Floating bungalows at Khao Sok National Park

Christmas in Southern Thailand

It takes a while to hit your travel groove even if you have done this many times before and are on the road with a well-travelled missus. Traveling asks different questions of any relationship as normal routines are cast aside and replaced by much more uncertainty than at home. I reckon it took Laura and me a good four months before we hit our travel stride. Now, eight months in, we intuitively know what works for us and what doesn’t. We know the hotels that work, the food we want, the pace that suits us best, and the type of experiences that excite us most. Certainly, what excites us most has surprised us a lot. For sure, we never thought we would spend much time at the beach and in the water. But, that is the point of travel- to try something new.

Oddly, I reckon the worst people to travel with are people who are already on a long trip. We are very settled on a particular way of traveling and that may not jive with the needs and desires of others. Occasionally, we have hooked up with people heading in the same direction for companionship (Everest trek) and sharing costs (the Pamir Highway, visiting the ancient forts of Khorezm). Traveling with people who are flying in to join you for a short segment of the trip has its own challenges. But, that is what Laura’s mom and sister, Peggy and Kelsey, signed up for when they let us know they wanted to visit us over Christmas and New Year holidays. Where previously we would change a flight at 24 hours notice and head to a different country than planned we would now have to be sympathetic to those who needed a more rigid schedule. Obviously, those on shorter trips want to maximize what they can see or do, so the pace would be faster. We would probably need to change our eating habits too. We were happy to eat at grubby street stalls maybe in the mistaken belief that we had built up resistance to local bugs but Mama and Kelsey would probably want to be a tad more conservative. Although Peggy had experienced the gnarliest of toilets when she joined us in Tibet seven years ago, I think it is fair to say that there was a preference for good clean Western toilets this time. So, the quality of hotel and cost would go up. Finally, we all had different opinions on where to go and what to do.

We were originally going to be in mainland Southeast Asia in December-February so we decided to stick with that plan. I suggested we go to Myanmar or Cambodia since both countries were exciting destinations with the guarantee of memorable sites such as Bagan and Angkor. Surprisingly, given the fame and magnificence of Angkor, Cambodia was quickly discounted. The typical travel destinations in Myanmar seemed to have hit the right chord with everyone but, in addition, Peggy wanted to see some wildlife and snorkel, and Kelsey, an avid diver to say the least, wanted to hit a few scuba spots. Myanmar does offer all this but at considerable cost. So, we suggested to Kelsey that we dive in Thailand in the Andaman Sea, and to Peggy, we offered a chance to visit Khao Sok National Park. A flurry of emails confirmed that a two country trip would work. But, then we had to figure out how to fit in Inle Lake and Bagan in Myanmar and work around the fact that Peggy and Kelsey would be flying in and out on different days. In addition, a lot of the logistics for the trip would have to be sorted out by P and K from the US since we would be out of email range in Nepal and Indonesia for most of the 6 weeks before meeting up. Phew! Ah, then there was the budget busting option of ballooning over Bagan. Ballooning sounded fantastic but when you are on the road for a long time you continually make cost-benefit analyses for different experiences. For us, the cost of ballooning for one hour was equivalent to spending 20 days in the Togean Islands. OK, Peggy offered to treat us but it seemed wrong somehow to allow someone to pay for something we would not have paid for ourselves.

Kelsey took on the task of researching and booking hotels. She suggested we use the excellent app, Splitwise, so that we could keep track of expenditures. Peggy booked internal travel for Myanmar. She used the Myanmar online travel agent Oway to book flights from Yangon to Bagan, and buses from Bagan to Mandalay. We dropped Inle from the schedule to avoid overnight buses and too hectic a trip. It was actually quite nice to not have to think about booking hotels, flights, and buses for a couple of weeks. In addition, it gave Peggy and Kelsey a little insight into our daily routines on the road.

So, this is how it finally panned out. We would meet up with Peggy on December 21 and spend Dec 21-22 chilling out on the beaches of Krabi and Railay. Dec 23-25 would be spent in Khao Sok National Park. We would meet up with Kelsey in Krabi on the 26th and spend Dec 26-30 on Ko Lanta for diving and snorkeling. On New Year’s Eve we would fly to Yangon to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. New Years Day we would fly to Bagan to spend three days around the temple zone. Jan 4-6 would be spent in Mandalay before Peggy flew out on Jan 7. Kelsey was flying out on the 9th so we still had to figure out something to do for the last couple of days. The problem with Myanmar is that the major sites to see are far apart and transport connections slow. Oh well! We will work out the last two days when we get nearer to the date.

All looked good on paper but how would it pan out in reality? It was certainly a more hectic schedule than we were used to but overall most things went to plan and we seemed to make a good team on the road.

Meeting up with Mama

Given the unreliability of Indonesian airlines, we were taking a slight risk flying into Krabi from the Banda Islands the same day as Peggy flew in from Alaska. We had a few scares on the way but we got into Krabi an hour before Peggy’s flight landed. It had taken Mama the best part of two days to get out here but she was surprisingly chipper on arrival. It wasn’t long before Peggy was introduced to the occasional lunacy of travel in Asia. We picked up a taxi from the airport but after two minutes we were transferred to another van. We had no idea what was going on, and worse, the driver seemed a little crazy. He lurched out of the airport at high speed and for the next hour he barked (literally), yelled, and muttered to himself. His whole body twitched and his facial tics were terrifying. He either had Tourettes or was a meth head. Ugh! This is not good. Peggy either took it in her stride or, more likely, was oblivious to the lunacy at the driving wheel. I had put the route to the hotel into Google Maps so at least I knew we were heading in the right direction. An hour or so later we swung into Krabi Nemo Resort. All good… except we were staying at Krabi Nemo House! The driver gesticulated, muttered, and twitched and mentioned something about 100 baht more to take us there. We ignored him, piled back into the van, and 50 metres further on we found our hotel for the night. We ignored his persistent rantings about the extra money..and despite feeling bad I had denied him his next meth fix…a deal is a deal!

…and, within five minutes of arriving Santa turned up a day or two early! Santa looked suspiciously like Peggy and had clearly read our minds. We opened our presents to find chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. Eight bars of fine organic, fairly traded chocolate from our favorite Seattle chocolateria, Theo’s. We had been deprived of decent chocolate for the whole trip so we dived in like the spawn of Augustus Gloop!


Mama had also brought us some oat bran (to keep us regular!), some quinoa chocolate clusters, and a pile of books by CJ Sansom, our new favorite author. I am assuming my Reuben’s IPA awaits at home! It was good to get some superfoods in our bellies since we had missed out on these middle class staples for several months now!

The hotel was a little ways from the beach but the owners run a shuttle there until late into the night. Even better, our host gave us a cell phone for the next couple of days so we could get picked up when we wanted to head back.

The beaches of Ao Nang and Railay

Longtail boats. Railay
Longtail boats on Railay beach.

We had decided that a couple of days relaxing on the beach would be the ideal way to get over any jet lag and get used to the more hectic resorts of Thailand. I think we saw more travelers in our restaurant the first night than we had seen in Maluku in three weeks!


The Krabi area is renowned for its beautiful white sand beaches and stunning karst scenery so on day two, we headed out on a longtail boat to the Railay headland to check it out for ourselves. Railay has four main beaches and four distinct flavors- climbing mecca, exclusive resort retreat, flash packer haunt and grubbier reggae bar strip. We headed out to the flash packer scene on West Railay. It was ferociously hot and shade was at a premium. The beach wasn’t too crowded but most were sheltering under the tiny bits of shade afforded by the line of palm trees at the top of the beach. The sea was placid and clean although the visibility was poor. No big deal since the area was devoid of coral and beasties. I got in a bit of swimming practice and was pleased with my progress after my exertions in Banda. Peggy and Laura floated off into the briny to limber up the limbs after hours of flying and no doubt catch up on the latest hometown gossip.

Khao Sok National Park

Boardwalk. Cheow Lan lake
Floating bungalows at Cheow Lan Lake.

Some of our favorite animals at our local zoo, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, were the charismatic and noisy hornbills. Not sure why we were so captivated by them but no visit was complete without checking them out. Maybe we loved them because they acted and looked so goofy!

The reason we support the zoo is that it is committed to numerous conservation programs throughout the world. The zoo partners with Khao Sok National Park on a Hornbill Conservation program so it seemed appropriate to visit as we were in the area. The park has two main sections- an area of forest trails where the main Khao Sok village is based and the flooded karst wonderland centered on a man-made lake. We stayed at the splendid Khao Sok Cabana Resort in the village, which was set in a lovely area of tropical woodland and was soundtracked by the noisy gibbons that are endemic to the region. We did a short unguided walk in the park, which was pleasant despite being seemingly devoid of wildlife. You can walk further into the park with a guide but we arrived too late in the day for that to be a viable option.

The next day, Christmas Eve, we headed out to the lake for a 2 day/1 night stay in a floating cabana. The lake was created by the damming of a river, which flooded a massive area of karst landscape. I can imagine at the time that it was fairly controversial since the land was outstandingly beautiful and full of wild beasts. However, over the years the beasts have reestablished themselves and there is no denying that the resultant lake is serenely beautiful. Our trip organizers, Our Jungle House, had picked the most remote floating cabana resort for our stay on the lake so we had quite a boat ride out there. The cabanas were remote but we were still sharing the resort with 40 or more tourists. The cabanas were charmingly rustic and Mama’s shack seemed like it was perilously listing to one side. There was enough room in each cabana for one bed and little else. The toilets and showers were in a separate floating unit with a moderately sketchy walkway to get there. Pooping in a storm would not be fun!

Limestone viewpoint. Khao Sok
The karst hills of Khao Sok National Park.

The karst scenery was utterly sublime. Huge cliffs of limestone covered in jungle soared out of the waters. In fact, I thought the area was more spectacular than the world famous Ha Long/Lan Ha karst wonderland off the coast of Northern Vietnam. After lunch, a smorgasbord of Thai delights, we headed out on the boat to hit one of the spectacular view points that are dotted around the lake. The walk was only a mile or so, so we figured that Mama would be cool with it. What we didn’t realize was that the final third of the walk was a clamber up some steep, slippery, and jagged karst. Mama will readily admit she ain’t one for climbing and doesn’t have the best head for heights but she pushed on impressively to the summit. And, she will also tell you that despite the odd bit of vertigo it was certainly worth it! The view was truly fantastic. We even saw a magnificent wreathed hornbill soaring over the canopy below us. This is the first time we had seen one of these splendid birds from above.

We had picked up rain ponchos in the market on the way to the lake and the gods made sure that the money wasn’t wasted! As soon as we reached the boat, the heavens opened and we pounded by a downpour of biblical proportions! Back at base in the evening, we sat with our group for a tasty Christmas Eve dinner and some amiable conversation with a couple of Welsh honeymooners. We even managed to chat about British politics without tempers rising!

Morning calm... would you guess it rained all night? Khao Sok
Perfect calm on the lake the next morning.

The next day was to provide us with our finest and most exciting moments in the park. We headed back onto the boat for a pre-breakfast safari. A few minutes after leaving the dock, we saw one Great Hornbill, then another, then another… In the end, we counted nine. They were heading for a giant fig tree for their morning feed. We followed them to the shore and watched them eat for an hour or so. Soon after they arrived at the tree, they were joined by a large group of gibbons. Figs are evidently their breakfast of choice, too. We hadn’t used our binoculars much on this trip but they were invaluable now. We headed round the island to watch the shenanigans from the other side of the tree and the Christmas presents kept on coming! We saw Oriental Pied and Wreathed Hornbills too. We have a pretty good record seeing hornbills. Every time we have tried to find them we succeed but this was the best sighting yet. Happy Christmas, indeed!

Great hornbill. Khao Sok
Great hornbill in flight.

After breakfast, Peggy and Laura headed out into the water for a swim and a kayak. The water was too deep for me to swim, and my ass too lazy to kayak.

Kayaking. Khao SOk
Laura and Peggy kayaking on the lake.

Kantiang Bay, Ko Lanta

Ko Lanta National Park
Ko Lanta National Park just south of Kantiang Bay.

After a quick stopover at Khao Sok Cabana Resort, we headed back to Krabi Airport to pick up Kelsey. Our destination for the next four days was Kantiang Bay on Ko Lanta. Laura and Kelsey wanted to dive together for the first time so they chose Ko Lanta for its proximity to one of Thailand’s premier dive spots, Hin Deang and Hin Mueang, a regular haunt of Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. We were hoping to jump on a boat and snorkel off Ko Rok so Paul and Mama could get some underwater life too. We had visited some fabulous eateries on Ko Lanta on our last visit there, so we were looking forward to introducing Kelsey and Mama to some fine Thai fare.

Kantiang is a majestic curved bay of clear turquoise waters fringed by soft white sand. It is a fair distance to the main action on the island but its relative remoteness means it has a more pleasant villagey vibe than most Thai beach resorts. We stayed at the charming Cashewnut Tree bungalows, a short walk from the beach. Kantiang has a number of really fantastic cheap restaurants. The Drunken Sailor served up delicious muesli/fruit/yoghurt and fresh coffee for breakfast and the spicy massaman curry hit the spot for dinner. The Blue Spoon, attached to our hotel, also served up mean Thai dishes cooked up by an English chef. The Rock N Roll Pad Thai Cafe served up exactly what it says on the tin… tasty Pad Thai in a music themed space plus they whipped up the best fruit smoothies on the bay. The Bad Penny pub mixed up a boozy cocktail on my birthday and even had the good grace to blast out Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ for me the day I found out that Lemmy had passed away.

In fact, the only thing to spoil our idyll in the sun was the weather. For sure, it was clear, warm, and sunny but unusually for this time of year it was also ridiculously windy. It’s not quite so much fun sitting on a beach, while being brutally exfoliated by sand and wind! To add to the general discomfort, the jellyfish were stinging butts and legs in the sea too. The strong winds were to continue for our entire stay at Kantiang and this also had an impact on K and L’s diving plans.

Diving in the Andaman Sea (by Laura)

Sisters underwater

Laura and Kelsey diving the Andaman Sea near Ko Lanta.

When we started planning the holiday trip, one of the first things Kelsey asked is if we could go diving together. We had been talking about just visiting Myanmar, but the only diving available there is by expensive liveaboard on the Myeik archipelago. It looks spectacular, but liveaboard trips are way above our budget and wouldn’t offer much for the non-divers. I did my Open Water course on Ko Lanta back in October with a great dive outfit, Blue Planet. Ko Lanta is a pleasant place and it’s the closest spot to Thailand’s famed dive sites, Hin Deang and Hin Mueang, where there’s a good chance of seeing manta rays and whale sharks. So, we rejigged the holiday trip to allow me and Kelsey to get in some diving in the Andaman Sea. We booked two days of diving with Blue Planet.

Paul and I had fantastic luck with weather for a couple of months before we got to Thailand. Too bad that didn’t last when Kelsey showed up! Kelsey and I were picked up from our hotel at 6:00 AM for the long speedboat trip to Hin Deang and Hin Mueang, which are way out in the open ocean southwest of Ko Lanta. As I dozed on the boat, I noticed the waves getting bigger and bigger. Bang! Bounce! The waves were jolting me on and off the bench. I was grateful for the antiseasickness tablets that the boatmaster had passed out as we pulled out of the harbor. Without them, I would have been puking over the railing. I was jolted awake by the boatmaster making an announcement. “Due to the high winds and rough seas, the captain has decided that it is unsafe to continue to our destination.” Argh! My visions of swimming with manta rays dissolved.

As an alternative, we did three dives in the calmer seas around Ko Haa. We didn’t see any big animals, but there was a lot of interesting macro life. The dives we did on the second day were similar: no big sightings, but some interesting things close up. One highlight was the purpose-sunk Kaed Klew wreck dive. The low visibility gave the site a spooky feeling. The ship was crawling with lionfish that put on some fantastic displays with their fins. On another dive, we saw a gigantic, gnarly old pufferfish lurking behind a coral shelf. It was at least three feet long, by far the biggest pufferfish I’ve seen. We also had a sighting of a cuttlefish, one of my underwater favorites, changing color with ripples of electric blue around its body.

The dive trips gave us a chance to admire southern Thailand’s karst formations both above and below the surface. Each dive was near a small karst island of the type that dot the Andaman coast. We also got to dive into a submerged cavern below one of the islands and swim through a narrow tunnel.

It was also a lot of fun to dive with Kelsey for the first time. My little sister has clocked up a lot of dive experience but she was patient with this novice! She is also well-practiced with the underwater camera. I would often turn around to see her upside down over a lump of coral, fins pointing towards the surface, composing a macro shot. Here are a few of her shots.

Underwater passageway.
Underwater passageway. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

Dive boat and karst islet.
Dive boat and karst islet. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

Cuttlefish and butterflyfish
Cuttlefish and butterflyfish. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

Big, old pufferfish
Old pufferfish. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

Lionfish
Lionfish. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

A couple of days with Mama P

While the sisters were out diving, I was responsible for keeping Mama entertained. I figured that guzzling down cocktails at the Bad Penny was a no go so we decided on a day on the beach for day one and a trip to Old Lanta town for day two. Old Lanta was a pleasant enough spot. The town is centred on a strip of historic stilt houses built over the sea. One end of the strip was pretty much all tourist shops and restaurants. The town is well preserved but has a somewhat Disneyland Main St feel about it. It was a good place though for Mama to stock up on souvenirs for family and friends. After lunch, we headed out to the daily market on the way back to the Bay to pick up some fresh fruit. We found some tasty jackfruit and longans for the divers and Mama bought me a fat chunk of durian for a birthday treat.

We met up with the divers in Ban Saladan, the main town on the island, for my birthday dinner at one of our favorite haunts from our previous trip here, the Bai Fern restaurant. We had arranged for an aperitif at the Fat Pig restaurant a couple of doors down. Sadly, it was closed for the night so we had to wait one more day for their divine mango mojitos. We made do with a quick trip to Not-a-Toy cafe for some of the finest coffee in Thailand. We had been longing for the tofu Massaman curry at Bai Fern for months and it did not disappoint. A sumptuous stew of velvety tofu coated in a thick sauce of tamarind, nutmeg, galangal, lemon grass and cinnamon. It’s making my mouth water just thinking about it! Bai Fern serves up fine smoothies too- mango for me and coconut for Laura. Yum!


We made a mad dash to Fat Pig the next day for a quick livener of mango mojitos before jumping into the bus to Krabi.

Krabi- the Night Market

Vendor of spicy Thai food. Night market, Krabi
Vendor of spicy Thai Muslim food at the night market.

We were overnighting in Krabi Town before our flight out to Yangon the next day. The hotel was a wonderfully seedy spot, seemingly taken over by a few ladyboys and crossdressers for the night. We didn’t have much time to check out the town but the night market was good value for food and tropical fruit. We grabbed a few plates of fine Thai Muslim food for less than couple of dollars each and headed back to the hotel to grab a few hours sleep.

So far so good. We had been traveling with Peggy for 10 days and Kelsey for 4 days and aside from the odd belly ache and a little bout of dehydration all was going well. Thailand is a well-traveled destination used to coping with the needs of millions of tourists but Myanmar, our next destination, was likely to be a little tougher going.

Photos

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