Note: This roundup might be a tad late. Expect another coming up next week! (Why do I keep forgetting to publish these things when I write in my “roundup notes” file on an almost daily basis?)
Home sweet home away from home.
Traveling around Thailand — especially to places I’ve been once or twice or a billion times before, as I did this month — isn’t really challenging or exotic or life changing. It’s familiar. It’s fun. And it feels good. And that made this month fabulous.
My seven straight weeks in Koh Tao were up before I knew it, and I wasn’t quite ready to move on. Luckily, I wasn’t going far — just a quick jaunt with some of my favorite people around one of my favorite countries in the world.
Where I’ve Been
• Ten (more) days on Koh Tao / Thailand
• Two days on Koh Samui / Thailand
• Five days in Bangkok / Thailand
• Four days in Pai / Thailand
• Six days in Chiang Mai / Thailand
• Being asked to speak at and participate in the first ever Koh Tao Writers Retreat. I found the sessions eye-opening and I really enjoyed speaking to the group about my journey with blogging. Erin, who runs the retreats, is a gem for bringing this creative community to Koh Tao! I’m looking forward to attending future retreats (she’s hoping to run them monthly) upon my return. Plus — this was my first ever paid speaking gig. Woo hoo!
• Squeezing it all in. My last ten days on Koh Tao were hectic, as suddenly I frantically tried to fit in all the things I hadn’t quite gotten around to yet — but it was the best kind of busy. Some of my favorite moments? A big group steak dinner night at Booker’s, my final Sunday Spa Day with my girl Janine, and an imported cheese and cider night with my friends Paivi and Anna, right in my own living room. It all went by so fast.
• Our group vacation to Koh Samui. I can’t explain the levels of giddiness in the air as a bunch of crusty Koh Tao expats boarded the ferry for a luxury weekend in Koh Samui. And those silliness levels stayed sky-high all weekend as we ate, drank, sang, and ate some more. Other than the initial errands we ran upon arrival we didn’t leave the villa once. It was perfect and I hope to plan something similar every year, specifically during the rainy season when it’s easier for my business-owning friends to take time off, and these crazy villas can be had for a song.
• Just making our flight. When the herd thinned and Brian, Chris and I were left to make our way to Bangkok, we had all the time in the world to make it to our ferry and connecting flight. There was not even the slightest of time crunches. Which makes it hilarious, and very very us, that we ended up sitting tensely in the cab, offering to pay our driver double to break the time space continuum and deliver us on time, and sprinting up the ferry just as the ramp was being rolled up. But hey — we made it! And we had a lot of laughs for our (self imposed) troubles. Even the monotony of being in transit is a good time if you’re with the right people.
You guessed it! More Koh Tao
• Finding the perfect Bangkok hotel. I think I’ve raved enough about U Sukhumvit, but believe me, you will find me back on that rooftop within the year.
• Finally making it to a Bangkok Muay Thai match. I’ve been dying to attend one for years, but usually tend to find myself in Bangkok alone. While there are many activities I enjoy in isolation, attending a rowdy sporting event is not one of them. But it was worth the wait — I can’t imagine having a better time than I did with our crew of eight. Next time I’m checking out Lumpini!
• Being one of the boys in Bangkok. Okay, I mean Heather was there too, but we both ended up throwing sense and sensibility (and work and workouts) to the wind and just bro-ing out for our five days in Bangkok. From 3am french fry fights to mooning fellow pool goers to gambling at said Muay Thai match, it was exactly what I needed at the time.
• A dinner to remember. There was one notable exception to our un-civilization — our evening eating a home-cooked dinner with the Bangkok skyline in the background, a result of the new startup pairing talented locals with curious traveler. It was a really unique experience with delicious food and great company. While Heather and I’s experience in Chiang Mai didn’t go quite as well, I still can’t wait to use the company again.
• Running a 6K — really running it! And finishing it in under an hour! My last attempt at a race run was great fun but I ended up walking quite a bit. This time I ran the entire route except for water stops, and it was such a euphoric feeling crossing that finish line. I’m so glad Heather talked Chris and I into joining her — and that my team was so entertaining and understanding of my height handicap. (Small legs, people! Small legs!)
• Our overnight chariot to Chiang Mai. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow our overnight train north from Bangkok was the most luxurious rail experience Heather or I had ever had. Having taken many a night train before, we don’t exactly know how we ended up in this magical coach where beds ran perpendicular instead of parallel to the walkway and each set of beds shared an electrical outlet, but we sincerely hope that someday it happens again (it didn’t on our Southbound return from Bangkok, which was back to normal).
• Returning to Pai. While my original plan had me spending several weeks here and I was somewhat bummed that didn’t come to fruition, I soaked up every minute of our blissful four days. In many ways it was a repeat of my first trips — staying at the same adorable guesthouse, eating at the same amazing restaurants, buying another piece of art for my Dad from the same artist’s market. I can’t wait to return again — this is one of my absolute favorite spots in Thailand.
• Exploring Tham Lod cave. And while I loved pressing repeat, I also loved doing something new. I wasn’t so keen to do any excursions from Pai, having explored the outskirts by motorbike on my last trip. But Heather talked me into one, and I’m so glad she did. We had a blast riding around the bamboo rafts, photographing the creepy caverns and enjoying the very Thai-ness of this gem of a national park.
• Connecting with friends in Chiang Mai. It was so amazing to catch up with Diana, Torre, and a ton of other blogging friends — plus meet some of Heather’s Thailand crew. I love that I have so many friends spread across Southeast Asia.
• My Chiang Mai rituals. Y’all know I’m not the biggest fan of Chiang Mai, in general. But I do love my routine there — gorge on lunch at the same overpriced cafe, get a manicure at the same nail spa, and eat dinner at the same cheap street stall. I couldn’t seem to locate my old favorite teak yoga studio, but I replaced it with two new obsessions — my favorite BodyPump class from back in the US at a North Gate gym, and The North Gate Jazz Club for evenings out.
• FINDING BANANA MILK. Guys, I can’t tell you what a heavy heart I had when I arrived back in Thailand to the realizations that banana milk was nowhere to be found. I scoured 7-11’s from Bangkok to Chumphon to no avail. So you can imagine my excitement when I strolled into a Chiang Mai minimart and found an entire row of them staring back at me from the refrigerated aisle. I bought the store out of stock — and I have the picture to prove it.
• Hiking through Doi Suthep National Park. Not that I have too much to compare it to (something I’d like to change), but this was the most beautiful trek I’ve ever done in Thailand — and the history was fascinating, too! It was a truly wonderful experience.
• Yi Peng. This wasn’t just a highlight of my month — more like of my year, and possibly my travels entirely. A lot of planning and stressing went into getting us there, but in the end all the pieces fell together perfectly, and I could not have asked for a more special experience. I still get all dreamy just thinking about it.
• Realizing how much I missed Koh Tao. Even away for just two and a half weeks, it was amazing how much this traveler missed sitting still on my favorite island. As someone who has frequently wondered if their wanderlust will ever abate enough to make a home again, it was a peaceful feeling.
• Traveling with Heather. Always a highlight! From laptop parties to intense photoshoot sessions to daily foot massages (seriously, this girl pushes my already out-of-control spa addiction to new levels), I haven’t found anyone I prefer to travel with.
Lowlights and Lessons
• FOMO kills. I’m sure we can all agree I do more than enough gushing about Koh Tao, but there are some downsides to basing myself there. First of all, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, for the uninformed.) It is a dangerous, terrible affliction, and it means that I either go out most nights or stay in, do distracted by my condition that I am unable to focus or be productive in any way. I will have to search for a cure considering the long stay that I have planning coming up.
• Landlord drama. It seems to follow me. For reasons I don’t quite understand, there was a ton of awkward tension and stress over extending my apartment stay for an extra week after what was initially agreed upon. From what I could tell I’d been a model tenant, and it was the middle of the lowest low season the island had ever seen. So why I was told there was no vacancy and I’d have to make other arrangements baffled me — and resulted in me spending a day in tears trying to find a reasonable replacement. In the end I pushed back and was able to stay put, albeit for a little more money than I anticipated, which left me both grateful for not having moved and frustrated that I had stressed for nothing. Such a serious bummer as I would have loved to return to that apartment again in the future.
• Visas need tending to. Guys, I don’t know at which year of travel you are supposed to stop making ridiculous travel mistakes, but it is CLEARLY NOT YEAR FOUR. Just around day 58 of my stay in Thailand, someone made a passing comment about a visa extension, causing a lightbulb to go off in my head that I in fact needed a visa extension, and I needed it in the next 48 hours! Thankfully I was headed to Koh Samui, home to an immigration office, regardless, so I was able to course correct with little drama. But the scary thing is I didn’t remember the thought of a visa extension popping into my head ever — not when I got the visa back in New York, not when I entered the country, not never. And who knows when it would have had someone not jogged my memory just in time. Serious face palm, self, serious face palm.
• I am not always the hostess with the mostess. The more I travel alone, the more I am simultaneously thrilled and flustered by traveling with others — especially when I am the host, like I was in Samui. The weekend was overwhelmingly fabulous, but I felt anxious and personally responsible anytime even the slightest thing went askew. Curbing my “frantic hosting,” as one friend coined it, will be a lifelong challenge for me, I think.
• Freelancing is feast or famine. And unfortunately you have no say in when the feast comes. After weeks of doing next to no design work, several jobs fell in my life right as I was departing the island. I felt I had no choice but to take them on, which led to a ton of stress on my part and I’m sure a fair amount of annoyance on the part of the client when I was delivering at the last minute. Not ideal, my friends.
• The road to Pai is paved with vomit bags. Guys, that mini bus ride is no joke! Next time, I definitely need to stay longer, if only to put more buffer days between the three hour torture sessions required to enter and exit Pai.
• You can’t control the weather. Well, duh. But we were pretty bummed that the one afternoon it rained was the one we’d taken a tour on, and we had to skip our post-caving waterfall stop as a result. Ah well, we’ve both seen a lot of waterfalls.
• Travel is hit or miss. And our leather workshop in Chiang Mai was a serious miss.
• Mail in Thailand is not as cheap as I remembered. I spent a eye-popping figure this month posting stuff home this month rather than carry it around with me. As time goes on I feel more and more burdened by things — when will I finally learn to truly travel light!
• Bangkok is changing. I touched on this in a recent post, but I feel deeply saddened by what seem to be irreparable changes to the character of Bangkok. Yes, they can go back to not checking IDs and keeping ridiculous late night hours, but can they bring back the pop up combi van bars that used to line Soi 11? Can they bring back that air of playful seediness that makes the city special? I know I’m romanticizing the unruly, but the last thing the world needs is another Times Square. I fear someday we’ll be sitting around harping on the good ol’ days, when Bangkok had less rules and more rough edges.
You know how budget guidebooks are always preaching the $30 a day lifestyle for Thailand? My friends and I were discussing that at one point this month and having a big ‘ol laugh about it. Is it possible? Heck yes. Did we have even the slightest interest in sticking to it this month? Nah.
Sometimes you just gotta splurge — and when you’re working on the road and constantly replenishing your funds, it’s a much appreciated possibility. Shoestring travelers will gasp as this, but I spent $1,854 in Month 41 — over $66 per day.
I have found that despite the fact that accommodation and some other costs are shared, traveling with others is always more expensive for me. More big nights out, more lavish meals, more splurging on fun activities (the only exception being transportation — I’m much more likely to take cheap local transit if I have someone else to laugh through it with). My biggest cost for the month was accommodation at $453, with food coming in at a close second at $410. Miscellaneous was a huge cost for the month at $292, which included the usuals like laundry, toiletries and phone credit plus outliers like all my Christmas gifts, my annual clothes-buying binge in Bangkok, and my $60 visa extension. Transport, which included two overnight trains, a few ferries, a flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and bunch of buses and cabs came to $272. Entertainment clocked in at $257, which apart from $20 in tours and tips was, ahem, all booze and big nights out. My spa and massage habit set me back $105, and health and fitness — Muay Thai, yoga, my run registration and other gym memberships and classes — rounded out to $65. Considering how much we saw and did this month, it was money very well spent.
Alex in Wanderland traffic stayed relatively steady this month despite a marked decline in posting. However, I made a little less and spent a little more than I had the previous month — a sign of being back on the road! What do I save for if not to take some time to enjoy the road?
My partnership with my main squeeze Viator aside, this month was unfortunately a return to my more typical piece-meal income streams. A bit of design work here, a little freelance writing there, and a chunk of traditional blog advertising and affiliates over yonder.
• I’ll admit that we were a few rounds of rooftop mojitos deep by the time we ordered friend bananas for a midnight snack. Which probably explains why it took Heather a few minutes to realize what had gone wrong. I watched her face go through a full range of emotions as she thoughtfully chewed the fried treat. “Um…” she finally concluded, pulling the remainder away and holding into the light. What she held, however, was not a friend banana but rather a spring roll drizzled in chocolate. We could hear laughter all the way back in the kitchen when we hysterically alerted the kitchen to the mistake.
• If you’ve ever wondered why I’ve so cheerfully attributed the “safety seventh!” motto to Thailand, the Midnight Bangkok Run we participated in gives a good example. You might think the city would shut down the road for a marathon of this size, but no — we ran alongside taxis, tuk tuks, and bewildered drivers, giving them big waves along the way. It was hilarious, the perfect comical execution of a charity run sponsored by, I kid you not, the Billion Million Trading Company®.
• These Bangkok pastries. Enough said.
• Heather might not find this as hilarious as I did, but there seemed to be a bit of gender confusion following us wherever we went. From the race sign in, where the volunteer hesitated to give Heather a female running bib to the ferry check in where the receptionist filled in all my information then awkwardly handed over the form for me to check M or F, to the hotel lobby where an employee cautiously confirmed that we were both, indeed, women, we were clearly not giving off ultra-feminine vibes this month. Or maybe it was a sign of Thailand’s uber-acceptance of their large trans community. Who can say for sure? All I know is that every time I think of Heather indignantly snatching the female race bib, I dissolve into very girly giggles.
Health and Fitness
I really fell off the health wagon this month. After seven weeks of feeling fit and active on Koh Tao, it all kind of fell apart once we got on the road. Koh Samui was a wine-soaked weekend. Bangkok was just out and out debauchery, including drunken nightly dips to McDonald’s and not a single stop at the gym. (Thank goodness for that 6K run or my body may have disowned me!) Pai was equally lethargic, though we did start to clean up our eating act. And in Chiang Mai, we finally got back into a workout routine, making time for both moat runs and an exercise class — but I doubt those daily Peanut Butter Party smoothies helped.
It really is amazing how slow it is to build back to a healthy routine and body, and how quickly it slips back away.
More Koh Tao, more Bangkok, a week in Phnom Penh, and home!
Thanks for coming along for the ride, guys — and for putting up with my late post delivery! Look out for another roundup coming out soon. I’m in catch up mode now!
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.