November 5, 2012
We just got back from vacation. You might ask “How does a retiree go on vacation?” Well, vacation is defined as “a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually for rest, recreation, or travel.” So we thought we would “suspend” our everyday activities and do a bit of “travel”. If you are retired or have followed these posts you’ll know that after being retired, a lot of us are busier than we ever were when working. Sometimes we just need a break.
Since we settled down to a true retirement here in Thailand about 6 years ago now, in all that time, except for a few visits back to the US to see family, we haven’t done any travels. I mean, what’s the point of being retired if you don’t go out and do cool stuff, right?
It turns out that Thailand just happens to be one of the best travel hubs in the world. Take a look at a map. To the north is Laos and China, east is Cambodia, Viet Nam and the Phillipines, south is Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Bali, and Australia, and west is Burma, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I am lucky enough to have visited a lot of these places but that was long ago. Time to get back in the saddle.
So six months ago a group of Thai friends invited us to accompany them on a trip down south. We were able to get discounted direct flights (6 months in advance) Chiang Mai to Hat Yai (way down in the south of Thailand) for 1,300 baht round trip. Thais (and Asians in general) do their traveling differently than what we are used to. They love to go in big groups, always eating together, taking pictures together, and never seeming to get away on their own. You may be familiar with the large groups of Asian travelers following their tour guide holding a red flag. It may be a stereotypical view but it’s true.
This kind of travel takes some getting used to but it is dirt cheap compared to other ways of traveling. Our group (sans the red flag) decided to rent a van and driver, go directly south to Malaysia and then return to southern Thailand and visit some islands. We would be together with 9 other people for 10 days.
Pikun and I usually like traveling on our own, getting lost, and exploring. We got used to the backpacking lifestyle traveling through Europe on baguettes, sardines, cheese and French table wine. But we are now in our sixties so maybe a little more organization and comfort would be interesting for a change.
Here is my first attempt at travel writing.
We took our cheap flight from Chiang Mai, and landed in Hat Yai (a very busy southern market town). We were then picked up and taken to one of our fellow traveler’s house for a huge meal. Stayed the night in a bungalow run by the local museum and the next morning 9 of us hopped into a nice new roomy van and headed off to the border.
To get to the Genting Highlands you climb way up into the mountains, like going up Thailand’s highest peak Doi Intanon. Except when you get to the top, instead of forest, panoramic views, birds and Nature you have super hotels, neon lights, loud music, casinos up the ying yang, and thousands of tourist (mostly Thai, Chinese, and other gambling loving Asians). I went into the casino with 3 Malaysian ringet (about $1), hoping to duplicate my experience in Las Vegas when Pikun and I took the $3 in quarters we were saving to do our laundry (after being on the road for a couple of weeks). Lost it all and never got to do our laundry. I didn’t even get that far at Genting as the games were so completely alien to me I didn’t even know how to lose my money.
Kuala Lumpur (KL for short)
Our next jump was Kuala Lumpur. KL is definitely a 21 Century city, bustling with energy, surrounded by beautiful and soaring architecture, clean, and orderly. We had a great 8-course Chinese meal (which turned out to be the norm at meal time and is why I am back on my weight loss program).
We stayed at one of the Tune Hotels one sees advertised all over Asia. As usual the cheap rates advertised were not available to us but our room cost a reasonable 110 ringet (about $30). I have to say that it was the cleanest hotel room I have ever stayed in but it also was one of the smallest (beat only by a room in someone’s apartment in the Chung King Mansion in Kowloon during the backpacking days). It reminded me of one of those Japanese capsule hotels that Tokyo businessmen use to sleep off a drunk before going home. Just a bit bigger though and we did get a good night’s sleep. P.S. We had to rent our towels and the TV wasn’t free.
Sightseeing the next day after a breakfast of Chinese noodles. Visited KL Tower (more than twice as tall as my Seattle Space Needle, 421 m to 184 m).
We saw some high end shopping malls (Cartier, Tiffany’s) and lots of beautiful mosques and the Petronas Towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world. Impressive. We did the normal touristy stuff that I like to indulge in once in a while.
In the 1500s this was one of the most important ports in the world attracting ships from Portugal, Spain, China, India, and Arabia. Later taken over by the Portuguese and then the dutch and then the English. Today none of the old glory exists anymore and it is basically a tourist town with lots of history and some interesting old architecture. They do have a walking street market but the day we were there it poured rain. So we had to settle for another Chinese banquet – seafood this time.
I have to admit that I have dreamed of this place for years. It is where the famous Jim Thompson of Thai silk fame walked out into the jungle and disappeared. So I dreamed of a place surrounded by forests, sort of like the top of Doi Intanon. So much for dreams. It is beautiful though in a different way, with lots of hotels, restaurants, some cool tea plantations and a number of hydroponic strawberry “fields”, and lots and lots of tourists, but no forests, but of course one more delicious Chinese multi-course meal.
Koh Yao Noi (Little Long Island)
Of the many islands in the south we chose Koh Yao Noi because it is one of the least populated and quite secluded, and because of that very beautiful and peaceful (The really ridiculous Kho Pi Pi is the Bazzaro version of this island.) We took a 45 minuted ferry ride from Krabi and stayed in some bungalows right on the beach. We paid a fisherman to get us some seafood, which he went out and caught (huge shrimp, crabs, and a couple of big fish) and the bungalow people cooked them up for us. Right down the road from us is the one big resort on the island the Sixth Sense where you can pay up to 400,000 baht per night (about $13,000). Our accommodations were a little more modest, about $30 a night, but I bet they didn’t have a better seafood dinner than we did. And we shared basically the same cost line, did the same island hopping, and swam in the same warm sea. It was great to be in the Andaman Sea again.
There are lots of dams in Thailand. Because of the recent flood I am sure a number of more have been planned. But there are few in as beautiful surrounding as the Rajjaprabha Dam in Suratani. It has created a huge lake about 80 kilometers long and the forest surrounding it is mostly national parks. Tapirs, jungle cats, sanbar deer, sun bears, and wild elephants inhabit the area. I heard gibbons in the tress for the first time in over 30 years. Just that sound alone made my whole trip worthwhile.
There are a series of floating bungalows on rafts about an hours boat ride into the lake. The water was warm and crystal clear where you can swim and canoe, and the strangely shaped mountains sticking out of the water reminds one of Kui Lin China (although most people who have been to both say the Thai version is more beautiful). We also took a half hour hike through some forests, got in a bamboo raft, and visited a secluded limestone cave that has to be the most beautiful in Thailand. For dinner we had some great tasting giant gourami fish that have been release into the lake. Another feast, and all in all a great end to our southern sojourn.
Interestingly enough, in our 10 days of travel, with the exception of one very drunk Russian family who shared our floating bungalow at the dam, we encountered only a half dozen westerners. Kind of refreshing. I almost forgot the cost. Including air fare, hotels, restaurants (lots of them) and the van and driver for 10 days, the cost of our vacation was approximately $35 per day each. As we say in New York “I could’a stood at home” and I wouldn’t have spent much less.
Future travel plans
Our next stop will probably be Mandalay (where the flying fishes play), or maybe Viet Nam, or maybe southern China. But now I think after an organized vacation, we are going back to traveling on our own again.
We may be old and we may be retired but wouldn’t the people back home think you were cool if someone asked,
“Hey, where is Uncle Huey right now?”
“Oh, it’s Tuesday, He must be in Kathmandu.”