Phang Nga Bay by Speedboat

So you’re traveling through southern Thailand, based in Phuket or perhaps Krabi right now, and you want to see Phang Nga Bay. You’re correct – Phang Nga Bay is a must if you’re within a two-hour drive. And the best way to hit the sites? A day-long boat tour stopping at different islands for an hour or so at a time.

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We booked our tour through Tour East. It included a van pickup from our hotel in Phuket (the cheapest hotel yet at $15/night with all of the amenities), a speedboat tour of four of the islands (including James Bond island, of course), canoe tour through Panak and Hong Islands, and lunch in a floating village. Totally ideal for a nine hour tour.

The day started off to an excellent start when our tour guide introduced himself as Sexy Linda. Moral of this post: when given the opportunity to take a tour through the coast of Western Thailand or really anywhere via someone named Sexy Linda, DO IT. Mind you, this person was totally male-presenting and identified as male, and just happened to be called Sexy Linda. I was into it.

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The first island of the day was Koh Khai, a lovely little spot with lots of fluorescent green tropical fish swimming around it. Luckily, Sexy Linda provided us with snorkel masks to observe the fish and the coral with. The island also had plenty of feral cats and Coca Cola vendors. Everything you need at 10am on a Thai morning.

Next up was my personal favorite part, the canoe tour of Koh Panak and Koh Hong. These islands are full of moss-covered limestone caves, I.e. The most beautiful stuff of your life (especially if you’ve grown up in a desert). Most of these caves are so small that you can only get to them via canoe, hence that aspect of the tour. And guys. This was Pure. Magic. Some of the cave entrances were so low that we had to lay down in the canoes to fit through them, which was an adventure in itself. Being so close to the water is so calming and peaceful, and once we entered the caves they were all far bigger than I expected. Like I said, pure magic.

After canoeing came lunch on Koh Panyee, the village on stilts. This place. Was. So. Cool. First of all, our lunch was so fresh and delicious (like everything in Thailand thus far), and consisted of Tom Ka Kai Soup, spring rolls, yellow curry, and some kind of unidentifiable coconut dessert. Koh Panyee is fascinating not just because it’s a “floating” village, but because the whole village practices Islam and is therefore a lot stricter than the rest of Thailand. Women had to have shoulders and knees covered, for example, a la the Buddhist temples, and there was no alcohol allowed on the island. (Never fear, though; Sexy Linda made sure we knew that the next island included on-site bars.) We visited the floating soccer field where some Australian tourists were playing soccer with local kids, which was just great to watch, and lots of shops advertising fresh coconut and Thai pearls.

The final two islands of the day were Koh Ping Kan (James Bond island), and Kai Nai, the aforementioned island bar island. Koh Ping Kan is famous because the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) was filmed there. Honestly, it was just as beautiful as the rest of the islands, but since I haven’t seen the film, that part of the charm was lost on me and the tourist to island ratio made it the low point of the tour for me. It did have a nice little hike, though, and let’s be clear – by low point I mean I only enjoyed it very much instead of incredibly much. So. Still a win.

Kai Nai, the final stop, featured some delicious Thai cocktails, hammocks, and a pearl shop. I bought *wildly cheap, authentic* pearls for my sister and myself, and we spent most of our stay on this island swimming in the unreal turquoise-colored water.

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Oh, now might be a good time to mention that Doug and I pretended to be British for the whole trip, as some sort of only slightly sociopathic challenge for ourselves. By the time the nine hours on a boat were coming to a close, and we were getting fatigued, I had to often elbow him to remind him that as far as the South Africans and the New Zealanders on our boat knew, we were from the motherland on an extended spiritual journey. I remain convinced that we pulled it off; Doug thinks we were found out from the beginning. WHO’S TO SAY?*

*(Hello, nice South African family who was on our Phang Nga boat tour on January 3, 2017. If you’re reading this, it’s you. You’re to say. Please tell us if we were convincing Brits.)

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Regardless of whether or not we successfully duped a boatful of people into believing we hailed from another nation, the Phang Nga Bay boat tour was a standout highlight of our Thailand trip. When visiting the area, especially if you’re stationed in Phuket, I will not forgive you if you miss this. Neither will British Natalie from Brighton.

 

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A Very Sh*tty 50 Hours

The Return Trip From Hell (feat. Sh*tting My Pants in the Bangkok Airport)

Our last day in Koh Samui was spent watching Despicable Me while going in and out of consciousness. We had fever dreams about minions and giant fluffy unicorns. We thought this was going to be the worst of it, sweat out the fevers and be done with whatever Southeast Asian virus we had concocted, but oh no. At some point during the fevers our bodies had decided to completely betray us, and we never spent more than an hour outside of the bathroom.

It wasn’t pretty. I did not take any photos during this time because dear god, no one needs to see me in such a state, but here IS a photo of me on Samui, blissfully unaware of the horrors to come.

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The thing was, we’d been soo careful. We knew not to touch the water in Thailand and Cambodia, had even been brushing our teeth with bottled water (well, I was. Doug was worse about this. Not that my attention to this particular detail MATTERED in the end.)

We finally decided that the culprit must have been the ice in some of our cocktails. Freaking ice, of all things. We’d thought we’d been good about that too, only drinking at “safe” places, but something must have slipped by. I’m convinced it was the pina colada I drank out of an actual pineapple, and honestly I’m still debating that it might have been worth it. There was so much delicious pina colada in that FRESH pineapple, and I looked royal as f*ck drinking it.

On the one hand, we thought at least this was happening on our last day. It also happened to be pouring rain on the island, so we weren’t missing the glorious beach hours we’d dreamed of only because of the sickness.

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On the other hand, it meant that we had to fly back to New York in our current sh*tty states. Pun kind of intended.

Also, I did this really fun thing in which I planned maybe the longest travel route possible from Koh Samui to New York. It went like this: Koh Samui to Bangkok, six hour layover. Bangkok to Beijing, THIRTEEN hour layover that would have to be sleep time if we wanted to retain any shred of sanity we still had. Then Beijing to LA because before Thailand we were in LA with my family and bought the cheaper round trip flight. Then another six hour layover, then the flight to New York. Just. Count those hours for a second.

Sitting in the LAX Gladstone’s, attempting feebly to choke down some fries, I would have gladly paid the extra $200 plus my right leg and naming rights of my firstborn kid to have flown straight to NY from Beijing. Life is all about learning.

But backing it up, the crux of this journey and a moment that changed my life forever begins in the Bangkok airport. We’ve managed the hopover flight from Samui and are waiting in the general waiting area because we are too early to get to our gate. And here we were worrying that the rain would screw our timing.

Doug is not doing so hot. He’s in and out of a hazy consciousness, but I’m feeling hungry, of all things. When you’ve barely been able to keep down white bread and coke, hungry is almost the most welcome feeling imaginable. 

You know how when you’re sick badly enough you start to wonder if you ever really knew what it felt like to NOT be sick? Like were you ever actually a healthy person in your life? Could you ever hope to be one again? I was there.

I asked Doug if he could watch the bags while I went and got some instant ramen from the airport mini mart. “Hurry,” he said. Neither of us could stand to be away from a bathroom for too long.

I grabbed the ramen, a coke, and a bottle of water, and pulled out my debit card. We had budgeted our bhat pretty perfectly and used the last on the cab from our hotel to the Samui airport.

“900 bhat minimum for cards,” the cashier said. Of course there was. I felt a slight urge to use the facilities coming on, but lately I always felt a slight urge to use the facilities, and wasn’t worried. I’d go right after I bought the goods.

I went with another bottle of water, another coke, a pack of dried Thai mango, and some very un-Thai looking chocolate. Everything was so damn cheap. I figured a sign of my peak health would be whenever I felt like eating the latter two.

I walked to the hot water station to fill up my ramen, feeling honestly like I was on the upswing. Poor Doug, I thought, sitting over there probably wondering whether I was ever coming back to relieve him.

And then it happened. What happened, you ask? Don’t ask. You know exactly what.

I thought it was a harmless fart, and OH was I wrong. Rule Number One: NEVER trust a fart when your insides are waging war against you.

I froze. No no no no no, I thought. I am not this person. The person who sh*ts their pants in the Bangkok Surabaya airport while pouring water into instant ramen. But at the same time, I was exactly that person.

Thankfully, we only had carry on luggage, so a change of pants was only a few steps away. I put my game face on, picked up my mini mart goods, and waddled over to Doug.

“Will you watch this?” I asked. “I’m just going to run to the bathroom really quickly.”

“Okay,” he mumbled. Poor guy looked like he could fall asleep at any second, if he wasn’t already sleep talking. “Hurry.”

“I will,” I said, depositing the ramen et al and inconspicuously grabbing my suitcase.

I shuffled to the pink women’s bathroom sign, already mourning the loss of a very comfy pair of Target pajama pants. And one sock. The right sock was a goner.

As I turned the corner, I saw the worst possible outcome ahead of me: a line. The classically dreaded women’s bathroom line. I inhaled, exhaled, and tried to disconnect my consciousness from my body.

“Excuse me,” I tried to say, pushing my way through the line, “emergency! Emergency!”

But it wasn’t just a line. The front of the queue revealed that the bathroom was being CLEANED, so no one could go in. Oh, hell no.

“Kahpunka,” I said to the cleaning attendant, “So sorry, but it’s an emergency. I have to go in there.”

“Closed!” She barked. “Next one!” And motioned to the next bathroom down the lengthy hall.

“No,” I said, trying to stay polite and calm, “I can’t wait for that one. Emergency.”

“Closed!” She said again, turning away from me. I felt like crying, actually, and I was pretty positive that I smelled.

Okay. I mustered whatever shreds of dignity I had left in me and shuffled as quickly and grossly as possible to the farther bathroom.

This one, somehow, miracle of miracles, had no line. I ran into the stall, stashed my pants and sock (RIP), and cleaned off while I put on fresh yoga pants. This meant that midway through I had to hold the door to the stall open while I got wet and soapy paper towels from the sink, yelling to people that “Still my stall! Not done!”

One of my finer moments.

I get back to Doug, sweet breaths of relief coursing through my veins. He, however, is looking frantic. At the same time, we open our mouths and admit our failures:

“Someone stole your bag and I drank all of the coke and I don’t know how that happened.”

“I just sh*t my pants.”

“…What?”

In his fever fog, Doug hadn’t noticed me grab my bag en route to the bathroom and had spent my absence planning exactly how to report this, all the while stress drinking the coke I’d bought. Thankfully, my bag was with me and not stolen, and there were many more cokes to be bought with the 900 baht card minimum.

After the flight to Beijing, we spent too many Yen on an airport hotel room for the thirteen hour layover, mostly for the chance to shower. And that wood-paneled, lukewarm pay-by-the-hour shower will surely remain the most satisfying aquatic experience of my life.

Somehow, after all of that, we made it back to New York. The next day I was so dehydrated that I had to go to an emergency clinic to have an IV full of saline pumped into my shriveled veins. But antibiotics worked wonders and within a couple of days I felt totally myself again.

And here’s the thing: If you were to ask me if I could do the whole Thailand/Cambodia trip over again knowing that I’d get sick at the end, I’d have to say yes.

But I’d be smart. And not get sick. NEVER AGAIN.

Phang Nga Elephant Park

The Importance of Ethical Elephant Habitats

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One of the biggest tourist draws in Thailand are the elephants. Elephant rides are as cheap as $1 for a half hour, but the abuse of these tourist-trap animals is horrendous. Elephants are whipped and confined to concrete rooms for 20 hours a day – conditions even worse for hotel “pet” elephants. Elephants used for logging camps are also seriously abused, often ripped from their families and overworked to death.

If you are planning on visiting Thailand, please, please do not take a cheap elephant ride or tip a “dancing” elephant’s owner on a street corner. (Elephants sway their heads as a sign of emotional distress, not “dancing.”) Elephants are SO SMART and gentle, and seeing them treated so poorly is heartbreaking.

There are, however, some ethical elephant habitats that focus on rehabilitating the abused elephants and providing them with a comfortable, happy life. Most are in the north near Chiang Mai, which we unfortunately did not make it to this trip. If you’re in the south near Phuket, however, Phang Nga Elephant Park is the place for you.

Their elephant fam is 22 big gals (with two guys) large; not as grand as the 70-elephant utopias up north, but they’re getting there.

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The day’s agenda is epic and amazing. First, we were able to meet Tamwar, the one-year-old baby elephant who was the first to be born in the park. He had to stay behind the fence of his pen because he’s essentially a giant puppy who doesn’t realize he weighs a literal ton. Cutest. Thing. Ever.

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Next, a pair of humans is introduced to one elephant that you’ll care for and be with for the day. Doug and I were paired with a 20-year old elephant named Aoy (pronounced “Oi”) and her mahut, Uan. Each elephant has a lifetime human mahut, or caretaker, who lives in the habitat and dedicates his life to caring for his elephant. Some mahuts have wives and children, all living amongst the ellies. Elephants only get four hours of sleep each night, so the mahuts only sleep for four hours. When the elephants eat, the mahuts eat. Talk about spirit animals.

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We began by taking a trail ride with Aoy and Uan. We sat “bare neck” on Aoy which is the most comfortable way for elephants to support humans – no benches! She followed Uan’s voice up a hill to a clearing where we fed her BUCKETS of bananas. Girl can EAT.

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It’s said that elephants and their mahuts have similar behavioral tendencies which we found totally true and hilarious. Aoy and Uan were both very young and cheeky, playing tricks on other elephants and humans to get their way. It was awesome.

Next, it was bath time. We went with Aoy into the giant elephant pool in the habitat and were given a bucket of water and brushes to bathe her. Most of the water *somehow* ended up on me instead of Aoy, so. She sprayed other elephants with water and this whole segment was maybe the most fun thing I’ve done in my entire life.

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Learning about the elephants’ friendships and tendencies was amazing. They’re so like us it’s actually nuts. They’re hilarious, too – when one elephant bellows, EVERY OTHER ELEPHANT bellows back creating this totally bizarre chorus. They’re also almost all afraid of the three cats that roam the park. Cats. The size of half of their foot.

A trip to Thailand is fully incomplete, I think, without an ~ethical~ elephant day. When planning a trip, DEFINITELY plan for one full day with these beauties and make sure you budget for it. Hanging with Aoy and Uan was an unforgettable experience, and has made me want to visit sanctuaries like Phang Nga WHENEVER I CAN.

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