The Great Escape: Month 59 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? 😛

3-devide-lines

Oh, how hard it was to leave my island life! This was my final month in Thailand before jetting off to Brazil and a stateside summer, and it was a struggle to say goodbye. Aside from one hellish visa run and one giggle-filled girl’s weekend in Samui, I stuck close to Koh Tao and enjoyed my last bit of stillness.

This is a simple post for a simple month!

Where I’ve Been

• One night in overnight transit

• Five nights on Koh Tao

• Two nights on Koh Samui

• Twenty-one days on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Highlights

• Breaking my Diet Coke addiction! Long time readers know that I’ve long considered the stuff to be carbonated gold, and I spent years jolting out of bed and immediately heading out on a mission to source a can if I happened to find myself without it. I was well and truly addicted.

When I started thinking about doing a DIY health retreat, I knew I wanted to kick my ridiculous Diet Coke habit. But it took me months to psych myself up for it! I knew that there was nowhere better than Thailand to do it, since I don’t actually love the Thai formula for Coke Light. And you know what? It was raging success — so much so that I extended my initial four weeks to six! I took a million notes and learned SO MUCH from the process. Literally one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s basically not travel related at all, but give me a shout if you’d be interested in a post about getting un-addicted from diet soda!

• Crushing my 5K time. Well, perhaps crushing is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did semi-train for a run for the first time ever, and I saw the results! I set a new best pace for myself, and had a blast crossing the finish line. It wasn’t just that final moment of euphoria though — I also cherished my sunset jogs with my running buddy Amy leading up to it.

• Easter Brunch. Our whole Samui girl’s trip was divine — not because we did anything super special (apart from the race, of course) or ate or drank anywhere especially noteworthy. But we were together, and it was our last big hurrah before my summer departure, and I just loved it. The highlight was our Sunday brunch complete with DIY mimosas and endless toasts to friends and upcoming farewells.

• Not one but two diving courses! A sidemount speciality and an enriched air certification were the perfect courses to take side-by-side. I learned so much, I got excited about diving on Koh Tao again, and I got to cap it all off with a group trip to Sail Rock surrounded by friends. I couldn’t have asked for better days in the ocean.

• Celebrating Sonkgran! My first Songkran years ago was just days into a heart-wrenching breakup with my boyfriend of three years, so suffice it to say that was pretty bittersweet. And I’ve been just missing the big day ever since in my comings and goings from Thailand. Finally, in 2016, I got to have a big wet and wild, happiness-fueled do-ver. Travel BFF Heather even flew in from Bali! Honestly, it was the best day I could have asked for. It’s one of the greatest holidays I’ve had the privilege of celebrating!

• Calling quits on Photo of the Week. It had to happen! I didn’t regret it for a second and I’ve really enjoyed focused more on my Instagram and Facebook since. (My newsletter has been far less successful, unfortunately.) It just took so much pressure off!

• Getting enough sleep. It says something funny about our society that I write here every day about my travels around the world but I’m almost embarrassed to say that I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night when I’m on Koh Tao because I know what a luxury that is.

I’ve spent years with various degrees of sleep deprivation due to anxiety and extreme scheduling. Not that both those didn’t flare up occasionally over my time in Koh Tao — and not that I didn’t have the worst mattress on the planet — but overall it was the most well-rested half a year I’ve had.

Koh Samui Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Another hellish visa run to the Burmese border. Paying to spend twenty-four hours being motion sick and be bored to tears by a bureaucratic puppet show? I vowed then and there to never do another one — and so far I’ve stuck to it! (I take mini-vacations instead.)

• Our Samui hotel was pretty disappointing. After all the fabulous places we’ve stayed over the years, it was kind of a letdown to land somewhere so meh for such an epic trip — I really wanted to treat my girls to something special! Ah well, that’s what we get for booking last minute! We still had a blast.

• My Brazilian visa photo. Lol? I know it sounds like a funny thing to complain about, but I was legit horrified to learn that the awful passport photo I’d submitted with my Brazilian visa application was PRINTED ON THE VISA AND PASTED INTO MY PASSPORT. Of all the passport photos I’ve had to submit over the years, none but the original have actually ended up in my passport! Lesson learned: I’ll never settle for anything less than frame-worthy again. Tears were shed, guys. My vanity knows no bounds.

• The Boat Party… ugh. Honestly, this was so traumatizing of an event that this is the first time I’m mentioning it anywhere in public. And frankly, I’m still going to be super vague, because I’m always on edge writing negatively about anything pertaining to the Thai Government or authorities, considering the country’s track record of warmth towards free speech and criticism.

But basically, what happened was this: a yacht was hired for a private party of mostly long-term expats. We boarded the boat with much elation and enjoyed our fun at sea for about an hour before being approached by a police vessel which boarded the boat and forced it back to a pier other than the one we’d departed from. When docked, we headed for the end of the long pier — only to realize the police had locked it from the other side. We spent two hours in the hot sun with no water or access to bathrooms, portions of it on our knees with our hands over our head, while the police tossed the boat and tried to figure out what charges we could be held on. When we were released, we had to write down names, passport numbers, addresses, and more. It was incredibly traumatizing and I actually cried when we were finally freed. Anyway, that’s the short version — for the longer one, you’ll have to wait for an incredibly juicy chapter of the book I’ve finally accepted I’ll try to write someday.

• Leaving Koh Tao. Seriously, it never gets any easier. This was one of the best seasons I ever spent on the island, and leaving literally felt heart-wrenching. That said, a travel writer stranding herself on an island that is the isolation equivalent of being a 4-5 hour drive from the closest, most expensive airport and a 7-8 hour drive from the more reasonably priced one is not a sustainable business plan and I recognize that my time off the island is necessary for both my business and my mental health! Still, there are always things I long for when I’m away.

Burma Travel Blog

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: Well I didn’t really travel much this month but I did soak up my last beautiful weeks of sleeping in my own apartment! Kind of a shame that I loathed, ya know, my actual bed.

Worst: Easy — my evening on the night boat with broken AC followed by a miserable motion-sickness inducing car ride to the edge on Thailand on my visa run. (Though frankly, the hotel in Samui was nothing much exciting either.)

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Our post-Songkran brunch at my friend Janine’s house! I made banana cinnamon pancakes and mango mimosas — hangover food in the tropics.

Worst: Sorry to be a broken record, but I’ll have to go with “whatever shitty snacks I compiled from a five-minute stop at 7-11 just over the Burmese border.” Yeah, I really hate those visa runs.

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Spending

I had another nice and low-key month of expenditures (much needed before the spend-storm that was Brazil!). While Songkran and our trip to Samui were mild splurges, my day-to-day lifestyle on Koh Tao is so affordable it can definitely absorb the blow of a few fun activities thrown in per month. In Samui I also used some built up hotel credit I had — nothing special for being a blogger, just normal loyalty programs anyone can use! — to cover the majority of the cost of the rooms.

Unusually for me, two of my biggest splurges were clothes and accessories — new bikinis from local Koh Tao designer Flip Flop and Treacle, and some new jewelry from local island jeweler Amy Jennifer Jewellery. Had to send myself off in style!

Saving

Hallelujah! I doubled my income from the previous month thanks to a few big campaigns coming in with my regular blog partners, as well as a successful month for affiliate income. Again — right before Brazil, I seriously needed it.

Health and Fitness

Between my 5K, the training for it, and trying to use up all my gym and yoga passes before heading off to Brazil, I basically crushed it. Admittedly, Songkran was quite debaucherous, but overall

What Was Next

Six weeks in BRAZIL!

Koh Tao Travel Blog

I simply couldn’t ask for better travel companions than all of you!

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

The Great Escape: Month 58 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead �” so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? �Ÿ˜›

3-devide-lines

Looking back (way way back, at this point!) this was just one of my favorite months ever. Frankly, none of these travels felt wildly exotic — I was exploring my own backyard, in a way, of my adopted part-time home in Thailand. But I got to travel with some of my favorite people, discover new corners of one of my favorite places, and mostly enjoy the fruits of seeds I planted here in Thailand years ago — a close-knit circle of friends, exciting professional opportunities, and an island I love to come home to.

Where I’ve Been

• Two nights on my Thailand Wine Tour

• Three nights in Bangkok

• Three nights in Hua Hin

• Two nights in Khao Sok

• Seventeen nights on Koh Tao

Khao Yai Travel Blog

Highlights

• Hostel highs! We kicked off our wine trip with a night on Khao San Road, where I discovered an awesome new hostel. I’m so excited to have a great place to recommend in Bangkok’s backpacker epicenter! It’s called Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and we managed to fill a ten person dorm, essentially making it a private room.

• All the wine! My Thailand Wine Tour was an absolute victory. Huzzah. It was my favorite trip I�™ve taken in a long time �” a challenge and adventure to plan, and unbelievably rewarding to execute. I�™m blessed with the most amazing group of friends and getting to explore a totally new destination together in a country we call home (at least part-time, in my case!) is a memory I�™ll treasure. Especially a destination as beautiful and peaceful as this one. All three wineries were totally unique and lovable in their own ways. Granmonte was so special for the beautiful grounds, amazing restaurant, and the fact that it’s a family business helmed by a woman. PB Valley was a legend for letting us pick our own grapes! And Alcidini was a crazy cute family run vineyard with an emphasis on organic. And again, Airbnb killed it — we loved kicking back in our enormous rental house in the countryside.

• Our skyline suite! A few hectic days in Bangkok were made heavenly by the fact that we had a plush suite at the Amari Watergate to call home — considering we had fourteen friends (!) in Bangkok at the time, it provided the perfect ground zero for our group, especially when we learned that we’d accidentally planned a birthday bar crawl on the holiest Buddhist day of the year, when alcohol sales are banned — oops. Hotel suite party it is!

• Spa time! It’s no secret that I love me some spa sessions, and Bangkok was no exception. I treated Janine and I to a spa package at the Breeze Spa in Bangkok and I am now their most loyal fan ever. Mango sticky rice fans, treat yourself to the mango sticky rice scrub — I’m now hooked on the stuff from the spa’s gift shop and feel like I’m eating dessert every time I take a shower.

• Bangkok eats! As always, a combo of new discoveries and old classics. This time it was a big group dinner at Peppina, a chic pizza restaurant I’d long been dying to try, and a much-anticipated ice cream at Coldstone, a serious guilty please from the US with outposts in Bangkok.

• Beach bumming! Ian and I were the worst tourists ever in Hua Hin and I didn’t care — we had the most adorbs hotel ever to hang in. The beach there was unlike any other I�™ve seen in Thailand, with wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. This charming mainland beach city felt like a different country from the sultry tropical island we live on — and we loved it!

• ….and more win! Hua Hin Hills was the most scenic vineyard yet. Now that I’ve got four Thai wineries under my belt, I think I’ll have to just keep going until I hit them all.

• Khao Freakin’ Sok! This Thai National Park has been top-of-my list for a while now, and so I couldn’t jump out of my seat fast enough to accept when Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, reached out to invite me there. Janine and I played with elephants, wore matching ranger shirts, slept in a tent floating on a lake, learned the fascinating history of the park, and relished the rare joy of being out of cell service. It was an awesome little friend-cation too.

• Enjoying life back on Koh Tao! It’s easy to fall into a routine of working obsessively when I get back to Koh Tao after a trip, but if there’s one thing that can peel me away from my laptop it’s a yoga class. Over one fabulous weekend, I did back to back weekend workshops — an acro afternoon at Grounded followed by a day of inversions at Ocean Sound. Double score!

• Tackling a new hike! After one previous failed attempt, this was the month I finally conquered the Dusit Buncha route. Considering we had no directions and were basically feeling our way through the jungle, it was an enormous accomplishment! And this reminds me, I need to hit that trail again soon…

• Trapeze in the breeze! Another fun physical challenge this month? Getting back on the trapeze rig. I had so much fun swinging among the palm trees…

• Boozin’ on the beach! Always one of my favorite activities. Sadly, the amazing establishment that served actual craft cocktails (as opposed to crappy piña coladas) on the beach during the day was short-lived on Koh Tao — but we really enjoyed it while it lasted.

• St Paddy’s Day! It’s always a super-fun holiday on Koh Tao, and last year was no exception.

• House of Cards! Yes, the release of a new season of House of Cards was one of the highlights of my month. What is the purpose of renting a long-term apartment with a couch if not to binge-watch an entire Netflix series upon it?

Bangkok Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Our wine trip driver. Seriously, he was hilariously bad. He missed every turn, ignored all our Google Maps traffic warnings, and put us hours behind schedule. But he was a pretty good sport about having a dozen rowdy farang in the van, so we gave him a big tip despite our dozens of internal eyerolls.

• Rooftop bar rules. Nothing annoys me more than Bangkok’s obsession with footwear. Our group was turned away from a rooftop bar because a few of the crew were wearing stylish dress Havaianas, while frumpy looking tourists wearing Crocs were ushered right in because their toes were covered. Hello, is this the fashion police? I’d like to report a crime against HUMANITY!

• Janine’s birthday disaster (turned not-at-all-disaster). Yes, we were bummed when we discovered we’d planned a massive birthday bar crawl for Thailand’s one single day of no alcohol sales. Ha ha. But it turned out beautifully — we stocked up on booze the day before and had a tipsy night of cake and champagne in our hotel suite instead. More quality time together, less overpriced cocktails in bars, and more hours in our sweet suite? It ended up a massive win in my book. Oops — I guess that’s not really a lowlight.

• Getting my Brazilian visa. O. M. G. You guys. That was a mission! I’ve always had empathy for those who have to fight through red tape to nab a visa for every country they want to travel to before, but now I have SERIOUS RESPECT for those people. I couldn’t believe the amount of paperwork (and, um, money) that I had to compile and confusion I had to work through in order to prepare my application. And I was shocked by the interrogation I received at the embassy in Bangkok when I went to submit it! When I realized I had forgotten to copy my passport and politely asked for a copy, I seriously thought my application might be denied based on the vitriolic response I received. Obrigada, Brazil, for letting me in!

• Getting to Hua Hin. Ha ha, yeah we messed up — we just rocked up to the train station expecting to waltz into a second class train seat and found that the only remaining tickets were for third class wooden benches. The next five hours were a hazy hell of profuse sweat, sore bums and jostling our belongings around to make room for an ever-increasing crush of humans. I’ve enjoyed the third class train ticket in Thailand before, but it’s a strict no-go for me from here forward for rides of more than two hours.

• Missing the wine bus in Hua Hin. Then leaving my wine in Hua Hin. Ha ha, we had some vino-related snafus in Hua Hin. First, we missed the shuttle to Hua Hin Hills vineyard, forcing us to pay for a more expensive private taxi (not the biggest deal ever). Then I left my three new bottles of wine at our hotel before heading to the train station, forcing me to pay to have them shipped to Koh Tao (that hurt a little.) Frankly, I think I was starting to get stressed about my work backlog at this point in the trip and so I was letting little things get to me. Ah well, all’s well that ends… soaked in wine.

• Leaving Khao Sok. Oh, how I wish we’d had one more night at Rainforest Camp! Then, that trip truly would have been perfect.

Hua Hin Travel Blog

LOLs

“Because France.” Oh, how we still laugh about this! At Granmonte Winery, our adorable young guide was making an impressive effort to give the vineyard tour in two languages.

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 gave up and spat out, �œ…because France.” Everyone onboard, including the guide herself, doubled over with laugher and �œbecause France” has become our crew’s catchphrase for “ugh, well, you know and I know you know, so why bother explaining it” ever since.

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: I’m pretty torn — our chic beachside design hotel in Hua Hin or our barefoot luxury floating tent in Khao Sok? Both basically blew my mind.

Worst: Didn’t have a bad one — what a blessing!

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Vincotto. Can’t beat a three-course meal at a winery topped off with grape cheesecake. You just can’t. (Although the next day’s lunch at a castle in Khao Yai definitely made an effort to.) Come to think of it, homemade dinner prepared by friends in our Airbnb didn’t suck either. Basically, we ate well that weekend.

Worst: Again, I can’t remember anything that stands out as unpleasant. Dang, it was a great month!

What Was Next

A low-key final month on Koh Tao and Koh Samui… and then off to Brazil!

Khao Sok Travel Blog

Thanks for looking (way!) back over my shoulder with me.

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I�™ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

Two Tanks Are Better Than One: My Review of the PADI Sidemount Course

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

3-devide-lines

I didn’t get to hit up many bucket list dive destinations in 2016. While I absolutely did some very cool dives — in Thailand, Brazil, Jamaica, and Hawaii! — I didn’t go on any dedicated dive trips and didn’t check off any dream dives. And so, as many of you know, I instead focused on keeping myself engaged and excited about diving by jumping headfirst into a trio of continuing education courses.

So, my fellow dive enthusiasts may know that there is kind of a catty term in the scuba community which refers to someone who is obsessed with racking up specialty certifications — “card collectors.” Well, I’m saying loud and I’m saying it proud — I am now officially a certified card collector. If I could take a PADI specialty in getting PADI specialities, I would probably enroll right now. I loved these courses!

I kicked things off with the Self Reliant Diver course at Master Divers, then made my way to Ban’s for an Enriched Air certification, and finally rounded it out with a Sidemount Diver speciality at Sairee Cottage.

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

So um, what the heck is sidemount? It’s basically a new gear configuration — it simply means that you carry two tanks at your sides instead of one on your back. I’ll get into why you’d want to do that in a bit! Sidemount originated with cave diving in Europe, where pioneers realized moving their tanks alongside their bodies allowed them to keep a lower profile, and to remove one or both cylinders as needed to squeeze through tight passageways. The modern sidemount configuration as we know it today mostly evolved in communities of cavern and cave diving enthusiasts in Florida and The Yucatan. And now it’s spreading around the world.

Including to Thailand. My friend Gordon is a long-time PADI Instructor who got super pumped about sidemount after traveling to Egypt to continue his advanced Tec dive training. He enthusiastically brought a set of the specialized gear back to Koh Tao and started singing the sidemount siren song! I’m so grateful that he did — I have to admit that not long ago, I wanted nothing to do with sidemount. Tec related courses are kind of intimidating to me, and I just didn’t get what the point was. But after a year or so of watching so many of my close diving friends take Gordon’s course and rave about it, I just had to join the club and see what all the fuss was about. And it turns out I really had nothing to be intimidated by — it was the simplest of the three courses I took in 2016 and required only an Open Water Certification and twenty logged dives to begin.

You have two choices when it comes to sidemount training — the PADI Sidemount Diver course introduces divers to sidemount techniques for recreational scuba diving, while the Tec Sidemount Diver course teaches technical divers how to mount at least four tanks for their technical diving adventures. I enrolled in the former.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

One of the best things about my little continuing education experiment here on Koh Tao was finding a new dive shop that was the perfect fit for me. I get asked for advice on this constantly and I now have a much wider range of personalized recommendations to dole out. While I had excellent experiences at all three of the dive shops I studied at, it’s Sairee Cottage that has become my go-to for fun diving with friends ever since.

For me, it’s the perfect size — not so big that you get lost in the mix, but still buzzing enough that there’s always someone to grab a coconut with at the swim-up bar after a dive. What’s that? I should have just opened with the swim up bar? Tell me about it! Between the fabulous pool, the coolest classrooms on the island, and a great team of instructors and divemasters — many of whom are my close friends! — I know where I’d sign up to do my Open Water if I was doing it all over again.

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

The PADI Sidemount speciality consists of one confined and three open water dives. For Gordon and I, that translated to one pool session, one shore dive from the beach right in front of the dive shop, and two open water boat dives that we checked off on a super fun trip to Sail Rock! We spread that out over three days, but some people do it in two.

The speciality also consisted of coursework from the PADI Sidemount and Tec Sidemount Diver Manual — section one pertains to PADI Sidemount Diver, while two and three are for Tec Sidemount Diver. I carefully read section one of the manual, completing quizzes along the way, and wrapping up with a knowledge review to ensure I’d absorbed the information. Of my trio of courses it it was the least time in the classroom, as there isn’t really any complicated dive theory behind sidemount.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Instead, the primary focuses of the course were learning a new equipment setup, perfecting “trim” (your underwater body position and posture) and practicing “back-finning” (swimming backwards using just your feet and fins), learning gas management, and practicing emergency procedures. When I first jumped in that pool with this strange new gear setup I had a flashback to trying drysuit diving in Iceland. After being a certified diver for eight years a lot of my dive routine is on autopilot, but not on these days! My whole body was like, whoa, what is this crazy thing we are doing! If you need to be shaken out of a dive routine — this is one way to do it.

I actually found the trim and backfinning focus to be among the most challenging and the most interesting of the course takeaways, considering those are both important skills that can be used on any dive. Your trim underwater is as important as your posture on land, and though back-finning is primarily of interest to cave divers who need to be able to negotiate tight spaces, it is also a fabulous skill for underwater photographers and videographers who need to nail the perfect composition, too.

After a long day in the pool and digging into my manual and another day putting our skills into practice with a sixty minute shore dive, Gordon and I were joined by several of our friends for the final day of our course on Sairee Cottage’s popular weekly trip to Sail Rock, where I’d really get the chance to put the pieces of the course together and see how I felt about this whole sidemount situation once and for all.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

I was absolutely thrilled to be out on the water and surrounded by so many of my favorite people. The Sail Rock trips typically consist of two dives at Sail Rock followed by a third back closer to Koh Tao. One of the biggest pros to diving sidemount is having double the air, which gives you a significantly longer dive time –of course you still need to follow your dive computer’s limits closely to avoid decompression time.

Our friend Brian joined Gordon and I on sidemount, and so while a big group of us all kicked off the dive together, when the single-tank crew surfaced the three of us on sidemount were able to stay down and complete one super-long dive instead of popping up, taking off gear, having a surface interval, putting gear back on and descending a second time. One point for sidemount!

We set a goal of a 100 minute dive time — crazy, right?! — and while I admit I was getting a tad chilly towards the end, it was a pretty fun milestone to cross. The average dive time, at least on Koh Tao, is around 45 minutes, so more than doubling that at the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand was a huge deal. Over and hour and a half kicking it with these amazing underwater critters? Who wouldn’t love that!

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Eventually we remembered that we hadn’t grown gills, and returned to the surface.

After our amazing underwater marathon at Sail Rock we took it easy and did a typical 45-minute dive at the third site for the day, my beloved Shark Island. I was amazed by how quickly I’d taken to the sidemount procedure. While I did struggle with getting the gear on at time, once I was underwater it felt incredibly natural, and after just a few dives my muscle memory had already picked up the habit of switching between air sources every 50 bar or so — you don’t want to just let one tank empty all the way before switching to the other, as that would leave you lopsided — as the empty tank grew lighter — and without a backup tank.

It was a beautiful dive and the perfect note to end the course on.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

So after three days and many, many hours underwater, I definitely got a feel for what all the fuss is about when it comes to sidemount. The benefits are significant — increased air supply (which increases dive time), accessibility of all stages and gauges (as they are under your arm instead of on your back), self reliance in out-of-air situation, a more streamlined underwater profile, easier equipment transport (with two small cylinders as opposed to one big), and versatility (it’s great for those with physical challenges that prevent them from diving a traditional configuration).

What are the drawbacks? Well, you do have to switch between tanks throughout the dive, which make it a more complex gas management system. Also, since sidemount is still fairly rare, you’re unlikely to find a buddy who’s familiar with the equipment unless you BYODB (Bring Your Own Dive Buddy, duh). But mostly, it’s just plain cost.

Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!

I’d recommend this course to potential tec divers who want to get their feet and fins wet,those interested in cavern and cave diving, those who blow through air quickly and long for longer dive times, petite divers who struggle with a traditional configuration, and anyone who wants to shake themselves out of a diving rut.

There are only a few schools on Koh Tao currently offering the PADI Sidemount Diver speciality. The course generally lasts 2-3 days and costs 12,000B. I can’t recommend it — or Sairee Cottage — more highly.

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diverportrait by my friend Paddy of Peach Snaps

Personally, I loved the sidemount configuration. While I have no problem with running out of air (I’m almost always the last person to hit a half tank!), I do have issues with the size of a traditional scuba cylinder compared to the size of my body.

As a 5’1″ woman, I often struggle with the traditional tank-on-the-back setup. Between the system of attaching weights to the tanks and getting the tanks off my back and under my arms, the lower back pain that normally plagues me after a day of diving was completely non-existant! And with slightly smaller cylinders, I’d have even more mobility both above and below the surface. I greatly look forward to sidemount configurations becoming more widely available as I personally would be thrilled to dive this way more often.

I had a blast with this course. Between our hundred minute dive record, the skills I learned, the amazing day I shared with my friends and the absolute badass I felt like underwater, it was not a course I’ll forgot anytime soon.

Divers, would you consider a PADI Sidemount speciality? What should I do next?

3-devide-lines

All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.

3-devide-lines

Pin It!

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Learning to Scuba Dive Sidemount

3-devide-lines

Spring Sale!

Right now is the perfect time to kick off or up your blogging game. Why? Travel Blog Success is on sale!

Travel Blog Success Spring SaleI 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.

Bonus: Recently, Travel Blog Success launched an exciting new Brand Partnership Course, one of several new specialty courses also on sale. Another? Videography for Travel Bloggers, which I�™ve also taken and reviewed. So if you�™re already a member, now is the time to invest in continuing education. Purchase two or more products and get an additional 10% off your purchase!

Click here to receive 25% off all TBS memberships �” no code needed! Sale ends tonight at 11:59 PM EST. Please note that I�™m a proud affiliate of the program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. See you in the forums!

Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao

Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao post image

You thought fireworks were cool? Just wait until you see how Thailand marks the start of the Buddhist New Year: with a nation-wide water fight. This is real life.

From April 13th-15th every year Thailand is consumed by the joy of celebrating Songkran, which comes from a Sanskrit word translating to ‘passing.’ Once a solemn, sacred event in which images of Buddha were bathed, young Thais sprinkled water on the hands of elders and traditional dancing symbolically washed away the misfortunes of the previous year and warmly welcomed the new one. Even prior to Buddhism’s introduction to the Kingdom of Thailand, throwing water was part of a ritualistic Spring Festival in which farmers hoped for rain for their crops.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Well… times have changed. These days, Songkran has morphed into a super-soaker fueled, wet and wild water fight. It’s a truly joyful day in which locals, expats and tourists come together to literally bring the party to the streets.

Bangkok and Chiang Mai are among the most popular destinations to celebrate Songkran. In fact, Koh Tao isn’t even close to being one of the biggest draws — but we love our small island celebration and I can’t imagine spending the day elsewhere. While in many Thai destinations the party can rage from the 13th-15th, on Koh Tao, Songkran lasts just one day, April 13th. Conveniently, it’s one of the hottest, sweatiest days of the year.

Read more about Koh Tao’s annual holidays and events!

I’m lucky to be approaching my third Songkran here on Koh Tao. My first in 2011 was a blast, and the 2016 edition was even better. In preparation for 2017’s celebration, I’ve put together my top Songkran tips. While these are specifically written for those celebrating on Koh Tao, I’m willing to bet there are a few drops of wisdom for those ringing in the year further afield.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

The Cardinal Sin of Songkran

This is literally the most important thing about Songkran: make sure you aren’t in transit during it! If you’re on the move, make sure to arrive on Koh Tao by April 12th at the latest (personally, I’d add in a buffer day in case of travel delays, and to leave a day to get prepped to party.)

And if you’re leaving the island right after the big day, be careful. The festivities may be over on Koh Tao, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai will still be popping off and you will not be granted mercy simply because you’re wheeling a suitcase.

If you absolutely must travel on one of these days (like I had to on April 14th last year), take a regional flight so you can pass through Bangkok without ever having to leave the airport. Bonus! You’ll get to see immigration officers celebrating at work in their cute Hawaiian shirts, a bizarrely charming part of the unofficial Songkran look (I’ve never been able to get an answer why!)

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Also, Don’t Drive!

So you’ve made it safely to Koh Tao and are all settled in in time for the big party. Now, put away those bike rental keys for the day — seriously. I would never drive on Songkran!

Putting aside the fact that you’re most likely going to be boozing, and driving is the biggest safety hazard on Koh Tao on a good day, locals set up stations specifically to throw water and flour at passing bikes, which can cause a serious hazard for those not super experienced on two wheels. Accidents are crazy common. Stick to your own two feet to get where you need to go, and be extra careful on the road even when walking.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

What To Wear To Songkran

You can’t just rock up to Songkran. No, you’ve got some serious prepping to do!

First, your outfit. Obviously, I’d start with the base of a bathing suit and wear fairly little on top of that — though I would wear something, because walking around in a bikini off the beach isn’t really cool in Thailand, and this day is no exception. Lots of Thai people wear the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts and lots of Western people wear ridiculous costumes. Last year I wore a surfing spring suit, a sparkly gold visor, and a donut pool floatie. So there’s that. You might also consider goggles or a ski mask, especially if you have sensitive eyes. Believe it or not, Koh Tao has a pretty well-stocked costume shop in Mae Haad next to in the Lomprayah building. Go wild!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

A lot of people go barefoot on Koh Tao and especially on Songkran, when they’re worried about losing their flip flops. Personally I’m not about that barefoot life — get a cheap pair of knock-off Havianas, do your best to keep track of them, and you won’t weep if they get lost, but best case scenario you won’t step on a broken beer bottle either. Win-win!

Waterguns are fun to have, but not necessary, so don’t fret if you don’t grab one. They often get broken or bored of fairly quickly; if you don’t feel like spending money or contributing to a landfill a second-hand bucket will also do the the trick.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

If you plan to drink throughout the day, bring along a sealed bottle or cup. Open-top cups are just asking to be contaminated with unfiltered water splashes, and I know you know you don’t want that.

Another thing to prepare for — many restaurants and shops close for the entire day. And you will want to line your stomach pre-Songkran. Last year, my friends and I did a big champagne brunch while we got ready — it was a blast! So ask around for somewhere that may be open or gather supplies for a snack-fest in your hotel before you go out. If you get stuck, 7-11 is always open.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Tip: Waterproof Everything

Aside from a water-tossing vessel and a beverage-drinking one, bring as little as possible. I usually have a small bag with my waterproof camera, some cash, and my house key. That’s it. As a contact-wearer who had way too many direct shots to the eye last year, I’ll also be throwing an extra pair into my dry-bag for this year’s festivities.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

But basically — if you don’t want it wet, don’t bring it out of the house. If you do, you’ll spend the entire day getting agitated, and that’s no recipe for fun. Buy a proper diving dry bag (they are for sale all over Koh Tao and Khao San Road in Bangkok), grab one of those geeky phone pouches that goes around your neck or just simply seal things into ziplock bags.

But again, bring as little as possible. There’s a lot of spontaneous ocean swims and getting pushed in the pool, so you might want to tuck some cash into a pocket, put your room key on a string around your neck, and enjoy a day totally untethered.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Green Your Songkran

Koh Tao is a little tiny island with limited resources. Consider filling up your buckets, water guns and reserve tanks with sea water. The environment will thank you!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Pace Yourself

It’s easy to get carried away with day-drinking on such a debaucherous day. But remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint… or whatever it is people tell themselves to avoid blacking out early. Get a good night of sleep the night before, wear sunscreen, seriously drink a lot of water, remember to eat occasionally, and generally make a valiant attempt to pace yourself.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Make a Meet Up Plan

Because I don’t take my phone out on Songkran, I like to have a loose plan in place with my crew so we know where to find each other in we go off on solo adventures for a bit — intentionally or not. We usually kick things off at Banyan Bar before moving en masse down the beach, slowly making our way towards Fishbowl and Maya Bar with an obligatory stop at the DJL Pool. Last year we decided to retreat to a private villa party post-sunset, where I had a blast regrouping with anyone I’d lost throughout the day.

It doesn’t have to be that full-on, though. Just agree that if you get separated, you’ll meet at a certain bar at sunset.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Don’t Be a Jerk

Honestly, just don’t. Don’t put ice water in your water gun. Don’t put food coloring into the water you’re throwing on people. Don’t aim at people’s eyes, or ears, or drinks. (As if that needs further elaboration, you could ruin a contact wearer’s day, you could give a dive instructor an ear infection, or you could give someone a tummy bug. So just chill.) Yes, it’s a day of mayhem and no one should walk outside expecting special treatment, but it would be nice to just like, be kind of nice about the whole thing, no?

Also be aware that there’s kind of an unofficial cease-fire after sunset. After that is when most people head back home to dry off and change before heading back out again to continue their debauchery. Don’t be that one lone dude soaking people at midnight in the bar. You’ll deserve the dirty looks.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Make a Day After Plan

Chances are, April 14th is going to be a bit of a wash (how many water puns can I fit into one post?!) I strongly recommend a fresh coconut, a banana, and a breakfast with eggs in it — my go-to Thailand hangover cure — followed by as many massages as you can fit into the rest of the day.

Seriously though, the island will be pretty subdued, so you might not want to book any major tours or dive trips for that day. Last year my friends and I planned a hangover brunch at one of our houses, a tradition I hope will be annual.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Need one last peek at the fun cyclone headed Thailand’s way in just two weeks? Check out my silly Facebook video of behind-the-scenes footage from last year’s celebrations.

Happy Songkran soon, my friends!
Have you been lucky enough to celebrate this festival?
If so, leave your tips and tricks in the comments below!

Songkran photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing or with a GoPro HERO3+ — both are perfect choices for photography on a wet day! See a full list of my photography gear here.

Pin It!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Spring Sale!

Right now is the perfect time to kick off or up your blogging game. Why? Travel Blog Success is on sale!

Travel Blog Success Spring SaleI 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.

Bonus: Recently, Travel Blog Success launched an exciting new Brand Partnership Course, one of several new specialty courses also on sale. Another? Videography for Travel Bloggers, which I’ve also taken and reviewed. So if you’re already a member, now is the time to invest in continuing education. Purchase two or more products and get an additional 10% off your purchase!

Click here to receive 25% off all TBS memberships — no code needed! Sale ends Friday at 11:59 PM EST. Please note that I’m a proud affiliate of the program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. See you in the forums!

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!

3-devide-lines

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.
3-devide-lines
 .

Pin It!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

3-devide-lines
 .

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!