First class cinemas and an overnight bus

One of the things I am learning about travel is that there’s more to a country than the usual guide book destinations. Countries modernise and change over time. Cycle rickshaws are replaced by car taxies. Street stalls are replaced by coffee shops. Crowded buses are replaced with budget airlines. And airconditioned shopping malls are built.

While we enjoyed the islands and beaches of Phuket, after just three nights we are missing Bangkok and places that feel more like the “real” Thailand. We can’t get a cheap flight back to the capital so decide to experience an overnight bus. But that means we have a day to kill while carrying around our backpacks. There is a shopping mall not far from Phuket Town so we catch a songtow up there to hang out in the Temple of Air Conditioning.

After my wonderful cinema experience in Indonesia, I am keen to check out what the cinema is like here in Thailand. American Sniper is showing in the first class cinema. I had read about these first class Thai cinemas online so we decided to pay the 700 baht ($25) each to experience modern Thailand. And what an experience it was. The pre-movie lounge offered mocktails and canapes. We were given delicious salty popcorn (you could also chose sweet popcorn) and a drink inside the cinema. The seats inside the cinema were plush and reclined right back. And did I mention that they give you a blanket. The funniest part of the experience was when the King’s song was played before the movie. Everyone has to stand up. It’s a rather odd experience for me but hey, when in Thailand.

American Sniper was an interesting movie. It was very American and raised some interesting points about war, soldiers and how we define heroes in today’s society. I am not going to much more about it because it’s a topic that creates much tension and conflict between people. But let’s just say that I am not an American and that colours my view of the film.

After our trip to the cinema and some dinner it was time to head to the bus station. Bus Station 2 is quite a way from Phuket Town and the major beaches. We took a taxi there but you can catch a songtow from Bus Station 1 there too. While taxis can add up for travellers who use them frequently, they are relatively cheap compared with taxis in Australia. And we only use them when we really need to, preferring to walk almost everywhere we go. So, for the convenience of knowing that we will be at our bus on time and in comfort, we catch a taxi.

I’ve been admiring the big luxury VIP buses that get around Thailand. They look amazing from the outside so I mentioned a few days ago to Paul that I want to go in one, even if just for a short trip. Well, here we are now at the bus station ready to board such a beast. And it really is not such a bad way to travel. The seats recline all the way back, you are given plenty of food and beverages during the trip, there’s a blanket for warmth and they dim the lights so you can sleep. There are even two or three scheduled stops along the Phuket – Bangkok route so you can stretch your legs and use the bathrooms. We watched some more episodes of Game of Thrones that I had uploaded onto my laptop from iTunes and both fell asleep, waking on time to see the sun rising over Bangkok. Another tick on my list of desires done.

The bus station in Bangkok is a long way from the city. And it cost us almost 300 baht in a taxi (with meter) to get there. The traffic at 8am was terrible and we sat still for much of the drive (and the taxi driver dropped us off about 2km from our hotel because he didn’t know where it was or was too lazy to try). In hindsight, we should have asked the taxi to take us to the Thonburi Station ferry terminal and caught a ferry into the city from there but that’s one of the things you learn with experience. And now we have also experienced Bangkok’s infamous traffic (which actually is not so bad given that we are from Brisbane where commuter traffic sits still for the last 30km into the city from each direction every morning).

Karon and Kata Beaches (Phuket)

What do you do when you are on Phuket Island? Why you go to the beach of course. The beaches here on Phuket Island are amazing. The water is so clear that you don’t need to use any Photoshop tricks to impress anyone back home. And at this time of year there are almost no waves so it’s like bathing in a big salty lake.

We caught a songtow (truck-like bus) from Phuket Town where we are staying over to Kata Beach where we started our daily walk. Kata beach is beautiful. You can swim around longtail boats that are anchored along the beach or sit on mats under umbrellas that Thai people sell to tourists. The white sand is hot but the water is delightfully cool. I had a short swim while Paul tried to explain to a sunglass seller that he did not want to buy a pair of fake Raybans. The seller’s response was that it was only Chinese fakes that are forbidden from being imported to Australia; Thai fakes are apparently okay. Still, Paul had the pleasure of saying “no” to the insistent man while I splashed in the water.

From Kata Beach it is a long walk over a headland to Karon Beach. The townships that sit behind the beaches here on Phuket are ugly, dirty, noisy and gaudy. Walking through them made us glad we are staying in Phuket Town instead of near one of the beaches. But the beaches themselves are stunning and it’s easy to see why the Thai people are capitalising on their beauty to bring in as many foreign tourists as possible. Most of the people we saw today seemed to be Russian and there were more signs along Karon Beach in Russian than in Thai or English. At Karon you can ride jet skis or parasail behind a boat. We settled for a swim while watching others take up these activities. The one thing I will give to the Phuket Island beaches is that they are large enough that it didn’t ever feel crowded. Yes, the streets behind the beaches are crowded and hot but the beaches themselves are stunning, large and restful.

Given that one of the things I most wanted to do in Thailand was go to a beautiful beach, I think today was definitely a success.

Phi Phi Islands day tour (Phuket)

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I’ve wanted to see the crystal clear waters of the Phi Phi Islands ever since I watched that Leonardo di Caprio film, The Beach. I was sure the water colour was Photoshopped and that there was no way this part of Thailand could be so beautiful. But today I would discover how wrong I was. The water really is this clear and the islands really are this beautiful. I should caveat this with a note that it took a lot of work to take photos that didn’t have hoards of tourists and tour boats in them. This is not a wilderness area. It is said to be the most touristed place in the world. But don’t let that put you off seeing and experiencing what all the fuss is about.

Mum and Dad bought us a speed boat Phi Phi Islands day trip for Christmas. It was the best Christmas present. Our boat took us across the seas to Monkey Bay where we watched monkeys swimming in the sea (after they had been shooed off the boats). The boat stopped nearby to let us go snorkelling. Small fish came to the boat for the bread that people were throwing off. While there are signs everywhere to say not to feed the fish, the tour operators all sell bread for feeding of the fish. The snorkelling at Phi Phi was average with a lot of dead and damaged coral from over-tourism and tour operators just dropping anchor. But I still couldn’t help but feel excited to be here swimming in this place that I never believed to be real. The water was so clear and the cliffs rose around the bay.
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We stopped for lunch at the main resort of Phi Phi Island. The food was terrible (think the worst buffet at your local food court Chinese takeaway) but I guess the tour operator has to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is tourists who don’t like this or don’t eat that. After lunch we went across to Phi Phi Don where we drifted through a big lagoon. This would be an amazing place to swim. Many tours and privately-hired longboats were stopped here for that purpose. Just floating through was stunning and I can see why people might spend hours swimming here.
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And then we went there. To the place where The Beach was filmed. And I got to swim there. It was fantastic. The water was cool and clear and impossibly blue. Tour speed boats moved in and out of one side of the bay dropping off hundreds of passengers. On the other side of the bay, privately-hired long boats bobbed picturesquely. And right in the middle was the a large roped off swimming zone. I swam way out deep into the bay and luxuriated in the moment.
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Our final stop for the day was a tiny beach just 15 minutes from the Phuket harbour. I think every tour boat operating in the area uses this as their final stop. I had my first experience hiring a beach umbrella and chair. This is not something we do in Australia but the Europeans on our tour seemed quite comfortable with paying 150 baht each for the privilege. The good thing about this system of beach use is that you aren’t left sitting in the blazing sun on hot white sand like you are on many Australian beaches. It made it comfortable and easy to watch the goings on. I found the behaviour of some men and women from northern Asia particularly interesting: they were covering their skin in sand and burying themselves in it. It almost seemed as though this might have been their first time to a sand beach. I imagine people who live in places where it snows have a similar chuckle when I get excited about the cold white stuff.

It was an amazing day and I feel like I experienced something amazing.

Bangkok to Phuket Town (Phuket)

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We have a 3:45pm flight booked from Bangkok to Phuket so decide to spend the morning exploring some of the streets near our hostel in the downtown area. It’s easy to leave our bags at the hostel because checkout isn’t until midday. This means we are unencumbered by our backpacks (light though they are). We are both fast falling in love with Bangkok. I’ve never enjoyed any city this much. There’s so many smells, sights and sounds. There’s places of hustle and places of calm all mingled into one. The local Thai food served at street restaurants is flavoursome and cheap but you can also find modern cuisine from all over the world in restaurants and cafes. Late model SUVs and sedans slip easily along the roads alongside brightly painted tuk tuks. It’s East meets West in a beautiful dance.
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I had spied a wat from a window at the hostel. It turned out to be a huge complex with multiple buildings, may pet cats and some huge pink (albino?) cattle. I loved the sign at the entrance to the temple that said “No pets” but inside were two big relaxed temple cats with collars on and all. Perhaps the cats didn’t read the sign. This wat was very much alive and ringing with prayer. It seemed like another place where monks were trained. Local people were in the temple praying and some went to talk one-on-one with a young orange-robed monk sitting in another building.
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Nearby a Chinese Buddhist temple was being renovated while the faithful prayed on roadside shrines. I love how the two forms of Buddhism coexist so closely in the same place.
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Late in the afternoon, a short (and of course delayed) flight brought us from Bangkok to Phuket. We had booked a hostel in Phuket Old Town. It was a good choice. The hostel is immaculate and our room seemed more like a luxury boutique hotel suite than a double room at a backpacker hostel. Phuket Old Town is relatively nice. It’s set up for tourism so there are more Western food options than Thai (and the Thai options that do exist are very Western-styled Thai too). I was still struggling to eat after a few bouts of food poisoning so settled for some fresh squeezed juice but did try a few bites of Paul’s tasty pancake stack with ice cream and maple syrup. We walked a good 5km around Phuket Old Town getting our bearings. It is definitely dirtier than the places we walked in Bangkok but still a pleasant enough place.