So, while I�™m still catching up on my ridiculously delayed 2016 travel recaps, I just can�™t wait to start sharing my big trip (thus far) of 2017. So I�™ll be jumping back and forth a bit again. Apologies for any confusion, my friends!
It�™s one of the biggest questions on any ravers mind when they start flirting with the idea of a new feather-clad festival adventure. How much is this going to cost me?
One of the biggest excitements for me in attending Wonderfruit was getting to experience a festival produced at international standards but priced in Thai baht. While compared to the cost of living and traveling in Thailand Wonderfruit is surely still an enormous splurge, if held up to the bottom-line bills of festivals like Tomorrowland, Bonnaroo, and Burning Man, it�™s a bargain. Here�™s my baht for baht breakdown that includes four nights onsite at Wonderfruit, one night pre-festival in Pattaya, and two nights post-festival in Bangkok �“ and would reflect the week-long vacation that international travelers might expect to center their trip around.
Ticket: 4,950B or $138US
Full four day tickets to Wonderfruit are 5,500B, though we were able to take advantage of party pass pricing for bulk orders of six tickets, which worked out to 4,917B per person. There is a ฿26.75B service charge for each ticket, which works out to less than $1USD.
Tickets are slightly cheaper during the very early pre-sale phase and slightly more expensive at the door. Children under 12 are free, and there are reduced price tickets for kids age 12-19. Dog passes are available for 800B (possibly my absolute favorite aspect of Wonderfruit?) All tickets are sold in baht. There are no VIP options available �“ how refreshing!
(Note: I received a press pass to this event, but I am putting in the party pass price that I would have paid otherwise.)
Boutique Camping: 5,000B or $140US
There are multiple different options for where to stay at Wonderfruit.
Regular camping in which you bring your own tent is included in the ticket price. If you go this route and don�™t want to fly internationally with camping supplies, look for cheap tents available on Lazada, Thailand�™s sort-of answer to Amazon. The regular camping area looked sparsely attended compared to the boutique area, but residents reported clean showers and toilets, secure lockers, and charging stations.
There is also boutique camping available at three levels. Prices are for four nights, and all tents sleep four people. The boutique camping area is totally separate and across the festival from the regular camping area, so if you�™re coming as a large group, you�™ll all want to choose one or the other together. You can get a great sense of the size of the boutique camping area from an aerial shot in this post.
• Safari tents with air con: 40,000B
These fully-furnished, stand-up tents almost went a little too far for me. I still like to at least pretend I�™m roughing it. But for those craving the ultimate comfort, you�™ll have two real beds, lighting, power strips, a lock box, air conditioning, and a tent big enough to stand up and walk around in. One thing I did really like about these were the two lawn chairs set up outside.
• Bell tents with air con: 30,000B
These beautiful and spacious bell tents came equipped with air mattresses, lighting, power strips with four outlets, a lock box, a large mirror, small trash baskets, and air conditioning. The lock boxes were enormous and easily fit four sets of valuables with room to spare. These two pricier options were the first to sell out, so hop to it if those are the ones you�™re eying!
• Bell tents with fans: 20,000B
Identical to the option above but with fans instead of air-conditioning. This is the option we went with, both for budget and sustainability purposes.
The prices are very reasonable when split by four people. If you�™re coming as only a pair, the prices are a little tougher to swallow, so bring friends! The fact that you can get a very VIP experience for only 5,000B a person is seriously wow-able if you�™re coming from the European or US festival scene. That�™s $35 US per person per day!
We were thrilled with our choice. Overall, I give the boutique camping team huge props, with some exceptions and issues. The bathrooms were fantastic, with cement and bamboo showers, real flushing toilets, and towels provided in every tent. There was shampoo, conditioner and soap provided in the bathrooms but the shampoo ran out by the last day of the festival, so you may wish to bring a small backup or be prepared to ask your neighbor.
The air mattresses deflated slightly over the weekend but the staff were more than happy to come give them a boost. I found them very comfortable! As with any festival, earplugs and eyemasks are an absolute must. The festival grounds are fairly compact and so the late night stages will absolutely project into your tent �“ if you�™re noise sensitive, pick a tent as far from the festival entrance as possible. They gave us a choice of tents when we checked in, which I greatly appreciated.
As I mentioned, the lock boxes in the tents, with locks provided, were enormous, which was much appreciated for our many cameras and other electronics. There are additional lockers available, but they are located on the opposite side of the boutique camping area from the festival entrance so only use them for things you won�™t need access to throughout the weekend �“ and you�™ll need to bring your own locks for those. Really, with the lock boxes being so large, it�™s doubtful you�™ll need them.
Remember, you�™re still camping �“ it�™s very cold at night, and extremely hot during the day. We weren�™t expecting the cold in the evenings but slept in several layers! During the day the fan only went so far to keep cool, and it was often better to nap in one of the shady chill tents inside the festival during the day, where there was a bit of a breeze.
Our one major complaint about boutique camping was that power was shut off from 4-8pm. With the sun setting at 6:30pm every night, I literally can�™t think of a more inconvenient time to close it off. We always wanted to be back in our tents getting ready and changing out of our sweaty day clothes either immediately before or after sunset �“ before, it was boiling without the fan and after, we were stuck in the dark.
The boutique camping area had a dedicated check-in, a private bar and lounge �“ which was always fairly low key �“ and a coffee truck. Unlike other festivals I�™ve been to, people didn�™t really just hang out in the campgrounds, but they were an incredibly comfortable place to recharge and get ready for the festival every day.
Overall, while I hope they might consider the electricity-off hours for future editions, we were thrilled with the boutique camping experience.
Wonderfruit also has an option for RV camping! Four day RV passes are available for 15-16,000B depending on when you purchase for sites with electric and water hookup, and 8-9,000B depending on when you purchase for sites without hookup.
The RV area is separate from the other camping areas. There are RV rental companies in Bangkok �“ I would totally do this if I was coming back another year.
There are also offsite hotel packages available, but with each located a 30-60 minute drive away and the camping being such a fun and integral part of the Wonderfruit experience, I can�™t imagine taking advantage of them.
Wonderfruit takes place at Siam Country Club, about 45 minutes outside Pattaya. You can technically fly into Pattaya airport but it�™s not much closer than Bangkok�™s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Flights to Bangkok�™s Don Muang airport will likely be the most affordable option from within Thailand and from some neighboring airports �“ check flights to both.
Since we are based in Thailand, and domestic travel within the country is so cheap, our transportation prices were insanely affordable. If you�™re coming from much further, read this post for tips on how to score a bargain international flight.
Transport to Bangkok: 1068B or $45US
After nixing the once-per-day, $138 ferry and flight from Koh Samui to Pattaya –the fastest and most direct route, but also by far the most expensive — we settled on an overnight ferry from Koh Tao to Surat Thani (600B), a private transfer from the pier to the airport (165B), and a flight from Surat Thani to Bangkok (843B). Nok Air includes free checked bags, which was perfect for my extra festival stuff.
Note that I�™m only including one-way of travel here, as I flew onward from Bangkok to Penang post-festival. Most of my group returned to Koh Tao by overnight bus and ferry combo ticket, which is 1,100B, or $31.
Villa: 668B or $16US
We spent one night pre-festival in Pattaya. Our villa in Pattaya cost 668B per night each, and was a great way to kick off our group adventure with some serious camaraderie and recharge from our overnight transit from Koh Tao.
Private Driver: 953B or $27US
We hired a private van and driver to pick us up at Bangkok�™s Don Muang Airport and drop us at our villa, stopping for groceries en route. The next day he brought us to Buddha Mountain and a winery before dropping us at Wonderfruit. On the final day of the festival, he picked us back up at boutique camping and dropped us at our hotel in Bangkok, stopping as we wished along the way. It was the same driver we used for our wine tour last year.
The driver worked out to 833B plus a 120B tip per person. That included three days of his services and included the van, gas, tolls, etc. It�™s a really good deal, even for Thailand, and I was quoted up to double when researching other transportation companies in Bangkok and Pattaya �“ so really sniff around before settling on the first quote you get.
If you�™re in a group, hiring a private driver is the way to go. Otherwise, you�™ll need to take a taxi to the Bangkok bus station, catch a bus to Pattaya (about 150B), take a taxi to the Wonderfruit shuttle meeting point, and then take one of the official Wonderfruit shuttles (150B) to the festival site �“ and then do it all again in the other direction.
Bangkok Hotel: 1183B or $33US
We also spent two nights post-festival in Bangkok. So many Wonderfruit attendees live in Bangkok, the festival site is easily reached, and Wonderfruit doesn�™t really require the extensive preparations and breakdowns some festivals do, so for many this won�™t be necessary. However, in our case, Ian and I were flying to Penang two days later so it was the perfect buffer, while everyone else stuck around mostly to take advantage of being off the island and in a big city to run errands.
I booked Hotel Icon because it was in everyone’s budget and expected to feel very meh about it but — but found myself pleasantly surprised!
Meals and Entertainment En Route: 2,930B or $82US
Basically, all food consumed between leaving Koh Tao and departing Bangkok — that weren�™t at Wonderfruit. I spent 735B on snacks (let�™s be honest �“ mostly airport fast food), 475B on my share of groceries for our two big meals in the villa (we bought too much and left a bunch behind), and 300B on lunch at the winery.
We also went on a winery tour in Pattaya and went to a movie in Bangkok.
Campsite Food and Alcohol: 1896B or $53US
This is the one category that really makes me cringe �“ we went way overboard. The Tesco Lotus in Pattaya was surprisingly pricey, and I ended up spending 2,071B on my personal festival snacks (fruit, granola bars, etc.) and booze for our night in the villa (some of the leftovers of which may have made their way to the campgrounds…) Everyone in our group agreed they were totally shocked when they got to the checkout counter.
Costumes: 2,390B or $67
As usual, I had fun buying some fun personal and group costumes for this event �“ though I did have a shocking number of fruit related outfits prior to even being aware of Wonderfruit�™s existence.
Platinum Mall in Bangkok has a wealth of ridiculousness on its accessory floor, and I stocked up on beaded headbands (650B), fruit headpieces (400B), flash tattoos (300B), and fruit earrings (40B) a month before the festival. Wonderfruit definitely won�™t be their last appearance either!
My friend Will and I also surprised our group with custom Banyan Fruit t-shirts (Banyan is the bar that everyone in our crew is either an employee, owner, or obscenely loyal customer of). I bought the shirts for 1000B, and Will generously provided the designs and printing.
One funny note… the controversy over Native American headdresses has NOT hit Thailand. They were literally everywhere and in every direction.
On Site Purchases
Food and alcohol: 10,570B or $297
So this is where I went totally crazy. Oh well! With Wonderfruit�™s relatively strict policy on bringing in outside food and alcohol, this is the most I�™ve ever spent onsite at a festival �“ including pricey festivals like Tomorrowland!
But I�™ve always had expensive taste when it comes to food and booze, preferring fancy cocktails over beer and hipster cafes over street food. I also have Millionaire Syndrome when I�™m drinking and do things like dropping 700B on a golden bucket for the group in the Moon Shack bar. Oops.
Prices, as at any festival, were inflated from what they�™d be in the �œreal world,” but they weren�™t particularly offensive. It was a lot of fun to eat at Wonderfruit. There were beautiful stall, well-curated food trucks and tents that almost became venues in themselves (I�™m looking at you, day-time dance parties in RocketFruit!)
A lot of our favorite trendy Bangkok restaurants had little outposts at Wonderfruit, and we found a few new obsessions, too. I was particularly in love with my morning acai bowls, the late night cheeseburger I couldn�™t stop talking about for days, and the entire menu at Straight Outta Thonglor — and I�™m still haunted that we didn�™t get a charcuterie board at the cheese tent.
You could find a meal for as low as 100B a plate and as high as 800B, though they generally fell in the 200-400B. Drinks ranged from 80-300B. I was a bad blogger and didn�™t record any particular food prices (too many golden buckets, ya know?) but here are a few examples I was able to glean from menu board photos:
Cold pressed juice from Fabb Coffee and Juice Bar: 135B
Whapow Coldbrew from Fabb Coffee and Juice Bar: 120B
Kai Jiew Egg dish from Egg Picnic: 100B
Thai sticky rice wine from Sato Bar: 100B original, 150B strong
Grilled camarelized bananas from The Thailand Young Farmers: 80 baht
Thailand�™s version of ginataan from The Thailand Young Farmers: 50B
Isaan pad thai from The Thailand Young Farmers: 185B
Ice cream from the reggae bus: 180B
One thing to note is that Wonderfruit is completely paperless �“ you�™ll have a band that you load baht onto and then pay for everything with a tap of the wrist. I was annoyed to learn there was a significant surcharge for credit card top-ups, which forced me to use cash (I hate using cash, as it�™s much harder to track.) If you have any credit left over when you’re ready to leave, you can get a cash refund from the top-up stations between 12noon on Sunday and 12noon on Monday.
One major Wonderfruit highlight? Free water refill stations throughout the festival and campgrounds. Considering the festival�™s commitment to sustainability, it was essential �“ and as a bonus, it saved us from having to buy multiple bottles a day.
Splurges: 2,725B or $76
I splurged on a glitter application in the Wonder Salon for 500B, a rhinestone-encrusted antler headpiece for 1,300B, and a beautiful pair of handmade earrings for 350B. I only wish I was patient enough to get my hair and makeup done more nights �“ it was so much fun! I also spent 575B on pool floats, which considering how little time we spent in the lake was a bit excessive �“ but yet I can never regret a pool float purchase.
Massages: 1,600B or $45US
I had one 45 minute foot massage for 700B and one 60 minute foot, head and shoulder massage for 900B in the cutely designed massage tent. Higher than typical Thai massage prices? Of course. But well worth it for restoring and refreshing �“ and escaping the sun!
Here�™s the full spa menu:
45 min foot reflexology: 700B
60 min foot, head and shoulder: 900B
45 min back and shoulder: 700B
60 min Thai massage: 900B
60 min oil massage: 1,200B
90 min foot reflexology + Thai massage: 1,350B
90 min foot reflexology + back and shoulder massage: 1,450B
90 min foot reflexology + oil massage: 1,600B
Wonder Feasts: 1,500B or $42
Wonder Feasts are beautiful ticketed meals prepared by some of Bangkok�™s top chefs. There were four Wonder Feast options: two dinners with free-flow wine for 3,000B, and two brunches for 1,500B. I wasn�™t blown away with my experience.
Total cost for the four day festival:
31584B or $885USD per person
Total cost for the full seven day trip:
37,433B or $1,061USD per person
I would say that I experienced Wonderfruit at the top end of the spending range �“ I did VIP camping, bought whatever food and drinks I wanted, and freely splurged on things like massages and a Wonder Feast. For all that, Wonderfruit clocked in at $220 a day. Comparatively, I did Burning Man about as cheap as it is possible to do and spent between $120-150 a day, and did Tomorrowland somewhere in the upper middle and spent $375-500 per day. So while Wonderfruit is an extremely expensive four days as far as travels in Thailand go, it is very competitively priced when you hold it up against other festivals from around the world.
I also included the total for the full week of our trip, including four nights at the festival, one night before, and two nights after.
Overall? Normally a very frugal person, festivals are my big travel splurges and I don�™t regret this one for a second. I�™d say they were baht well blown.
What do you think? Would you go to Wonderfruit?
Also in this series: Wandering Through Wonderfruit: A Festival Review Part I • Feasting on Wonderfruit: A Festival Review Part II
I received a press pass to Wonderfruit, however all other expenses were my own, and I will outline them in an upcoming budget breakdown.
So, while I�™m still catching up on my ridiculously delayed 2016 travel recaps, I just can�™t wait to start sharing my big trip (thus far) of 2017. So I�™ll be jumping back and forth a bit again. Apologies for any confusion, my friends!
As we near the halfway mark of 2017, I look back and already can pull out one of the clear highlights: finally attending Wonderfruit Festival in Thailand. Combing my passion for festivals with my favorite home-away-from-home destination? Pure bliss!
Like Burning Man, I really can�™t define Wonderfruit as a simple music festival. I didn�™t know a single act on the lineup before arrival �“ and it didn�™t matter. What did matter was gathering eleven of my nearest and dearest fellow Southeast Asia expats for four days of amazing art installations, creative food, funky music, sustainability-focused workshops, and fruit-filled good times.
This was Wonderfruit’s third edition, with the fourth is coming up already this December — the passing of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej postponed the festival from December of 2016 into February of 2017 due the legally mandated country-wide mourning period. It also affected some acts who couldn’t reschedule, and was rumored to affect attendance numbers, though we had nothing to compare it to personally having never been before.
While there were some stumbling blocks along the way that I hope Wonderfruit will be striving to improve for future editions, we had an overall fantastic experience.
After kicking around Pattaya for twenty-four hours, we arrived at the Wonderfruit gates not long after the camping area opened at 4pm on Thursday. After a brief foray though security and sign in, we made our way to our chosen tents. We’d all decided to splurge on boutique camping, which I was thrilled with — no hauling tents or sleeping bags, and all kinds of fun glamping perks!
I’ll have more details about the boutique camping in my upcoming budget breakdown, but suffice it to say I would book it again in a heartbeat.
As the sun set, we couldn’t wait to get out and explore the festival grounds. However, we found that much of the festival was still being set up and the crowds were so small it was hard to get that festive feeling. There were no scheduled activities and very few musical acts on the stages.
Later, we’d reflect that Friday was the perfect warm-up size crowd, while Saturday was wild and Sunday was hot on its heels. In retrospect, I’d strongly encourage Wonderfruit to take a page from Tomorrowland’s book and host a small gathering for on-site campers the first night, either in the campgrounds themselves or in a small sectioned-off area of the festival grounds.
That said, we didn’t regret arriving Thursday in the slightest — because it meant we got to wake up in our tents Friday morning! We got up early, threw on spandex and headed over to Guavafruit, a tent sponsored by the Classpass-esque GuavaPass.
Unfortunately, we arrived to find… a bunch of other people in spandex, and a photographer who insisted on taking photos of our disappointment as it slowly dawned on us that this Bootcamp class was not happening. One of the girls in the group told us she’d also come an hour earlier for an alleged Tabata class that also didn’t happen. We were bummed because we would have happily gone to yoga with some of the rest of our crew had we known that the morning classes were cancelled.
After that failed attempt at activity, we gave up and went to the lake!
After watching Wonderfruit promo videos and talking to past attendees, I was super excited for the lazy day parties at the lake. However, they never quite happened — the water levels were really low, which I think maybe kept people away? I’m not sure exactly the reason, but we had fun cooling off there for a few hours, even if we had it totally to ourselves.
Later, we continued our day of chill with a quick trip to the Wonderfruit spa — more on that later! — and donned spandex again for our second attempt at fitness. This time, we were headed to Liv Lo Yoga.
While the class was pushed back half an hour and the location was changed, we were just thrilled to finally be moving as we flowed through a sweaty and funky vinyasa class led by our energetic Singaporean instructor inside the Rocketfruit tent, one of my favorite spaces from the festival. It was great!
After, we rushed over to the Solar Stage, where our larger group had made plans to congregate. This would become our afternoon meeting point for the next four days, with shady spots all over the playground-like structure and some of our favorite acts performing beneath us. The music of the moment was the Filipino reggae artist Red-I, who would become one of my top discoveries of the festival.
That night, we started to take our dress-up duties seriously. After all, we had packed fruit flair for days!
Wonderfruit had so many amazing spaces to explore at night, and they really started to come alive on Friday. The Moon Shack was a speakeasy-esque, hidden-away little gem sponsored by Sangsom, where we listened to a live jazz band and split a hammered-metal bucket of Thailand’s favorite whiskey.
Next, we hopped around the stages that looked totally transformed in the evening’s colorful lights before making our way over to Forbidden Fruit, Wonderfruit’s first LGBT party hosted by one of Thailand’s top drag queens. Yes! Wonderfruit is fierce.
Eventually, we hopped on over to The Quarry, which is a brilliant idea — a hidden jungle late-night-only stage that is short shuffle away from the rest of the festival grounds, keeping the most intense beats from from the camping areas, and lending a cool “afterparty within a festival” vibe to the whole affair.
Though I have to say that personally, I hated it. Deep house is so not my vibe, and I fled quickly after both my short forays down the quarry. That’s just a me thing, though — tons of Wonderfruiters were obsessed with The Quarry! I was much happier back at Forbidden Fruit, joining a catwalk contest cattily-narrated by a drag queen — though nope, I didn’t win, ha ha.
The third day of a festival is always when recovery starts to be really essential. Luckily, Wonderfruit had us so covered with its onsite massage tent. Heather, Amy and I went straight for the full hour of indulgence and sat back to relax, recharge, and — duh — gossip about the festival so far.
After, we felt ready for a few hours of exploring. We were pretty much melting while doing so — the normal festival month of December is a bit cooler than February, and we were definitely feeling each of those extra degrees of heat.
One really fun moment of the day was wandering by the Living Stage and hearing the night’s headliners — Rudimental! — doing a sound check. How often do you get to have such a behind-the-scenes experience at a major US or European music festival?
Eventually, we sought refuge in the Rainforest Pavilion; by night, an intimate dance party, by day, ground zero for sustainability workshops and talks. I chilled in the shady space while enjoying three brief presentations: Plastic Detox by Bangkok-based Madeleine Recknagel, Shark Tales by Andy Cornish, and The Fourth R with Indonesian entrepreneur Kevin Kumala, who invented a plant-based but plastic-like substance that gained notoriety when a video of him dissolving a “plastic” looking bag in water and drinking it went viral. After the festival I went on to Bali where I saw his #iamnotplastic straws being used everywhere — which made it even cooler to have heard him speak!
One of my favorite thing about Wonderfruit was the amazing amount of workshops, talks and classes. While I think their greatest area of improvement would be to facilitate them running more on time (or alerting festival-goers to cancellations and schedule changes via the otherwise-excellent Wonderfruit app), they really did represent amazing value as all are included in your festival ticket.
I’m so bummed I didn’t make it to workshops on silkscreening, raku ceramics, wood carving (which I tried to go to, but it was pushed back an hour and I had made plans to meet friends), mandala making, beadworking, hand lettering on plants, and more. If I returned for another year, I’d love to focus on making it a creative, hands-on festival for myself!
Many of the art-based workshops took place in The Sharing Neighborhood, which along with Rainforest Pavilion were two of the areas that were most consistently running on-time and as-scheduled.
Soon I was back at my favorite afternoon spot, The Solar Stage, this time for Thai-filipino artists Jess Connelly + Lustbass. This was one of my favorite sets of the entire weekend — there was so much great music to discover, and I loved how many of the artists were Thai or, more largely, Southeast Asian.
We also learned from chatting to fellow Solar Stage fans that the structure was built by regular Burning Man artist Gregg Fleishman, and had actually been transported all the way from The Playa to Pattaya just for Wonderfruit! The stage was made entirely out of sustainable wood panels slotted together sans screws.
And then we were off to prepare for a big Saturday night… and a surprisingly eventful Sunday. Stay tuned!
Does Wonderfruit sound like your kind of festival?
I received a press pass to Wonderfruit, however all other expenses were my own, and I will outline them in an upcoming budget breakdown.
So, while I’m still catching up on my ridiculously delayed 2016 travel recaps, I just can’t wait to start sharing my big trip (thus far) of 2017. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit again between two timelines — this recent trip and the old ones I’m still catching up on. Apologies for any confusion, my friends. One of these days I promise to lock myself in a dark room and not travel again until I’ve published every past trip in my drafts folder, but that day is not today.
In all my time in Thailand, I was absolutely vehement there was one destination to which I would never go: Pattaya. I’m not normally one to write off a destination with a fake gagging gesture, but what can I say. The seedy, sex-tourism capital of Thailand just isn’t for me — and everyone I know who’s ended up there somehow has been horrified by their time there. Just Google “Pattaya is disgusting” to see what my fellow travelers have to say! (To clarify, it’s the tourists that make it so repulsive, not the residents.) I literally could not think of one, single, teeny tiny reason I had any interest in ever so much as passing through such a hell-hole.
Until I decided to attend Wonderfruit, a festival held in the countryside forty-five minutes outside the city.
Okay Wonderfruit, you got me — and more on that festival coming up soon. After weighing up dozens of plans for getting my crew all the way from Koh Tao to our camp site, we realized that it was going to be a heck of a journey, and we might need a night to chill before heading into party mode.
So after an overnight ferry to the mainland, a private shuttle to the airport, a cheap early morning flight to Bangkok, and finally being picked up by another private shuttle at the Bangkok airport, we were on our way down to Pattaya, DIY paper cup mimosas in hand! The nine of us who had traveled together from Koh Tao were joined by my frequent travel buddy and honorary Koh Tao Crew member Heather, who flew in from Bali to meet us.
(Technically we could have ferried from Koh Tao to Koh Samui early in the morning and caught the once-per-day Bangkok Airways direct flight from Koh Samui to Pattaya, but that particular flight was out of the price range of most of our crew.)
Our first stop was one that will ring of enormous excitement to expats on tiny thirteen square mile islands everywhere: a proper grocery store, in the form of Central Pattaya’s Tesco Lotus. We had a couple missions here: get groceries for the next twenty-four hours, buy whatever snacks we wanted for the festival, and stock up on booze.
The latter become a major issue when we were casually strolling the aisles and an employee came up and breathlessly alerted us that alcohol sales were halted at 2pm, which was in approximately seven minutes. (Technically, alcohol sales are banned in the after-school hours of 2-5pm throughout Thailand, though it’s not enforced in Koh Tao). CUE PANIC! You have never seen farang pushing shopping carts with such unbridled anxiety as we did until we were safely through the checkout six minutes and fifty-nine seconds later. Crisis averted.
Next stop, our villa for the night! One bonus of Pattaya’s popularity is the market is flooded with cheap villa rentals — we nabbed this four bedroom for a mere $139 per night. Well, that’s the price we paid after having the $50 cleaning fee refunded because, ya know, we arrived and the place wasn’t cleaned. Frankly, we didn’t mind the discount! For $13.90 each per night, I was more than happy to fluff a few pillows upon arrival. Want to score a similar deal? Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking by using my coupon!
Yeah, the villa was a bit tired and the downstairs hadn’t been cleaned when we arrived, but we were thrilled with it, considering our very low expectations. It was located on Jomtien Beach, just far enough south from the prostitution circus of downtown that we could pretend we were somewhere else entirely.
After an afternoon of unwinding from eighteen hours of travel, the boys cracked into cooking a feast for dinner while the girls wandered the hundred meters down to the beach for a sunset drink on the seawall.
This was far and away my favorite moment from our brief time in Pattaya — marveling at the sight of skyscrapers on the beach, watching the sky turn from brilliant shades of blue to pink, and gossiping and giggling with some of my favorite girls.
Back at the house, the boys had outdone themselves! I’ve mentioned before around here the irony that because expats on Koh Tao eat out so regularly (it can actually be cheaper than cooking at home!) and have relatively small living spaces, it’s actually the biggest treat of all to get to share a big home-cooked meal together.
While going out to a big dinner at a restaurant might be the highlight of a vacation back in our Western homes, the ability to make one for ourselves is something to celebrate here in our adopted one.
After dinner, we toasted to Janine’s birthday — the second in a row we’ve celebrated with a big group trip! — and turned in early to prepare for the big events ahead.
The next morning, our crew of ten grew by two more, our friends Ryan and Bron, fresh off a flight from Australia! With several hours to kill between checking out of the villa and checking into the Wonderfruit campsite, I’d done some serious research into activities in the area that didn’t involve red-light districts — and to my surprise, we planned a really fun day.
After nixing, much to my heartbreak, a day at the largest waterpark in Thailand, we settled on two much drier stops — first, a short stroll around Buddha Mountain, and second, a tour of Silverlake Vineyard.
While Buddha Mountain didn’t hold our attention much beyond a simple group photo-op, it was a very cool variation on the typical Southeast Asian Buddha statue and made for a quick and quirky stop. (Though not, admittedly, as quirky as the Upside Down House Pattaya, or the Pattaya Sheep Farm, where real sheap mingle with their statue counterparts, both of which we also passed en route.) Bonus, Buddha Mountain is free to enter!
Next up, the real star of the show — Silverlake Vineyard. As many of you know, I’m on a mission to visit every winery in Thailand, and so visiting this one was a major motivation for tacking on extra time in Pattaya pre-Wonderfruit.
So you can imagine my annoyance when we arrived to a notice that the winery was currently closed. Great. Well, we were there anyway, so with no option to take the full winery, vineyard and tasting tour (for 250B) we settled on taking the vineyard and grape juice tour (for 100B), and buying a couple of bottles of wine to try with lunch.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the “vineyard tour” was a bit of a joke. I’d gleaned from the research I’d done that this was going to be miles away from the stunning and sophisticated vineyards we’d visited in Khao Yai and in Hua Hin. But this was even more of a bizarre celebration of kitsch than I’d expected, with about half a dozen wordless stops at strange photo-props followed by a quick glance at some grapes before being dumped at a grape juice processing plant.
Thankfully, I had a group who made the absolute best of it, and we had so much fun you wouldn’t believe we hadn’t cracked into the wine yet.
Can you even imagine a better crew to tour a fake winery with?
At least, I must admit, the grape juice was delicious. We peeked into the temporarily-closed winery building next door, and the tasting room did look quite nice.
After the tour, we had a lazy lunch at the winery’s onsite restaurant, where we ordered a carafe each of the shiraz, rosé, and sauvignon blanc to do our own DIY tasting. The restaurant was a good call — the wine was nice, the food and service were good, and the prices were reasonable.
It really was a shame that the winery building wasn’t open — I think it would have balanced out the silliness of the “vineyard tour” with some explanation of what were a couple decent wines. But, such is life. And there wasn’t much time to mull it over — we were en route to Wonderfruit!
Will I be rushing back to Pattaya? No. (Though the checklist-lover inside of me is tormented that I didn’t technically visit the Silverlake Winery. Curses!)
But we really did make the most of our twenty-four hours there. Between quirky quintessentially Thai attractions, quality time with my favorite crew, and a bargain of a villa to rest our heads in at night, it was the best trip to Pattaya a girl not interested in go go boots could ask for.
Stay tuned for my next dispatch from Wonderfuit!
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?
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
• 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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˜›
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
• 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?
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.
“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!
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.
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!
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.
portrait 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?
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.
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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.
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.
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!)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Right now is the perfect time to kick off or up your blogging game. Why? Travel Blog Success is on sale!
I 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!
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.
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.
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.
And then it was onto the lake, where we hopped into a traditional long tail boat to sightsee.
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!
so distracted by our welcome drinks, we could only manage a silly iPhone selfie
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!
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.
And we got right down to the business of enjoying them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
And with that, we were back to home sweet home — Koh Tao!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.