pointed upwards (tip: always make sure you’ve had your tetanus shot before travel). Reaching the summit and removing the small padlock reveals a bare room with a small bathroom at the back with just a shower head, toilet and faucet hanging over the floor. No sink. Thankfully, there is a mosquito net as I see large spaces between the floorboards and a large window with no glass in the bathroom. No AC or hot water of course.

We would spend three nights here.

The beaches of Thailand are beautiful and the beaches at Railay are even more so. Indeed, I felt like I had stepped into a postcard. I envied myself for being in such a gorgeous place and being allowed to swim in its warm sparkling turquoise. This was probably my favourite place in Thailand.

Beyond the beaches there were some really neat hikes into the jungle up steep muddy slopes and under trees full of strange cackling monkeys (see above) as large lizards scurried away.

Railay was far more laid back than the more touristy Koh Phi Phi. Many of the bars and restaurants would pump Bob Marley and encourage you to take your shoes off, put your feet up and enjoy a cocktail or Chang beer. Which, of course, I did.

Pattaya: A sidetrip to Thailand’s sex capital

We arrived in Phuket Town tired and happy to lay down our bags. Our room would be a couple modest bunk beds, a wall fan and a giant standalone fan sitting by the window. Cheap, comfortable, one night. Meh.

A nice feature to the place was the fact it was atop a good Irish pub called O’Malley’s with great draft Tiger beer on tap. After settling in, we came down to enjoy said beer and chat with a pleasant couple from England, Jo and Mike methinks.

They told us they had been to the beach in Patong and were pretty disgusted with the sex industry revealing itself there – something our guidebook noted one had to be wary of.

Not wanting to top stories, but rather commiserate, we started to talk about our recent trip to Pattaya. At this point the bartender inserted himself in our conversation. “You wanna know what Pattaya is like?” he said to the couple in a thick Irish accent. “Take Patong and times it by a million.”

Through my travels in Thailand I had been reading Alex Garland’s famous backpacker novel “The Beach.” The only mention of Pattaya was to say it “was a hellhole.”

And, well, although I wouldn’t go so far, it is a pretty miserable place. Unless, of course, your forte is sex tourism, then it may be the highlight of your trip. Otherwise, it’s pretty dirty.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t nice things about Pattaya. It actually is a pretty good base for some decent day trips – to some nearby islands, a tiger zoo, a really cool looking ziplining outdoor adventure somethingorother. It also has a beach and a pretty temple a little further down. Unfortunately, my stomach wasn’t feeling so great, so we didn’t enjoy any of these.

Instead, we hung close to the downtown watching the sights – mainly old white men walking around with much younger Thai girls – and sounds – girls propositioning for such services. There’s also a pretty wild bar scene that seemed only amplified for Halloween.

Definitely not a family destination. And yet we saw parents with kids walking right down “Walking Street,” the heart or, perhaps, the libido of Pattaya.

It must be said that we did have some fun and enjoyed more than a few laughs over this ridiculous place. However, I certainly didn’t appreciate the disgusting men ogling my modestly dressed wife.

But why would I take her here in the first place?

Well, we were following the headlines about Bangkok from Cambodia and the situation looked grim. Floodwaters rising, relief efforts, sandbagging – it didn’t seem like a worthwhile tourist destination, nor did we want to travel through a city that it seemed everyone wanted to get out of.

Yet, the problem with Bangkok is that if you want to drive to the south of Thailand, you pretty much have to go through it (there are also many fascinating places in Northern Thailand, but we needed to go south to make onward travel easier and it was time we found a beach). We looked at a lot of options from Siem Reap, Cambodia, ruling out most based on cost and complications.

Eventually, I discovered a really cheap flight from Pattaya to Phuket. And so we took a six, seven, eight-hour (I really don’t know) extremely cramped minibus from the Cambodian border to Pattaya, where we were dropped off at a random street off our map. The driver shrugged his shoulders and left. One hour hike later, we were set in a dreadfully dull fan room with windows looking out to the hallway.

Three days later, a quick flight dropped us off in Phuket. We decided to head to Phuket Town for the night to get our bearings and determine where to go next. One thing we quickly agreed on was that after Pattaya we didn’t want to go to Patong.