Tag Archives: Hua Hin

Thai Tidbits

Still sounding strange, it’s good to be back “home” in Penang after three weeks of being Experimental Tourists. Utilizing the train and bus as non-wealthy expats with no current income should, it felt great to brave the airport crowds and fly back home. Remembering the rest of planet earth somehow manages airport security without paranoid TSA agents screening, delaying, racially profiling and otherwise simply making a trip to the airport a three-hour pain in the ass, we breezed through Chiang Mai’s airport after a passport check or two and flew back to Malaysia via Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, reality kicked in quickly when it took almost 90 minutes for the Uber guy to negotiate the bumper to bumper parking lot that is Penang Island on a weekend. (Weekdays are only slightly better and that’s if you avoid factory shift change hours). Note to self: Although Chiang Mai has its share of traffic, it flows better than Penang’s locally populated areas even at peak times. Score one point on the “pro” side of moving to Thailand after our lease expires.

imageThoroughly enjoying the comforts of our mattress topper and personalized soft pillows (shipped from home) and our “rarely found in Asia” king size bed, we settled back into life after a successful, fun and eye-opening trip to Thailand. Changing enormously since our last visit as tourists six years ago, Chiang Mai’s growth rate surprised us a bit and we’re told Bangkok people had enough chaos and have begun moving up in drones. Now supporting two enormously large weekend night markets besides the original one at Anusam Market and covering a span of almost 3 kilometers each, they added the name “walking streets” and it literally takes hours to cover all the merchants. Unlike other places, (such as all Chinese tourist markets that sell only crap), Chiang Mai’s markets have so much interesting stuff we never get bored and patronized both markets two weekends in a row.

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Wild elephants and swimming monkeys

Approaching the last few days of our Planes, Trains and Automobiles Experimental Thailand Trip, we’re both a bit strung out from walking, discovering and traveling. Staying at a  modern apartment in the lower Chang Phueak neighborhood of Chiang Mai, it’s unfortunate the condo only has community Wifi in the common areas and its weak at best so I’ll have to keep this post short until we return. Briefly, using Airbnb was quite economical and met or even surpasses expectations. Spending one week in the suburban enclave known as Hang Deng, we used the yellow songtheaw for venturing anywhere. Chiang Mai uses a system of color coördinated scheduled songtheaws that charge a fixed rate in lieu of buses. At 30 Baht for two passengers, the cost is reasonable enough but sitting in small cramped pickup trucks crushed next to eight other passengers every day isn’t something we’d want to do every day. Sadly, we enjoyed living in the suburbs from a week despite the distance because it’s quiet and still feels rural even with new developments popping up here and there and the strip malls resemble California with Starbucks, gourmet supermarkets and restaurants all within walking distance.

imagePicking us up on time, our second Airbnb hosts drove us from the suburbs to the two-year old gated condo known as D’Vieng. Seemingly out-of-place in a local neighborhood bordering the northwest gates of the Old a city, Chiang Mai is an interesting blend of smaller modern condos right in the middle of Thai working class neighborhoods that produces a strange blend of traditional eateries and Thai culture with modern western style living. Unlike Malaysia, however, issues arise with a weaker economy and less available space so developers build condos with closet sized studios and one bedrooms with kitchens so small you’d never want to spend much time cooking and cramped little one room living space designed to get you out if the house as much as possible. Given the food culture, there’s nothing wrong with that per say but we’re used to suburban houses and 1,777 square feet of condo space so we’re looking forward to returning home to Penang. Serving its purpose, the condo does have modern bathrooms and furnishings, a comfortable bed and a great shower. Our host provides hotel style towels, nine bottles of water, snacks and instant availability should you need her for anything  making the $27 a night price tag more than reasonable.

Apologizing for the chronological lapse, I wanted to go back to our first week in Hua Hin and share two-day very worthwhile day trips. Blessed with national parks and ample forest land, the area south  and east of Hua Hin features some beautiful landscapes, lots of wildlife and excellent hiking opportunities. Having ridden elephants in the past, It surprised us that there’s a national park where the biggest herd of wild elephants in Southeast Asia roam free. Only an hour any from the coastal one, Kui-Buri National Park gives visitors an opportunity to view them up close. Given that they’re wild, there’s no guarantee of seeing them but almost every day they travel nearby the jeep tracks, making their way down to the water hole. Similar to safaris, you hang out in the back of a small truck with a park ranger (and your guide if you opt for private tours like we did) and drive around the area looking for the herd. Although there’s also other large animals, the elephants are the  main attraction and the Rangers keep in radio contact with each other hoping to find them.

Telling us each day is different, about two hours into our excursion at a point when it seemed inevitable we’d not see anything, sure enough they spotted large family of about nine to ten a few hundred yards away from the main jeep track. Using binoculars, at first it was hard to see the but they slowly started coming into view, getting closer as time went on. Luckily, the male must have decided he was thirsty and the highlight of the day was seeing them all cross the road not too far from our group and head down to the water hole. Even without the aid of a real camera I captured them on the IPhone and filmed the video below. Although possibly not as exciting as all the elephant camp options available throughout Thailand, we believe they’re so exploited that’s it’s refreshingly great to view them in their natural environment. Undaunted by captivity, they show normal behaviors not found in captive elephants and though relatively predictable, you never know when you’ll see one or how they feel about being watched. (Ear movements help determine if they’re agitated or content and the rangers told us sometimes visitors have to abandon the hunt and retreat because the elephants are having a bad day. We used a tour operator out if Singapore called BeMyGuest. Relatable and friendly, their tours are mostly private, cover all Southeast Asia, are cheaper than typical stuff advertised on TripAdvisor subsidiary companies and they usually use vendors with high levels of professionalism.

Another good day trip from Hua Hin takes longer and unfortunately we didn’t really see very much but it’s still worthwhile. Kaeng Krachen National Park is Thailand’s largest and lies about ninety minutes inland from the coast. Although there’s hundreds of animal and bird species, spotting them largely depends on the skill of your tour guide and unfortunately the company we used for this trip was mediocre. Avoid Hua Hin Adventure Tours, which is one of the most prominent companies in town and search for a better option. Requesting extra time for hiking and wildlife viewing our guide gave us an option of a jungle trek to spot wildlife or a fire road to see more birds. Having been very lucky in Boreno , Ecuador and Costa Rica, we chose the latter but soon realized you get what you pay for and although the trek was scenic, the guide was not very personable and made little effort to use any expertise to spot wildlife. Seeing an excellent array of spiders and insects, we did come across one animal that ,at have been the last thing I’d expect to see. Sitting by the river, a rather large and rare Asian tortoise was getting some sun and like most tortoises, was indifferent to humans having a look so we snapped some good pictures. Saving the trip from being uneventful, it was odd but interesting nonetheless.

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Perhaps realizing how often people come away disappointed due to limited wildlife viewings, many day trips offer an interesting side trip with the lunch spot. Nearby a local dam outside the park is  small island where throngs of long tail macquaces live. Probably having fun somebody once took a small boat to the island but discovered the monkeys were too aggressive and virtually attacked people when they knew food was nearby. Deciding to experiment, they began throwing bananas into the water a few feet offshore and eventually the monkeys began diving into the water and dog paddling out to get the fruit. Unusual behavior for animals that normal.y can’t swim, they became conditioned to the sound of approaching small motor boats and all come running out of the hills when they hear one coming. Knowing there’s food on the way, they begin jumping in the water and swimming  lose to the boats. Clearly an odd site, it’s turned into a local tourist attraction and although I’m unclear if it’s ethical or just teasing them for human enjoyment, it was quite interesting and made the day trip worthwhile.

We headed out Ina  small boat after lunch and since there were no others around, they came running and started diving into the water even before we began hurling bananas at them. After the food runs out some of them come close and climb on the back of the boat if you come close to shore. Even though we monkeys all the time in Penang this was something unexpected.

Being the pampering part of our experimental trip for future residency, we stayed at a hotel called The Villas at Anantasila. Far from the main drag, the hotel makes up for it with five-star service akin to a Shangri La Resort and really goes the extra mile. Through efficient email communication they agreed to pick us up at the train station and since it was so early they even gave us a temporary room while we enjoyed the beach after the long train trip. Every staff member knew us by name and treated us better than many places with a huge price tag. Unfortunately, there’s always something going on in “developing countries” that’s utterly ridiculous and During our stay they were building a pier right next to the beach.

Normally no big deal elsewhere, in Thailand this means three construction cranes constantly pounding  and removing concrete until well after midnight five straight nights. Clearly disturbing and potentially damaging for the hotels business, the manager personally asked us how he could make it right and told us he’s complained to them many times but Thailand’s government simply doesn’t care about business owners or anything for that matter and he claims to be powerless . Crediting us one night’s room charge, the gesture was great and it’s a shame it ruined our sleep and one or two days of peaceful beach serenity because the hotel is simply beautiful with an invite pool and a give star restaurant. Endorsing this hotel is not a problem but wait a few months until the government starts another project with no regard for anything or anybody.

imageAs our three-week trip to Thailand comes to an end it feels good to go “home” to our large condo with the view even if the food is not remotely as good a Thailand. Learning the pros and cons of both Thailand and Malaysia, there’s no perfect place in the developing world or everyone would be there. Very satisfied with Chiang Mai, we both think we’d like to live here after our lease expires in 2017 but like everything else there are compromises. Unwilling to live in closet sized condos we’d have to search for a house and probably give in and buy a scooter. Meanwhile it’s back to Batu Ferrenghi for our “normal” expat life in Penang. With the new year almost here, our next adventure is only give weeks away and will certainly be totally different since Australia can’t be compared to Southeast Asia in any meaningful way. Once returning to the comfort a PC, I’ll post kid about Chiang Mai and our first “vacation” as Experimental Expats.

Cheers from Chiang Mai.

If you’ve lived in Chiang Mai, please share your house hunt experience 

 

Slow and Long: The “Express” bus to Chiang Mai

Having learned train travel is a rather reasonable way to save some bucks and meet interesting people along the way, we continued the economical express with an arduous bus trip from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai. Realizing this was a huge mistake a few hours into the trip, I quickly learned the difference between trains and buses. Designed for travelers, trains are reasonably comfortable and offer sleeping quarters for overnight trips. Contrasting that totally, taking the bus in Thailand involves an unbelievably long and uncomfortably numbing experience with Thai people disinterested in talking, helping or sharing much of anything. Perhaps already too relaxed as a non working expat, it turns out there’s now a direct flight from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai that started some time in 2015 that I neglected to learn about. Starting at 990 Baht, it costs only a bit more than the 13 hour and 20 minute marathon on a cramped vehicle filled with locals that probably never hopped a flight in their lives. Unless you’re interested in immersing yourself fully in local culture, learning a language the hard way or have a strange fetish for long bus rides save yourself some hassle and avoid Sombat Tours, the company most people use when travelling long distances by bus in Thailand.

imageDespite today’s internet usage by the masses, many websites in Thailand contain little English, even after you click on the “ENG” tab, and obtaining pertinent travel information like schedules and prices often proves challenging. Sombat Tours is no exception and you know you’re traveling with the locals when the ticket is written in Thai and they quote the year as 2058. Arranging our transport through the hotel before arriving, we ascertained that they run two overnight trips in a “VIP” bus but we opted for the daytime departure scheduled for 8 AM. Paying no attention to the hypothetical arrival time is the first lesson when once you board what looks to be a luxurious and decent bus, at least from the outside. Unlike many other countries, the large Swedish manufactured bus had no bottom luggage compartment and the attendants standing at the station made no attempt to tell anyone how or where to place your bags. Eventually walking to the bus entrance after seeing a few others do the same, the burly clerk picked up our mid-sized bags that fit perfectly on Train 36 and simply tossed them on two seats like they were garbage. Unwilling to help much, he spoke no English and made no attempt to communicate, simply grunting and muttering Thai words while Diane and I stood there in a state of confusion. Figuring out they leave with your luggage whether you’re on the bus or not, we decided to jump on and the neatly dressed bus employee pointed for us to go upstairs.

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Train 36: The Overnight Express to Thailand

Realizing you’re never too to learn something new, Diane and I hopped on the ferry in Penang and headed to the Butterworth train station to experience a slower but more economical way to get from point A to point B. Having read countless travel essays and narratives speaking about an author’s love affair with train travel, we were anxious to see what makes it so great. Stereotyping train passengers as younger generation hippies and strange characters living on shoestring budgets, the waiting room in Butterworth seemed like a far cry from my ridiculous hypothesis of the train crowd with some Chinese families, a few backpackers of all ages and various other normal looking folks (no Malaysians were heading to Thailand, however which I find curious. Although right next door, the two countries are as a different as Christianity and Islam). Accustomed to perfect on-time service provided by KTM, Malaysia’s national train service, it surprised me when the train didn’t pull in until twelve minutes before the scheduled 2 PM departure but sure enough it lurched forward exactly on time before anyone had even settled into their seats. Keeping the rather surprisingly Malaysian efficiency record in tact (at least when it comes to trains), the two car Thai National Railway they call Train 36 sent us on our way. Headed for Hua Hin, four hours closer than Bangkok, the scheduled arrival time was 6:30 AM which usually means somewhere between 7 and whenever it gets there.

imageAlmost too conveniently, travel from Penang to Bangkok is affordable, comfortable enough and provided daily in a collaboration between the Malaysian and Thai national rail systems. Often benefitting those who have no Thai Bhat on hand, they even let you buy the ticket up to 30 days in advance and pay in Malaysian ringgit at the little dinky KTM office on the jetty in Penang. Amazingly priced at 105 ringgit for a one way ticket (about $22 USD), we saved a few bucks since we had no Thai Bhat and Malaysian banks send you to the local Indian money changer when you need foreign currency. Much less luxurious than the Malaysian KTM express trains that travel between Penang and Kuala Lumpur, there’s only a second class sleeper option when you leave from Penang. Starting with two small Korean made trains manufactured in 1996, they add a dining car and some first class trains after the border crossing at Padang Bassar. Sporting the Purple and yellow Thai colors, the trains have 24 double seat berths that face each other and convert into lower and upper sleeping compartments. Following the advice of others, we paid a few ringgit more for the lower berths and I’ll admit that’s probably the smart option unless you’re incredibly cash strapped.

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