A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand

Railay's Redeeming Features

Rock-climbing and Snorkeling in a Paradise gone Posh.

sunny 85 °F

Like I mentioned in the last post, Sam and I had been really excited about spending some time in Railay. We'd read about it and watched a few YouTube videos that made it sound pretty low key and relaxed. I had envisioned a beach lined with rustic bungalows and hippies, backpackers and rock-climbers lounging around. It's our own fault for being misinformed and for coming in peak tourist season, but we were surprisingly disappointed by what we found in Railay instead. And we weren't the only ones taken by surprise, over the few days we spent there we saw plenty of backpackers running around wide-eyed, soaked in sweat and asking where the cheap bungalows could be found. (Sorry, man they're all full! I know! Bummer!)

Apparently, the whole area has become a choice destination for Europeans on holiday. And with that status comes over-development, inflated room rates and hordes of tourists with wailing children in tow. They have just as much right to enjoy those stunning beaches as anyone, but this wasn't the Railay we had been looking forward to. However, if you can manage to look past the crowds and get over the fact that you're spending half of your daily budget on accommodation, Railay really is a beautiful place with a lot to offer.

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Rock Climbing

Our first night in Railay was a write-off. Both Sam and I were nursing headaches from not eating or drinking enough water during the bus trip and after a little nap we had the energy to search out some fried rice and that was about it for the night. The next day, feeling recharged and happy about having been able to move to a larger, better lit room (with windows and everything!) we were off to a much better start. I set out to find someone to teach me rock-climbing -- Railay is said to have some of the best climbing in the world, one of the major reasons I wanted to visit -- and by that afternoon I was headed to "1, 2, 3 Wall" with some laid back local guys from a shop called Real Rock.

At the wall I was introduced to my instructor, Len, who was busy belaying for one of two brothers from Pittsburgh who I was climbing with for the day. There really wasn't much instruction before I got started but I'm more of a learn-by-doing type of guy anyway so it suited me just fine. Len showed me how to tie in my harness properly and told me to have at it. I took a deep breath and scanned the rock in front of me while I chalked my hands up for the first time. This was supposed to be an easy climb and for not having done any real rock-climbing before I thought I pulled it off pretty gracefully. I found myself rushing through the first part, my adrenaline started pumping and I had a little bit of tunnel vision where all I was thinking about what getting up and getting back down as quickly as possible. It's an interesting feeling to be clinging to a rock with nothing keeping you off the ground except your own skills and a rope tied to a stranger on the ground below you. I slipped a couple of times but Len was always quick to stop my fall and shout suggestions on what my next move should be. As I became more confident in him and myself I was able to slow down, enjoy the feeling of raw physical activity and even turn around and take in the view a couple of times, which even from only 30-40 feet up was spectacular.

Our group spent the afternoon completing increasingly difficult climbs around that same rock. I was able to finish all of them but the last one. It was the longest and hardest climb of the day. I was exhausted just looking at it.

"Just go straight up!" Len offered. Soooo much easier said than done, but I gave it a go. I made it about 30-35 feet up, around 3/4 of the way to the top. At that point I was hanging on by two footholds deep enough for the tips of my shoes and a sliver of rock large enough to grip with three fingertips. From there with was a long stretch to the next decent hand hold. I gave it my best in four or five tries and then just hung there looking up at the last 10ft of the climb. My knees marked with the bruises and scrapes of an inexperienced climber and aching from neck to toe, I called it a day. Maybe on a new day I could make that last ten feet, but it definitely wasn't happening that afternoon.
I yelled to Len, "I'm dead."

Snorkeling

I would love to do some more rock climbing and there is plenty of it to be done in Railay, but we had limited time there and I was so sore the next day I didn't think it would have been worth my time to even attempt it. Instead, Sam and I had a lazy breakfast and strolled up to Diamond Cave -- a shallow limestone cave just a short walk from the beaches -- where we poked around for awhile before meeting up with a snorkeling tour that afternoon.

We hopped on a large longtail with about 15 other people and spent the rest of the day being carted to a handful of snorkeling spots around some of the smaller islands about an hour boat-ride from the mainland of Railay. The snorkeling was enjoyable everywhere we went despite poor visibility. We spotted quite a bit of wildlife including a lot of clown fish, banner fish, butterfly fish, grouper, barracuda, box fish and a bunch of other stuff I can't put a name to. There was also one moment when the schools of fish around us exploded in what I thought might be panic. They shot past us in a blur and I turned the direction they had come from hoping to see a shark. I kicked a few times in that direction and saw a large tail fin flash into my range of visibility and then disappear. I grabbed Sam, hoping to share a sighting with her since it's a goal of ours to see a shark, but whatever I saw was probably long gone by the time I looked back and we didn't have anymore close encounters :( .

That evening we headed to an island beach where we watched between two rock formations as the sun set on the horizon. In the waning light the sky and water were matching swirls of blues, purples and pinks. Overhead, a steady stream of massive fruit bats dotted the sky between the cliffs and the mainland. It was a surreal moment neither Sam or I could capture properly on film and could only stand and watch in awe. Pictures just can't do a scene like that justice.

Here are a couple anyway:
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We ate a quick meal of spicy green curry on the beach and boarded the boat for our last stop. We approached a rock cliff that looked a lot like the others we'd coasted past throughout the day, but as the boat sliced nearer to the formation our wake began to roll out in shimmering blues and greens as it peeled away from the boat. The water there was full of a bioluminescent algae that lights up when the water is disturbed. When everyone was prepped and in the water, the boatman killed the lone light on the longtail and we were left in the shadow of the cliff. Here, shielded from the moonlight, the algae danced brilliantly with each kick or swing of an arm. We were suspended there in what our guide described as "stars above and stars below". I couldn't have said it better myself. We treaded water for about ten minutes there. Each of us thrashing around in the water, shrouded in our individual clouds of neon specks and enjoying the natural light show before climbing into the boat for the chilly ride back to shore.

Sam and I both enjoy they outdoors and the more nature-y things in SEA never seem to disappoint. In this case, Railay may not have been the laid-back retreat we had imagined, but it is undeniably beautiful. A couple of days spent clinging to a rock and snorkeling out among the many islands and cliffs away from the crowds was enough for Railay to redeem itself and leave us with a favorable opinion.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 01:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged cliffs sunset accommodation nature beach hotel thailand krabi sun west rock tour climbing tourists set east limestone snorkeling expensive railay longtail peak bungalows prices overpriced real_rock diamond_cave fruit_bats Comments (0)

Railay or Bust

A race against nausea and heat-exhaustion.

sunny 82 °F

With our desire to do some more SCUBA diving satisfied, Sam and I got an early start on leaving Koh Phangan the next morning. Our next destination: Railay Beach, one of the places I'd been most excited about visiting since we started planning this trip. We knew it was going to be a grueling trip -- it ended up being just over 11 hours by tuk-tuk, catamaran, bus and long-tail boat -- but keeping in mind postcard-perfect visions of sun-soaked white beaches and sapphire tides stretched between towers of jungle-capped limestone cliffs, we set out. Travel in Thailand up to that point had been fairly easy and pleasant compared to some horror stories we'd read from other travelers, but we were about to have a little experience of our own.

One option for travel here is to buy what the call a "joint ticket" which includes the bus, boat, taxi or whatever it takes to get from A to B for one price. We'd heard that some of the buses in those packages were "scams", on which peoples bags were looted and frequent stops were made so shop owners could hassle riders to buy something. We decided to forgo the package deal, get to the mainland and make our own way via the government buses which we had read were supposed to be safer, cheaper and nicer. So we took a Songserm slow boat from Koh Phangan to a small pier on the mainland with nothing around it but a ticket booth and a food stand. We were told there was a mini-bus on the way to take us into Surat Thani town, so we set our things down to wait and a few people bought some food and snacks from the only available option. After everybody was finished buying food, a guy who had been there since we showed up stood and announced that the mini-bus (which had been there the whole time) was ready. We've learned since then that buses in Thailand and Cambodia stop VERY often at food stands/ small shops. I can't decide if stops like this are a courtesy to the riders or if the bus companies get some kind of commission for bringing in customers, maybe a little of both. Either way it's a little annoying for a couple of westerners who are used to things running fairly efficiently and on-time.

Anyway, we made it to Surat Thani, where we set to work trying to find the government-run bus station that, as far as we learned, does not exist. It's actually just a street lined with buses of varying colors and shops that sell over-priced tickets. To get the best deal you have to find the correct bus and avoid getting suckered into buying a ticket while you're at it. There are plenty of people on the sidewalk assuring you that their friend runs the shop that sells the ticket you need. It's best to just ask them which bus you'll be riding and then go directly to the bus. The driver will sell you the ticket without the middle-man mark up. Even direct from the bus driver, prices can vary. Sam and I paid 200B each, the girls in the seats next to us bought from the same guy and paid 250B each. A Swedish couple we met had bought through one of the travel agency shops lining the street and they paid 500B each! And this is the bus that we thought was supposed to be legit!

As expected, the bus ride was awful. By the time we boarded the bus only the back seats, where you get none of the a/c, were available. But we had it better than the girl in the seat next to me. Things were fine for her until we started moving and some hidden reservoir of stale water cascaded from the ceiling into her lap. She patched it up with some first-aid supplies and the rest of the trip was uneventful; boring except for the continuous game of trying to keep from passing out or throwing up from the mix of heat and blaring Thai pop music.

The road signs for Krabi were a welcome relief, from there we were expecting to catch a long-tail to take us to Railay, but that would have been too easy. We pulled into town and everyone got off, except the six foreigners who were told this wasn't our stop. Instead we were driven to a coincidentally inconvenient spot about a mile out of town. When the Swedish man confronted the bus crew as to why we couldn't get off in town he was told "That stop Thai people only. You stop here." "Here" happened to be nothing more than a three-walled shelter with a few desks occupied by smiling travel agents eager to tell us the "more better" way to get to our destination. With no other option at this point Sam and I pooled together with the two Slovenian girls to take a cab to Ao Nang beach, where we hopped in a longtail for the short ride to Railay Beach West.

It was about 5pm when we arrived and we headed for the more backpacker-affordable accommodation on Railay Beach East, which is about a 5-10 minute walk from Railay West. We soon found out that this happened to be the weekend of the Chinese New Year. The combination of the holiday and the beginning of the tourist season meant ALL of the budget accommodation was booked by the time we got there. Sam camped out at a little juice shop with our packs and I ran around for a good hour or so trying to find a place we could afford. I finally found a place, a little windowless brick room big enough for a bed, it was ridiculously over-priced but it was the best we could do. Dehydrated, hungry, head aching and soaked with sweat, I took the room. I found Sam and lead her back to our home for the night, we both immediatley collapsed on the bed where we laid in the dark for few hours before even considering our next move.

I think it's a requirement to have at least a couple terrible travel experiences while in SEA. Ours wasn't as bad as some we've hear about but here's hoping it's the worst we'll have to deal with. At least it makes for an interesting memory.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 01:20 Archived in Thailand Tagged boats boat travel bus longtail koh_phangan scam ao_nang getting_around how_to_get_around surat_thani krabbi bus_ticketrailay frequent_stops scam_bus joint_ticket Comments (0)

SCUBA Diving in Thailand, Take 2

In hunt of the elusive Whale Shark

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After a few days at Bottle Beach, my head/chest cold was almost gone. And I felt confident enough to go diving within the next couple of days. (Can't dive with sinus issues.)

Along with 14 other tourists, we headed over to Chaloklum Bay -- a small and, at times, beautiful fishing village on the north side of Koh Phangan. We booked two dives with Chaloklum Diving at the famous site Sail Rock.

We didn't bring our cameras, so here's someone else's photo. Thanks Brianlegg.

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Sail Rock is an intimidating (to the novice diver) pinnacle that rises out of the Gulf of Thailand between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan. It's often hailed as some of the best diving in the Gulf of Thailand as the sides of the rock are coated in all kinds of coral, soft sponges and clams and lots of fish hang out there. A divemaster at Chaloklum called it "fish soup out there." Most divers come to Sail Rock in hopes of seeing the elusive whale sharks that often hang out near the rock. According to our divemaster, the whale shark enjoys "scratching his back" on one of the pinnacles. There's also a chimney, or hole within the rock, that divers can swim up from 18 m and exit at 10 m.

After about an hour on the boat, we reached Sail Rock. It was pretty intense, seeing this giant rock just looming in the middle of the ocean. But our instructor, Kris, a French girl with a heavy accent, was a no nonsense kind of instructor. Into our suits and equipment and into the water we went, leaving me little time to change my mind about going under.

We snorkelled over to the rock and prepared to descend. But as I looked down into the water, checking my mask's seal, I could see incredibly far down. I could see the bubbles from the other divers below floating up. "That looks awesome," Avery said. I did not feel the same way. I fiddled with my mask for what seemed like forever until I had built the courage to deflate my BC vest. I gave Kris the okay symbol, pressed the deflate button and down we sunk.

This is the worst part of the dive for me. First, I'm trying to control my breathing. Secondly, I'm trying to control my body's urge to swim for the surface. It's amazing how loud those primitive survival instincts can be. And thirdly, I get all anxious about letting too much or not enough air out of my BC, causing a nasty crash into the coral below.

But then, I stop sinking. I get my breathing under control. And I have that wonderful sensation one gets from having a dream about flying. I'm suspended in the water, watching the fish swim by. Then I flop over on my stomach and kick in long, slow sweeps. I listen to the air leave my regulator, fill my lungs, then watch the bubbles float up as I exhale. SCUBA diving is truly wonderful once one gets the hang of it.

So anyway, we descend, slowly circling the massive rock that grows even larger under the water. Though the visibility is shit (only 5-7 meters), it's still amazing. Their is life all around us. Sail Rock is covered with the most beautiful coral and sponges. We saw quite a few maroon clown fish families swimming the anemones on the rock as well.

We continued to circle the rock, heading further and further under the surface. I'm not sure how many times I had to equalize my ears. But I remember it was a lot. We eventually got down to 18 meters.

While farther from the surface, we met up with three divers who were intently staring at the coral on the rock. We turned to see what they were staring at. There, on the surface of the coral, a yellow moray eel moved across the coral, sweeping along like a snake in S-shaped movements.

Avery, Kris and I just watched it as it moved, opening and closing its mouth to allow the water to pass over its gills. Despite being so far under the water, the eel's colour was bright like a ripe banana. (FUN FACT: This was actually a green moray eel, but they have a mucous coating that gives them the yellow color!) Moray eels are the only sea creatures that truly creep me out. I'd rather encounter a shark than an eel. I thought that if I ever encountered one while diving, I would surely swim away, thinking about how the bite from a moray eel will fester for weeks because their mouths are absolutely filthy, full of bacteria.

Example given (Thanks Cameron Park Zoo for the photo):

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But, in that moment, all I could do was stare in wonder and amazement at this creature wiggling before me. I wasn't afraid, just in awe. Granted, this was a really small eel. If it had been a full grown adult, I'm sure I would have kicked my ass all the way to Koh Tao. Anyway...

We also saw a lot of beautiful schooling fish around the rock, like banner fish, barracuda, huge batfish, and, oh yes, the triggerfish. Before the dive, Kris warned us about the territorial triggerfish that hang out at Sail Rock. They can get very large and can be very aggressive. If you're diving and see a triggerfish on your right and a reef shark on your left, swim to the left. Triggerfish bite. Hard.

So at least five times while we were diving, Kris would give us the hand signal for triggerfish, which is, you guessed it, like shooting a gun. Then we would flip on our backs and swim backwards with our fins kicking pointing at the triggerfish. This way, he would bite our fins instead of our bodies.

That got annoying real fast. Every time we would see something cool on the reef, it seemed like a stupid triggerfish would swim our way, and we'd have to swim away. Damn triggerfish. But a quick Google search reveals the fish do attack recreational divers quite often. Oof. Terrifying. Those suckers are huge. Here's a picture, compliments of Ze Eduardo:

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And here's a video of a triggerfish attack.

And, alas, no whale shark sightings that day. But it was still an amazing experience. We did two 40-minute dives that day. After that second dive, I decided I really enjoy it. I hear there are some good sites in Vietnam, so I'm really looking forward to being able to do it again!

I also got a wicked wetsuit tan that shows no sign of disappearing...sigh.

Over and out.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 04:44 Archived in Thailand Tagged fish diving thailand scuba scuba_diving reef phangan coral koh_tao koh_phangan moray_eel whale_shark sail_rock Comments (2)

Tropical Fungus in My Lung Tissues

Plus, A Beautiful Beach

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So, as Avery mentioned, I had come down with some strange chest/head cold after staying in the moldy bungalows of PBR. This caused the hypochondriac in me to rise up. What if I have some weird jungle mold growing in me, I thought. What if I never get over this? They'll say at my funeral, "Ah, yes. It was that tropical cough that killed her. Never got over it." (Why did I just say that in an Irish accent? Channeling some Angela's Ashes I guess.)

We checked out of PBR, and the resort owner oh so kindly ripped us off (600 Baht for a taxi ride!!!!) and drove us to the fishing town of Chaloklum. The whole time he talked about how great his resort is and how he is rated so high on Trip Adviser. All the while, I'm in the back of the pickup, wheezing my ass off and trying not to scream at him for giving me the moldy lung.

At the pier, we found a long tail to take us to Bottle Beach, which can only be accessed by boat (or a really really shitty road but it's expensive and time-consuming.) We were told we would have to wait for four more people to buy a ticket to BB, which is Thai for go eat at my restaurant, and when you're finished, we'll leave. So we did what we were told and ordered some fried rice. I ate it, sniffling, and mourning the loss of my youthful lungs. Beginning of the end, I thought. Stairs will never be the same after this.

After we had eaten, the boat was ready to go. (SURPRISE!) And, SURPRISE AGAIN, we were the only two in the boat. Whatever, at least the rice was good.

Thailand of My Dreams

We boarded the long tail boat, which was captioned by a little Thai man who was probably in his 50s. His skin was a deep chocolate brown, aged and tanned by presumably years spent on the deck of a boat. His dark blue cotton pants were rolled to his thighs. His facial features were small; eyes even smaller when he was squinting in the sun. Without a word of English, he instructed us to climb the ladder and sit down.

He started the engine, which may have once been used in a car, and lowered the propeller into the turquoise waters. The brightly colored hull slid through the waters as the driver skillfully navigated the small boat over the ocean's waves. As we left the bay, the island's peaks rose up around us. To our right, huge boulders met the ocean's waves. The water flowed in and out, revealing a multitude of barnacles and mussels with every recession.

The world around us was like a beautifully layered dessert. Below us, the ocean, rolling and moving like a sleeping giant. Then the boulders that edged the island's coast. Above the boulders, the ground rose faster and higher, covered by the greenest, lushest land I have ever seen. And finally, the topping of thick clouds that slowly moved in the sky, gracing the top of the hills surrounding us.

It was so incredibly beautiful. I'm at a loss for words, and the pictures can't capture the emotions that are created by the views. Absolutely breathtaking.

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Bottle Beach

After 30 minutes on the boat, we reached Bottle Beach. There's not much to Bottle Beach. It's a strip of sand, four bungalow resorts and four restaurants.

We stayed at Bottle Beach II for only 450 Baht. STEAL. At night we could hear the ocean. It took about 45 seconds to walk from our bungalow to the beach. I want to go back.

We spent 3 (or 4...who's counting?) days there. It was the perfect place for me to get over my moldy jungle lung issue. There was nothing to do but eat, sleep and lay on the beach. Internet was super expensive, so I voraciously devoured my book. I haven't done that in awhile. It felt nice to have time to read some Steinbeck.

Avery went snorkeling the day I sat by the pool and sulked. He had an amazing time. In the coral just off the beach, he saw a puffer fish the size of a FOOTBALL and a blue spotted ray! I am incredibly jealous. Stupid jungle mold.

So yeah, that's about it on Bottle Beach. Oh, right. The staff at Bottle Beach II are just amazing. They were some of the nicest hotel staff we have met on this trip. The front desk even gave me some free cold medicine while we were there. And every night, the servers at the restaurant would go all out with fire shows, singing, whatever. Very entertaining.

I loved Bottle Beach. It was the Thailand I had been dreaming of. Just a great beach located in a cove. No scooters, no cars, no annoying partiers. Just the people who really wanted to get away. And get away we did.

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 03:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches sand fun sun chill relaxing drinks tanning koh_phangan bottle_beach hang_out Comments (2)

Better Days in Ban Tai

Motorbikes, Muay Thai, Half Moon and Mold.

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Things keep moving along so fast! We changed out route so we're actually in Cambodia now rather than North Thailand -- SURPRISE! It's been a challenge to stay current with the blog but I'll pickup where Sam left off try to bring this up to speed.

First off, renting a motorbike is DEFINITELY the way to see a place. Or at least it is when you're on an island like Koh Pangan. We had a pretty bad impression of what the island had to offer the first night we were there because of our own ignorance of the best way to get around. In a town like Ban Tai where everything is sort of spread out, walking isn't much of an option and taxis will gouge you on fares because they know that. Anyway, we rented the bike through our resort for the equivalent of $6 for 24hrs, and had a much better second and third day there.

We took a cruise around town -- slowly, since it was the first time I'd driven a scooter like that -- and it went smoothly except for one little incident where I forgot which side of an alleyway I was supposed to be driving on. No accidents though, just a dirty look from a local. After that test run we hit one of the main roads and headed for a park on the interior of the island. There we found a nice hike past a waterfall up to a lookout point where we could see the jungle spread out beneath us and some neighboring islands in the distance. It was our first look at the denser forests the area had to offer and I'm pretty excited to do more trekking in the mountainous areas of North Thailand as well as Cambodia.

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That evening we headed to the night market where we joined the crowd shuffling around between the rows of food carts. Food markets are an awesome way to have a meal here. There's a huge variety of vendors in one place, it's about as authentic as you can get and it's all super cheap. We sampled from a few different carts and almost everything was up to par except for a deep fried snack labeled "Vegetable Ball" that I took a bite into before deciding it was probably made of chicken. Oh, well. I knew it would be a bit of a challenge to find legit vegetarian food on this trip and I'm sure it won't be the last time I'll have a mystery meat surprises. The night market experience came to an abrupt end when the power went out. The vendors were ready for it with their LED lights and candles but most of the crowd started to clear out pretty quickly.

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During the day we'd seen a few billboard trucks driving around blaring announcements about some Muay Thai happening that night and we decided to check it out. Muay Thai is a big sport in Thailand. It's a form of kickboxing and the whole experience was very entertaining. We navigated the muddy walkways around the ring and found a couple of spots to sit on the tiered metal bars they use as bleachers, it's really more like scaffolding. We sat through eight fights -- shrouded in cigarette smoke, surrounded by beer-clenching hooligans and gamblers cheering at every big hit and going wild for a knockout. I would do it again!

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The next day we took advantage of our scooter again, cruising up to the North part of the island for some snorkeling in the early afternoon. Sam was starting to feel a little rough and thought she might be getting a cold so we headed back to the hotel for a little recharge nap before heading to the Half Moon Party that night. I couldn't sleep so I headed to the beach for awhile and ended up meeting a friendly group of people from England who were heading to the party as well. Sam joined us when she woke up and shortly after we all headed into the jungle for the Half Moon. I don't know if I'm getting to old for this that type of thing or what, but I have to say I was a little disappointed. Granted I'm not the biggest fan of House music, but I can usually enjoy it when it's live. This was borderline boring, though. There are waaaay better shows going on back in Minneapolis. I did get a CD of some of the music along with my entry so anyone feeling curious can check it out for themselves when I get back.

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The next morning we had a little scare when we were standing at the desk checking out and we couldn't find our motorbike key. I headed back to our bungalow to search. I didn't find the key there (turns out Sam stashed it in her bag and promptly forgot about it) but I did find some confirmation that the bungalow was what was making Sam sick. The cleaning lady had removed the sheets from the beds when I went back on my search and the mattresses were filthy. It was a new level of dirtiness. The mattresses looked like slabs of dirt-covered mold. No exaggeration. There were huge patches of black mold all over them in addition to general dirt and sand and even a little bit of what looked like blood stains. We will not be writing positive reviews for the Phangan Beach Resort of Ban Tai!

Aside from Sam getting a moldy lung and in spite of a dud of a Half Moon party, we managed to have a decent time in Ban Tai overall. But with so many beaches to choose from I'd hardly say it's the best option on Koh Phangan. Especially after a visit to Bottle Beach...but that's for another post.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 02:43 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand nightlife muay_thai entertainment half_moon_party koh_phangan motor_bike night_market koh_phangan_beach_resort half_moon getting_around how_to_get_around Comments (0)

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