My hectic summer reached a fever pitch in Month 39. Two whirlwind final weeks in Greece capped off Europe, which had followed an action packed few months of traipsing the USA — and as amazing as that whole period of travel chaos was, upon reflection it pushed me right to the brink of burnout. I’d had my heel on the accelerator for quite some time, and amid all the sunkissed Instagrams and adrenaline-fueled adventures, this is where it caught up to me.
Thankfully, I had somewhere quite blissful to recover. The second half of the month ushered in my long-anticipated return to Thailand. Frankly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve returned back to this beloved little island — but of all my various times calling Koh Tao home, this jaunt might just have been my favorite.
Where I’ve Been
• Two days in Athens / Greece
• Three days in Mykonos / Greece
• Three days in Santorini / Greece
• Three days in Ios / Greece
• Two day in Athens / Greece
• Two days in Delphi and Meteora / Greece
• One day in Bahrain / Bahrain
• Three days in Bangkok / Thailand
• Forty days on Koh Tao (and counting!) / Thailand
• My Contiki crew. You know when you’ve made up your mind that you’re going to hate something but you do it anyway and you end up having the literal best time ever? That was me on a group tour in Greece. While the logistics were seamless and the locations divine, what really sold me on the whole experience were the fantastic people I met, from my fellow Contikiers to the tour guides leading our way. What an unexpected highlight!
• Flee to the sea. I’ve already done the downtown Athens thing twice now, and while I think it’s a must for first time visitors to the city, I loved staying seaside in Paleo Faliro for a few nights and checking out another perspective on Athens. Rooftop pool overlooking the beach? Yes and yes.
• When I Met You in the Summer. Contiki was all about checking out the Greek island nightlife — and daylife! Mykonos and Ios really do deserve their reputations as international party isles. While I loved them both, Ios was more my scene with a distinctly backpacker vibe and prices slightly less likely to cause cardiac arrest. I had such a freewheeling good time on both islands — and I’ll never hear Calvin Harris’s Summer the same way again.
• New discoveries on Santorini. I can’t believe it took me three trips to this tiny little island before I got lost in the streets of Pyrgos — possibly the island’s most charming town — and sunk my toes into a black sand beach. These two highlights made me realize how much more I have to discover on one of my favorite islands in the world. Santorini is magical!
• Finding love for Fira. While Imerovigli had been the perfect place to decompress for five days post-Tomorrowland, staying right in the heart of Fira was an unexpected delight for this more action-packed round on Santorini. I really enjoyed having the freedom to walk any and everywhere, to check out Santorini’s nightlife (it does exist!), to grab cheap mid-day gyros and overpriced late night gelato, and to just soak up the lively energy of the town square. Like Paleo Faliro, I loved that my Contiki tour showed me new sides to places I already knew and loved.
• Beach bumming. I really don’t get sick of the sea. And Ios, I had it in spades. From our oceanfront digs at Far Out Beach Club — probably one of my favorite accommodations ever — we went Stand Up Paddling, got dragged behind a speedboat in a ridiculous blow up couch, and even hopped a pirate boat for the day. Some of my favorite moments of the month involved immersing myself in salty waters.
• Time travel. My two day trip to Delphi and Meteora was way too short, but it fit the time I had. I was in awe of these two ancient marvels, and so grateful to see another slice of mainland Greece. Meteora truly is a bucket list destination. I still can’t believe I got go!
• Blown away by Bahrain. Sweet digs, a world class mosque and museum, camels galore, and an excuse to wear my bitchin’ flamingo dress? I don’t think I could have asked for more out of my twenty-four hour layover in the Kingdom of Bahrain, my first trip to the Middle East. My posts about the super quick stopover are some of my favorite I’ve written in a while, usually a good meter of how inspired I was by a destination.
• Back in Bangkok. There’s this rush I get every time my plane lands at BKK. I love arriving in this city. I love knowing every curve of its airport, I love taking that first breath of humid air, I love sitting in the back of a pink cab, I love having my travel-addled muscles unfurled with a Thai massage, I love wandering jetlagged through the pulsing chaos of Khao San road in the middle of the night. While my three days here were spent doing nothing more than solitude, running errands, and readjusting to a new timezone, they were filled with joy.
• My Koh Tao family. I seriously feel blessed by to have these people in my life, and with a lifestyle as impermanent as mine, to have had them in my life for so many years. And along with my usual crew of hooligans, I made a handful of fantastic new friends who snuck their way into my heart so fast it almost felt like a setup. These are the people that make Koh Tao feel like home!
• Every meal time on Koh Tao ever. Not going to lie, one of the things I was most looking forward to about being back was hitting up all my favorite old restaurants. I was also delighted to find an impressive array of new ones that I’m now kicking myself for not writing about (see below). But from simple dinners with one old friend at a soup stall to homemade Swedish meatballs made by my girl Päivi to pancake brunch with a group of girls I met an hour before at yoga class to big, raucous group dinners at some of the island’s most elaborate restaurants, rarely did a meal slip by me unappreciated.
• Sand seeking. On previous periods in Koh Tao, I think I’ve sometimes taken the sand surrounding me on all sides for granted. Not so now. I took every opportunity to simply pop down to Sairee, or to make a journey out to my favorite far flung beaches like Aow Leuk and my old standby, Sai Nuan.
• Loving low season. From negotiating a great deal on my apartment to taking advantage of slow season expat deals at my favorite restaurants, I loved the relative peace and quiet of the low season. While I don’t love rain, it rarely lasted too long and there was plenty to keep me busy (read: the spa) when it was relentless.
• Stand Up for fun. The island change I was most excited about? The opening of SUP Koh Tao. I’m not saying the guys who opened it are heroes for bringing the sport of Stand Up Paddling to Koh Tao… but I’m not saying they’re not either.
• Spa ahhhh. It’s no secret that I’m slightly addicted to the spa when I’m Southeast Asia-side. And let’s just say this time I really went wild. I went to my favorite spa so much I almost got embarrassed, and had to start rotating in a few others to keep things fresh.
Delphi and Meteora
• Rocking out with Roctopus. Though I went diving far less than planned, the three trips I did head out on were nothing short of fantastic. A local’s trip to Sail Rock was the perfect welcome back to the island, an easy day at Japanese Gardens and White Rock was a pleasant surprise, and old favorite Chumphon (blog post coming this week!) worked its usual magic. I was super bummed about not getting out to Shark Island when I was on Koh Tao, but looking back at the amazing dives I did take soothes that bruise.
• Literal highs. I can’t believe it took me so long to catch the hiking bug on Koh Tao! I can’t wait to write about more routes upon return.
• My own season of The Office. Not long after renting my amazing apartment, it became somewhat of a routine for my friends Anna and Katy to come work at my place Monday through Fridays. We’d all diligently plug away on our laptops — diligently, that is, until it was time for a nap or snack break — and it was just so nice to have a routine and my own version of coworkers again. We loved joking about “The Office,” and anytime the three of us were hanging away from our desks, it was designated Office Party time.
• Serious Sundaying. Along with regular office hours come regular weekend — and did I ever love the Sunday routine that quickly developed. Upon realizing our shared affinity for spa time, my new friend Janine and I started a Sunday Spaday tradition that involved foot massages, gossip, and girl time. After, I’d join what felt like the entire rest of the expat population of the island for Sunday Fundays at Maya Bar, where I’d splurge on an imported cider, look out at the ocean, and toast to a week well done. My mind wanders here every Sunday since my departure.
• Speaking of weekends…. Okay, so on Koh Tao technically any day could be a weekend. And I so deeply enjoy the debauchery on this hedonistic little island, why constrain it to a calendar? Whether it was an accidental daytime session at Banyan, sundowners at Maya, bar hops down the beach, or my very first attendance of Koh Tao’s official gap-year filled Pubcrawl, I had a great time going out.
• Apartment therapy. It was the best impulse purchase I ever made — renting a gorgeous apartment for my seven weeks back on Koh Tao. It became base camp for me and my crew — home to girly giggles (our bedside rehash routine after a big night out), many movie nights, pizza parties, group sleepovers, Goldfish-cracker-and-midnight-American-football nights, office hours, and surprise visits from my favorite puppies and people. I truly adored this place and am already dreaming of finding a place just as perfect for my next Koh Tao session.
• Muay Thai madness. While I love me some gym time and yoga, there is no workout I love more than Muay Thai. I even made my way to one of the island’s fight nights, too, and I was so glad I did — the owner of the stadium ushered us to a front row seat inside the guardrails and cracked open free beers for us. Island Muay Thai makes me feel like one of the family — I love it.
• Xoxo. I just had this feeling I would meet someone once I got back to Koh Tao. And I did. More later, maybe.
• Welcome to Wanderland! Blogging highlight of my career — my new site went live! Talk about stressful — and still unfinished, since I haven’t had the time to import hundreds of new post thumbnails, whoops — but worth every drop of sweat. I still smile every time I open my homepage.
Lowlights and Lessons
• Still sick. By the time I left Greece, my sinus infection had been raging for weeks and I’d been to stubborn and stupid and stingy to pony up for a private doctor and prescription. Within an hour of landing in Thailand I had a handful of antibiotics in hand, but in retrospect I probably should have just paid up when the infection first surfaced.
• Blogger burnout. Koh Tao brought me back to life, but my work stress and burnout brink really reached hectic levels first. I was having more email server issues that were delaying my site redesign, I was trying to juggle a million commitments, and I basically almost had a mental breakdown.
• Drunken sailor spending. I was in Europe for so long that I seriously lost perspective on what things should cost. I am generally one of the most frugal people that I know — and I spent 25€ on a tshirt in Santorini! I just got swept away. I cringed thinking about that purchase though as soon as I got back to Thailand.
• Am I seriously writing this? There was a photobooth in Fira where you could dress up in ridiculous Hercules-like costumes and get your photo taken ridiculous-style for super cheap. I discovered this ten minutes before I had to leave the island. I. Was. Beyond. Crushed.
• Antsy in Ancient Greece. I knew I would, but I felt really rushed in Delphi and Meteora. It was one of those give and pulls, though — I wanted to spend more time there but I simultaneously wanted to be in Thailand yesterday. Still, in a perfect world I would have given Meteora itself a few days.
• Cooling it at Customs in Bahrain. Just a little tip for those of you heading to the Middle East — don’t put writing on your immigration forms. Just don’t. (Duh, I hear you all sighing.)
• Blogger on strike. As noted above, my time in Koh Tao was kind of a decompression from the ridiculous self-inflicted pressure I’ve been under for the past few years to produce metric tons of high quality content at all times. While my mini-holiday was sorely needed and much appreciated, I’m cringing now at how I kind of screwed myself. Example: I desperately want to write a nightlife guide to Koh Tao and an update to my dining guide, and I can’t do either because I didn’t do the mere hour or two of research and photography that would have required on-island. And by writing two or three posts a week instead of my usual four, I got myself tragically behind chronological time. Um, I promise we’ll catch up? Someday?
• Breaking news! The internet in Thailand is not razor fast. Sometimes the power goes out. Sometimes you can’t get work done, all day. The end.
• Apartment anxiety. I was determined to find an apartment in Koh Tao as soon as possible — and as someone who gets a lot of energy from their surroundings I was pretty anxious to find the perfect place. There was a place with an ocean view that I was super interested in, but the owner didn’t want to rent to someone for just seven weeks and kept knocking me back. Finally, seconds after paying upfront for my little garden studio, a friend called to tell me the owner reconsidered. My heart sunk and I agonized over it for a few days. In retrospect I’m so happy with where I ended up — I was in the middle of all my island besties, there were no hills to navigate and I fell truly madly deeply in love with my apartment. But it reminded me that it doesn’t matter that I left New York City — real estate drama knows no international borders!
• The murders. This is so dark that I’ve struggled to find a way to write about it despite weeks — months? — of trying, but the double murder on Koh Tao rocked this little island and everyone on it, myself included, to the core. To this day I still receive emails from travelers wondering if the island is safe, if it’s still the same. I never know how to respond. Yes, Koh Tao is safe. Yes, you should come. But no, it will never be the same. How could it? That day and the weeks that followed changed my relationship with Thailand, a country I consider my second home, forever. I never thought I’d say this about two people I didn’t know, but I mourned — for those two young travelers, for their families, and for Koh Tao.
Because my destinations in this roundup are so price varied (basically the most expensive country I’ve been to and one of the least), I’m not going to do my traditional price breakdown. But I know how much you all love reading hard numbers, so I do have a few to throw at ya.
I had some huge business expenses this month — the redesign of my beautiful new website, and also taking on an assistant to do some behind the scenes work. Both were fantastic investments. I saw a loss in month 38 despite hitting my income goal, since Europe was such a blowout, but in Month 39 I held steady (even made a teeny tiny profit!) — despite not even hitting my income goal.
I shuddered to calculate what I spent on my Contiki tour out of pocket — while accommodation, transportation and some meals are included, I felt like euros were flying out of my hands for other meals, drinks, and miscellaneous costs. But I know a lot of travelers agonize over how much spending money to bring on a tour like this, so I crunched the numbers. In total, over a twelve day tour, I spent $984 out of pocket (not including my ME Time optionals, which Contiki covered, and not including the $160 I spent repairing my iPhone screen, because I’m going to assume y’all are less clumsy than I.) That broke down to $380 in food, $336 in alcohol or club admissions, $218 in miscellaneous things like laundry, toiletries, a mani pedi, bus fares and shopping, and $98 in entertainment like sun bed rentals, water sports, and a tip for the guides. Splurge alert!
In comparison, I spent $70 on my two day Viator tour, including two lunches, a guide tip, a taxi to get there, and snacks.
I promise to do a breakdown similar to the one I did for Gili Trawangan someday, but for now I can tell you I paid $600 a month for my apartment, including utilities,and $100 a month for my motorbike. In seven weeks, I spent $20 total on petrol and bike repairs, which equals $11.40 a month. But to balance that out that bargain, I spent about $95 a month at the spa, which bought me two treatments a week. Have I mentioned I’m addicted to Thai massages?
Alex in Wanderland’s traffic went up and up in these two months — and my traditional streams of advertising income went down and down. But that was fine with me. I had mentally adjusted to the changing face of blog advertising over the summer, and was thrilled when two major campaigns came my way over this period, with Trover and with Yonderbound. This is how I aspire to work in the future — cut out all the unfulfilling link sales and other garbage income streams and just focus on one campaign a month with a brand I believe in.
Other than that, I kept busy with some freelance writing, design work, and reviews for my travel sponsors.
• I’m not exaggerating when I say almost everyone on our Contiki got sick. Nat, who was a trooper in spite of an endless set of symptoms, summed it up well when she strolled up to a pharmacy counter in Ios, sighed, and declared quite seriously, “I’ll take one of everything.”
• Our Contiki tour guide Paola had me in stitches more times than I could count, but never more than while briefing us for a night on the town in Mykonos. She didn’t want the ladies in the group to get mixed signals about the men we would encounter that night. “They aren’t gay… they’re Italian,” she warned gravely. Despite her warnings, I was shocked when a man I’d sworn arrived with his boyfriend tried to lay one on me. As I pushed him away, I swear I saw Paola cackling in the corner. In my defense, he was wearing a cutoff jean jacket.
• When I arrived back on Koh Tao, I was thrilled to find one of my best girlfriends from my year on the island back for a short vacation. As she was just in Thailand for a week, she didn’t have a local phone, which hadn’t proved a problem so far. But one day, when we finally connected, she was exasperated. “I looked everywhere for you! I went to your house, to Banyan, and to Majestic! I couldn’t find you anywhere!” My house, my local bar, and the spa — where else would I be?! (But really. I don’t go anywhere else.)
• The love of Chipotle knows no bounds. While telling one of my (very few) fellow Americans, who had just returned from a trip to Greece, about the fact that there is now a location in London, he responded with shock and regret. “You’re kidding. I was JUST in Europe!” Bummer. Could have been a great side trip.
• What is the definitive sign that you’re ordering too much take-away? I think I realized I’d crossed the line with my standard lunch order at Zanzibar (chicken avocado mango pesto salad with a mango smoothie, if you must know) when the delivery guy started waving goodbye with a friendly, “See you tomorrow!”
Health and Fitness
After over six weeks in Europe topped off by two weeks hard partying on the Greek isles, I arrived in Bangkok a broken and bloated woman. Over the counter antibiotics took care of the sinus infection (I love you and your free flow of prescription drugs, Thailand!), but the extra few pounds I picked up as a souvenir took a little more work to get rid of. But Koh Tao quickly rid me of that thanks to an every-other-day workout routine and plenty of fresh healthy food.
The only foil to my general healthy routine was my equally frequent partying habit, and the occasional hangover pizzas.
More Koh Tao, as well as Koh Samui, Bangkok, Pai, and Chiang Mai!
Thanks for coming along for the ride. It wouldn’t be the same if I couldn’t share it with 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.