A Journey Back to Paradise

Few of us get to recreate a life changing travel journey! I feel so lucky to have done just that this past week in Thailand. The love of my life swept me away on a 4-month travel adventure in Southeast Asia 26 years ago which led us to marriage and 2 kids. On the eve of celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary, I boarded a plane and traveled 18 hours to meet our daughter in Bangkok to kick off our mother-daughter Southeast Asia adventure for a month, in celebration of her 22nd birthday. The first week of this journey is a replica of the itinerary her dad and I followed, but in a much less primitive way. Hard to believe anyone could ever travel with no cell phone, no public wifi, no GPS, and no Vloggers giving you advise on the do’s and don’ts on your anticipated destinations. We were just armed with our Lonely Planet guidebook for backpackers and a sense of wanderlust. We mapped out our route on public transportation and set out to find our way to the remote islands of Koh Tao and Ko Nang Yuan. Yes – we used a paper map!

After spending 3 days in Bangkok visiting the usual tourist attractions, my daughter and I took a cheap flight, on Air Asia for $56.77US, from Bangkok to Chumpon, a fishing village which is a jumping off point to Koh Tao. The train ride we took years ago is still a popular option for backpackers these days but it really doesn’t make sense to suffer an overnight train for 8-10 hours when you can fly there in 1.5 hour for a few dollars more. 

Transportation systems to these heavenly islands are more well-organized than ever before. We were able to purchase a shuttle ticket from a kiosk at the Chumpon airport and immediately jumped into a minivan scheduled to whist travelers to town. On my previous visit, finding transportation was difficult to say the least and usually at your own risk. Not able to speak Thai meant that we didn’t always know for sure if we were going to end up at our intended destination. The ride my husband and I took with the questionable “taxi” from the Chumpon train station to the pier, via a dirt road in the dark of night, still sends shivers up my spine when I think back. 

After spending an overnight in Chumpon, my daughter and I boarded an early morning ferry boat headed to Koh Tao. I was so excited about the little less than 3-hour ride with toilets onboard. So glad I didn’t have to ride a little wooden fishing boat, and I mean little, with Mr. Dang’s family to the island like my last visit here. I don’t remember how long it took but it felt like a lifetime as I was throwing up the entire time.

The tourist boom on Koh Tao slapped me in the face as soon as we stepped off the ferry boat. Drivers holding name signs of guests they were picking up, tour excursion offices and restaurants lined the street in front of the Maehaad ferry dock. For a moment, I thought we were on the wrong island. Tourist transport and accommodation options are endless these days, unlike our only option back then of staying at Mr. Dang’s cottages because we were able to catch a ride with him. 

My daughter and I stayed at the Sairee Beach Cottage which was reminiscent of the little tiny beach cottages owned and operated by Mr. Dang. There was also a restaurant on the beach but with one big difference – when they made a smoothie, the lights didn’t go dim like it did at Mr. Dang’s.

For better or worst, many things have changed on the islands with the passage of time. As expected, with the ease of access to the islands comes over development in hotels and resorts. There were only a few dive shops 26 years ago as compared to over 80 dive centers now. There are more spas offering cheap massages ($10 US/hour) than I can count on one hand. But the most shocking of all were the changes on the Koh Nang Yuan island, a piece of paradise I have kept in my memory bank as “heaven on earth” all these years. It still has powder white sand on a sand spit but I had to share this beach with many. The newly established fee of 100 baht (approximately $3 US) to enter the island has not deter boatloads of tourists making the very short trip from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan, nor has it helped to keep human trash from the ocean.  

With the popularity of these islands bring greater variety and higher quality of food, especially the western options that we might miss while traveling. The good cup of cafe latte that I was yearning for on my previous visit is now on every restaurant menu on the island.

The old adage of “take the bad with the good” rings true for me on this second trip to Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan. They may not be the purist island escape they once were but they will remain on the top of my travel list. In light of posting this blog on Thanksgiving, I want to express how thankful I am for the opportunity to revisit this paradise with my daughter and shared my passion for traveling with her. 


A Wellness Itinerary in Bangkok

Is it possible to achieve wellness in this polluted city with constant traffic congestion? I am up for the challenge! Wellness can be found in many places and the key is to plan your activities around the city’s cultural attractions. I set out for my day of wellness focusing on the highlights of the city so I can see the sights and experience the culture at the same time.

Bangkok is known for its street food! There’s a huge selection for cheap, some healthy and some not so much. Around the corner from my hotel, there were fruit carts and BBQ meat stands. Nothing is more refreshing than the delicious locally grown mango, all peeled and sliced for only 70 baht (approximately $2.30US). I grabbed a box of mango and walked a few steps to this adorable little dumpling shop, Feng Zhu Pork Shop & Co., run by mom, pop, bro and sis. This savory breakfast is nutrient-dense, high in protein, low is simple carb and sugar which is far better for your blood sugar than breakfast cereal, toast, or pastries. Ten little bite-size treats were only 160 Baht (approximately $5.30US). This beats the continental breakfast for $17US at my hotel in more ways than just my pocket book.

Dumplings from Feng Zhu Pork Shop & Co.

After I filled my tummy, it was time to head out for some exercise. Bangkok streets are far from walkable. Sidewalks, if any, are packed with street vendors and often have little puddles of filthy water that you may accidentally step into if not careful. A better way to travel is on the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok, dividing the city into the east and west banks. The east banks are where some of the world’s most beguiling temples are located. There are 34 piers that ply this 21 km route. Once you figure out which pier to catch your boat, it’s easy to hop on a boat that will take you close to your destination. For a fare of 15 baht (approximately $0.50US), you can enjoy the view of the city and all the local life along the river banks rather than sit in traffic when you travel by car.

There are more than 400 temples in Bangkok so visiting one is a must. The grounds of the Thai temples and palaces are usually enormous so better be prepared to do some serious walking. I took a boat from pier 3 to pier 8 which brought me right to the entry gate of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), located on the west bank. Given the beauty of the architecture and the fine craftsmanship, it’s not surprising that Wat Arun is considered by many as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. The 70 meters high prang (spire) by the Chao Phraya is one of Bangkok’s world-famous landmarks. It is beautifully decorated with tiny pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain placed delicately into intricate patterns. Climbing the very steep stairs on the central prang is a sure way to increase your heart rate. At the highest point you can see the winding Chao Phraya River and the Grand Palace and Wat Pho on the opposite east bank.

Wat Arun

After getting in 5,000 steps walking the grounds of Wat Arun, it was time to get some lunch before clocking the remaining 5,000, towards my wellness goal of 10,000+ steps a day. Besides, it was time to get out of this 92 degree temperature before I got dehydrated. To find a cooler spot, I rode the boat back down the river to ICONSIAM, an ultimate shopping destination on bank of Chao Phraya River. As expected by the flashy exterior, this vast complex is filled with high end designer shops. But what sets ICONSIAM apart from the other shopping centers is an area called SookSiam which brings the best of Thailand’s provinces into one “village”. There is no better place to try Thai street food than in this clean, air-conditioned mall. The authenticity of the experience was impressive, not only in the food but in the decor as well. I grabbed a bowl of Thai curry for 80 baht (approximately $2.65 US) and ate it squatting down at the miniature table and chair. With 5,650,000 sq ft of shopping space, I decided this is a great place to get in my remaining steps.

After unbelievable sensory overload, it was time to wind down with a traditional Thai massage. Rather than visiting the spa in the hotel, I opted for one of the many local massage spas. Magic Hands Massage is the nicest of the 6 massage spas on Si Phraya Road. The setup of these spas are all very similar – a row of very comfy reclining chairs for foot massages and massage mats for body massages. For 300 baht (approx. $10US), I had one of the best and most rigorous massages in my life. My body hasn’t felt so loose and limber in months.

It was a fun day, packed with sightseeing and good eats. All that’s left to complete a day of wellness is a good night sleep!