Travel Diaries: Thailand

Thailand is a vast country. If all you know of it is from what the tourism media throws at you, you may be surprised when you have a look at it on a map. Thailand has ancient rainforests, modern cities and beautiful islands. So when you are planning to visit, you should check the map first before you plan your itinerary.

Getting the Visa:

Indians have the visa on arrival option but if you are planning to catch a connecting flight to your final destination, you should look into getting a Visa while in India. The Thai consulate removes the visa fee during the off season months so planning to apply ahead can save you some money. Remember that 1 Baht is equivalent to Rs 2.

Long weekend getaways to Bangkok/Phuket are doable though I would recommend spending atleast 1 week if you want to treat it as a vacation. We were going in Mid-September and this was towards the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the tourist season. After lot of discussion and researching weather patterns, we decided that going to the Gulf Islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao would fit perfectly within our 7 day itinerary. r/ThailandTourism helped me to figure things out.

Forex: Get your baht in India or at the airport(Visa on arrival requires you to show that you have at least 10,000 baht on your person and 20,000 baht incase your family is with you). The ATMs charge you a fixed 220 baht per withdrawal(apart from the other charges) so you could also consider just doing that once you have informed your bank. Credit cards work well in the cities but you would want cash if you want to visit the lesser known places.

Transport: Air Asia flight to Bangkok has the cheapest fares but mind you the seats are cramped and the premium seats are not much of an upgrade. We opted for premium just so we could sit next to each other. In the end, the cost came up to the same as opting for another airline.

But there are benefits to selecting Air Asia. Air Asia has a flight+ferry combo from Bangkok to the Islands(Koh Samui or Koh Phangan). You can either flight via Surathani airport or Nakhon Si Thammarat airport. You will not find this option if you select an Indian city of origin, so you will need to book a separate leg of the flight from Bangkok to your destination.

The ferry is operated by the Raja ferry company. These ferries are the slowest among the operators and take about 2 hours to reach Koh Samui. We booked the ferry combo to Koh Samui just because we could not have to worry about the transit to the mainland on our way back. My research showed that Lomphyrah ferry was the fastest and I intended to take that to Koh Phangan once we landed at Surathani. This option would be faster even though it would cost us 600 baht more. This combo also works out cheaper than taking a direct flight from Bangkok to Samui. While planning to transit with ferries you should be aware that different ferries have different piers and these piers are generally isolated. So buy your ferry tickets at the airport once you land. Couple of us travelled from the Nakhon Si Thammarat airport and their ferry pier was different. In the end, they took about half an hour more than us to reach Koh Phangan even though they landed ahead of us.

The ride from the airport to the pier is part of the ferry fare and you are taken along in these rhinoceros-like vehicles through the rural countryside. The roads are amazing and the ride comfortable.

True to the research, the Lomphyrah ferry was fast. The panoramic views of the calm gulf are not to be missed. The ferry also has ‘AC’ seats if you are willing to pay extra for it.

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Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan is a tiny island known for its parties. The Full Moon party draws a lot of partiers from the nearby islands. It has spanned a set of other parties like the half moon and the black moon. If you are the party type, this is definitely something you should consider.

Stay: Since we were planning a trip on a tight budget, hostels/airbnbs are what we were looking at. Koh Phangan also has ‘party’ hostels which are notorious for having parties throughout the week and pre-parties to supplement the moon parties. That said, there are other hostels which are pretty good. We choose to stay at Rung Arun Resort. This beach resort had a villa option which fit the 6 of us. You can also go looking for deals on foot but given that you have already travelled nearly 10 hours, you may want to just sink into a bed asap.

The roads are great so rent a 2-wheeler and the whole island is yours to explore atleast the motorable parts. The streets get deserted quite early during the non-tourist season. A 2-wheeler costs around 400 baht per day.

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Food: Night Markets are food courts that spring up during the late evening and offer different kinds of local food items. Phantip Night Market in the central market of Koh Phangan has lot of Chicken, Pork and Seafood food options on offer. You can even find the famous Mango Sticky rice and Banana Pancakes. A dish will costs around 60-80 baht here. The food courts shut around 9:30-10pm, so if you get late then you will have to make do with the food in the 7-11s. We were obsessed with the 7-11s during our stay there. There were so many of them and each was stocked with so many new things.

This was our favourite island of the trip and wished in the end that we could have stayed here longer. There’s a lot of things we could not do like visit the Phaeng Waterfall and walking to the viewpoint in the jungle. We did not do Snorkeling or cliff jumping or any other water sports. We did have some amazing food and discovered High Tide and Two Rocks. Vacations are not about having a checklist to do but rather to make things up as you go along.

Koh Tao:

Koh Tao is the smallest island in this trio of islands and is famous for its scuba diving certification courses. We took the Songserm ferry from Koh Phangan and it took us little over an hour to get to Koh Tao. The island is known for the cheap PADI certified scuba schools and multiple snorkeling spots and that’s what draws the tourists to it.

Koh Tao has very narrow streets and its roads are not as good as those on Koh Phangan. They are steep and tourists often seem to have accidents on these. We did hire bikes, but we barely used them during our stay, so if you are around for 2 days, you need not opt for them. Bikes are more expensive(about 600baht) on this tiny island and you are asked to purchase insurance as many a tourist is known to have taken a tumble down these mountain roads.

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Stay: We choose to stay at the Indie Hostel , a good clean place with a great cafe that I would highly recommend. It was a long walk from the port to the hostel and next time, we would want to opt for a ride (50baht per person).

Food: Koh Tao is typical tourist location and has lot to offer but we were looking for local foods. We loved 995 Roasted Duck for its duck delicacies and this tiny street restaurant outside a 7-11, where I got to try Stir fry pork with Kale and Morning Glory. A simple dish that I have since tried to replicate for its wholesomeness.

We took a day trip to Koh Nang Yuan, this tiny islet just off the coast of Koh Tao which doubles up as a plastic-free eco-resort. The islet is a boat ride away and is one of the locations around Koh Tao where you can snorkel. On our way back, we got caught in a storm and even though it was scary to see the large waves splashing into our small boat, I quite enjoyed it. Our boatman maneuvered deftly through those waves and we got to experience something I will not forget.

Koh Samui:

Now with only 4 of us left on the trip(the other two had to head back), we started the return leg of our journey. We took a ferry to Koh Samui. I think it cost us around 500 baht per person on a Songserm. Koh Samui is accessible from Bangkok by flight if you are willing to pay for it and is groomed as a typical Thai tourist destination. It was our least favorite island of the lot.

Stay: We stayed at the Liquid Lounge hostel which is managed by a polish old-timer who has been around for a while on this island. The rooms are clean and the owner very helpful. Your rooms are also just above the Liquid Lounge bar which is an added benefit.

Food: Since we were only going to be here for a single night, we did not get to explore a lot of food options. We visited one food market, but we found it overpriced and not as tasty as our earlier dinners.

Early next morning, I realized that the flight Aswin and I were supposed to travel on had already left 2 days ago. Luckily we were able to book a ticket and then we had to buy a ferry ticket and convince an operator at the pier to get us transport to the airport. We somehow made it to the airport.

Bangkok:

Once we landed in Bangkok, getting a cab proved to be difficult. We booked an Uber but the cops stopped him and asked us to join the Airport taxi line which had a long wait line. So we skipped out and found a taxi who charged us a lot but we did not really have options and our time was running out. He charged us for the amount that is usually inclusive of the tolls but asked us to pay for each toll. We realised this with our return trip to the airport.

Stay: We stayed at the Once Again hostel. I chose it because it was close to the tourist spots if we chose to visit them.

Food: I do not remember much about the food we ate here but I had a piece of scorpion at Khao San Road. Crunchy.

I reckon another visit is required to do justice to this city. So until then..

Travel Diaries: Panjim on foot

I’ve been to Goa five times over the last 18 months. Everytime so far I’ve visited different parts of it and have come to love the feeling of being “home” that comes with it.

I have vague memories of visiting Goa as a school kid in the 90’s. I remember loving Puri Bhaji and playing at the Miramar beach’s playground during a pilgrimage with my family. This time I was here because of the Story of Space.

‘The Story of’ is a arts and science biennale that seeks to “open-up” education to the masses. Space was the theme of this edition and participants take up spaces within the city of display their work or utilize for their workshops and experiences. .

With the Old Quarter hostel as my base, I explored Panjim on foot(and cycle) as I went discovering what Story of Space had in store for me.

The Ex-Nihilio escape room at Sukerkar house made us remember our long forgotten physics skills and use those concepts of waves and particles to find the keys to the puzzles.

The ‘Cycle through the Stars’ taught us the secrets of our Solar system as we cycled through its scaled down version mapped on Panjim streets.

Hojun Song asked us to standout and be true to who we are deep down so that his video codec algorithm would have trouble compressing us. So that Saturday afternoon saw a bunch of us letting go of our inhibitions and ‘perform’ for his camera.

Nick Sayers taught us to make our very own pinhole camera and asked us to make sure they are not mistaken for a bomb if we put them up at a public space.

Hands down ‘Evolution of Stars’ was the show stealer of the festival. You are taken through the life of a star in a way that I could never do justice describing in this blog post. There is news that Instityut B61 would return next year to reprise this production in Bangalore and You shouldn’t miss it then!


In between this, I found time to gorge on some amazing goan food. Apart from the usual places like The Ritz Classic, Cafe Venite and Viva Panjim, I took every possible chance to step into the tiny chai shops to sample their fare. The following are three items I really enjoyed.

1. The complimentary Goan Breakfast from Anita Tea House by the Old Quarter hostel was just a yummy way to start the day.

2. The Rose Petal Icecream from Pure Icecream because we were burning in the hot afternoon sun was unlike any dessert I’ve had before.

3. And finally the fabled Ros Omlette on the road side carts near the Immmaculate Conception church.


And like that my 3 days were up and I bid adieu to the city of no traffic lights as I headed back to Bangalore.

Postcards from another planet

It all started with a impulse purchase at a Bookstore at Khan Market, New Delhi, on our way to Hillhacks at Bir, Himachal Pradesh.

The colour-it-yourself postcards were lacking in quality so I decided to play around with them and imagined that the contents were actually images and drawings from another planet; Andlorra. The birds were coloured exotic and the trees surreal. These were conceptualised and coloured in the Earth House, Palampur.

postcards.pngI sent these to a few friends whose addresses I could gather at that time. The stamps were bought at the Bir subpost office and the postcards were posted from the Dharamshala postoffice. These travelled across the world and funnily enough the Bangalore ones reached last. This was the second time I sent a series of postcards around the world. The last time I sent these was when Shivani hosted a postcard popup shop in Cubbon park last year.

If you want one when I do a series the next time, please share your address with me.

 

Travel Diaries: Surreal Kanyakumari

Kanyakumari was just a few hours away from Kovalam, the venue of 2015’s hackbeach, that I() decided to plan a day trip to visit the Southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. We toyed with the idea of taking a cab like a friend of ours did but in the end we opted to take the Island City Express to travel the roughly 3-hour journey.  This was turning out to be quite a low cost trip thanks to the company I had. One of the concerns I have with solo tripping is that it does burn a hole in your pocket if done for short periods of time.

Tip: To get to the station from Kovalam, you have to choose between a rick (tuk-tuk), cab or the bus.

So we caught the train around 12:30 and reach Kanyakumari by 15:00. We were staying at Vedanta – Wake up and since it seemed closeby we decided to walk there. As we walked to our Inn, we got our first taste of  the multi-ethnical, multi-cultural town of Kanyakumari.

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After a brief break, we decided to head to the tip, where the action seemed to be; the sea shore. The Triveni Sangam is one of those rare places where you get to see the “meeting” of 3 bodies of water. This incidentally also means that at Kanyakumari you can see the sun rise from the sea and set into the sea as well. However the weather was gloomy and we did not get to see the sunset.

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There is a Gandhi Mandapam where his ashes were kept before immersion. This is really a huge empty building populated in some parts by lovers.

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As it grew darker we decided to explore the shops around and man! were we in for a surprise. The busy market was full of LED lit shops selling wares for Rs. 30, Rs. 20, etc. Entire shops dedicated to a single pricepoint.

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We headed back to Vedanta to sleep early so that we could wake up to see a sunrise.

IMG_20151114_061148933.jpgUnfortunately, the morning was just as gloomy and the crowds that had woken up with the hope of seeing a sunrise had nothing to do. Some of us walked down the stone jetty to the far end and sat down to take in the calmness of the morning but there were people selling watery tea and trying to con people into buying ‘pearl’ necklaces. There was this one guy who haggled with a family and brought down the price from 200 to 20. Later on in the market, I overheard another seller trying to sell similar necklaces to foreigners for $100. I wonder if anyone falls for their tricks.

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When we got back we could see that the line to visit the Vivekanand Memorial snaked through the bylanes of the town and the memorial had not even opened yet. So we decided to skip it since we wouldn’t be able to make it back to Trivandrum in time. But we had plenty of time to kill, so I decided to go for a stroll along the coast.

Being from a coastal town, I felt surprised to see the amount of construction and development done to commercialize the shoreline and provide people a place to sit and see the ocean. The roads too were well maintained and the streetlights bright.

Finally it was time to go. We headed back to the train station and waited for the island city express to start.

Back we headed to Trivandrum.

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My Travel Diaries: Varkala

The first time I heard of Varkala was probably way back in 2011, when we were in chennai and trying to decide what could be our next trip post Pondicherry. We never ended up going for it then and when I was planning a list of places to visit in 2015, I tried to include it.

The Diwali extended holiday seemed right for a trip down south and so it began with me flying to Trivandrum from Bangalore on the 11th of November. In hindsight, I should have tried the train from Bangalore.

Tip: A cheap way of getting to Varkala from Bangalore is taking the 16526/Island Express which leaves at 8:00 PM and reaches the next day around 12:00 AM.

Now that I landed in Trivandrum, I had to figure out a way to get to Varkala. The internet spoke of buses from the airport to the city and the city to Varkala but I was told that they are not very frequent and the train is my best option. So after getting to the city for which I paid a rickshaw ₹ 150 to ferry me, I bought myself a ticket to Varkala. It cost ₹ 30 to get to Varkala in a crowded general compartment (the Island express on its way back to SBC) full of the afternoon crowd. Once there, I just took an auto after non-aggressively haggling to take me there for ₹ 80. My return trip cost me ₹ 70.

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Vedanta Wake up! was where I chose to stay in Varkala. I had tried Vedanta earlier this year at Kochi and was quite satisfied with what they offered. Vedanta, though is located a bit away from the beach but not too far so it still is a good choice for solo travellers.

Tip: Go for a morning walk along the cliff walkway and the beach, you will get to see fishing boats casting their nets. Walking south takes you to quiet beaches, walking north takes you to the black sand beach.

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I spent just a day out here but I liked is so much that I shall surely return again. I had to head to Kovalam next, so at around 12pm I set out to the train station. I was told that there is an AC volvo and decided to take it instead since the train would take longer. There are no boards informing you of the bus, but luckily one did come along at 1pm, half hour later than what the local shop owner had told me. It cost me ₹ 92 to Trivandrum and the bus continued to go to Kovalam from there so I travelled on it for ₹ 32.

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