To anybody who has been following this blog - I sincerely apologize for taking so long to wrap this up! I was too tired/busy with work this week and just kept putting it off. After getting some comments from various people, I decided I need to knuckle down and finish what I started.
I've also gotten a lot of questions from people asking me what my general impression of Thailand was. "Did you like it? Would you go back? Was it better than other places in Asia?" Now that I've been home for almost a week, I've had an opportunity to let my experience sink in. I'll do my best to capture my feelings on Thailand.
Southern Thailand photo album (updated) - click here
After spending 4 nights on Ko Phi Phi island, I was ready for something new. Phi Phi was a really interesting setting and captured my heart when I first got there. But truthfully, I started to get bored after being there for a couple of nights. The place sort of reminds me of a "spring break island" where the main activities are 1) beach during the day 2) party at night and 3) repeat. Being an old man now, I discovered pretty quickly that I don't have the energy for that last step. I spent my last night on Phi Phi watching movies in my hotel room and recuperating.
Phuket (pronounced "poo-ket") would be different, and I didn't anticipate being bored there. It's technically an "island" but I liken it more to a peninsula if you look at a map. It's also a lot bigger than Phi Phi and is one of Thailand's most frequented tourist stops. I boarded the 9 AM ferry to Phuket, which was another two hour ferry ride. Many people make the mistake of booking a hotel in "Phuket Town" which is not where you want to be. People hear about Phuket and think it's a town but really it's the name for the whole province...all the action happens in Patong, which is on the west coast of the province. Luckily, I did my research and booked my hotel in Patong.
I had to ride in a taxi shuttle for nearly 45 minutes just to get to Patong, and I killed at least 5 mosquitoes during that ride. Our shuttle had about six people in it, all going to different hotels. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and said "you get out here"...I didn't see my hotel anywhere. He pointed to an alley and motioned I should walk to my hotel that way. Huh? Such is Thailand. I took a chance and wandered down the alley, and voila, there was my hotel. I let out a sigh of relief. The hotel was small but decently nice for only $30/night. I immediately got settled in and then walked around to find the "cool" part of town. Here's Patong Beach:
The cool part of town mainly consists of Patong Beach, Bangla Road and the surrounding area. Bangla Road is an absolute madhouse...it's a street lined with go-go bars, dance clubs, live music venues and more. To my dismay, it was over a 30 minute hike from my hotel...with only a couple more nights in Thailand, I knew this wouldn't work. I decided to call an audible and book a room at the Grand Mercure for my last two nights. Wow...what a great move! This was a brand new five star hotel and it cost me about $140/night. A splurge, but a decent price for how nice the place was. It was also located only 5 minutes from the happening part of town. I highly recommend the Grand Mercure if you ever come to Patong. Random pic of the lobby:
I had to check out a Muay Thai boxing fight before leaving Thailand, so I was determined to do this in Phuket. They have two boxing stadiums in Patong that rotate fights every other night. It was a lot of fun. When you get there, they try to get you to buy a VIP ringside seat, but I strongly recommend that you don't do that. Sit in the bleachers with the rest of the Thai locals to get a real authentic experience. The view of the fight may actually be better there, and the folks in the bleachers were having a lot more fun than the boring VIP section.
The fighting started out with VERY young boys (maybe 8 years old?) and then gradually work their way up to the 20-something fighters. Local men were walking around yelling "blue" or "red" and holding up money, indicating the side they want to bet on. I decided to have some fun and bet on blue for one fight...an older man took my money and I wondered if I'd see him again. To my amazement, my guy knocked down the other fighter within seconds of the fight starting. The old man suddenly appeared and handed me double the amount of money I gave him a minute ago - easy money! It was only about six dollars. I ended up losing the money right back to him on the next fight.
After the fight, I decided to check out Bangla Road at night. I knew this place would be crazy, but it definitely exceeded my expectations. There were thousands of people walking around in the street...cars are not allowed to drive here after 6 PM for good reason. Take a look below - the road stretched on like this for nearly half a mile:
You can't walk very far in a place like this without being totally harassed. Want to grab a beer and sit down for a few minutes? It's not that simple. Right as you sit down, "bar girls" emerge from the wood work and start chatting you up and getting (overly) friendly. These are scantily clad employees of the bar that try to get you to buy them drinks, and they earn credit for how many drinks they get in a given night. Even if you try ignoring them or say that you're not interested, it won't be long before another bar girl sits down next to you and tries to keep you company. There is no relaxing on Bangla Road. If you don't come here with a full reserve tank of energy, you should probably head back to the hotel.
Before leaving Thailand, I also wanted to treat myself to a really nice dinner. I looked up reviews on Tripadvisor and settled on Sam's Steak House which was located in the Holiday Inn close by. Sam's was rated the #2 place to eat in Patong. I wasn't expecting a Holiday Inn restaurant to be so nice...this place was extremely fancy and I got maybe the best steak I've ever had in my life. The waiters continued to bring out complimentary courses, including squid, a lemon sorbet and chocolate mint ice cream pops in dry ice. Check out the ice cream:
Overall, Patong was a really fun place and I think it's worth a visit if you're in Thailand. Even if you wouldn't enjoy the craziness of Muay Thai fights or Bangla Road, there's a lot of fun stuff to do around there for people of all ages.
The Adventure is Over
Getting home was a real journey. In order to save money, I booked a trip home that involved multiple connecting flights. First, I took a plane from Phuket Airport to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday evening...this was a short flight less than two hours. I was stuck in KL for nearly 4 or 5 hours, but luckily it's a modern airport. I will say this, however...I truly am not a fan of Asian airports in general. They are designed to look like high end shopping malls, so if you want to buy a diamond necklace or perhaps a $500 leather bag - no problem! You have multiple options! But oh, you want a bottle of water and a bag of chips? Maybe some Tylenol? Good luck with that. In the shopping mall airports of Asia, there might be one convenience store tucked away in Terminal C that will take you 20 minutes to find. And while all of the luxury stores are completely empty, the convenience store has a line out the door. These airports are not designed with the traveler's needs in mind; they are set up to extract massive tax dollars from people on their way out of the country. I have to wonder...does this idiotic scheme actually work? Sadly, I'm guessing it does.
The flight from KL to Tokyo was about 7 hours, and then I had another 4 hour layover. I started to get really tired, but I had to stay awake somehow. Finally, the flight from Tokyo to Chicago was about 12 hours long. I lost track of how long I had been awake and what day it was. I remember looking out of the window as we were flying over rural Canada at nighttime. Little groups of lights would dot the landscape below, and then there would be nothing but darkness as far as the eye could see. I thought about what it would be like to live in a small isolated village in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
When it was all said and done, I got back to Chicago on Sunday morning. An incredible amount of time had passed, but since we crossed the international date line, it was only the morning after I left! Note to self: allow at least one full day and night to re-adjust before returning to work.
Impressions of Thailand
So how was Thailand? Was it fun? Would you go back? Thailand was fun and I would definitely go back. It's a beautiful land, the food is amazing, and it's worth a trip for anybody. You will meet a fascinating array of people from all around the world...Thailand has a special draw for a certain type of person. It tends to draw adventure-seekers who want to leave western society behind. I couldn't help but notice a sort of "Indiana Jones" feel to certain places I went. Some places were incredibly serene and relaxing, while others places were the pinnacle of crazy. People tend to get lost in Thailand and never want to come home. After being there for a couple of weeks, I think I am beginning to understand how that happens.
Next time I go to Thailand, I might try getting a little more off the beaten path. If people aren't staring at me in disbelief because I am white, then I haven't gone far enough off the grid. If you come to the more touristy areas of Thailand (like I did) you can expect to have a great time nonetheless. I know I did. If you're thinking of planning a trip, please don't hesitate to reach out to me with questions and I'll do what I can to help.
That's all for now. Thanks for following my adventure...I really enjoy having an excuse to write, so hopefully I provided somebody out there with a little entertainment. Maybe I have given someone the motivation to plan an adventure of their own.