A Few Favourites

So far, we’ve been on Koh Tao for about two weeks. Time flies here, so even though I have little to do everyday, I find I’m always too busy to sit down in a quiet room and write. There are just too many things to do, people to meet and adventures to be had.

So after two weeks, here is a (tiny) list of some of my favourite things Life on the Turtle has to offer:

1. Pets- It seems as though everyone on Koh Tao has a dog. And not of the malnourished variety you might stumble across in the bigger cities like Bangkok.

The majority of Koh Tao’s tiny population is Buddhist. After a bit of local education I learned that Buddhists view animals as sentinel beings, capable of feeling and suffering just as humans. Karma is also important, because any wrongdoing (such as animal cruelty) will be paid for in the next life. The idea of rebirth and negative karmic consequences means creatures here- from a dog to a centerpede- are treated with respect.

George's new squirrel friend.

For me (who reaches for the bug spray when a suspicious spec of dirt moves across the floor), this was difficult to grasp at first. You can buy bug spray here but it’s pretty expensive, and for the first few days I would manically spray around the door frames of our house. Seeing the mass grave of little bugs outside our front door a few days later made me grateful they weren’t inside biting me, but incredibly guilty all the same. I have since ceased my nightly massacres, and have had no nasty mozzie bites, or frightening run-ins with the local dogs. And we welcome our little watch-frogs (who guard our house by night) and gecko friends, whose play area is our ceiling. Karma!!

This Buddhist quote sums it up perfectly,

All beings tremble before violence. All love life, all fear death. If you see yourself in others then whom can you injure?” Dhammapada 129

Fanta likes to hang out with the boys.

2. When you walk around barefoot, your feet don’t go black, they turn a chalky white. So even when you feel really dirty, you don’t look too bad! I’m guessing this has something to do with the fact that the island is made up of huge boulders and rock. Their erosion over time makes the ground chalky.

Walking under the boulders (below) is always a bit sketchy, especially since it looks like they’re being held up by twigs!

Watch your head... because the boulder you're about to walk under is being held up by twigs!

Are you sure those twigs will hold?!

3. Butterflies- there are butterflies everywhere. Enough said.

4. Yellow rice with crispy chicken- Yellow Rice is a tiny little hole in the wall and, as the name suggests, all they sell is yellow rice. It might not look like the most appealing dish, but it’s fricken awesome. Saffron rice, perfectly cooked crispy chicken, some home-made sweet chilli sauce and crunchy fried garlic scattered throughout. Delicious. And it only sets you back 50 Thb (Aus$1.50)!

5. Tanote Bay- a beautiful little spot on the east side of the island. Home to a couple of German diving schools, a few bungalows and this incredible view.

Tanote Bay from above (kinda looks like that truck is about to drive off the edge of the cliff!)

However, it can be a little tricky to get to if a truck breaks down across the entire length of the only road in and out of Tanote! We were stuck on the lower end (driving up the mountain) for a solid hour. It was hot. We were sweaty, and just wanted to get the hell off the steep mountain. That’s when this happened…

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Happy New Year!

Happy Thai New Year everyone!

Yesterday (April 15th), Thailand ushered in the Buddhist New Year – or Songkran as it is traditionally known – after three days of wild festivities.

For Thais, the Festival represents a time of cleansing, purification, and renewal.

The word ‘Songkran’ means, “…a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus.”

But many foreigners know it simply as the ‘Water Festival,’ and for good reason.

For three days, people across Thailand take up arms (water pistols, buckets and s#*t loads of water) and thoroughly douse any dry human within their line of sight.

The belief is that the water will wash away bad luck, thus ensuring a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Traditionally, scented water was poured over Buddha statues, before being collected and reverently trickled over the shoulder of a Thai person and their family.

Things look a little different today, especially in Chiang Mai and other ‘hotspots’ along the tourist trail.

Songkran is the biggest and most widely celebrated event on the Thai calendar. And it’s the craziest fun you could ever imagine!

When George and I arrived in April 2009 we had no idea of the significance of the dates within which we were travelling.

Songkran is celebrated between the 13th and 15th of April every year.

We arrived in Phuket on the 11th of April!

Leading up to the Festival we noticed nothing out of the ordinary. We just thought everyone in Thailand really loved playing with water pistols, because they were displayed front and center at every stall we passed.

I mean who doesn’t love playing with water guns right? What silly, ignorant tourists we turned out to be.

On the 13 of April we walked out of our hotel and down the main street, oblivious to why everyone was spraying me with water pistols, or throwing entire buckets of water on my head. Needless to say, we soon caught on.

Super Soakers was purchased pronto and we set ourselves up next to a diving practice pool to avoid buying bottled water. Unfortunately, others soon noticed our ingenious plan, and helped themselves to the pool water, after which the owner politely told us to move along.

And move along we did, soon noticing that it wasn’t JUST water coming at us from every direction. Sometimes it was water mixed with talcum powder, while other times it was water mixed with food colouring. But the most unbearable of all? The ICED water. Oh, the pain! There’s nothing quite like being drenched (from behind and unawares) by a smiling Thai with an overflowing bucket of icy water.

But I have to admit that by the third day of this, I was a little over it. I just wanted to walk outside without getting COMPLETELY saturated.

Sometimes it even felt like you were walking through a (really fun) war zone. Water gun muzzles would appear from over the top of hotel walls – faceless Songkran warriors who had bunkered down, ready to take out whoever dared cross their path.

Soon we devised a pretty sneaky plan of our own.

Positioned on our hotel balcony, we filled up some buckets, prepared the video camera, and waited. Some of our neighborinos weren’t too impressed, but it was the perfect way to enjoy Songkran without getting wet! (We even ate dinner at our hotel restaurant on the last night of the Festival – we just wanted to eat some food without dripping all over it, or be sprayed while eating a mouthful of Pad Thai!)

A quick breakdown of the Songkran Festival

Songkran isn’t just an excuse to throw water at strangers. In some ways, tourism has desecrated the sacred nature of the holiday, so here is a brief rundown of what Songkran traditionally looks like.

Day One (Wan Sungkharn) Thais visit Buddhist temples, give alms (usually money or food) to monks, wash/cleanse Buddha statues and clean their homes as a way to rid themselves of the old and make way for the New Year.  During this time Thai children can be seen pouring scented water over the hands of their elders, as a mark of respect.

Day Two (Wan Nao)- On this day Thais often gather sand, take it to the temple and build chedia- small pagodas. The activities from Day One are also repeated.

Day Three (Wan Payawan)- The official first day of the New Year, and what I can only describe as a giant Wet ‘n’ Wild Wonderland.

On the Thailand Trail

So far this blog has been pretty all over the place, a little directionless.

Well lucky me, I finally found some direction! And that direction is approximately 7662 km (or 4761 miles) northwest from my home in Sydney.

Destination: Koh Tao, Thailand.

George and I are escaping the plummeting Sydney temperatures, and taking a hop, skip, and jump across the pond to the Gulf of Thailand. We first fell in love with Koh Tao after a visit in 2009. We booked for two nights, stayed five, and wished for more. Unfortunately our itinerary at the time didn’t allow much flexibility, so we were left kicking ourselves for not arranging things differently.

This time around we are dedicating three months to Koh Tao, and a few days to Bangkok. This could change slightly, and we may end up adding a few extra stops in along the way, but at the moment that’s how it looks.

So where is this Koh Tao place anyway?

The island is located approximately 70km off the east coast of Thailand, between Suratthanu and Chumphon, in the stunning Gulf of Thailand.

 

 

 

 

Here’s a small fact about Koh Tao; it’s tiny. Coming in at a cosy 21 square km’s, it is dwarfed by neighbours Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. At the end of 2006 its official population stood at 1382.


 

 

 

 

Koh What…?

Koh Tao (which translates into Turtle Island) earned its name because of the abundance of turtles found in the waters surrounding the island. Unfortunately, due to tourism and infrastructure, these numbers have dropped significantly. Many also believe the shape of Koh Tao resembles that of a turtle.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure. What do you think?

Turtle shaped or not, Koh Tao will be our home for three months (as of May 1). So please feel free to come along for the ride…


Tips for Bargaining in Thailand

The bargaining process can be intimidating for first-timers. I remember the first time I gave it a go in Bali. I felt awkward, embarrassed and totally inadequate.

So here are a few tips to guide you through your haggling experience.

IS BARGAINING APPROPRIATE HERE?

When shopping, the first thing you need to determine is whether or not it is appropriate to bargain.

All too many ‘farangs’ (Westerners) travel to Thailand with the belief that fixed-prices don’t exist. They’re wrong.

In general, open-air market places are fine- haggle your little heart out. But department/ convenience stores  are a different story because you aren’t dealing with the owner directly, and retail staff in Thailand have the same amount of power as their counterparts in Western nations- very little. So don’t bother.

In terms of accommodation, prices are fixed unless you are staying longer than a week, in which case you can try to get the price down a little.

Suan Lum Night Bazaar, Bangkok.

 

WHERE TO START

My general rule of thumb is to halve the original asking price, and go from there. With practice you can get up to 40% off the vendors initial price.

Never buy the first thing you see- excluding original art- because I guarantee you’ll see the exact same item two or three stalls down. This way you’ll have a chance to shop around, and get a better gauge on what things are really worth.

ATTITUDE

The number one rule for successful bargaining is a good attitude. Remember that haggling is part of Thai life, so while you may feel embarrassed or out of your depth, it is expected. And it’s fun! A big smile, good sense of humour and a little bit of patience will get you a long way.

Another hot tip- don’t be an arrogant ‘Westerner’. When haggling on a price, don’t scream and yell, and don’t throw your money at the vendor (I’ve seen this happen before!).

Be respectful and don’t get caught up in the trivialities of bargaining. All too often an argument will erupt over a 10 THB discrepancy. Always put it back into perspective- 10 THB is about AU30c, and that 30 cents will probably be much more useful to them than to you.

LANGUAGE

Getting a firm handle on some of the basics will get you a long way. Here are some to practice:

Hello/goodbye: Male- Sawadee krap

Female- Sawadee kaa

How much: Gee Baht?

Yes/no:               Chai/ Mai

Expensive: Phaeng

Always begin with a Thai greeting. Not only is it polite, but vendors will take you a little more seriously and appreciate the gesture (even if they do have a little chuckle at your pronunciation).

It will also make you appear less gullible, meaning that their opening price will be more realistic. I’ve also heard of vendors offering ‘Thai-speaker prices,’ which are obviously cheaper than non-Thai-speaker prices, so learn as many phrases as you can!

BECOME FAMILIAR WITH THE MONEY

Always carry plenty of small change, and make sure you familiarize yourself with the aesthetics of the currency before you start shopping.

Thai money is colour coded, i.e. 20 THB is green, 50 THB is blue etc. It’s good to have plenty of these small notes for purchases such as water (approx. 10 THB per 1 L bottle). It’s very easy for a vendor to ‘accidentally’ give the wrong change when an  unsuspecting ‘farang’ (Westerner) hands over a 1000 THB note for a 10 THB bottle of water. So, check your change!

THE UNWRITTEN RULE

Thailand is like eBay. If you make an offer, and the vendor accepts, you MUST buy it. I’ve never actually seen what happens in this situation, but I’ve heard stories, and in general, it’s just poor form. Don’t make an offer unless you are willing to see it through.

Good luck and bonza bargaining to you all!!