Note: This is Part Two – check out Part One to see how the story started!
March 31st – The new day brought good news for those still stranded on Koh Pha Ngan. There was no Navy ship for us today, but the ferry companies were feeling brave and they were sending boats! We quickly bought tickets for the 11am ferry. I could almost feel my pack get lighter as I exchanged my money for a ticket and the stress started to fade away. I was even able to find a bakery where I enjoyed a fresh apple pastry and was able to send an email to let friends and family know I was on the verge of escape from my island paradise. The news kept getting better when the ferry company made an announcement that they were able to get a boat away earlier than expected and the ferry would arrive at 9:30am.
The ferry ride was very exciting. Something about the pitching deck and the karaoke TV station playing made for a unique 30 minutes. We docked and began the mad rush toward the airport. The day before we had heard that there were about 13000 people trying to leave Koh Samui with 2000 in the airport alone. Those numbers seemed about right when we arrived. There was one main airline that flies into that airport, Air Bangkok, which my new German friends were flying. The line to get on the standby list was about 500 people long. I was very lucky in that I flew Thai Air, and there were far fewer people trying to leave on that airline. My ticket was for April 4th so I knew I was a pretty low priority on their list, but I went to the counter and asked to get on the standby list. They told me they were still trying to find seats for people whose tickets were for several days ago. They told me, though, to come back around 3:30 and they would put me on the waiting list for the last flight. One of the lessons I learned about Thailand is that if you really want something to happen, ask often and ask as many people as possible, SO I went back to the desk about an hour later. Unfortunately, they told me that there was no way I would leave that day and to find a comfortable spot to sleep the night. I went back and stood in line with my friends for around another hour. When I heard the next group of names called for the next Thai flight, I returned to the counter. They took my passport and a few minutes later, they had found me a seat! They said it would cost 1500 baht to change the ticket (about $50), which was well worth it so I quickly paid, and ran to say good bye to the Germans. They told me where they were staying in Bangkok in case I wanted companions to see the city.
When I boarded the plane, I was very pleasantly surprised when I realized that my seat was in First Class. I enjoyed a quick meal and a drink while we flew to Bangkok. Everybody cheered as the plane took off and we all knew that we were putting our ordeal behind us. When I got to Bangkok, I changed my ticket home to allow me to have about one and a half days there to sightsee. While I was waiting at the counter, a woman came up to the next desk and was telling the attendant of her ordeal. It turns out that she had been on the Thai Navy vessel that had taken the 150 people from our island and she was just arriving. It had been about 12 hours at sea, a delay once they had reached land, and another 3 or 4 hours by bus. I considered myself very lucky not to have been there with her and tried to help bridge her French to English with the attendant’s Thai to English. Shortly later, I found my way to the Grand Diamond Suites in downtown Bangkok and had another delicious Thai meal at the hotel.
April 1 - Bangkok lives up to its reputation in just about every way possible. It is a huge, sprawling city that offers something for just about any traveler who visits. It has fantastic shopping, historic temples and unbelievable food. We started the day at the Grand Palace, which served as the home of the royal family and much of the government for 150 years. Bangkok is also the location of Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The grounds are filled with incredible buildings that are lavishly decorated in gold and hand painted murals. Guardian demons guard many of the entrances and arches around the buildings. There are several small museums and countless photos waiting to be taken.
They also have a strict dress code there and offer to let you borrow garments to cover up. Since I was wearing shorts, I borrowed some traditional pants, which were quite comfortable in the warm sun. From there we went to Wat Pho, which houses the largest reclining Buddha, measuring over 140’ long. Then we took a short ride on the Chao Phraya river ferry south and found lunch along the street. After lunch, we wandered through the city toward our hotel and found Pratunam Market. This is a typical street market that winds its way around a few city blocks. You could find fine Thai silk, knock-off brand name goods, touristy souvenirs, tasty fresh food, and just about anything you can imagine in a market in downtown Bangkok.
We all headed back to our rooms for a much needed shower and nap before going back out to see a little of the Bangkok night life. We tried to go to Chinatown, but the Red Shirt protestors were there and the police had the entire area blocked off. We asked our Tuk-Tuk driver to take us to his favorite street food in the area instead (note: this is not a good idea usually because the drivers often take tourists to a place where they receive a commission). We ended up in a wonderful spot that had unbelievable stir-fry and other fresh Thai dishes. After a few helpings and a few beers, we walked across the street and indulged in 30 minutes of the best foot massage I’ve ever experienced. After a short ride, we headed back to our rooms and ended what felt like the first true day of vacation.
April 2 – Everybody had to head to the airport in the afternoon, so our plan was to spend the day in the Chatuchak weekend market. This market is perhaps the largest in the world and is only open on the weekends. In my opinion, it is a must see if your travel plans allow. The market spans around 35 acres and has around 5000 stalls of goods. The guide books say that the market gets over 200,000 visitors a day so plan to get there early, and I recommend taking the train and avoiding the street level traffic at all cost. The market is roughly broken up by the type of goods sold. If you are an animal lover, you may consider avoiding the pet area, which has all sorts of animals available for purchase including squirrels, hedgehogs, and exotic fish to name a few. You can also find a variety of bugs and other unusual treats prepared as snacks on the edges of the animal section. The clothing section is vast and has some treasures if you are looking for high quality, low priced local goods. The flower section boasts beautiful flowers in every color available. This is a nice area to wander through as a break from the more intense shopping found in the rest of the market.
The trip home was pleasantly uneventful and it was very nice to find the Tucson weather warm and dry. Although my trip ended up being far from what I had expected, I would recommend the destination to anybody considering it. It is a wonderful country, and most of the people there were very eager to help a stranded traveler. Thinking back now, I did some pretty great things: eating fresh seafood, Thai massage on the beach, great shopping in Bangkok, plus the experience and the new friends I have. If you keep your plans loose and your attitude flexible, you’re sure to have a great time.
Gear – The gear I had with me on this trip truly played a huge role in my comfort. Because the weather was so far from what I had planned for, I really had to push the things I brought with me. Everything I had with me exceeded my expectations, but I will go over the things I brought that were the shining stars for me.
My main piece of luggage was the Osprey Porter 46. This convertible duffel is carry-on friendly and was just large enough. It was very comfortable to carry on the various taxis, ferries and air planes I was on. The big surprise here was how water resistant this bag is on its own. I did not have a rain cover, so the bag was always wet. At one point, it was partially submerged in the ocean for a moment on my back. It only let in a very small amount of water, not enough to get the things inside wet, and it always dried more quickly than I expected. This bag was invaluable to me and will be a good friend for many years to come.
My second bag that I carried was the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Sling bag. This bag was my “under the seat” bag on the plane and my day bag in Bangkok. It is very light and remarkably water resistant. It holds just the right amount of stuff, and when you don’t need it, it stuffs down to almost nothing. Sea to Summit makes a few different bags in this line, and they are all fantastic, depending on what shape works best for you.
My backup bag was the Exped Cloudburst 25. I originally brought this backpack/dry bag to be my daypack for my hikes and kayak trips on the island. It turned into my emergency, no-matter-what dry bag. I stored clothes, camera, money, passport and anything that I really needed to keep dry. I also used it to line my Porter to add another layer of protection from the rain. It really provided peace of mind for the things I was not willing to risk getting wet.
I used two products to keep my things organized in my bags: the Eagle Creek Half Cube and the Sea to Summit Packing Cell in medium. These were the right size and shape for me, but I would highly recommend any of the packing solutions from these companies. They are very useful to keep things organized and to truly make the most of the space you have. I doubt I would have been able to take such a small main bag without them. I also used the Sea to Summit Laundry bag to keep my dirty and wet stuff separate when I had to pack it away.
I also used the Eagle Creek Pack-it Sacs in the X-Small size as my wallet. This bag is large enough to hold money, passport, phone, and a few other small items. It is very water resistant and keeps things organized. It is also easy to find when it is in another bag, and it has a clip on the end to keep it attached to you when you are in close quarters with strangers.
I had packed my Marmot Mica jacket as a sort of joke, but I am very glad it was with me. It is a very light and breathable jacket that works as well traveling as it does backpacking. I really can’t say enough about how well this jacket performed. It was wet for about 5 days straight and never leaked. The face fabric was completely soaked and it continued to breathe. I may have been the only person on Koh Pha Ngan with a jacket, and I received many covetous looks from those around me. This jacket outperformed many other more expensive jackets I have and truly impressed me in every way.
If you haven’t tried a GoToob, you need to. These little tubes are perfect for travel liquids and gels. We have them in two sizes and a few colors to keep things easily recognized. They also are extremely leak resistant, more so than most other hard sided bottles.
I used the LowePro Toaploader Zoom 45AW as my camera bag, paired with the OpTech Utility Sling strap. This was a comfortable and secure system for the camera and lens I had. The bag has a rain cover, and the strap allows for very easy access to the camera.