Thailand: Escape from Paradise – Part Two

by Richard Friday, April 22nd 2011

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.

Packing Systems

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.

Rain Wear

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.


Thailand: Escape from Paradise - Part One

by Richard Wednesday, April 20th 2011

Planning for my trip to Thailand began in November 2010. The vast options for quiet beaches on small islands seemed daunting, but after a few hours of research I had narrowed my choices down pretty easily. I settled on an island in the south called Koh Pha Ngan. It is just north of the larger island Koh Samui, which is a more popular and easily reached destination. Koh Pha Ngan is famous for its Full Moon Party that occurs every month on the full moon. It is a very large gathering of travelers from around the world who are looking for a crazy beach party. I was looking for something much quieter and more secluded, so I settled on a small beach on the northwest side of the island called Haad Salad. Boasting idyllic images of white sand beaches and turquoise water, it seemed perfect for a relaxing week of sun and adventure. I booked a week at Asia Bungalows, which are situated in the middle of the beach. They are a very clean and well-kept group of bungalows that I would recommend to anybody looking for a place to stay on this beach. They don’t offer all of the amenities that the other business do, but they are very well priced, and everything on the beach is within a three minutes’ walk from anything else. I’d like to spend some time talking about the gear I brought, but I’m going to leave that until the end.

I left on Friday and arrived in Bangkok on Sunday because of the time difference. From Bangkok, it’s a 45 minute flight to Koh Samui airport. From the airport, a short ride in a cab gets you to Big Buddha pier, where the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan is a 30 minute jaunt across the sea. When I arrived in Thongsala, the pier on Koh Pha Ngan, it was raining a little but the sun was trying to come out and I was optimistic about the weather for my time there. I took a taxi to my bungalow and set about unpacking and trying to unwind to enjoy the vacation. In the spirit of vacation, I quickly changed into my swimming attire and jumped in the ocean. After a quick rinse, I walked down the beach and found a restaurant that was grilling fresh seafood. A filling meal of grilled king prawn and Thai beer finished my evening and I headed back to the bungalow.


March 28th - The next morning I awoke to heavy rain and wind, and a high tide that was breaking against the wall at the edge of our bungalow complex. I was surprised at the weather, but I managed to get dressed and head to one of the other restaurants that had breakfast and an internet connection, so I could eat and update my friends and family on my location. I tried to resist the urge to check the weather forecast but I quickly gave in to temptation, and after a little searching (reliable weather forecasts in Thailand are hard to find), I found a radar image that was quite alarming. A very large tropical depression had moved in over most of southern Thailand and was moving VERY slowly to the north. I grew up in North Carolina so I have been through my share of hurricanes and bad weather. Unfortunately, had not packed for bad weather and I started to get worried.


I headed quickly back to my bungalow, where I began packing and heading for the pier at Thongsala. I ran into the proprietor of the bungalows, who let me know that the sea was very rough and all of the ferries for that day had been canceled. This meant that I would be on our island for at least one more day but, taking a deep breath, I tried to take a positive attitude and realized that being stuck on an island in Thailand could be a pretty good place to get stuck. I set out to make the best of the day. I found a Thai Massage house set on the beach and had a fantastic one-hour massage. After lunch and a nap, I went back to try to send out another round of emails when the main power for the island went out. I decided to have an early dinner that night and headed to bed, hoping that the next day would be better.


March 29th – I woke up around 2 AM to the sound of very heavy wind and rain. I ventured onto the porch of my bungalow and was immediately struck with the spray of a wave breaking over the wall on the beach. Bad timing had allowed the storm surge to arrive near high tide. The wall stood about 4.5’ tall over the sand and the bungalows are on stilts another 3’ over the ground. My bungalow was one unit and about 20’ back from the wall. Needless to say, this was a big wave. The bungalows in the front were only about 5’ back from the wall and were being hit directly by the waves. After retreating back inside, I could feel the bungalow shake as more waves found their way over the wall. I tried to get back to sleep but after a few hours I went outside for a look. I was able to snap a few pictures with my phone, but I was not brave enough to bring out the camera. These shots were captured as I ran to and from the edge of the wall between the larger waves.

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I knew that a taxi was leaving at 10AM that day for the pier, and I desperately want to be in it. I decided to brave the beach and try to get to the meet-up point. Most of the businesses had a wall similar to the one at my bungalow. That meant that I would be trying to hold my own between the wall and the breaking waves. I packed my bags assuming I would get very wet and headed out. I very quickly knew that I had made a bad decision. I was being beaten against the wall in one second and violently being pulled out to sea in the next. After about 30’ of travel, I gave up and hopped back on the wall and made my way up to the bungalow there. Lucky for me, the woman who had given me the massage the previous day was there and she showed me how to get back to my bungalow via the confusing maze of roads behind the beach.

I reached the bungalow soaking wet and drained both physically and emotionally, knowing that there would be no escape that day. I did my best to start trying to dry off and clean up and I unpacked again to let my bags start to dry out. After a cold shower and a long nap, I went out and had a meal. Tonight’s meal was deep fried shrimp in a sweet/spicy Thai chili sauce. It was fantastic and very welcome after the day’s events. I retired early that night and hoped that the morning would bring better weather and luck.


March 30th - I woke up and found that the sea, while very rough, was calmer than the day before. The wind had also changed direction, which told me that we were on the other side of the storm. I hung my hopes on these thoughts and went to the office area of the bungalows to see if they knew if there would be any boats that day. “No Boat” was about all of the English they knew to tell me about what was going on, but it was enough to get the message across: no rescue today. As I was heading back to my bungalow, I saw a few other people loading into a taxi and I walked over to see where they were heading to. They said they were going to the pier to try to find more information and possibly catch a boat later that day. I asked if I could ride with them and quickly ran back to get my stuff and hopped in. They were two couples from Germany, and we quickly bonded over our shared experience.

We got to the pier where the Thai officials were making lists of who was there and where we were trying to go. There were three options: Bangkok, Koh Samui, or an undetermined destination on the mainland to the east. We got on the Koh Samui list since that was where our flights were leaving from and found seats to wait. Shortly after we arrived, Neil from the British embassy, arrived and starting giving out more information. The news that day was that the Thai navy was in route and would be rescuing us! Not realizing that things were quite that bad, it was both good news and a little sobering that conditions were that bad. Neil told us that the island to the north, Koh Tao, was in much worse shape than we were, but the boat could not dock there so it was coming for us first. The boat had around 1000 seats and would be able to accommodate everybody who was presently at the pier. Once we boarded, however, we would not know where we were heading. The news was that conditions on Samui were worse: No power, no water, and the airport was closed. The tentative plan was to sail north to an area of the mainland that was in good enough condition to bus us the rest of the way to Bangkok. Evidently, conditions due west on the mainland were very bad. Most of the roads were washed out and even the train could not get through due to missing pieces of the rail line.


Several hours went by and Neil came to us with more information. The Navy vessel had continued on to Koh Tao and was shuttling people to the boat via smaller vessels. They would be returning past our island, but there were only 150 seats on the boat so we would not all be able to leave. Before the words were out of his mouth, several hundred people were pushing toward the chair Neil was on to get on the list, which meant we would not. In hindsight, it was very lucky that we did not get on that boat. We waited the rest of that day at the pier, hoping that the news would change again, but around 5 pm we gave up and went back to Asia Bungalows. We felt defeated for the day but we were hopeful that the next day would be better. We all had dinner together, another fabulous meal. I feasted on a whole Red Snapper that was deep fried and swimming in a chili sauce. The evening went well. After several beverages, I was even convinced by my new friends to eat the eye of the snapper. I’m not easily persuaded into trying strange things and, in retrospect, I’m not quite sure how that conversation went. But you only live once, and the eye was essentially tasteless. What was alarming was the crunch that I was not expecting. Who would have guessed that a fried fish eye would crunch? We decided to meet again early the next morning and to try to be at the pier before anybody else.


Look for Part 2 of Thailand: Escape from Paradise later this week to see how Richard got off the island and back to Summit Hut!


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!