Saturday 24 May 2014

Thailand - Spring 2014

Same Same... but different
Tuesday, 15 April
It doesn't seem too long ago since I was this side of the world.  Other than a failed attempt to enjoy the festivities of the Christmas markets in Munich (missed flight... don't ask! :o( ), my last trip saw me backpacking around Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.  I have been happily coaxed back to attend a friends wedding.  Both the Bride and Groom are keen Scuba divers and it was about time that I dusted off my "advanced scuba diver (but barely remembers how to snorkel)" card.  We had two weeks to play around with and on recommendation we decided to
dedicate half of our time to Koh Tao and half to Koh Lanta; where the wedding will be held.  Having arrived in Phuket at midnight, we learnt that we missed the Thai New Year festival (Songkran) by just a few hours.  We stayed on Karon Beach, just for the day, before making our way to Koh Tao.  Being a beach bum for the day was the first step into relaxing into the holiday after a 7 week school term.  We did it with style drinking Mai Tai cocktails out of hollowed out pineapples and ticking off one of three Thai national dishes, Pad Thai; 80p from a street stall it was hands down the best Pad Thai I have ever eaten.  It cost about £6.00 in my local take away in England and this one had so much more too it; flat noodles, crushed roasted peanuts and fresh shrimp are the key ingredients that come together with a whole bunch of other flavours and textures.  I fear that this may have ruined Pad Thai for me for the rest of my life- from now on it is always going to cost more and taste worse...

I have been to two burlesque shows in my life time; once in Blackpool and once last night.  It occurred to me during the "Simon Caberet" that both of these shows involved an all male cast.  Should that worry me?  Having said that, some of them could quite easily be women pretending to be men pretending to be women! How would we ever know!?  As soon as a ladyboy bends over on stage the whole audience squint their eyes trying to focus their retinas hoping to catch a glimpse of a bulge.  I'm not convinced.  Either way, we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the glitter, glam, pretend singing and gonad gawking.  We walked into Patong for some food and stumbled across a great night market with fried chicken, grilled prawns, BBQ seafood and the most amazing pork belly skewers ever.  They cost about 30p and I ate about 7 with some BBQ'd octopus and fried chicken.  All washed down with decent cocktails for 89thb (£1.80) each!
"Thai Phet not Farang Phet..."
Friday, 18 April

"Thai hot not white man hot..." - famous last words.  We have been on Koh Tao for the past 4 days and I could quite happily spend the rest of my trip (life!) here.  It is the best place ever.  From Phuket, we flew to Koh Samui and caught a ferry over to Tao.  Not only did we miss Songkran (and its very rare collision with the full moon party!?) but we were also suffering in its wake.  We had to wait 6 hours in Samui for our ferry as they were all fully booked which apparently is unheard of in usual circumstances.  There wasn't really much to do in Samui but I did manage to bag number 2 of the national dishes, the hot and sour Tom Yum Goong.  It is deliciously hot and soooo so fragrant.  Just make sure you don't sneeze and get some stuck up your nose... just saying.   It's like snorting a line a fire ants.  A runny nose and beads of sweat tickling my forehead did not hamper my Tom Yum experience. 

Koh Tao is the most chilled out place on this planet.  The extra effort it takes to get here sifts out the annoying jocks and plastics that go shopping in their swim wear and don sunglasses in bars - you know the ones - leaving behind genuinely friendly and laid back people.  Asia Resort were waiting for us at the harbour (totally unbeknownst to me! I just happened to see my name on a board some guy was holding up) which at 11pm, after a full days travel, was a beautiful surprise.  This set Asia Resort in good stead.  It is a fantastic place and has a top quality PADI centre on site (again something I didn't know!?) which worked out perfectly as the two girls were hoping to gain their PADI qualification and I was in desperate need of a Scuba Review.  We freshened up and headed straight out to see the bride and groom in their self proclaimed favourite island on this planet.  We had a few drinks and finished on the beach front (Sairee beach) watching a fire show and sipping cocktails.  After the show they set up a giant skipping rope, a limbo bar, set them on fire and then invited the half cut to have a go.  Entertainment and a challenge.  We wussed out of the skipping but I had a good go at the limbo whilst its height was similar to mine.

As we were staying in the hotel we got a discount which lead to the full PADI Open Water course to be 8000 Baht (£160) which has got to be the cheapest out there.  The next morning we organised our diving and had one of those delightfully uneventful days where you feel totally productive even though nothing was really done.  We ate, we sat on a beach and we ate.  Nicely settling into Koh Tao life.  The evening marked the start of our diving as the girls had to study for the first part of the program and I had to take a review quiz.  Like being back at school but with stress being substituted with spring rolls and beer.  Brian, the groom, use to live here and still had friends on the island.  After our studies we met up with him and one of these friends who had booked us in for dinner at a Thai fusion restaurant called "Barracuda".  In a restaurant that specialises in fish it seemed stupid not to go for their "chef recommended fish platter".  More expensive than the standard Thai restaurant around here the platter cost about £20 (1000bht) and stuffed two of us.  We finished our night like most nights on Koh Tao - cocktails on the beach.

The bulk of our diving started yesterday. The girls had to be up early to finish off their theory and so I had a lie in and late brunch at "the roasted duck" restaurant.  They served one main dish and clearly sold it in its hundreds; roasted duck with rice.  One woman's job was to constantly slice all the meat from the duck whilst another was to blanch the morning glory and one more to serve the rice and pour on the soya bean paste sauce.  A constant conveyor belt to satisfy the few hundred orders over the lunch time rush.  It is popular for a reason; it tastes amazing and it's super cheap (80bht).  I'm eating here again.  We spent the most part of the day in the pool going through all the dive skills.  Our instructor, James Pope, was great and it all made me realise how poor my PADI course in Croatia was in comparison.  I learnt all my skills in the sea which had so many disadvantages to it in comparison to learning in a pool; most notably the excitement build up to your first dive in the sea and the element of surprise when you first put your head underwater and see the abundance of life under your feet.  And I paid way more for my PADI!?  In the evening, Brian's friend booked us all into his favourite local restaurant on the island called "Tukta" which was a short taxi ride out from Siaree beach.  He just ordered a good 8/9 dishes including Massaman curry, Phad Thai and Garlic Pepper squid.  Garlic Pepper is popular here; Crispy, salty, spicy, it's just a few fried ingredients but it's frickin great with seafood! We polished off two portions of garlic pepper mackerel too.  If you are on Koh Tao and you don't have at least one meal here, you have missed out big time.    

Elbows, Knees and Heals
Sunday, 20 April

The time has come to leave Koh Tao and we are currently in transit to Koh Lanta.  Stupid wedding I have to go to...   I already miss being on Koh Tao!  We have all properly loved our time here.  Scuba diving again was awesome.  All three of us have our PADI Open Waters now (well technically I am Advanced... *smug*).  On the morning of our first real dive the girls, once again, had to be up early for some swatting and so I took the opportunity to get another roast duck meal down me and a proper Thai massage.  Little did I know that a proper Thai massage involved seven shades of shite being beaten out of you by a lady boy.  I knew she was a lady boy by her chiseled jaw, broad back and immense strength.  If it was a fight, I would have lost.  If I were to pick 3 items of my body that I could inflict the most pain with if I were ever to be in a fight; I think I would go for my elbows, knees and my heals.  These, in fact, are the items used in a Thai massage.  Sniffle... I am not ashamed to say that I am a wrestling fan (hell I've just been beaten up by a lady boy, nothing shames me now) and there were definitely a number of submission locks she had me in that I recognised.  Knee in the back of the neck whilst pulling my head round by my chin was probably my least favourite.  There were times when I was lying on my front and I couldn't for the life of me work out how she was managing to kneed 6 different points on my body at the same time!?  The long and short of it is, the more a Thai massage hurts, the better you feel after it's finished.  My body felt like a jellyfish and completely at home in our first dive.  That's a lie, it took me forever to equalise and get to the bottom but once down there, with my favourite people, I had a fantastic time.

Food wise we are here at the perfect season.  Mangoes are at their ripest and papayas are totally not ripe at all.  Ripe mangoes mean amazing smoothies but more importantly it means Mango Sticky Rice! Ok so I didn't even know what mango sticky rice was until Lucy, the bride, desperately wanted us all to try it.  Man it is good.  Who would have thought Mango and Rice would come together to make such a scrumptious dessert.  Papayas not being ripe does mean no papaya shakes (bothered?) but it also means Som Tam, national dish number 3, is out in abundance.  A spicy, sweet and sour salad made from grated raw papaya, toasted peanuts and greens.  Served in a bag from a street vendor, I opted for "Thai Phet" when asked and regretted it straight away.  It is such a refreshingly tasty salad, each mouthful extinguishes the fire instantly only to make it come back with a vengeance.  Having finished half of it I genuinely had to put it in the fridge, have a nap, and then finish it off later.  We spent our final evening eating pizza and walking all the way down Sairee Beach to a beautiful fairytale like restaurant called Rim Lae for dessert whilst we pondered our time on Koh Tao.  Sniffle.

Why Not?
Friday, 25 April

We are staying at Lantas Lodge on Klong Khong beach, Koh Lanta (the picture above is the view from our room!).  Basic but decent rooms and lovely owner.  Getting here was a full day with a ferry to to Koh Samui, a flight to Krabi and minibus to Koh Lanta.  We booked all of this in advanced and could have cried when we realised that our ferry to Koh Samui would have taken us to Krabi had we (I) researched properly.  Anyway, spilt milk and all that; we are here and only missing Koh Tao just a little bit!  Here we met up with more friends and guests of the wedding and spent most of our time at Kantiang Bay where the bride and groom were staying at the beautifully exquisite Pimalai Resort.  As wedding guests we of course had access to all of the facilities!  The "Why Not Bar" on Kantiang was my favourite part of Koh Lanta.  The workers were busy tucking into their lunch when we became the only customers to rudely interrupt them.  I asked if I could have what they were all eating in which they initially said no but then called me over and handed me a bowl of rice with a fried fish and some hot pepper sauce.  A real local meal!  Amused by my interest they also brought over a bowl of chicken (off-cuts) soup.  All for free and on top of what I had already ordered from the menu.  I love this place!

As mentioned, the soon to be married couple are avid divers and booked us all onto a full day out on a boat.  What a brilliant pre-wedding activity! A boat full of wedding guests out just for the ride, for a spot of snorkelling or full scuba diving.  This wasn't diving as I was use to (not that i'm use to any kind of diving!) as at just over £100 for the day this was posh diving.  Breakfast and lunch served on the boat, ice box full of drinks, fresh towels and diving gear all set up for you!  I was a little wary over my diving gear being set up by somebody else but soon got over it.  All of this came together to be my favourite diving experience ever.  Crystal blue water streaming with life.  We may not have seen the prized whale shark but we saw a Turtle and Leopard Shark amongst other colourful delights.  We all chipped in for a professional underwater photographer (I didn't take any of these photos!) which worked out pretty cheap split 20 ways.  The extra money was totally worth it in my eyes and I can completely recommend  Scuba Fish in Koh Lanta.  Scuba diving followed by lazing on a 5 star resort whilst paying for a 2 star is pretty sweet.  We finished our night in the Why Not Bar listening to live music and being merry.

Originally I had hoped to eat all Thai curries including yellow, green and red.  Unfortunately this did not happen due to one reason.  That reason is the Massaman curry.  Why would you bother with anything else when you can have Massaman!?  Having tasted the green and yellow curries from other peoples plates I just couldn't bring myself round to actually ordering them.  They tasted fine, just not as superb as the sweet velvety Massaman.  I did have a wonderful Thai Red Curry from the Why Not Bar but still couldn't help but think that it would just be that much better if it was a Massaman.  The Massaman at the wedding was simply beautiful.  Ok the wedding was simply beautiful but oh man the Massaman!
Why doesn't everyone get married on a beach!?  It was the most incredible setting with a stunning backdrop.  In the morning the girls all gathered to get the bride ready and so I enjoyed/endured a swim in the pool and another Thai massage before putting on my suit suitable for a beach.  Everything ran smoothly and even though it began to thrash it down the second we sat down to eat (on the beach!) the Pimalai were on it with umbrellas and escorted us to an indoor hall already kitted out and decorated as if we were gate crashing another wedding! We ate and drank like kings with the disco serving free cocktails until midnight.  Best wedding I have ever been to?  I have married friends and family that read my blog so I couldn't possible say.

Yesterday morning was a late start and to no surprise nobody was up for doing anything too strenuous.  I found the ultimate hang over cure which involved a Shisha pipe, a hammock, a book and a beach which saw through a couple of hours.  We lazed pretty much the entire day away until a couple of us joined a cooking class with "Lanta Thai Cookery School" for the evening.  Slightly on the expensive side at around £30 per head but we felt like we were in good hands.  We picked to learn how to make Spring rolls, Chicken Satay, Thai Red Curry with Seafood and Massaman curry (:o)!!!!) with Chicken.  We all cooked individually and though I am a keen cook I genuinely felt like I learnt a lot of new things.  We learnt how to make all the accompanying sauces as well, including Thai Sweet Chilli and Peanut Sauce.  We came home stuffed carrying bags of what we couldn't finish, packed up our rucksacks and prepared for our following two days worth of travel back to England.  I may have only seen a small part of Thailand in these two weeks but it was enough for me to see what all the fuss is about.  Thailand has something for everyone; beautiful beaches, awesome diving and fantastic food.  I'm kind of glad that I have only seen a small part of it as it gives me good reason to come back again soon.  I'm sure that it'll be much of the same same but different.  :o)