Floating on a Feeling: One Night at Rainforest Camp

After our amazing first day and night at the aptly-named Elephant Camp, we woke up raring to go for the second and third days of our adventure with Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Camp, with its luxury tents set in the jungle, was already quite the departure from reality. Rainforest Camp, the sister property nestled even deeper into the wilderness, took an even greater leap into getting away from it all — no internet, no phone signal, not even solid ground beneath your feet — the twenty tents that make up the camp all float peacefully atop Cheow Larn Lake.

But first, we had to get there. Waving goodbye to Elephant Hills, we piled into decommissioned Thai military vehicles and made our way to a local market in Takhun. I’ve seen more than my fair share of markets in Thailand, but I still enjoyed having a brief wander and stocking up on snacks before the next leg of our journey.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Next up, a quick stop at the Ratchaprapha Dam, where we got our first glance of Cheow Lan Lake and started to learn the insanely fascinating history of the region.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And then it was onto the lake, where we hopped into a traditional long tail boat to sightsee.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After a gorgeous ride admiring the jungle and the towering limestone karsts that define the lake, we caught sight of our final destination — Rainforest Camp!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailandso distracted by our welcome drinks, we could only manage a silly iPhone selfie

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Opened in 2011, Rainforest Camp is still one of the only floating tented camps in the world. Powered by solar and wind energy and using a unique waste management system, the camp is a model of low-impact accommodation.

And we had the wild neighbors to prove it. We might have left the elephants behind at Elephant Camp, but we still had monkeys prancing in the jungle behind our camp and fish darting around and below our tents. And there was way more going on than what we were lucky to see — just lookwhat gets caught on Elephant Hill’s hidden cameras!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Inside the tents, however, was a human-only zone. Somehow, thought I didn’t think it would be possible, I loved these tents even more than the ones we’d spent the previous evening in.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And we got right down to the business of enjoying them.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After a few hours of chill time, those who wanted to join for the afternoon’s jungle trek were rounded up and set off in boats bound for the shore.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

As we touched down on land again, our guide began to elaborate on the fraught history of the land beneath our feet.

The story began in 1944, when a deadly epidemic wiped out almost the entire population of the Khao Sok region. The village became known as Ban Sop, or Village of the Dead, lying in the shadow of a nearby mountain known as Khao Sop, or Corpse Mountain. The morbid name was later rebranded to Khao Sok.

In 1961, the region was forever changed by construction of the 401, the first and only highway connecting Phang Nga and Surat Thani Provinces. Needless to say, the untouched wilderness of Khao Sok suffered.

In the 1970’s, tragedy struck Khao Sok again. In Thailand, October 6th, 1976 will always be remembered with sadness — it was the day of the military government’s fatal attack on student protesters at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The forty one recorded deaths are suspected, in fact, to be a low estimate. In response to the massacre, hundreds of students fled to Khao Sok, fearing for their lives. The deep, untouched forest provided cover for the newly-formed insurgency groups who buried explosives and patrolled the area with gunfire. The very caves we were hiking through provided shelter from air raids by the Thai military.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

The rebels formed an unexpected sanctuary for the environment — they may have been aiming to keep the army away, but they also scared off loggers, hunters and miners for the seven years they controlled the area. In 1982, the government changed hands, and the students slowly returned to their lives. Allegedly, the last of the rebels left Khao Sok in 1989.

Thanks to the unintended protection of this unlikely ally, Khao Sok staved off development and exploitation long enough for the National Parks Division to take notice. With many rare species of flora and fauna (including the spiders I was very unwillingly sharing the previously mentioned caves with), Khao Sok was announced Thailand’s 22nd National Park in 1980.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

But the area wasn’t done changing. Around the same time Khao Sok was applying for National Park status, EGAT (the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) discovered that Khao Sok was the largest watershed in southern Thailand. And so, before objections could be raised by the area’s newfound status, a massive portion of the National Park was intentionally flooded to create a 165km2 reservoir for generating hydro-electricity. Today, this reservoir is known as Cheow Larn Lake.

The flooding was a tragedy for wildlife. Many animals, including elephants, were forced into islands created by the rising water levels, and EGAT attempted the largest rescue in Thailand’s history… which was, unfortunately, largely unsuccessful. Of 1,364 “rescued” animals, the majority died of stress and the rest were relocated into areas overpopulated by other refugees.

It was a rocky, controversy and scandal-paved road that led Khao Sok to where it is today — 739 square kilometers of protected land that is a popular eco-tourism destination, and a sustainable source of hydro-electric power for much of Southern Thailand.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Back at camp, we marveled at an absolute stunner of a sunset and the fact that we could leap off our porch into its reflection in the water, if we wanted to. It had been the perfect day.

At Elephant Camp, the lush surroundings hid the fact that there was indeed a highway not quite too far away and at night,  you could hear the occasional truck passing by the main road. But here a Rainforest Camp, this, this was pure peace.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

In the morning, we sprung out of our tents for one final breakfast. I have to give kudos to Elephant Hills for being super accommodating to various diets — I had marked on our intake form that I eat no seafood and there was always plenty of variety for me, and others in the group with special dietary needs were also well tended to.

After, we had a bit of free time to go for a final adventure — a kayak down a snaking arm of the lake. We were kicking ourselves the entire time for not reserving the four day tour, which would have tacked on another night at Rainforest Camp, along with 24 hours to pretty much just kick around at your leisure. If I have one piece of advice for anyone heading to this particular experience, it’s to make room in your budget and itinerary for one more night!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

At around 20,000B (about $560) for three days, this experience is not for those on a shoestring budget. However, when you consider the included transfers especially, and use Khao Sok as a stopover between Thailand’s two coasts, it represents pretty great value. The only things not included are soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, tips, souvenirs, and extras like the foot massages offered at Elephant Camp (heck yes I had one!). The included transfers will pick you up and drop you off door-to-door in Phuket, Khao Lak, Phang Nga, Krabi, Surat Thani or even from Koh Samui.

When to come? Well, basically, whenever you have a trip planned to Thailand. “Green season,” as Elephant Hills optimistically refers to Khao Sok’s monsoon, lasts from May to October, and comes with cooler temperatures, lush green foliage, and higher chances of spotting wildlife. The least busy months are May, June, September and October, so book then if you want to have the place to yourself!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

We had so much fun on this trip that we made a little video! I’ve hardly been giving my GoPro HERO3+
the loving it deserves lately, and so I was super excited to bring it along on this trip. It’s hard to switch back and forth from photo to video mode (for me at least!) but we got some really fun shots and I laugh every time I watch this video — and not just because an elephant tried to eat my camera.

As filled with natural beauty as Thailand can be, it can also be a chaotic and overwhelming place. Our days in Khao Sok were so refreshing and recharging, I left feeling more connected with nature and myself than I had in months.

It was a reminder of something I wish I didn’t have to be reminded of so often — sometimes there’s nothing more important in the world than to unplug, disconnect, and listen to water lapping against your tent, monkeys playing in the trees, your best friend laughing at a story, a paddle hitting the surface of a lake, or best of all — the rare and beautiful sound of nothing.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And with that, we were back to home sweet home — Koh Tao!

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I was a guest of Elephant Hills in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.
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Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

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Special Announcement!

If you follow me on Facebook or on Instagram, you’ve probably already heard my big announcement: I’m going to Bali!
Best of all? You can come with me! I vowed that I wasn’t going to travel anywhere in March… but then I got an offer that was just too good to refuse. I’m incredibly excited to be attending an immersive coding retreat with The Institute of Code from March 3-13th. For ten days we’ll be staying in a gorgeous villa, waking up to poolside yoga, digging into some delicious website creation, and exploring Bali on our breaks! After years of having to turn to a developer for every little issue on my blog, I cannot wait to feel empowered to just do it myself!

Want to join? (Who wouldn’t?) There are still spaces available for the retreat I’m attending, so check out the details here and shoot me an email if you have any questions. Ahhhhh… I literally cannot wait!

Glamping Among The Elephants: A Journey to Khao Sok

When you live on a tiny tropical island, it’s going to the mainland that actually feels like a vacation. Which is why it was one of my highlights of 2016, way back at the beginning of it, to finally visit Khao Sok National Park.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After a wine tour around Khao Yai, a weekend in Bangkok, and a getaway in Hua Hin, I’d finally arrived on last stop on my big winter trip around Thailand. After Hua Hin, Ian headed back to Koh Tao, and Janine tapped back in as my travel buddy. We’d only been apart for a few days but we were thrilled to be back on the road together, and excitedly reunited at the Surat Thani train station after an overnight rail journey on my part and an overnight boat ride on hers.

There, we were met by a driver who whisked us away to Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills. Spoiler alert: yup, there were real live elephants involved.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

I’d been itching to visit Khao Sok National Park for years — it’s a popular getaway among Koh Tao expats — and while there is a wide variety of accommodation there for all budgets, I’d always been drawn to Elephant Hills, arguably the most unique and luxurious option in the area.

Here, deep in the Thai mainland, luxury doesn’t mean a soul-less corporate chain hotel. Nope, it means a lovingly crafted safari tent perched alongside a lush river. Elephant Hills consists of two tented camps: Elephant Camp in the Khao Sok jungle, and Rainforest Camp floating on Cheow Lan Lake.

We were on the Jungle Lake Safari package, a three-day-and-two-night-tour with one night at each camp.

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Our tent, one of thirty-five that make up Elephant Camp, was stunning. Attention was paid to every detail, and we felt like we were on a true adventure safari. While the luxury tent concept is obviously wildly popular in Africa and catching on in other parts of the world as well — I’ve glamped in places as far flung as Peru and as local as Upstate New York — it’s fairly unique to Southeast Asia. In fact, Elephant Hills was the very first luxury tented camp in Thailand!

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Hills is more than just a place to lay your head at night. All visits there are part of comprehensive tour packages that include accommodation, all meals, activities, a tour guide, and most impressively, transfers to and from several of Southern Thailand’s most popular hot spots. The location combined with the convenient transfers make it the perfect stopover when hopping between Thailand’s two coasts.

While we had a busy itinerary of activities ahead, we were grateful that before lunch we had some down-time to lose it over the amazingess of our tent, gossip by the pool, and get excited about the days ahead.

Outdoor Shower at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

At noon, we were summoned for a beautiful buffet lunch. Over several of our favorite Thai dishes, we chatted with both our tour guide and the other travelers who had made their way to Elephant Hills.

After lunch, it was time for our first adventure: a jungle river canoe trip down the Sok River. 

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

We were pumped to paddle our own canoes, but quickly adjusted to relaxation mode when we realized local river guides would be doing the heavy lifting. The water levels were very low — one of the guides told me they were just days away to switching to a further away rafting location — and so it was a very chill float.

That left all our energy to focus on the stunning scenery of limestone karsts in the background, and to be on the lookout for wildlife in the foreground. We didn’t spot much aside from some frogs and snakes, but I couldn’t get enough of the natural beauty of the area.

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After, we’d make our way to the Elephant Hill’s namesake draw — it’s elephants! Canoeing was lovely, but let’s be real — we were all there for the pachyderms.

As we giddily piled into the decommissioned military vehicles that whisked us around Khao Sok, Janine and I could barely contain our elephant-induced excitement.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephants certainly aren’t hard to find in Thailand, but unfortunately ethical animal encounters are.

The tide is turning on the idea of tourists riding elephants. On my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2009, I cluelessly rode an elephant at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and found it fairly underwhelming — there was very little interaction with the animal to enjoy. In 2013, I visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where I learned about the cruel domestication system known as the phajaan which all elephants destined for riding must endure. Days of claustrophobic confinement and brutal beatings break the spirit of the elephant and the fear of pain it learns allows it to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks for the rest of its life. I knew then I’d never to ride an elephant again.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

I wasn’t alone. In 2014, Intrepid Tours announced they were no longer offering elephant rides on their tour itineraries. In 2016, a man was killed by a captive elephant on Koh Samui, and across the border at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an elephant dropped dead of a heart attack after fifteen years of carrying tourists day in and day out (my heart broke wondering if I’d been among them.) Pressure from those incidents, among others, prompted Tripadvisor and their partner Viator to cease ticket sales for all elephant riding experiences. The same year, I attempted to find the elusive elephant in the wild by journeying to Khao Yai National Park, home of the largest remaining wild elephant population in Asia. While my mission wasn’t technically successful, it was an unforgettable adventure. But yet I stillcraved another elephant encounter.

And then I learned of Elephant Hills. Once upon a time they too offered elephant rides, as was standard for Southeast Asian tour companies. Yet in 2010, they made the drastic decision to cease riding entirely in their continuous efforts to create an experience as enjoyable for the elephants as it is for the guests. And what they designed is an interaction that is far more rewarding and respectful than simply sitting on an elephant’s back.

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

We started with the way to any elephant’s heart — food. As hungry trunks poked around wooden pavilion  we were gathered in, we chopped up fruit, sugarcane, bamboo and other pachyderm favorites. Then, with the blessing of their mahouts, or trainers, we had the thrill of feeding them.

My favorite part? Aside from seeing and feeling the power and dexterity of those gorgeous trunks, it was seeing how each elephant really had their own preference when it came to snack time! My girl was a big fan of pineapple — I knew we were going to get along great.

Next, we gathered round and watched while the elephants played in the mud. This actually may have been one of my favorite parts of the day — just kicking back and watching the elephants do their thing the way they would in the wild.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Finally, it was bath time, and we scrubbed our muddy buddies down with coconut husks and hoses and squealed with joy as they used their trunks to rinse off their backs (just wait until you see the video!) One broke off for a five minute back scratch against a tree. We might have been following a well-coreographed itinerary, but the elephants were basically just doing their thing — and I loved it.

Finally, we gathered around to learn a little bit about the special relationship between mahout and elephant. All of the residents of Elephant Hills were rescued from either illegal logging operations (an industry banned in 1989 in Thailand) or cruel sectors of the “entertainment” industry. Rather than separate the elephants from the mahouts they know and trust, Elephant Hills offered these men and their families the opportunity to move to Khao Sok to continue working with their beloved animal companions.

While all the mahouts must adhere to certain standards set by the company, Elephant Hills also wanted to provide these men with some autonomy, which means that many of them still chose to ride the elephants at their necks and some use so-called “bull hooks” to steer the elephants. Purists may sneer at that choice and I have to admit that I didn’t love to see the hooks in use. But considering the alternatives, I’d say these are still some of the luckiest elephants in Southeast Asia.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

There are currently around just 3,000 wild elephants left in Thailand, with another 3,500 or so in captivity. Sadly, there just isn’t enough wilderness left in Thailand to provide home for those captive creatures, even if the country woke up tomorrow and decided to return them there. The outlawing of logging in 1989 effectively created a crisis of elephant unemployment, and tourism swooped in to provide for the enormous food bills these animals rack up. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of wrong turns on that road.

But we can course correct. Now that I myself have had my eyes opened, I plan to pass it on by participating in ethical elephant encounters and promoting them here on Alex in Wanderland. Elephant Hills has won awards for animal welfare and for conservation, and I applaud them for their continuous efforts to try to provide better lives for the elephants in their care — during my visit, I was shown plans for expanding the elephant’s private sleeping area, a project that guests won’t even get a peek at, but will make on crew of elephants pretty pleased.

While I’ve been a big proponent of Elephant Nature Park over the years, I am thrilled to also now have a positive elephant experience to recommend in Southern Thailand, for those who may not be making it all the way north to Chiang Mai.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Feeding, washing, and interacting with Asia’s largest land animal? Yeah, I’d say that’s going to be a highlight of almost anyone’s year. Doing it with one of my favorite humans? Even better!

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Back at Elephant Camp, we retreated to our tents to get ready for the evening entertainment. While we spent most of the night gossiping over a glass of wine, we did peek in and enjoy some of the numerous official offerings including nature documentaries, a cute traditional Thai dance performance by kids from the local school, and a Thai cooking demonstration (they post the menus online in case you had too much wine — er, have a bad memory.)

After another lovely meal we eagerly retired to our tent where we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle and the memories of the elephants we’d met that day.

Stay tuned for our journey onward to Rainforest Camp! How important is it for you to find ethical animal encounters when you travel?


I was a guest of Elephant Hills in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.

One Last Sip of Sun: A Tour of Hua Hin Hills Vineyard

After three days in Hua Hin, Ian and I’s relaxation retreat was almost complete. We’d ticked almost every box: sun, sand, sea, and sleep. There was just one last unwinding agent to attend to: wine.

So far, our explorations of Thailand’s unknown wine country had been a wild success. Two days in the Khao Yai district had revealed three beautiful vineyards — the boutique, female-helmed GranMonte Wines, local powerhouse PB Valley, and family-run, organic Alcidini. Now, in a totally different region of the country, we had one more chenin blanc to cheers to at Hua Hin Hills, the southernmost vineyard in Thailand.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

About 45 kilometers inland from coastal Hua Hin, the vineyard is picturesquely set among rolling jungle hills dotted with temples. We arrived just in time for the latter of two free tours offered per day, at 1pm and 4pm. The tour was short and sweet and conducted from the back of a bright red, branded, open-air jeep. Had this not been our fourth winery in a week I might have been a little bummed we didn’t stop once for photos, but as it was I’d had my annual fill of photographing grape vines.

There are other activities on offer to allow you to explore the vineyard a bit more thoroughly. Mountain bikes can be rented for 100B for thirty minutes, or 150B for an hour, and in retrospect would have been a lovely way to explore — yet we were too hungry pre-tasting, and too tipsy post. For the creatives at heart, bottle painting is on offer for 300B per set. Elephant riding is also available, but as romantic as it may seem to cross a vineyard atop Thailand’s national animal, I personally recommend you don’t for all the reasons detailed here.

One important detail to keep in mind is that Hua Hin Hills consists only of a vineyard, not a winery. The production facility, Siam Winery, is located in Samut Sakhon, about two and a quarter hours back towards Bangkok. Someday, I look forward to visiting the winery and taking one of their tours as well!

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Togther, Hua Hin Hills and Siam Winery produce Monsoon Valley Wines, one of the most common bottles spotted on shelves in Thailand. The company also produces Spy Wine Coolers, the best-selling “wine-based drink” in the country, a financial stepping stone that allows them to produce their prestige wines. The family behind the brand is no stranger to beverage-based success: the winery was founded by the late Chaleow Yoovidhya, cofounder of and recipe-creator for Red Bull.

In 1986, Yoovidhya’s oldest son Chalerm established the Siam Winery company, which today represents over 30% of the Thai wine market — and recently overtook PB Valley as the most prolific producer in the country. As of 2014, the company was producing 260,000 bottles per year, with over half being exported to Europe, the US, and beyond.

And so after much anticipation, we were off to taste a few in The Sala.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Inside The Sala, which serves breakfast as well as a daytime menu, our eyes widened at the offerings for both wine tastings and treats. The obscenely affordable Khao Yai region had spoiled us, and these prices seemed shocking in comparison. But we quickly decided to throw budgetary caution to the wind, accept that this was going to be far and away our most expensive winery visit, and just enjoy it.

In the end we spent 2,500B (about $70US!) at the restaurant and a further 1,750B ($50US) on wine to take home. Considering the tastings ranged from 100-200B per person at the previous sites we’d visited, it was a good thing we’d decided to laugh about the bill.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

We settled into a vineryard-side table and I selected the Sweet Wine Tasting for 240B, which included glasses of the Muscat and Chenin Blanc Late Harvest. Ian went big with the Grand Monsoon Valley Tasting for 1,050B, which included a Colombard, a Cuvée Blanc, a Chenin Blanc, a Shiraz, and a Cuvée Rouge. We passed on the Thai tapas pairings and instead ordered a cheese board, which was perfection. Unlike the wineries we’d visited in Khao Yai, which were European influenced in everything from their menus to their architecture, this one was all Thai.

There’s no mistaking it — these are Thai wines produced from Thai grapes to complement Thai food. The labels are emblazoned with the mythical naga, a Thai guardian figure, and the bottles are stamped with the Thai Buddhist year — currently, it’s 2560 — rather than the widely used Gregorian calendar in which we just rang in 2017. Funny enough, there is one quirk in this otherwise thorough exercise in Thai nationalism: a German winemaker, Kathrin Puff, who makes the magic happen at Monsoon Valley.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

After our final toast, I was ready for a little playtime among the vines.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

It had been the perfect afternoon — though it hadn’t quite started as planned. We had taken our resort’s free shuttle into Hua Hin to catch the official vineyard shuttle from their Hua Hin Hills Bistro & Wine Cellar downtown. (If you can’t make it all the way out to the vineyard, this is a chic little spot to taste and buy Hua Hin Hills wines right in town!)

The round trip shuttle leaves twice a day for 300B per person, first at 10:30am and returning at 2:00pm and next at 3:00pm and returning at 6:00pm. However, we made the critical mistake of not booking ahead, and arrived to find that the shuttle had filled and left before our arrival. It’s worth noting I’d scoured the website and seen nothing about reservations… but I still should have known better.

Luckily, an ex-employee-turned-taxi-driver was loitering around the bar and heard our tale of woe and offered to take us for 1,000B (about $35) round trip. Considering we were going to spend 600B on the shuttle, it wasn’t a bad deal for a forty-five minutes each way in a private SUV — and he even called the winery for us to let them know we were coming and to hold the tour! Lesson learned. If you plan to take the vineyard’s shuttle, call ahead to book.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

So yes, our trip to Hua Hin Hills was a bit pricier and more chaotic than our previous Thailand winery trips. But it was a completely unique experience, and possibly the most scenic — and when it came to The Sala, architecturally impressive — of them all, and so we treasured every last drop.

Cheers, Thailand, for another delicious tasting!

Traveling Like The Thais Do: A Weekend In Hua Hin

Happy 2017, my friends! It turned out 2016 was my year of vacationing like the Thais do. After seven years of visiting their country, why not take a cue from those that know it best, after all? I’ve always found it fascinating to note the differences between destinations loved by domestic travelers, and those favored by their international counterparts… to explore them myself? Even better.

I earned my first nod of local approval by planning two separate trips to Khao Yai, both to the National Park and to the wine region in the countryside. Next, I set my sights on Hua Hin, site of the royal family’s seaside retreat and arguably the country’s most popular beach resort among its own people.

I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about.

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Coming from our birthday bash weekend in Bangkok, Hua Hin was a simple — though lengthy — train ride away. After a fabulous stay at the Amari Watergate in the big city, Ian and I broke off from the group to check out the brand’s sister resort, Amari Hua Hin.

We made the mistake of not buying our tickets ahead of time and got stuck in third class, which was a bit rough for a four to five hour ride. Yet all thoughts of hard wooden seats and sweaty cars were forgotten when the sun started to dip and the Thai countryside lit up with late afternoon glow.

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

And it was all worth it the moment the train pulled into Hua Hin’s historic station. Frankly, we weren’t planning on doing much sightseeing over the next three nights — we were traveled out and mostly just looking for some alone time! — and so we were quite pleased to check off at least one local sight.

The iconic train station was once the royal waiting room during Rama VI’s reign, and now serves as both a gateway to the popular getaway, as well as a prime example of local architecture.

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

A short tuk tuk ride later, we’d arrived at the Amari Hua Hin. Located just ten minutes south of the heart of town, the Amari is just close enough to take advantage of local dining and nightlife and just far enough away to feel like you’re out of the hustle and bustle.

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

From the moment we started check-in, we could tell this hotel was going to be distinctly different from the Amari Watergate in Bangkok. While that property had been fabulously located and spoiled for amenities, this one was swoon-level chic, with thoughtful design details and bright pops of color tucked into every corner. This was my kind of place.

I was in hotel heaven.

Amari Hua Hin

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

We stayed in a standard room, and since we arrived to our room after dark and the housekeeping left something to be desired — really our only complaint about the Amari brand — I never really got to photograph our room in it’s just-checked-in glory.

However, we did get the chance to peek at one of the hotel’s four suites and had to pretty much wipe the drool off our faces as we did so — if you’re headed this way and have the means to do so, spring for one of these babies (standard rooms start at around $100, while suites go for about $200).

Amari Hua Hin

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

Amari Hua Hin Suite

So what was on the itinerary if sightseeing was out of the question? With the exception of our trip to the area’s winery, which I’ll cover in a separate post, it was all about pool, beach, spa… and watching movies in bed. Sometimes even adventure-loving travel bloggers just want a vacation.

The next day we kicked things off at the hotel pool, where we nibbled on snacks from the Aqua Pool bar and marveled at having the place nearly entirely to ourselves even when the hotel was almost at full capacity. Thai people cherish light skin the same way Americans worship tans, meaning you’ll rarely struggle to find an empty seat if you hit the pool mid-day at a Thai beach resort.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

When we tired of that pool, we hoped down to the Shoreline Beach Club. Just a short walk or a free thirty second shuttle ride away from the hotel, Shoreline allowed us to enjoy the ocean breezes and views and the luxury of a hotel pool that we didn’t have to sneak into all at once. I absolutely loved this gem and we spent plenty of time here, walking the beach at low tide, eating dinner under the stars and reading between the pool and ocean.

The beach in Hua Hin is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Thailand. The islands I’ve visited are sultry and tropical, full of piercing turquoise water, smooth as glass, and blinding white sand. Hua Hin is quaint and charming, with an endless shoreline, wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. I was swooning.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

The next morning, we decided to tick off a few more of the hotel’s hotspots. I was very much in a fitness routine at this point (universe, help me get back to that place) and was delighted by how beautiful the onsite fitness center was. Not only that, but I had it completely to myself throughout both my cardio and a weight circuit.

Hua Hin Amari Gym

Hua Hin Amari Gym

The best way to reward yourself for a workout? Why, a trip to the spa of course!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

After just one visit at the Amari Watergate in Bangkok I was already a Breeze Spa devotee, and so I couldn’t have been more thrilled to return, this time with Ian in tow, to the Amari Hua Hin version. The stylish and hip branding was comfortingly consistent, though this particular spa had a slightly more beachy feel appropriate to the setting.

We settled in for the Hua Hin Seaside Escape package, which was glorious and involved being exfoliated with crushed seashells.

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

In general, the spa is my happy place, and this day was no exception. I’m in love with the Breeze branding, products, and treatments — if they opened one in Koh Tao I’d be their most loyal customer!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

That afternoon, we retreated to the Coral Lounge for high tea. This gorgeous lobby bar won me over from the second I stepped through the door with its dramatic red coral chandeliers — luckily not for sale in any giftshop, or I would have really struggled to repack my suitcase — and its impeccable design details all around.

I don’t normally jump at the chance for proper tea service, but this one was pretty phenomenal. I’m getting hungry just thinking about those sliders and scones!

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Our last day at the Amari was all about soaking up every last second of vacation vibes — that, and eating. We kicked things off as we had twice already with breakfast at Mosaic, the hotel’s included breakfast restaurant. With five different restaurant options onsite — plus room service — we never returned to Mosaic for any other meals, but we did love starting our days here.

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Later that afternoon after packing up, we had a beautiful lunch at Reef Deli, where we’d also enjoyed dinner on our first night. My highlight was a dessert called Sweet Mango Caviar, made up of coconut and pandan cake served with vanilla ice cream and topped with mango “caviar.” Yum!

Throughout our stay, we were impressed with the prices at the hotel’s onsite restaurants. When we met briefly with the hotel’s manager, he explained that for Amari’s many Thai guests, eating at Hua Hin’s famous seafront seafood restaurants is one of the main attractions, and so they have to price themselves competitively to remain an attractive option.

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

I really savored this short getaway and understood more than ever why people don’t just go traveling but also take vacations. I live a life blessed by beach time, setting my own schedule and a lot of other things that most people associate with being on vacation. Yet the one thing I can’t just get on a whim is quality time with my favorite man! Ian and I live separately, work opposite hours (I work during the day and Ian manages a bar six nights a week), and both value quality time alone and with our friends. And so when we do get away like this, we really savor it. And I can’t imagine a more perfect place to do so than this particular beach town and this particular hotel.

Hua Hin really left an impression on me. Considering it’s prime location between Bangkok and Koh Tao, it’s kind of wild it took me so long to get there. But while this may have been a long overdue first trip, I feel almost certain it won’t be my last.

Stay tuned for a post about Hua Hin’s winery!

3-devide-lines

Many thanks to Amari Hua Hin for hosting us for two nights. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

A Bangkok Birthday Bash at the Amari Watergate

It will come as no surprise to long term readers that I never miss a chance to spend a weekend in The Big Mango. As much as I love my island life in Thailand, I can’t seem to stay away from this city.

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Bangkok Birthday Bash

After wine weekend in Khao Yai wrapped up, I’d planned to squirrel my Koh Tao BFF Janine off to Bangkok for a girly weekend of yoga, massage and brunches. Of course, in true Thailand fashion, pretty soon not only was the entire wine weekend crew sticking around, but a few others were coming to join too. The more the merrier — we ended up with a group of fourteen!

Our base camp (for ten of us, anyway) was the Amari Watergate, a hotel I’d actually been to before for a midnight fun run a few years prior — but never actually stayed in. I’d met some of the Amari crew at TBEX Bangkok at the end of 2015 and I was looking forward to taking them up on their offer to check out some of their hotels — starting with the Amari Watergate.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

Janine and I were spoiled rotten with an Executive Suite on the club level, with our friends checking into various other room categories. We loved having so much space for our crew to drop in and out as they pleased!

Note: Tragically, I lost all my photos from the day we checked in due to a serious of technological mishaps. Luckily, my friends Leah from The Sweetest Way and Kate from Adventurous Kate have both stayed at the Amari as well and generously offered to let me swipe some of their room photos — check out their posts for even more angles of this beautiful hotel!

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Leah Davis

I was almost a little sad we had such a busy three nights planned — I wouldn’t have minded just kicking it in this room for seventy-two hours. I mean, can you blame me? Just check out that tub!

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

Amari Watergate Bangkok HotelPhoto by Kate McCulley

One of the perks of being on the club level was a daily happy (two!) hours during which we could sip on complimentary wine, cocktails, and beer, and nibble on free snacks. It was a really nice perk, and a lovely way to kick off the evening. And we never went thirsty — at any time of day we could pop by the lounge and grab complimentary sodas, juices, tea and coffee.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

There was also a standard happy hour down by the pool which we checked out as well. The Amari Watergate pool is unlike any other I’ve been to in Bangkok, which tend to be sleek, rooftop infinity affairs. The lagoon-style here was a refreshing change.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

And yet I think the best thing about the Amari at any room level (aside from the gym and spa, which I’ll get to soon!) is the location. The Amari Watergate is across the street from some of the best shopping in Bangkok, from the high-end malls of Siam to the market-like Platinum Center where clothes and accessories can be snapped up at wholesale prices, and the overwhelming Pantip Center where electronics can be had for a song.

On our first night back in Bangkok we took advantage of our location to stroll across the street and meet our friends staying elsewhere at Red Sky bar, the dramatic rooftop of the Central World Mall. I’d been here once before and loved the wild, color-changing arch and was excited to show it to the soon-to-be birthday girl. Unfortunately, we hit a snag.

Red Sky Bar Bangkok

Bangkok bars are obsessed with footwear, and it’s not unusual for a hostess to shamelessly lean right over the podium to see what’s on your feet before so much as saying hello to you. Flip flops are often not allowed, regardless of the fact that they are pretty much the standard issue uniform of Southeast Asia. So despite the fact that we were dressed to the nines, the Red Sky team wouldn’t allow our group onto the roof since a few of the girls had on nice pairs of Havianas — even when we offered to get bottle service. Oh well.

They generously allowed us to spend our money in the downstairs bar, however. Since we was wearing sandals, Janine and I went to the roof to have on drink and grab our friends who were already there to bring them downstairs. And that’s when I got really riled up, guys… because I saw people in CROCS AND ZIP OFF PANTS. You want to class the place up a bit and draw the hard line on high-end, designer metallic flip flops? Fine, fair enough. But you simply cannot then allow Croc-clad tourists in adventure vests to waltz around the place like it’s fashion week!

At least you all know what to pack now to get past the doorman at Red Sky.

Red Sky Bar Bangkok

Back at Amari the next morning, the birthday girl and I enjoyed breakfast in the exclusive Executive Lounge and laughed over our misadventures from the night before. The city views were almost as delicious as the crazy breakfast spread before us. We also discussed our plans for the day, since we’d learned a little too late that our big dreams for the day were definitely not going to happen.

You see, the Buddhist calendar in Thailand is chock full of days when alcohol sales are somewhat restricted, and they are tough to keep track of since the dates are based on the lunar calendar and thus change every year. With most of them, however, you can find a drink if you’re desperate at hotel bars and fine restaurants and certain above-the-law establishments. There are one or two however, that are so important that not a single bar dares keep its doors open. And as we’d discovered with just two days warning, Janine’s birthday was one of them this year. Whoops.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

Amari Watergate Bangkok Hotel

So that day, with our dreams of mimosas at a favorite brunch café crushed, we decided to head to the mall and to the movies. After some shopping and food court hopping, Ian and I were quick to recommend our new obsession the Blue Ribbon Theater. For many of our friends it was their first time at the best screen scene in Bangkok, and we loved showing them the ropes! While I wasn’t a fan of the movie the group decided on — Deadpool, ugh — I still had a blast. Once you go Blue, you never go back.

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Blue Ribbon Theater Bangkok

Back at the suite, we toasted to our good fortune. Sure, it wasn’t the birthday we’d planned (which had involved a river-side beer garden and a ride around the ferris wheel at Asiatique!) but we couldn’t have been luckier with our Plan B. We were in beautiful suite surrounded by good friends, cake, a gorgeous city skyline and the cases of wine and champagne we’d stocked up on the night before. In retrospect, we couldn’t have asked for a better night.

Bangkok Birthday

Bangkok Birthday

Bangkok Birthday

The next morning, Janine and I were up early to hit the gym and relax at the spa… basically, to start her next spin around the sun in style.

Now, I’m not being hyperbolic when I saw that the Amari Watergate has perhaps the most extensive gym at any hotel I’ve ever stayed at… possibly anywhere. An enormous weights room, a bocce ball court, and ten classes per week were all on the menu, though sadly the class we rose for happened to be cancelled that morning. But as a group exercise addict I was serially impressed to see a schedule with classes in step, aero boxing, yoga, aerobics, and more.

Amari Watergate Bangkok Gym

Amari Watergate Bangkok Gym

After our workout, we made our way to the Breeze Spa. Janine and I have a regular weekly spa date, and so it was only fitting that for her birthday trip we took our usual routine and cranked it up a notch.

After much deliberation we chose the Lift Off Package, which included an hour long massage, a fifteen minute foot ritual, and a forty-five minute wrap or scrub. The treatments started with an energizing juice shot and a cool towel as we tested various massage oils and scrubs — I went with the mango sticky rice scrub and I was so infatuated with it I bought not one but two bottles of the stuff on the way out. As much as I love spa outing I literally never buy the products, so this was a huge deal.

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Our treatments were fantastic! And on the way out, we had more treats waiting for us — hot teas and green tea macarons. Yum! Hands down, I think this was my highlight of the weekend. I loved having some solo girl time in a busy few days full of friends and frenzy, and I absolutely adored the entire Breeze experience, from the chic branding to the good-enough-to-eat products to the quality of the treatments.

Even if I was staying elsewhere, I’d come back to the Amari just for treatments at Breeze. It’s my new go-to in Bangkok when I’m looking for something a little more special that a cheap streetside foot rub.

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

Breeze Spa at Amari Watergate

That night, we caught back up with the full crew again for dinner at a restaurant I’d long awaited a visit to — Peppina. There are a couple outposts of the chic eatery now, but we headed to the flagship location on Sukhumvit Soi 33. The speciality of the house is Neapolitan pizza, though salads and other Italian treats round out the menu.

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

While I can’t say the service was all that stellar, in their defense we were a huge group and we didn’t give them tons of notice we were coming. Still, the food was fantastic, we had a blast, and I can’t wait to check out their new pop-up location — in The Commons in Thonglor, for all my fellow Bangkok addicts out there.

Peppina Restaurant Bangkok

Peppina Restaurant Bangkokthe whole crew… almost!

After dinner, it was one final night out in the big city! Ian and I led a bar crawl along our favorite Thonglor bars, starting at the steampunk Iron Fairies before winding our way to Thai hipster favorite Bad Motel, and eventually capping off the night at one of my favorite rooftops in Bangkok, the vertigo-inspiring Octave (if you have a sweet tooth like me, don’t miss the mango sticky rice martini — you’ll thank me later!)

Bad Motel BangkokJanine sampling “The Barf Bag,” Bad Motel’s version of a Long Island Iced Tea

Octave Bangkok

Octave Bangkok

The next day I’d have a full schedule of errands to run, including procuring my Brazilian visa, getting my quarterly fix of Coldstone Creamery, and doing some festival shopping in anticipation of Tomorrowland Brasil. But on this night, I said a wistful goodbye to Bangkok. It would be my last time in the city for a long while, and it’s not an easy one to leave in the rearview. But it couldn’t have been a better sign off.

Octave Bangkok

Red Sky Bangkok

Next stop, Hua Hin!

 
Many thanks to Amari Watergate for their hospitality. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

Nitrox Now! A Review of the PADI Enriched Air Diver Course

Fellow scuba enthusiasts, do you want your dives to be safer, to stay down longer, and to have more energy for celebratory drinks after rinsing out your gear? I’ll take that as a duh — which is why it’s so crazy it took me so many years to get my nitrox certification.

Earlier in 2016, before leaving Thailand for the summer, I realized I’d hit a bit of a diving rut. My solution? I signed up for three different continuing education courses at three different dive schools on Koh Tao to shake myself out of it! And I chose topics that challenged me. After tackling the Self Reliant Diver certification at Master Divers — which you can read about here — I moved onto the Enriched Air Diver certification course at Ban’s, the largest dive school in the world by volume of divers certified.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

The Enriched Air Diver course, also often referred to as “nitrox,” is PADI’s most popular speciality — and it’s easy to see why. (I’ll use the two terms interchangeably throughout this post.) This simple one-day course can be done and dusted in a matter of hours, and in fact as a “dry course,” it can technically be completely without stepping a single fin underwater — though, ahem, why would you want to miss the fun part?!

I chose to take this certification quite seriously. As a PADI Divemaster, I have always felt self-conscious about the gaps in my understanding of dive theory, and I figured this course would be the perfect opportunity to fill them out. And so I turned to my longtime friend and Senior Instructor at Ban’s, Chris Pearson.

As the local coordinator at Hyperbaric Services Thailand, a key member of Koh Tao Rescue, and a PADI Staff Instructor, he was almost over-qualified to certify little ‘ol me in a simple Enriched Air course. I mean, just look at this list of qualification!

• PADI Staff Instructor
• Diver Medical Technician (IMCA)
• Emergency First Responder Instructor Trainer
• C.E.E.R – (Chalenging Environments Emergency Responder) Instructor
• M.I.R.A – (Medicine In Remote Areas) Instructor
• DMR Level IV – (Diver Medical Responder) Instructor
• Hyperbaric Chamber Tender & Operator (SSS Recompression Chamber Network)

Phew! Thankfully, Chris was more than willing to take me on as a student. I knew he’d know exactly how to get the information through to me — Diet Coke lecture analogies, coconut quiz-passing bribes and all.

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

So, let’s start with the basics. What is enriched air? It all comes down to what’s in the tank. A standard scuba tank is filled with compressed air identical to what we breathe on land, which is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Nitrox tanks on the other hand have an oxygen content of 22-40%, with 32% and 36% being the standard mixes.

Don’t worry, this blog post does not require a calculator — I just wanted to impress you all with the use of fancy fractions. (Did it work? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Yet the real benefits of diving nitrox go beyond wowing your friends with math and the fashion potential of coordinating with those sassy green and yellow tanks.

Less nitrogen is, for the most part, a good thing. Nitrogen is enemy numero uno when it comes to decompression sickness, long breaks between dives, post-diving naps and something called “no decompression limits,” which calculate how long you can stay at certain depths. Diving enriched air allows you to dive longer (due to less nitrogen exposure), safer (you can dive an air profile on a nitrox tank for super conservative dives), with shorter surface intervals (as there’s less nitrogen to off-gas) and with less fatigue (yup, you guessed it, another byproduct of less nitrogen exposure).

So what keeps the entire dive community from ditching standard air and breathing nothing but nitrox? Good question. The answer, for most divers, is simply price. It’s more expensive! Other factors include limited availability, the hassle of checking the blend in your tank for each dive, and stricter depth limits due to the increased risk of oxygen toxicity (there’s always a trade-off, eh?).

Ban's Dive School Koh Tao Thailand

Ban's Dive School Koh Tao Thailand

The course itself is straightforward. In fact, it is the only PADI dive course ever to be streamlined rather than expanded. Why? Because, dive computers! In some ways, these magic little wrist machines have made diving nitrox as simple as the touch of a button.

But yet you still need to understand the concepts behind the calculations, and that’s where the certification comes in. Things like partial pressure and oxygen toxicity are, in my opinion, quite complicated, and I didn’t want to just pass the test and move on. I really wanted to understand. And so I didn’t move past a single sentence in the course manual until I felt confident I could explain it to a child if necessary. Bottom line? Praise Chris for his patience.

The course kicked off with an introductory video by PADI followed by a custom lecture from Chris and many interruptions by me to ask questions. Next, I sat down for some quality time with my manual, completing a simple knowledge reviews at the end of each chapter to seal in new concepts. Finally came the exam, which I aced with the humble pride that some accept PHD’s with.

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

And then we put it into practice. After learning to set my dive computer for various nitrox blends, I mastered how to check tanks with an analyzer tool and record my findings, and finally how to read the markings on a nitrox tank. One thing I didn’t realize before taking this course is you MUST check your own gas blend each and every single dive so you can plan accordingly. While oxygen poisoning is incredibly rare, it is serious, and thus divers have to be vigilant about checking their air blend, making a dive plan and staying within their computer’s dive limits.

Ideally, though this step is technically optional, you’ll conclude your course with a dive or two on nitrox so you can see what all the fuss is about. Which is exactly what Chris and I did, to the HTMS Sattakut, one of my old favorite dive sites on Koh Tao.

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

HTMS Sattukut Koh Tao

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

While it was interesting to note the different readings on my dive computer and to see the different markings on my snazzy new tank, the contents were indiscernible otherwise from standard compressed air — it doesn’t taste, feel, or smell any differently.

Thanks to our longer dive time and shorter surface intervals, we were the last ones back on the boat from the first dive and the first ones back in the water for the second, at good ‘ol White Rock dive site.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

And then I was certified, sealed with a high-five at the surface! As we hopped off the dive boat, I felt ready to take on the world — a far cry from my normal post-dive sluggishness.

So what divers should consider getting their Enriched Air certification? Anyone who wants to dive longer and feel sprightlier! Those doing multiple dives over multiple days — on liveaboards, at dive resorts, etc. — are the primary targets. Those looking to brush up on certain dive concepts (like me!) will also find it a great catch-all little course to really check your comprehension of dive theory, with the right instructor. And finally, those pursuing other specialities like Intro to Tech, Photography, Sidemount, and other courses that involve staying underwater for longer will find nitrox to be a natural step in their continuing education.

If you too are considering this course, you’ll walk away with a comprehensive understanding of what nitrox is, when and when not to dive it, what the risks are, and how to plan for enriched air dives.

Ban's Koh Tao Course Review

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

I feel strongly that finding the right PADI dive shop and instructor are key when it comes to this course. I’ve heard it described by so many in the diving industry as “an easy sign off” and “a throwaway course” and while I don’t want anyone reading this to be discouraged or intimidated from signing up, I also don’t like to see it treated dismissively. So look for the right fit.

Only a handful of shops on Koh Tao compress their own enriched air. I recommend taking the course at a school that does, and asking your instructor if they actually use it. Ban’s is one of those schools, and Chris is one of those instructors. Clearly, I was thrilled with my experience and can’t recommend Chris more highly. If you’re looking to take this or any other recreational diving or dive medic training course on Koh Tao, reach out to him!

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Enriched Air Nitrox PADI Course

Personally, I’ll be diving nitrox whenever it’s available and affordable to me from here forward. It just feels good!

And as someone who used to joke that I had to stop watching Bill Nye the Science Guy because all the theory was a bit over my head, I was proud to really wrap my mind around this course. If these things come easy to you, kudos! If not, don’t be discouraged. Science has never come easy to me, and for too long I let that mental block dictate what I thought I could and couldn’t achieve with diving. These days I know that with the right instructor, the right attitude, and a bribe of one fresh coconut for passing my final exams, there’s little in diving I can’t do.

Do you dive nitrox? Let’s get gassy in the comments!

3-devide-lines

This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!

Stop And Smell The Rosé: Winding Down Thailand Wine Weekend at Alcidini

Two down, one to go — our weekend of hopping Thailand’s wineries was so far a smashing success. After spending our first day at Khao Yai’s first vineyard and Thailand’s one and only winery helmed by a women, we were excited to see what our third and final stop of the weekend would have in store.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

After a home-cooked group breakfast at our Airbnb, we hit the road for Alcidini Winery, a small, family-run and organic vineyard about an hour east of PB Valley and GranMonte. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we pulled up the winding road to Alcidini, soaking up the idyllic setting.

Piling out of the car, we were greeted by a flock of the family’s freshly-bathed and obscenely-adorable goats, who were hanging out next to a fence while they air-dried.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Unlike the other wineries we visited, there was no tour of the forty acre vineyards. However, we were free to poke around the immaculate vines on our own. Wine grapes take up about half the planting area, with table grapes and another favorite — avocados! — taking up the rest.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Inside, we were given a private tasting and talk by the Alcidini family’s prodigal son, Tony, who was also the family winemaker. The entire facility was run by Tony and his parents, along with ten farmers who assist with the harvest. Plus, the goats — turns out they don’t just sit around and look cute, they actively help clear the vineyards of weeds!

While Alcidini proudly uses no pesticides and no chemicals, Tony explained that they need a 2km buffer around any plantings in order to be “certified organic,” and with such a small plot they can’t afford to give up that much acreage. Still, staying dedicated to sustainable farming and organic methods is tantamount at Alcidini.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Without a tour attached to the tasting it was our briefest stop, however it was also perhaps our most informative.

Tony studied in San Francisco (there’s a mini Golden Gate bridge on the property!) and spoke impeccable English, and thus was able to teach us much about the wines we were tasting as well as the unique struggles and joys of running a vineyard in Thailand.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

We loved the offerings at Alcidini and all walked away with some treats — including not just wine but also special organic spiced raisins made by Ton’s mom. After, rather than hop right back in the van, we took some time to explore the gorgeous grounds! With a bit of wine in us, we were happy to traipse around and entertain ourselves for a bit.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

After one more goodbye kiss to our new favorite goats, we were back on the road.

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

Alcidini Winery Khao Yai Thailand

We had just one more stop ahead of us. On my previous trip through the Khao Yai region to visit Khao Yai National Park, I’d spotted something that left me rubbing my eyes and wondering if I was seeing things: a castle.

Yes, a castle. Khao Yai is one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations in the country, and the region is chock full of faux-European homes, shopping centers, restaurants, and even a mini Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s where high society Bangkokians go for a weekend in Italy without having to get on a plane — and where Koh Tao expats go to guzzle wine and wear fancy clothes.

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green was the perfect final stop for our lovely weekend away. Though we were disappointed that the extensive wine selection only included one or two options from Khao Yai (where’s the local pride, Midwinter Green?!), we couldn’t have asked for a greater menu, more beautiful vista, or more swoon-worthy setting with which to toast to our weekend.

As usual with our crew, things got more than a little silly.

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

And with that, we were back to the big city! What had originally started as a short and sweet low-key wine weekend morphed into something a bit more, and so stay tuned for coverage of our continued adventures in Bangkok and beyond. But alas, the first chapter was over.

While it may have been brief, these two days made up one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken in Thailand. Part of it was the amazing crew we had assembled, with whom I could have fun in a parking lot, but much of it was the thrill of planning a truly offbeat trip in such a well-trodden country.

In fact, this trip really sparked an obsession for me to visit all of Thailand’s wineries, and I’d tick off another in Hua Hin not long after! Coming up, I have plans to check off one or two more. Wondering how you too can visit these fabulous places? Stay tuned for my upcoming guide on hiring a driver, finding accommodation, and arranging tours in Thailand’s burgeoning wine country.

Midwinter Green Khao Yai Thailand

I’ll wrap this post with a thank you to my wonderful Koh Tao friends who make every day an adventure, and who generously trust me with their precious vacation time and funds. I can’t wait to see where life takes us next!

But I do hope wherever it may be… there will be wine.

Cheers for reading! Which of the Khao Yai wineries would you most want to visit? 

You Had Me At Merlot: Continuing Thailand Wine Weekend at PB Valley Vineyards

After a fabulous Thai wine weekend kick off at GranMonte Vineyards, we were on to our second stop of the day, PB Valley. Appropriately, PB Valley — formerly known as Khao Yai Winery — was the second vineyard in the country to attempt growing wine grapes. Yet as the first winery to open in the now bustling Khao Yai wine region — yup, in Southeast Asia just four wineries makes a wine trail! — PB Valley has earned its self-appointed moniker as the “birthplace of the Khao Yai wine region.”

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

When I’d written to PB Valley enquiring about the capacity for groups and the availability of tours in English, I received an invitation for a private tour from Heribert Gaksch, the German-born Head of Marketing and Business Development himself.

Heribert greeted us at the entrance with another open-air tram, and promised us a very special behind-the-scenes experience ahead.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

As we wound through the seemingly endless fields, it became clear that GranMonte paled in size to PB Valley. With nearly 800 acres, almost 200 of which are planted with grapes, PB Valley easily has the largest vineyard in Khao Yai. Aside from grapes they also grow other produce, much of which finds its way into the fresh meals served in the onsite restaurant.

In its exploratory years, PB Khao Yai Winery planted over fifty different species of grapes until they found their vintage. Today, they plant Syryah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dornfelder, Chenin Blanc and Colombard — though I must admit, they all looked purple and green to me!

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

In a remote corner of on of the lush vineyards, we came to a stop. The original plan, Heribert explained, had been for us to meet some of the harvest team who had been working the field tirelessly throughout the season. However, sadly, due to the traffic we’d hit leaving Bangkok we were running behind, and they had just left the fields moments before. As punishment for our lateness, Heribert joked, now we were being put to work.

And he handed out baskets and shears and let us loose.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

PB Valley Winery Thailand

What a blast we had! Later, as we all recounted our highs and lows of the weekend, this moment was listed as a near-universal favorite.

While I doubt we’ll be called back for an interview anytime soon — our rate of grapes per minute was tragically low due to the number of times we needed to stop for selfies — it was an unbelievable experience to get out there, get our hands around some grapes and really see and feel the vines up close and personal.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

In between giggles, we learned how PB Valley had come to be. The history of PB Valley wine starts with a different beverage entirely — beer. In 1989, Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi, former president of Singha Beer (a brand that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled Thailand!) and a passionate entrepreneur, became intrigued by winemaking and established Khao Yai Winery. They made their first planting in 1992, just barely beat to the punch by Chateau de Loei Vineyards in the north, who made their first planting in 1991. After several years experimenting with grapes, the winery opened in 1997, just in time for the first harvest a year later.

Later, as other wineries began to establish themselves in the Khao Yai Region, the company decided to change their name to PB Valley, after founder’s initials, in order to avoid confusion. The logo, a hornbill perched atop a cluster of grapes, is a nod to the vineyards’ location on the cusp of Khao Yai National Park.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Having these precious friends together in one place, tipsy on wine and life and vacation — this is why I’d planned this very trip.

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Once Heribert managed to wrestle the shears back from us and wrangle us back onto the bus, we were off to the winery and education center.

Helmed by two Thai winemakers trained in Germany and New Zealand and with a capacity of a million bottles per year, PB Valley competes for the largest winery in Thailand — it was certainly the largest-scale and most impressive production area we personally saw.

No surprises from this former crafter — my favorite aspect was the labeling machine.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Finally, on to the tasting. As we tasted PB Khao Yai Reserve Chenin Blanc, PB Khao Yai Rose, and PB Khao Yai Reserve Shiraz, we learned of the many impressive tables PB Valley wines have made it to, from Thai State dinners to the first class menus of Thai Airways flights.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Like GranMonte, PB Valley also has a gift shop with local sundries and onsite dining at the highly-rated The Great Hornbill Grill. Onsite accommodation is currently under renovation and should re-open soon.

Seventy-five minute tours are run five times per day and cost 300 baht per adult and 250 baht for children ages 4-12. Cooking classes and live music are occasionally featured — check the website for more details on tour times and special events.

When we reluctantly peeled ourselves away from PB Valley, it was only because we were excited to reach our accommodation for the night to rest up and drink up for round two the next day! I’d scoured the internet for lodging options before finally settling on a gargantuan Airbnb in the countryside (get $35 off Airbnb!) where we all could sleep under one roof. I’ll have more accommodation details in my upcoming Khao Yai region guide, but I was so thrilled with our choice — we had an amazing home cooked family dinner, tucked into the wine we’d acquired throughout the day, and played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity. What more could a girl ask for?

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Needless to say, day one of our Khao Yai weekend was a wild, wine-soaked success. We could hardly wait to wake up the next morning and do it all over again the next morning.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here! Meanwhile, stay tuned for my third and final post from my big beloved Thailand wine trip.

What’s the weirdest wine region you’ve ever been to?

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Travel Blog Success - Black Friday Weekend Sale 2016I rarely stop yacking about how Travel Blog Success helped me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today — a financially successful and creatively fulfilling travel blog that just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It’s the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice! Our secret member’s Facebook group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and hearty laughs. Yes, the warmest community in travel blogging is on sale now! And now’s definitely the time to buy, as this is the biggest discount of the year by far.

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Wine Not? Kicking off A Thailand Wine Weekend at GranMonte Vineyard

Think Thailand and drinking, and it’s likely you’ll conjure toasting to the sunset with one of the country’s internationally famous beer brands, Chang or Singha. Or perhaps dancing on the beach with a brightly colored pail of cheap whiskey and soda with a handful of straws chucked in. Or maybe sipping an overpriced cocktail at a rooftop bar a la The Hangover II. But wine?

Wine not?

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Yes, Thailand grows grapes. I can’t quite recall when I became obsessed with the idea of taking a grand trip around Thailand’s burgeoning wine country, covered as a quirky oddity in the occasional wine or travel publications. But like most trip ideas, once it took hold, I couldn’t quite let it go until I was packing my bag.

It was a tricky trip to plan mostly due to the fact that I had no idea where to start. Even compiling a list of Thailand’s working wineries that accept visitors was tough; figuring out how to get to them, where to stay and when to go was a one way ticket to spreadsheet city. Like other trips I’ve taken that aren’t detailed in guidebooks or elsewhere on the world wide interwebs, I’ll have a comprehensive guide coming up for those who might want to follow in our tipsy footsteps. For now, I’ll just try to convince you you should.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

While there are actually a handful of wineries scattered throughout various corners of Thailand (again, stay tuned for more info in my upcoming guide), I decided to focus our trip on the Khao Yai region, where four different vineyards add up to the greatest concentration of wineries in the Kingdom.

Khao Yai is about ninety miles and two hours northeast of Bangkok, and is also home to the stunning Khao Yai National Park that I visited a few months prior — in part as a recon trip for this journey. The rural countryside and cooler temperatures are a literal breath of fresh air for anyone traveling from the capital.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

It was also quite the contrast coming from our little island home of Koh Tao. For the last few years I have made it a priority to get my friends off the island and on a little annual getaway somewhere, a tradition that has earned me a fictional travel agency called Wanderland Travels. As in, “I can’t wait to see where Wanderland Travels brings us next!,” while I daydream from the next bar stool.

In the past we’ve hunkered down in villas on Koh Samui and on Koh Phangan, and coming up this year I’m planning to round everyone up for a big festival in Pattaya. But this trip? This will be hard to top.

When I plan a Wanderland Travels excursion, there are a few ground rules. The have to be in Thailand, since we all have different visas with different restrictions and it’s too hard to coordinate a mass exodus. They have to be short and sweet, since much of my crew have businesses to run back on the island. And they have to involve booze (okay, that last one is an unspoken rule, but I think we can all agree it’s pretty foundational.)

This trip hit all the marks. After months of coordinating and dreaming and sending each other wine-drinking memes, I thought I was going to faint of excitement when departure day finally arrived.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We had quite the wine appreciation team assembled. Nine of us had traveled together from Koh Tao, with vino-lover Heather flying in from Bali to meet us, and over-pourer Ian’s parents joining us all the way from Canada.

My first instinct was to put us all on a night boat, hop an early flight on the mainland and get picked up by a driver at the airport and be at the wineries before lunch. However, once someone suggested tacking on a wild night on Khao San Road, it would have been rude not to. And so we we left Koh Tao on a cheap ferry and bus combo, took up every bed in a ten person hostel dorm at the chic and highly recommended Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and spent Friday night in true Khao San fashion — drinking whiskey, singing along to Thai pop songs in an underground nightclub, and engaging in some street side-retail therapy.

The next morning, the driver I’d arranged arrived to whisk us off to wine country.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Our first stop was GranMonte, a pioneer in the Thai wine industry. The Granmonte vineyard, once a cornfield and cashew plantation, was bought by the Lohitnavy family in 1999 with the hopes of producing wine.

It is a true family operation. Visooth Lohitnavy, founder of the Thai Wine Association and CEO of GranMonte, has passed the torch to his daughter Nikki Lohitnavy, the in-house oenologist — and the first and only female Thai winemaker. I was incredibly excited to visit a winery helmed by a woman, and was touched when she took time out of her busy harvest season to greet us during our visit.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We kicked things off with a group tour in an open-air tram of the vineyard’s 40 or so acres, primarily filled by Chenin Blanc and Syryah grapes but also Viognier, Cabinet Sauvingon, Muscat, Semilion, Durif and Granache.

Our sweet young guide was lovely, and valiantly did her best to give a bilingual tour for both our group and some Thai families that were onboard. However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally trailed off with a shrug and sighed, “…because France.”

Everyone, including the guide, erupted in giddy laughter and “because France” has become one of our signature sayings ever since.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Next up? A spin though the Asoke Valley Winery facilities, which opened in 2009 and produce over 120,000 bottles of wine per year. Here we learned about Nikki’s studies in Australia, admired the fancyequipment imported from Europe, and got to take a peek at the production of wine produced against all odds in the tropics.

And we got a little silly.

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Finally, we made our way to the tasting room to get our hands on the award-winning wines we’d been hearing so much about. Our favorite award, one of many proudly on display around the room? “Best Pairing with Kung Pao Chicken.” I think we all can agree it would be an honor.

After a short video, we got down to sipping. My favorites were the Sakuna Syrah Rosé, the Spring Chenin Blanc and the Busaba dessert wine.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

After the tasting, it was time to break at Vincotto Restaurant for lunch in the lush Thai countryside. Vincotto once again keeps things in the family, run by Nikki’s mom and Visooth’s wife, Sakuna.

I’d agonized over the menus and ambiance of this restaurant and the one at the next vineyard we’d be visiting, but after our meal, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with our choice. Because we were a group, Vincotto had several menus we were able to choose from. We settled on a three course set menu, mixing and matching with our favorite wines from the tasting.

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

I chose pumpkin and mustard seed soup for my starter, braised lamb in red wine for my entreé, and grape  pie for dessert — and not to brag, but I think I won the meal.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Once we were good and tipsy on lunch wine, it was tie to unleash ourselves in the onsite gift shop. Here we purchased not just wine (I got two bottles) but also high-end grape juice and handmade  fruit jams, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. It was an expat’s dream come true!

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Want to visit GranMonte yourself? Good choice! Granmonte’s vineyard and winery tour has received the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s award for Agrotourism three years in a row — we could see why. While we didn’t absorb tons of technical information due to the language barrier, the tour was efficiently organized, the vineyards and winery were immaculate, and the tasting was well-run. It was the perfect introductory stop of our weekend.

The tour is approximately one and a half hours and costs 300 baht per adult, 220 baht per person under twenty (with grape juice instead of a wine tasting), and free for children under five. During high season, tours are offered every day, but throughout the rest of the year they are offered only on weekends — check the website for details.

GranMonte holds various festivals and events throughout the year, so it might be worth scheduling a visit around one and hunkering down at the onsite guesthouse. For more information on visiting the wineries of Khao Yai, including where to stay, how to hire a driver and more, stay tuned for my upcoming guide to the region.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

GranMonte Winery Thailand

As for us? We had places to go, people to see, and wine to guzzle. Stay tuned for our next stop on the wine squad tour!

After all… wine not? Did you know Thailand had a wine industry?

Celebrating Yi Peng and Loy Kratong on Koh Tao

This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!

It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.

I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.

Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.

On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d spotted being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.

And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.

The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.

The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.

Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunningly beautiful.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)

I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

I’m anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.

There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.

While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!