Koh Phangan, part 1

Our trip around the islands doesn’t follow any logical order as we booked an amazing hotel for the first night really cheap [without planning the itinerary]. It was on the middle island – Ko Pha Ngan, so that’s where we started.

Around 8am our overnight train reached Surat Thani, and as soon as we got out of the station some woman asked for our boat tickets and pointed to our shuttle bus shouting ‘Hurry, hurry’. On the bus our tickets were exchanged for stickers – different colours for different islands – an easy way for the boat operators to guide this mass of tourists wherever they want them to go, like a flock of sheep. Just not sure what the hurry was for, as everybody sat on the bus waiting for a good 30 minutes before it finally started moving. About an hour later we were on the boat: hot burning sun, wind and a lovely view. It took a lot of nagging to convince Vidmantas to hide in the shade, so that we wouldn’t turn lobster-red on the first day.

Koh Phangan

The boat stopped at Koh Samui first and a bit later arrived at Ko Pha Ngan. We headed to the village straight away to search for food, and when we were full and happy we caught a songthaew to Haad Rin. It’s sooo fun when you’re flying at something that feels like 80km/h with the wind messing up with your hair, palm trees flying by, and when you’re going up the steep curvy roads you have to hold on tight as it feels like you’re going to slide down the bench-type seat and fall out!

Koh Phangan songthaew

We arrived at our hotel full of excitement. A friendly receptionist greeted us, offered some cold pineapple juice and showed us to our room. WHAT A ROOM! Not even a room, it was a house. A very modern tree house: wooden floor, flowers scattered on the bed, couchette overlooking the balcony, floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors, pretty wicker baskets for everything from snacks to toiletries… And the view: we were high up on the hill, surrounded by palm trees, with our balcony overlooking the rocky seaside. What a welcome to the islands. And the funniest thing is – the price for one night here was the same as the Bangkok hotel we stayed in, with the outdated room in the middle of a busy district where as soon as you step outside you’re surrounded by rubbish, noise and giant cockroaches.

Koh Phangan Amaresa resort

Koh Phangan Amaresa resort

Koh Phangan Amaresa resort

After a while of enjoying the view we decided to walk to the village and find something to eat. We walked down the hill, trying to remember which way we came with the taxi, until we walked into a forest, and then we stopped. The sound in the trees, which was getting louder and louder, was indescribable. It felt as if we were surrounded by millions of tropical insects hiding in the trees making that uncomfortable sound and it was getting dark. Then we thought that it could be the electric current running through the wires as we heard it creaking near the pier earlier that day, but it was nowhere near as loud as this. We started walking forward but it was still pretty scary. We reached some village with barely any lights on and nobody outside.

Koh Phangan Haad Rin

We walked further behind the huts and saw a beach. What a beautiful beach… Suddenly it wasn’t all that scary anymore. We stayed there for a while, took a few pictures and decided to walk back as we couldn’t remember driving through this village with the taxi. Besides, it was getting really dark, mosquitos started biting us and there were bats flying around… As we rushed back we saw where we took the wrong turn. Haad Rin village was the opposite way!

Koh Phangan Haad Rin

Safe and sound we had a meal at our hotel’s sky bar and walked back to our room. We took our pillows and laid down on the terrace watching the stars, thinking how happy we were =) And then we saw a lightning. And another one. It looked so beautiful… After a while we came inside and watched the storm from our bed until we fell asleep.

Read about the next part of our adventures in Koh Phangan here. Also, some more stories from the same trip: Koh Samui, Anghthong Marine Park and Koh Tao.

More photos on our Flickr page here.

Koh Samui

Hello again,

We’re in Koh Samui now. We decided to try a cheaper ferry from Koh Phangan, which was supposed to leave from a different pier, about 200 metres away from the main one. The scheduled departure was 12:30 and we were there at 10:30. Without a single staff or tourist in sight, we thought whether the out-of-date-looking pier was in use at all. But then we were greeted by an elder Thai man who offered us to buy some bottled water and wait. We declined the first offer and sat down.

Half an hour later the ticket window opened, we bought our tickets and another couple of tourists did the same. Another half an hour later dozens of other tourists were being dropped off by trucks from local hotels. By that time several street vendors had come with their stalls selling everything from fruit shakes and beer to Phad Thai. It seems that a lot of business in the islands is scheduled around the times when ferries come and go: it may be difficult to find hot food vendors when travellers are settling in their hotels.

The pier 2 hours and then 30 min before the boat departure
The pier 2 hours and then 30 min before the boat departure

The ferry took about an hour to get to Nathon pier in Koh Samui , we got off and were straight away surrounded by a crowd of taxi drivers, hotel offers and food vendors. We ignored them and headed to the desk labelled ‘Information desk’ to get a map. I am pretty sure that wasn’t the information desk, as the lady was pointing to random points on the map trying to push us to get a taxi, but at least we got to keep the map. A lot of bloggers say that you can get scammed in Thailand, but it is just common sense: tourists, who don’t speak the language, don’t know where they are or where they’re going, pay more. I saw one excited young brit on a motorbike with a Thai man pointing to some table, and the young guy said to him “wow, that’s a lot!” and drove off. I assume that was a rental motorbike price list for scratches, damages, etc, but that’s where they make their money.

The pier was now empty: no ferries, no tourists, and just a few empty songthaews – local taxi cars. I love how they negotiate:

Us: Can you take us to Hua Thanon for 100 baht each?

Driver: Ok. You wait 10 minutes. You want to go now for 150?

Us: No, we’ll wait.

Driver: You pay 150 you go now. You pay 100 you wait 20 minutes.

Us: No we’ll wait.

Driver: Ok, I take you now for 100.

The view from our balcony
The view from our balcony

Hua Thanon is a quiet area with very few tourists and a lot of green surroundings. Initially when we booked online, the hotel looked so-so, but when we checked-in we were stunned by the view: palm trees, mountains, a few bungalows – all could be seen from our cosy balcony. While I’m writing this, a huge flying insect is knocking onto the window, and we saw a cute praying mantis earlier on too. In the photo you can see another cute creature which came to visit us on both days.

Our guest
Our guest

One tip with regards to insects/other visitors: don’t drop food in your room, not even a drop of juice – they WILL come for dinner. They have tiny ants here in Thailand and as soon as they get into the balcony, they get into the room, and when they get into the room, they’re on the bed, your clothes, your shoes… and if you’re staying in a poorly insulated property, you can invite cockroaches too. And they’re as big as oreo biscuits.

Fruit seller napping through the midday heat
Fruit seller napping through the midday heat

Staying here was a lot of fun, partially because we finally had a chance to get some sleep and went for a stroll around the area – the Muslim fishing village. I guess the name comes from a lot of fishermen Muslims living there, makes sense, doesn’t it? It was nice to see how people live: tons of fish drying out, the local market with (again) tons of fish, little kids running after the ice-cream van. We also saw someone on a bicycle, which made us think that however sceptical we are about motorbikes, we’ll probably have to get one eventually. Using taxis is too expensive, cycling is too sweaty, and walking is fine as long as it’s a short distance. Talking about practicality, you need sunglasses even when it’s cloudy. We left ours at the hotel, so the walk along the beach was rather blinding. I also noticed that the beach at Hua Thanon was used by some fishermen and wasn’t very clean – definitely not for swimming.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui Muslim fishing vilage

Koh Samui Muslim fishing village

Koh Samui Muslim fishing village

We were on the way to Lamai beach and saw the Hin Ta Hin Yai rocks, but to be fair, we only saw the grandfather rock, and couldn’t distinguish which one was the grandmother. At that point I realised that even the straps of my backpack are sweaty, and we jumped in the water. It was so refreshing – just what we needed to cool ourselves from the intense sun. Our sunbathing session lasted for about 4 minutes – just enough to initiate the clothes drying process and not get sunburnt. It’s funny how the sky in the morning is quite cloudy and dim, but in the afternoon it is burning hot. On the way back to the hotel we thought we’ll collapse on the road because of all that heat. And they call it rainy season!

DSC_0347

Koh Samui

When we reached the village we ordered a custom-made meal, and offered our own price! That was something we hadn’t done before. We asked the lady (who made our meal yesterday) to make a vegetable curry, as most items on the menu were meat or fish. Most of the time we just pick the one, and usually the only one, vegetarian dish – rice or noodles. This is what you get in a street-restaurant in a village for 50 baht. While she was making the curry, we finally got to see what the rainy season was like. For the first time in a week it actually poured down. I still ran to buy some coconuts from across the road. If one coconut is 25 baht, why not ask for two for 40 baht? So there I was with two coconuts for 40 baht splashing the warm puddles with my flip-flops and met Auste with the food.

Rain isn't a common sight during rainy season...
Rain isn’t a common sight during rainy season…

Due to heavy rain there had been a power cut: the electricity was gone and no water could be pumped to our room. When we rang our receptionist his answer was ‘I’m not sure, maybe tomorrow’. Luckily, 2 hours later things are back to normal: the water, the internet, and the insects are still trying to get in. While I was writing this post it made me think that it is easy to buy the first item you see, or get into the first taxi available or drink beer at a bar with English staff. But if you want to have a cheap holiday, you have to do some research online, spend time walking around to see where and when the locals eat, where and what they buy. We’ve been eating from stalls in tiny alleys with Thai-only menus and buying fruit from clothes shops (yes, that is true!*) and I can say it’s possible to find even more ways of saving money while having an awesome time.

*With the fruit from random shops it’s quite cool – it can be any shop, anything from clothes, car tyres or ice-cream, but they may put some fruit for sale very cheaply, since it is something they’re not usually selling. It may be that they have a rambutan or a banana tree growing in their backyard or something, so they let them go for cheap. Compared to markets, where they make their money from selling fruit, it can be twice or three times cheaper.

It is 23:34 – bed time for me, but I can hear a rooster at this time – how random is that!

For more stories from the same trip read: Koh Phangan Part 1 and Part 2, Angthong Marine Park, and Koh Tao.

More photos on our Flickr page here.

First day in Thailand

Our first day in Thailand started very smoothly: the flight was comfortable, rail transfer to the city was quick and easy, and the weather was not too sticky – even breathing the thick dusty air wasn’t as bad as we expected. The bilingual signs on every corner at the airport/skytrain/metro stops made our navigation quick and painless, however the further we got from the city, the fewer signs there were.

"Airport, airport, I take you airport"
“Airport, airport, I take you airport”

We found the bus stop with our bus number written on it, hoping for a 10, maybe 20 minute wait. 40 minutes later we still patiently stood there ignoring the hundreds of taxi drivers stopping in the middle of busy traffic and shouting “airport, airport, I take you airport”. An hour later, after asking a few locals around us, and being annoyed by hundreds of other buses stopping here, we decided to seek help from a smiley BTS staff member. Turns out they knew just as much as we did about the bus system, so 5 minutes later we were in a taxi to the hotel. Well, not to the hotel (as the taxi driver didn’t know where it was), but to a university close to it. We feared the hotel to be non-existent due to lack of reviews online, but hey, it was cheap and the rooms looked nice.

Bangkok
Searching for our hotel

As we had prepared for the worst (we printed the precise address, phone number, Google map screenshots of hotel location, surrounding areas and nearby attractions, etc), the only thing we had to fear were loose dogs on the streets. However, an hour and a half into our search for the right house number, we were in the same spot the taxi driver dropped us off. But this time we had 5 kilometres of baggage dragging experience. We also bought a local SIM card and tried to ring the hotel – no answer.

Still searching for our hotel...
Still searching for our hotel…

It was a long day, we were sweaty and we wanted to eat. In despair, we started walking the OPPOSITE way from where the hotel was marked on the map. And guess what, right next to the house number 1483 there was our hotel with the number 1559! We couldn’t believe we found it. We stood there happy, looking at our hotel and thinking “shower time!”. But the shower didn’t happen. Neither did the hotel. We walked in to find an empty hall with no reception, and upstairs there was a guy with a machete (big Asian knife) eagerly cutting some palm trees on the roof of 1st floor. He went to get someone from upstairs. 20 minutes later a lady came down suggesting that we wait (of course both of them were speaking in Thai only). Another 20 minutes passed and neither of them had come back so we were on our way out. Downstairs there was the same lady with a taxi driver, trying to put our bags in the boot wanting to take us somewhere. We were pointing to the house number and the hotel name, then to our reservation hoping they would understand we were not lost, we were in the right place and didn’t need to go anywhere. However, the two of them were convinced we needed to get inside the taxi and after several minutes of having this Thai/English/sign language conversation the lady rung someone and handed over her phone to me. As much as I speak Thai (none), and as much as the guy on the phone spoke English (very little), I managed to understand that the guy had another hotel where the taxi would take us, as the one we booked had some problems.

Not only we had booked a hotel in a middle of who knows where, but we were on our way to, as best as I can describe, further from happiness. By the time we reached the second hotel it was already lunchtime. Please note that we landed at 7 AM.

We got off the taxi at the new (and I don’t mean the year of build) hotel and were told to wait. After a 10 minute talk between the lady and (probably) the receptionist they asked for a passport. As I was walking after my passport, staff were already taking our bags to our room, so Auste ran after the bags.

Long story short, the next 40 minutes or so went like this: I was having a “conversation” with who I believe was the manager, he wanted my passport, I was saying I had already paid and we didn’t want to stay as the room with the soviet-feel stunk of cigarettes (seriously, it felt as if someone was having a fag in the room while we were in), after another 10 minute wait we took our bags from the room and walked away, then the owner of the original hotel arrived and met us, he apologised many times, somehow magically offered us our money back, we took it, thanked him and started to walk round the corner, looking for some food, he stopped us again and offered a lift to the nearest metro, we agreed, we exchanged names and stuff (on a loooong drive – we were glad we didn’t need to take the taxi again) and finally said goodbye at the station. Phew!

Bangkok Inn
Motel-style view outside our window

After all the hassle it was getting dark, but we were in the city – Sukhumvit district. We were dragging our luggage up and down the area and finally stopped for a meal – a nice plate of noodles at a table right on the street. We found an acceptable hotel with free Wi-Fi for nearly 1000 baht per night (about £20). It was a bit pricey for a basic room but prices were similar around Soi 9, 11 and 19, and we needed rest. We also needed a beer. I went to the nearest 7-eleven and got a nice cold bottle of SiamPatron or something, at least it starts with ‘Siam’.

We were so excited about that beer, I think it was seconds of entering the room when we opened it. Any English person would understand that if you want a nice cold pint, you definitely wouldn’t drink ‘white star’ or ‘white lightning’ from the bottom shelf of a convenience store. So there we were after such a long day, finally sitting in a hotel room, sipping on a drink… I can’t tell what it was, but it was definitely not beer.

All in all, it was a good day. We are both glad that we experienced all those things, as it made us more open to how things work here. And things work differently.

Interesting note: just before we left Lithuania we were checking whether we could cancel this first hotel as we wanted to book another one somewhere closer to the city centre, but the charges were non-refundable. Be careful with what you wish for as it might come true in the least expected way…

Bangkok

Falafel bites

After a good year and a half of planning and organising our thoughts around pursuing our long-term goals, Auste and I have finally come back to Lithuania. However, before we settle down indefinitely, we have a little trip planned ahead (can’t believe we’re leaving in five days’ time!). But before that, we have been exploring our country together, as we met in England and haven’t had a chance to do so.

Due to the weather being incredibly warm, we were spending our days (and nights) camping, swimming, foraging and sightseeing in general thus we haven’t had time to post many recipes. But we went to a vegan picnic in Vilnius yesterday, so we finally spent some time in the kitchen.

vegan picnic Vilnius

Even though we’re not vegan, we have one dish which I started calling our “family staple”, and it doesn’t require any animal products. I have made these tiny falafel many times, and each time they used to turn out somewhat different, but never again! After a session of about 150 cute little chickpea bites, I have nailed it down to precise measurements.

falafel ingredients

For about 30 golf-ball sized falafel you will need:

3 400g cans of chickpeas, drained (or soak and cook dried chickpeas)

2 small onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 fresh chilli, chopped

1 inch ginger, grated (optional)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 handful of fresh parsley (optional) chopped, without stalks

1 big handful of fresh coriander (a must!) chopped, without stalks

8 tablespoons of plain flour (use chickpea flour if gluten free)

Oil for frying (I usually use extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil)

falafel

Directions:

1 – Mash the chickpeas with a fork. I just gently crush them, as using a blender makes the mass too runny.

2 – Grind the cumin – I recommend toasting the seeds in a dry pan to release the flavours first. If you have time, try using a pestle and mortar to feel a really aromatic cumin flavour, but an electric grinder works fine too.

3 – Mix the chopped onion, garlic, ginger and chilli. I prefer not to puree them in a blender, as tiny pieces of onion and chilli give an element of surprise for each bite. Or you can puree half of the ingredients and leave the rest chopped. If you’re one of the people who just can’t stand wasting food, blend in the coriander and parsley stalks.

4 – Mix the chickpeas with the onion mass, and the rest of ingredients: salt, pepper, ground coriander seeds and cumin.

5 – Add the chopped coriander, parsley and flour. Please note, I only add flour to make the falafel balls stick together, as the canned chickpeas I buy are very soft. I prefer plain flour as it doesn’t change the flavour, but Auste said she liked them with gram (chickpea) flour, which (in my opinion) made the falafel taste of yellow split-peas. I made a batch without flour, but the falafel just dissolved into the oil when both deep and shallow frying them.

6 – Form tiny falafel balls with your hands and fry batches of 15-20 in an oiled pan until slightly browned and crispy. I use 1-2 tablespoons of oil per batch, and toss them straightaway to cover all sides. Otherwise, once you place the falafel in the pan and turn them over one by one, one side will absorb most of the oil, and the other sides will be likely to burn.

These tiny falafel bites go exceptionally well with hummus, raita, even guacamole or on pitta bread with salad.

falafel with hummus