Tag Archives: southern Thailand

State of Emergency (The Thai version)

About three hours south of Bangkok, after navigating the trudge normally associated with highways 35 and 4, most cars exit the junction near Cha-Am Beach and head to Hua-Hin. Overhyped in Thailand but fairly low on the must-do list for international tourists, the late King turned this once sleepy town into a cluster of high rises and beachfront properties now cluttered with entitled Bangkokians every weekend and holiday. Unbeknownst to many, including us when we first needed a place to escape the Annual Northern Thailand Burning Festival, if you drive south for about another hour you’ll reach one of the last remaining uncrowded and beautiful beachfront regions in Thailand. Visited mostly by a devoted group of kiteboarders drawn to the large sandy beach and seasonal afternoon winds, Sam Roi Yat qualifies as one of Thailand’s only remaining hidden gems.

Our pandemic hideout

Thankfully, we’d discovered it a few years before The Great Hunker Down year entirely by chance. Having spent the previous “burning season” further south in a very deserted beach town called Bang Saphan, we didn’t yet feel like returning back home so we found an AirBnb in Khao-Tao, just south of the main Hua Hin tourist drag. Rented out seasonally, the house was in a moo-baan (gated community) known as Manora Village and was literally built in a field next to shanty-looking dwellings where you’d almost feel uncomfortable walking if you didn’t live in Thailand. Wishing to avoid Hua-Hin, we ventured south down some local roads and discovered a few developments too expensive for most Thai people, a strangely well-developed mangrove forest park with boardwalks and English signage, a country club (probably for the expats in the new developments), and the mostly unknown Khao Sam Roi Yat National Park.

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Our Long (Pandemic) Story short

Where did all the time go? Like almost everyone on Planet Earth for the last 14 months, I ask that question often but even more so every time I get an email informing me that someone read one of my posts despite an 18 month lapse of current content. Surprisingly, it seems people still find, view, and even inquire about our pre-pandemic overseas expat experiences. Realizing another annual subscription fee awaits like a wild animal stalking its prey, I decided that wasting more money for the privilege of retaining a dormant domain name is counterproductive. Having built a small but relatively loyal readership over five years, it’s high time I resume our chronological journey through an experimental overseas early retirement. (Spoiler alert; we’re back in Canada so the overseas segment is now Part One of Who Knows).

Where we spent the worst of the pandemic

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten my block editor basics and Grammarly refuses to work unless I use some ridiculous backdoor method of logging in so please excuse any sloppiness. Pondering how and where to start given the amount of disruption and pain to countless souls across the globe, I felt like nobody needs yet another story of how I spent my pandemic year. But for what it’s worth, we did experience a classic “Only in Thailand” experience and were somehow able to hide out through the peak of the chaos in a small beach town in the only province that still allowed beachcombing (minus the water sports). Retrospectively, it made a difficult time quite easy, albeit a bit repetitive in a tropical beach kind of way. So first let’s catch up on my last post back in the last presidency when we’d returned from Malaysia for the last time after cashing in our MM2H Fixed Deposits.

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Get your Kicks on Route หกสิบหก (66)

They say getting there is half the fun. Given Thailand’s dubious status as the world’s most dangerous nation to drive, getting there alive seems more like a more reasonable suggestion. In a nation where 22,941 people die on the roads each year, you might call us crazy for logging almost 4,000 kilometers in this year’s annual “smog escape”. But here’s the thing; despite a surge of new vehicles by a population that spends six times their average lifetime savings to buy Honda Accords and triple that for a BMW, long-distance road travel remains relatively unknown to most Thai people. Unlike the USA, a nation obsessed with highways, driving is more about being seen in a shiny new status symbol than getting from point A to point B. And if you’re Thai and lucky enough to get spare time for seeing the country, why on God’s earth would you drive from Chiang Mai to Bangkok when you can simply fly in an hour?

The 15 hour trudge was on this bus

Thankfully, that leaves most of the open road between major destinations empty and available for the farangs. And unlike America, whose crumbling bridges and aging highways lag the entire continent of Asia when it comes to infrastructure, Thailand recently made major improvements to national highways. Having embarked on a God awful bus trip from the south to Chiang Mai that arrived hours late due to a 300 mile stretch of one lane construction switchbacks only four years ago, we had reservations about taking a road trip. But surprisingly, except for the inevitable military junta of burning, wrong way motorbikes barrelling towards you in the shoulder and tin can pickups carrying shit piled up so high it’s comical, the newly paved stretch from Northern Thailand to Bangkok looks similar to Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Deciding that we’d need 47 days to miss the ever increasing stench of poisonous toxic air permeating Northern Thailand every March and April, we planned a trip that started with a drive to Bangkok’s large international airport. Intending to leave the car in the long term lot, travel to Vietnam for two weeks and then traverse from southeast to southwest, we barricaded the house as best we could to protect it from mounds of soot that creep into the dwelling during burn season and hit the road.

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Smogbirding; The New Thai Trend

Every Canadian’s biggest complaint about life in The Great White North is always the weather. Even the lucky ones in Vancouver think they have it rough. Often referred to as Road Construction season, summers are short and often chilly or rainy and the other nine months a year are cold. And snowy. Deserting the frigid homeland for as long as half the year or however many days the tax man says is OK, Canadians coined the term “snowbirding”. Defined as  “A North American term for a person who moves from the higher latitudes and colder climates of Canada and migrates southward in winter to warmer locales such as Florida, Arizona, Mexico and The Caribbean”, it’s every Canadian’s winter dream.

Chiang Mai; the sun is slightly visible in early March

Conversely, there’s no snow in the tropics which is one primary reason most early retirees consider places like Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, no matter how much the developed world tries to salvage our planet through recycling, elimination of plastics and modern garbage disposal, anyone living in places like Thailand knows it’s pointless because this entire side of the world sits in a perennial blanket of air pollution and smog. Compounded by uneducated citizens that routinely burn everything from garbage to overgrown fauna and governments more concerned with public image than protecting its citizens, Thailand has almost no meaningful environmental regulations. Add in greedy corporate assholes that illegally clear-cut and burn thousands of acres in countries that support the palm oil industry and the occasional El Nino that suppresses normal rainfall and you get a Great Environmental Disaster like the 2015 mess that blanketed five countries in a poisonous stench for three months straight.

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Haze Free Beach Bumming

Despite having five days in between our real beach vacation in Koh Lanta and our one month escape from the unhealthy shitty air that defines Chiang Mai every year like clockwork, I’ve been very remiss with my posts so please accept my apologies. Having just arrived in a small sleepy beach town called Bangsaphan that’s literally three hours from the nearest big tourist area, we’re settling into our two huge bedroom 1,700 square foot house that we’ll call home for a month. Astoundingly priced on AirBnb at about $20.41 USD a day and deeply discounted if you stay 30 days, the house is large, airy and comfortable. Having taken two days to drive 1,150 kilometers, it’s time to chill out in an area with lots of places they call “beach resorts” but realistically most of them are very mediocre two or three star at best. A perfect place to really relax without the crowds, this town isn’t exactly a place you’ll see on any Travel Channel documentary that features Thailand’s beach destinations. And that’s just fine by us.

So given my degree of laziness at the moment, I’ll break from the usual story telling format after making a few key points about Northern Thailand during “burning season” and telling you a bit about Koh Lanta. Not yet high on the list of top beach destinations in Thailand, it’s an island that still maintains a bit of rustic charm and simplicity while offering countless less expensive accommodation options for all budgets. Known for a hosting a huge number of Swedes (mostly in the north), the island has about six distinct regions each with different vibes and suited for different groups of visitors. Staying during the mid-season, we saw mostly strangely quiet French and German tourists both young and old, families and a smattering young couples. Most importantly, the skies were blue, there’s no agricultural burning and during dry season, every sunset looks like this.

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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