Lovina, Bali: Black sand beaches, Dolphins and Scuba Diving

Early morning with dolphins at Lovina

Lovina, in the north of Bali, is famous for its black sand beaches and early morning boat rides among large schools of dolphins. Wanting to try something different from our other destinations, I booked us 4 nights at the Starlight Hotel, a cluster of small cottages on the beach owned by a Dutchman. We enjoyed our stay, but found the location to be lacking in much to do outside dolphins and diving. Our hotel restaurant (open-air like every single restaurant we found in Bali) was hotter than most and sadly lacking in ocean breeze or ceiling fans although the food was good, service very friendly (and their frozen “welcome drink” the best we had on the island).

Beautiful view from and of Starlight Hotel restaurant

Our cottage also sported an inadequate a/c, even after a repair attempt so we moved to one adjacent to the lobby area; not as secluded, but cooler. The cottages were identical inside; pretty if simple with mosquito netting draped over the bed and a high Balinese-style ceiling. We had a small flat-screen tv I only glanced at, a coffee/tea pot set up, a small fridge and a nice little porch.

Starlight Hotel cottage

The grounds are lovely and well-maintained with the many fruit and flowering trees labeled, a nice touch. The property, like most we saw in the area, is long and narrow with beach front on the narrow end, obviously a precious commodity. The beach was quaint with the black sand and dolphin boats looking like oversized water bugs with their thin pontoons, but it is narrow and not groomed so sea refuse makes it not overly appealing for spending any time there. The Starlight Hotel does offer a nice pool, though and we made good use of that.

The ungroomed beach didn’t inspire us to linger there
Starlight Hotel grounds with Bali “cannonball tree” in foreground and pool in the distance

Quite a few dolphin boats anchor along the narrow stretch of beach in front of the Starlight so it was easy to book a 6am trip for our first morning. The hotel offers to book these trips for 100,000 and our boat “captain” made us the same offer, but quickly came down to 75,000 rp each. The ride out to the dolphin-spotting area is short, and visible from shore. In no time, we counted right at 100 small, motorized pontoon boats milling around and darting after the numerous dolphins. It’s certainly not a tranquil moment with wildlife, but the whole event was fun in its own way. (While I sort of assumed the dolphins were always there, we met a Hungarian couple a few days later in Munduk who made the pre-dawn trip down to Lovina to see the dolphins and saw none.)

We had a great day scuba diving Menjangan Island, part of West Bali National Park, with Arrows Dive Centre. They picked us (and 4 snorkelers from different hotels) at 8am and drove us in an air-conditioned (seatbeltless) van the 1.5 hours to the park where we boarded a small, ratty dive boat–one of many identical boats docked there–for the island. We were back at our hotel around 5pm.

Not the swankiest of dive boats, but functional

We saws lots and lots of dolphins on the way out to the island. (Sadly no pics due to a camera glitch.) Apparently, this is unusual as our guides were very excited about it, whistling to call the dolphins closer. Pairs and groups swam right up to and under our boat. With no other boats in sight, it was that tranquil moment with wildlife that the previous day was not. Wonderful!

The diving itself was good, but not great only because the visibility was just OK. The coral was lovely and the fish abundant. We didn’t see anything too unusual: a lone barracuda, a grouper in a small cave, lots of small lionfish which we’re sadly familiar with from the Caribbean where they are an invasive species. Still, we really enjoyed the 50+ minute dive and moderate depth. I get cold on long dives even in warm water and was happy with a long wetsuit, but David was content with his shortie. Both suits were in excellent condition and well-fitted as was the other equipment. Yay for Arrows!

Good-condition Scubapro equipment at Arrows Dive Centre

Lunch was a nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) picnic affair (packed from a restaurant near where we boarded the dive boat) on a remote little dock on the island we shared with a few other boats.

Stopped for lunch on Menjangan Island

I spotted one of the island’s sacred deer near a small cliff-top temple nearby. Unafraid, he followed me back to our little group at the lunch spot.

Small temple on Menjangan Island
Sacred Menjangan Island deer

A few other boats docked near ours, but there was no crowd at all and no one already on the island itself in this area. Our second dive after lunch was much like the first and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We ran into a few other divers briefly down below, but there was no crowding. All in all, I highly recommend Arrows Dive Centre and our divemaster, Wayan (“Yani”) who David and I had to ourselves.

We used Arrows again for muck diving the following day. Muck diving is an unusual form of diving and some of the best spots in the world are in north Bali. I really wanted to try it while in Lovina. We chose Puri Jati as our dive spot, a mere 30 minutes from our hotel. Yani and a driver picked us up at 8:30am and we at the beach site in no time, a pretty spot with a Hindu temple and Hatten vineyards adjacent to the beach.

Temple, rice fields and vineyards at Puri Jati (beach is behind photographer)
Black sand beach at Puri Jati where we waded in to muck dive

This was a beach dive, i.e., we waded into the water rather than take a boat out to a remote location. As opposed to the more usual coral reef or wall dive, a muck dive is a shallow dive over silt or “muck” where you search for often tiny and unusual bottom dwellers that live in this environment. It turned out to be spectacular. We saw a mimic octopus in action, ghost bone fish, thousands of a type of white sea urchin, thousands of live sand dollars and several oddities I can’t name. The few bits of flotsam we saw formed mini-reefs with colorful coral, tropical fish, an eel, and shrimp of various kinds.

Mimic octopus, Puri Jati muck diving
Seahorse at Puri Jati

I highly recommend Lovina for the dolphins and local diving opportunities (or snorkeling, if that’s more your speed) and I’m glad we went. As a place in and of itself, though, the city and adjoining little towns don’t offer a lot. Also, way too many roaming dogs lead to a lot of barking at night that mingles with the ubiquitous Bali noise of crowing roosters.

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We paid  Arrows Dive Centre 1,400,000 rupiah (about $102) each for the 2-tank day of diving at Menjangan Island and 750,000 rupiah (about $55) each for the 2-tank muck diving half-day. Both dives included all equipment and transportation to and from our hotel. The Menjangan day also included entrance to the national park and lunch. Yani was an excellent divemaster, respectful of the environment, and very good at spotting camouflaged sea life.

From Ubud to Lovina: a driver, luwak coffee and rice terraces

The drive from Ubud was about 3.5 hours and we paid 600,000 rupiah for a driver who took us by a luwak coffee plantation and the Jatiluwih rice terraces. The driver was arranged through our Ubud hotel, Sri Ratih Cottages. Luwak coffee is touted as “the most expensive coffee in the world. “Luwak” is the local name for the palm civet, a raccoon-like animal that likes to eat coffee beans. Beans processed through the digestive system of a luwak are the basis of luwak coffee. That’s right, they collect civet poop to get the “specially treated” beans that are then roasted to make luwak coffee. You’ve got to wonder who first thought they’d give that a try!

The big bowl in the front holds dried luwak poop.

A “luwak” or palm civet. A nocturnal animal, but maybe all that caffeine was keeping him awake.

Trying my hand at roasting luwak coffee.

As improbable as it seems, the coffee is actually delicious and has become a delicacy in coffee-loving circles. Apparently, it’s possible to pay $30 for a cup of Luwak coffee in California. Not worth it to me, but we were definitely willing to give it a try at Balinese prices. (50,000 idr or about $3.60/cup) And yes, it is delicious, mild and unusual with an almost sweet taste.

Coffee beans on the plant

Many teas and coffees were offered to us at the plantation free, along with banana chips, in the hopes of selling us more to go. In addition to full-sized cups of luwak coffee, we sampled mangosteen, ginger, lemon, herbal, rosella and lemongrass teas and Bali, coconut, vanilla, ginger, ginseng, Bali cocoa, Bali mochacino and durian coffees. The locale is lovely and our traditionally-dressed guide (a friend of our driver) was friendly and in no way pushing any of it on us. The stop was definitely on the touristy side, but fun and interesting nonetheless. And, yes, we did buy some luwak coffee to take with us.

Tea and coffee tasting beside a rice paddy. So many flavors! (

Our other bonus stop along the way to Lovina was Jatiluwih rice terrace. We really just gave it a quick look and stopped for lunch with a view since we wanted to get on to Lovina. It’s possible to spend lots more time there hiking among the paddies. There is a 40,000 idr entrance fee (less than $3pp).

Jatiluwih rice terrace

 

Ubud Restaurant Faves

Traditional Indonesian lunch at Cafe Lotus, overlooking a lotus garden and Hindu temple

Just a quick post with a few of our favorite restaurant finds in Ubud. First off, we didn’t find any air conditioned restaurants, so prepare yourself for that and focus on the food, a breeze and great atmosphere and/or view. We also wanted Indonesian/Balinese food while in Bali so no pizza recommendations here.

I’ve already mentioned Café Lotus, but in my last post, but it bears repeating. Choose from regular or traditional low tables where you sit on cushions on a raised floor. The traditional tables have the best view of the spectacular lotus water garden in front of a beautiful Hindu temple, Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati. The food was fresh and good and reasonably priced, if a touch more expensive than other, less-spectacular restaurants.

Front of Cafe Lotus facing Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street of Ubud)

The restaurant at our hotel, Sri Ratih Cottages, got great reviews and we agreed…so much so that we ate every dinner there. The food is excellent, the service friendly and the upstairs location lovely with ceiling fans, couches, and a nice cross breeze. They offer western dishes as well, which we heard were good, but never tried. There’s a spa on site and special health drinks of various herbs and spices are a specialty. We breakfasted downstairs in front of a picturesque koi pond and waterfall. Gorgeous!

Indonesian dinner at Sri Ratih
Delicious breakfast by the koi pond at Sri Ratih

Just down the road from Sri Ratih Cottages, on the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Raya Penestanan we discovered a spectacular new vegan restaurant called Zest. We’re not vegetarian, much less vegan, but the food and the view were so good and so unique that we went back for a second go. I read that the chef used to be at a local spa, and the food definitely has that feel: healthy, creative, fresh and tasty. Zest is so new that it’s in pre-soft-open stage, i.e., no prices, only “donations.” So, for the time being pay what you want, but be fair. Zest should be fully open sometime in April. We used the menu prices as a guide and paid approximately that, not bothering with small change.

Chic Zest interior

Zest sits atop a hill with great views from large, open windows down on the temple at the head of the Camphuan Ridge Trail, Pura Gunung Lebah, in one direction. Tables on the other side face a temple in front of the Wiswarani homestay and at the far end, you can look out on a rice paddy. The decor of Zest is chic and modern while maintaining a definite Bali vibe. There are universal plugs for those sitting around a central bar, a nice plus. Note: Alcohol is not on offer; a shame since this would be a fantastic place for a glass of wine at sunset.

Bangkok Bang flaming wok salad and a papaya- passionfruit-coconut soothie
We tried all 3 of these flaming wok “salads.” Delicious!
Bali Breeze flaming wok salad and a pineapple-cashew-ginger smoothie
The smoothies are to die for! I especially loved the papaya- passionfruit-coconut. David liked the pineapple-cashew-ginger. The jackfruit-avocado-chocolate chip was too weird not to try and turned out to be too weird for me. 🙂 Thick, frozen glasses kept the smoothies frozen to the end. No small feat in steamy Ubud!
Zest, facing the grounds of the Wiswarani homestay

Bali Beginnings: First up, exotic Ubud

 

Hindu ceremony in progress at Pura Gunung Lebah in Ubud

In making plans for our 2+ weeks in Bali, I chose 4 very different locations and accommodations to try to give us a real sampling of the island. Our destinations included 2 interior locations: a boutique hotel in cultural-center Ubud and a homestay in rural Munduk for its waterfalls and rice terraces; and, 2 waterfront spots: a little beachfront hotel in backwater Lovina in the north for narrow black sand beaches, dolphins and scuba diving and a sprawling resort in gated-enclave Nusa Dua for wide white beaches and a little luxury.

I chose Ubud as our first destination because I wanted to start with the cultural heart of Bali. I also wanted to organize our trip so that we ended up in Nusa Dua, our closest stop to the airport. With traffic notoriously bad to Denpasar International Airport (DPS) especially during ongoing construction of an underpass intended to alleviate the problem, I wanted the shortest trip possible when it came time to leave Bali.

Denpasar International Airport

We arrived DPS from Singapore in the early afternoon and found a lovely airport and a horrendous line at customs despite the recently-enacted 30-day visa waiver. The line moved relatively quickly, though, and we were out the other side in about 25 minutes. (Note: There’s a shorter line for locals and those over 60 and those traveling with small children. Although shorter, it did not seem to move very quickly. There are also toilets just to the side of the line if you need to dart over there while someone holds your place in line.)

Expect to search through this mob if you’re meeting a driver at DPS

A driver from our boutique hotel in Ubud, Sri Ratih Cottages, was waiting for us when we landed at DPS. Although Ubud is only 38km (less than 24 miles), the drive takes about 1h30 due to traffic. (The main roads are actually in good shape; it’s just a matter of too many cars and motorcycles, especially near the airport where clubbing hotspots like Kuta add to the crush. Further into the central hills and mountains, the going is slowed by winding narrow roads.)

The lobby of lovely Sri Ratih Cottages
We woke the first morning to find fresh offerings and incense burning on the “toad god” in front of our cottage.

We found ourselves charmed by Ubud. Although brutally hot and humid, the town defines exotic. Every doorway seemed to open onto a gorgeous hidden courtyard replete with temples, tropical flowers, statuary and incense. The traditional dress of sarong (k), sash, 3/4 sleeve lace blouses for women and tied “udeng” head scarves for men are commonly worn.

Again and again, some beautiful door would beckon and we’d duck in to find a gorgeous courtyard and temple or achingly beautiful guesthouse and temple…
Behind one of those doors. A breakfast area for a guest house.

Offerings are made throughout the day to the many Hindu gods and little banana leave trays with flowers, snacks and often with burning incense are left everywhere. You actually have to watch your step as they are left in doorways and in the middle of sidewalks. David twice stepped on incense sticks, one still burning, that lodged in his sandal. Ouch!

One of the many ubiquitous offerings found everywhere in Bali
A gate in Ubud Palace from inside the main courtyard
Gods are often dressed in bright cloth. Workers wear traditional clothing.

Our hotel offered free shuttles into town that dropped us off in front of “Ubud Palace.” (It was about a 15-minute walk.) The place is open free to the public and consists of several open courtyards with altars and raised roofed seating areas. Just across Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street) from the palace begins the byzantine Ubud Market, a combination of open-air stalls and a rabbit warren maze of covered stalls selling items of all kinds: sarongs, dresses and shirts, sandals, jewelry, spices, and other souvenirs.

Ubud Market

Back on the main street, we wandered into the spectacularly beautiful Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati, a large temple fronted by a massive lotus pond. Entrance is free to the garden and front area, but the temple itself is closed to the public. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at adjacent Café Lotus, sitting cross-legged under a thatched roof overlooking the lotuses. A tiny alligator made an appearance among the flowers as we ate.

Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati
Tasty Indonesian lunch with a view

Another day took us to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a 15 minute walk down Monkey Forest Road from the Ubud Market. We weren’t expecting too much, probably something uber-touristy and kitschy. Instead, we found a large and breathtakingly beautiful jungle park filled with exotic statuary, free-roaming macaques and a river gorge. An active temple sits among all this beauty.

If you go to Ubud, don’t miss Monkey Forest! Entrance is 50,000 rp/adult. Also, beware the monkeys. They’re little thieves. I watched one jump on a girl and wrest the water bottle she had tucked into a side pocket out. He ran off with it, bit holes in the bottom and drank. Not far from him, another monkey was drinking from another pilfered water bottle. Before we entered the forest, I took the precaution of removing my jewelry, too. I had no desire to have a monkey rip the earrings out of my ears. For the most part, though, they were busy doing monkey things and not all that interested in the people among them. Vendors sell bananas and sweet potatoes to feed them, but I didn’t want to start that kind of attention. Signs also warn against making eye contact as that is seen as a sign of aggression. We saw many mothers with babies, some clearly newborns. The interaction among the troupes was fascinating and delightful to watch. We laughed as one older monkey kept grabbing a little would-be runaway by the tail.

We were surprised to see a small monkey swimming underwater in a little pond. A larger monkey with him was very defensive whenever the little one was under water and was the most aggressive with a human that we saw. She tugged on the leg of a man who got to close trying to take a picture, snarled, and literally chased him away.

One morning, we got up early for a sunrise hike along Camphuan Ridge, a paved trail through picturesque rice terraces to end in an area dotted with homes, some for tourist rent, artist studios, a few cafes and a little spa. A temple called Pura Gunung Lebah at the beginning of the ridge trail had caught our interest for some time. It’s large and beautiful and had been the focus of local activity.

This view of Pura Gunung Lebah from a bridge over the River Oos caught our eye from our first day in Ubud.
Pura Gunung Lebah from the beginning of the Camphuan Ridge Trail (to get to the temple and the hiking trail, go down the road to the Ibah Warwick Villa & Spa of Jl. Raya Ubud (main street), but turn left before you enter the hotel compound.
Camphuan Ridge Trail in the early morning. The best time to go. It would be brutally hot midday!
Rice fields at the end of the trail

A highlight of our trip came when some of the staff at our hotel invited us to join them for a Hindu ceremony at this temple when the saw how intrigued we were by small parades filing past our hotel entrance carrying musical instruments and things similar to Chinese dragons to the temple. A waitress we’d made special friends with, Ugune, told us there was a 4-day celebration going on and we were welcome to come, but that traditional Balinese dress was required to attend a ceremony. Sometimes, sarongs or long skirts are required to visit active temples, but this was something more. We needed sarongs, sashes, long-sleeved shirts and a udeng head scarf for David. We bought the sarongs, improvised sashes from my scarves, used our own long-sleeve shirts (my long-sleeved t-shirt decidedly less beautiful than the lace blouses of the other women) and borrowed an udeng.

When the time came, we met the others in the hotel parking lot where our fleet of motorcycles and scooters assembled. Our new friends ferried us on the backs of two bikes and we were off.

Lovely in their finery, women in the group also brought baskets full of offerings. After parking the motorcycles, they carried the baskets on their heads as we walked the final way down a steep hill to Pura Gunung Lebah, the temple which sits on the Oos River near the start of the Camphuan Ridge Trail.

Before entering the main gate, Ugune dipped a bundle of straw-like leaves in a container of water then flicked it on each of our group for cleansing before we entered the gate into the first courtyard of the temple.

Cleansing water

The temple was beautifully decorated for the ceremonies, which seemed to be on a rolling hourly basis. Long bamboo pole decorations called “penjor” dipped gracefully overhead and flowers and bright cloth adorned the platforms and idols. We proceeded into the next courtyard where we joined others waiting for the preceding ceremony to finish.

We weren’t the only ones admiring the decorations.

David and I were the only Westerners present, but everyone was very welcoming. We felt comfortable taking photos and videos as the Balinese were doing the same thing, snapping photos of family and friends dressed in their holiday best. It was a cheerful, happy crowd.

We could hear the voice of the priest leading the ceremony in the main courtyard and glimpse some of the worshippers through the main gate. Eventually, things seemed to be winding up then we saw people filing past a side gate, evidently having left the main courtyard by a side exit. People in our courtyard began to line up by the main gate and our group joined them.

The gate to the main courtyard is just opened for the waiting congregants to enter

A guard/usher opened the gate and we entered the spacious main courtyard Women with offering baskets headed to the right and around the main area to mount the raised front area to leave offerings on the altar. They filed from right to left, descending again to find a seat, kneeling or sitting cross-legged on the ground with the others. They kept some flowers in their baskets to take back with them to be used in the ceremony. Men, women and children sat together on the ground. Agune told us we were welcome to stay for the ceremony which would go on for an hour, but we decided to excuse ourselves thinking we’d be more than a little out-of-place. And not wanting to intrude or treat their religious ceremony like some sort of tourist entertainment. We found a spot in a side courtyard, though, where we could watch the ceremony.

Presenting offerings and taking seats before the ceremony at Pura Gunung Lebah

The priest, who sat in a small structure behind and to the side of the worshippers rather than in the front, led the congregants over a loudspeaker in a series of prayers while chimes tinkled all the while. Each time they prayed, a bell would ring along with the chimes, then increase in volume to indicate the approaching end of the prayer. Worshippers would lift a flower between their pressed palms which were held as Christians would in prayer but raised so that the thumbs pressed against their foreheads. Then, they would place the flower before them and put a petal behind an ear (men) or tuck one in their hair (women).

Agune later explained the priest would tell them to which god they would pray next and that the petals were to indicate a sort of blessing. It was a beautiful ceremony!

Bangkok’s Grand Palace during a time of mourning

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Mourners at the Grand Palace

We left the condo at 7:15am on the day we chose to visit the top site in Bangkok, the Grand Palace. Everything I’d read said to get there at least 15 minutes prior to the 8:30am opening time to avoid crowds and to beat the worst of the heat. We arrived at our neighborhood Sathorn Pier just in time to catch a commuter boat to the Tha Chang pier which is the Grand Palace stop. Since everything went so smoothly, we arrived much earlier than we’d planned, exiting the covered market that abuts the Tha Chang pier at 7:45am. Although we had more time than we needed, it turned out to be an interesting experience to be there so early.

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On the morning commuter boat to Tha Chang: River plants and left-overs from the previous night’s Loi Krathong floating offerings
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Just off the Tha Chang pier: A monk blessing those who gave him morning alms

Instead of going straight to the main entrance, we turned right along the same path we’d followed the previous day to see if free water was still on offer (provided for mourners traveling to the capitol to pay their respects, but also offered to tourists and other visitors). We were running low on water at the condo and planned to pick some up after our palace visit. Sure enough, the tables were still set up and food and water already on offer. We accepted a cold bottle for the day’s tour, then headed back to make our way to the main palace gate.

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Contents of a free boxed lunch we were given near the Grand Palace: rice, fried chicken, and larb gai (a minced chicken salad)

The street in front of the palace is closed off to all but official traffic and security check points set up. After passing through scanner stations and metal detectors, we walked nearly a block to reach the main gate where white-uniformed guards stood watch. A few tourists had already gathered and more trickled in as we waited. Still, it wasn’t too a large crowd and boded well for our visit.

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Tourists waiting for the Grand Palace to open

Soldiers formed rows just inside the gate and eventually two marched in a sort of goose-step towards the two guards at their posts outside. We watched as they performed a changing-of-the-guard routine that included a prolonged adjusting of the new guard’s uniforms by the retiring guards. Collars were straightened, hems of jackets tugged, epaulettes adjusted.

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Changing of the guard begins

Soon after the changing of the guard, the first of many waves of mourners were led through the main gate. They all wore black and many carried photographs of the recently-deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej clutched to their chests. The king was much-loved by his people and they have poured into the capitol to pay their respects. I read that visitors to the Grand Palace are being limited to 10,000 per day. The mourners we saw all wore name tags, presumably related to this limit and part of an organization system going on somewhere out of our sight.

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Mourners dresssed in black entering the Grand Palace main gate, many holding photos of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Yet another huge wave of mourners being led into a side gate of the Grand Palace

It was incredibly touching to see the real grief displayed by the Thai people.  All over Thailand, we encountered large tributes and displays of photographs of the long-reigning kind. The photos depicted him at seemingly every stage of his life: young man, avid photographer, in middle- and old-age, playing his saxophone, in full royal regalia, visiting a memorial with sweat dripping from his nose, in military uniform comforting a hospital patient and on and on. Black and white bunting draped walls and buildings everywhere. Black clothes are de rigeur now for Thais and are prominently on display in clothing shops and stalls. If a work or military uniform is not black, people wear black arm bands or black ribbons pinned to their shirts and dresses. Videos played on display screens on skyscrapers in Bangkok, in parks, on subway screens. David and I saw one woman nearly brought to tears as she watched a film of the king on a subway car screen. The genuineness of the general grief is unmistakable.

After the morning waves of mourners were inside the palace compound, we tourists were admitted. I hurried through security while David pulled on his over-pants and I ended up buying the first tickets of the day. At 500 baht ($14.30) apiece, these are some of the most expensive entrance tickets to be found in Thailand. The tickets include access to Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha Temple), The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion and Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile, which are located within the Grand Palace compound, and to Vimanmek Mansion Museum on Ratchawithi Road. At least, the tickets usually include all this.

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What the ticket usually covers

A notice at the ticket booth inside the palace compound informed us that the Emerald Buddha Temple was closed for the day. This was a real disappointment since we’d seen emerald Buddha temples in Chiang Khong and Chiang Mai and even a replica of the statue in Chiang Mai. We were looking forward to finally seeing the real thing. Oh well, we chalked it up to more out-of-the-ordinariness due to the mourning period, and our minor disappointment seemed trivial in comparison to the grief around us. Still, this meant we made a fairly quick sweep through the area of the compound around Wat Phra Kaew. The temple and structures surrounding it were magnificent and, of course, over-the-top in their ornateness.

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Chedi, Royal Pantheon and other structures within the Temple of the Emerald Buddha complex
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Cleaning the Emerald Buddha Temple
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Royal Pantheon

High-ceilinged open galleries run all around this portion of the palace compound and they were filled with the thousands of mourners we’d watched enter the palace earlier. They fanned themselves in the heat, but waited patiently for their turn to file past the king’s bier.

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Hordes of Thais wait in the hot open corridors of the Grand Palace complex for the chance to pay final respects to their king

It was still fairly early in the morning when we exited the area around the Emerald Buddha Temple to view the Grand Palace itself. We encountered another large group of mourners outside, but the Grand Palace is not open to tourists. Well, OK. We’d budgeted a lot more time for this visit and there was no more to see here. So, we moved on to the The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion only to be told the decorations portion was also closed. The Coins Pavilion is an unimpressive little museum and we made a quick sweep through displays on the second floor of Thai coins through the ages, spending most of our time standing in front of the two air conditioning vents that actually blew cold air. Downstairs, yet another tribute to the dead king took up the majority of the small space.

Hmm. There was nothing left to do, but head back towards the main gate of the palace compound–now mobbed with later-arriving tourists–to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile. It didn’t sound all that intriguing, but we had the tickets and the building looked nice…and air conditioned. The museum turned out to be a surprise hit. It housed two main exhibits: the first on khon, a very stylized traditional form of Thai dance; and the second, a display of clothing worn by Queen Sirikit and created by famed French designer, Balmain.

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Crowds of tourists just inside the Grand Palace main gate later in the morning

Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed inside the main exhibits, so I can’t provide any here. Both exhibits were fascinating, though. Queen Sirikit devoted much effort to reviving the khon form of dance, which had died out. Costumes worn by khon dancers and patterned after royal garb had to be recreated from old written descriptions. In the beginning of this revival, silk from China was used, but with Queen Sirikit’s encouragement, the silk industry was revived in Thailand and Thai silk is now used. The characters in khon are celestial beings, demons, monkeys and humans. The dancers wear masks and elaborate headdresses and jewelry. They mime action while a chorus sings the plot of stories based on Ramakien, the Thai version of Ramayana, the Indian epic. The museum displays not only costumes and masks, but also has rare video footage of old khon productions along with modern film slowing the slow process of dressing each actor. Dressing involves intricate folding of copious amounts of cloth, layers of both clothing and jewelry, and even sewing the dancers into their costumes.

The display of Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe beginning in the 1960’s reminded me very much of an exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes I’d seen at the Musée de la Mode in Paris. Jewel-toned suits with three-quarter sleeve jackets and pillbox hats gave way to sequinned cocktail dresses and gorgeous formals. Queen Sirikit wanted Thai elements and fabrics blended into western-style dresses. The effect was unique and beautiful. Period photographs and videos of the King and his petite and pretty Queen on trips to the west accompanied the exhibit.

We made one final stop at the museum, where photos were allowed. This was billed as an activity room, but turned out to be primarily a space where visitors could dress up in faux khon costumes and pose for photos. As the first to visit for the day, we had the full attention of the bored young woman in charge of this room and were soon hustled into costumes and coached in “classic” khon poses. The laughable results are below for your viewing amusement:

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Leaving the museum and the Grand Palace compound, we crossed the street in search of more free water. En route, I was stopped by a reporter for a Thai television station who asked to interview me. His questions, like those of the students who interviewed me at Hellfire Pass, had to with what I thought of Thailand, “how the death of the king effected me,” and whether I wanted to return to Thailand. I think the questions and the concern had to do with whether I, as a tourist, was put off or influenced by the mourning going on around me. All I could say was that I loved Thailand, my heart was touched by the grief of the Thai people, and that, yes, I’d love to come back.

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Bangkok: Wat Pho reclining Buddha, Wat Arun & more

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Bangkok has a pretty manageable list of must-sees. The Grand Palace is probably top of the top, but everything I’d read said to get there before it opens to avoid the massive crowds and highest heat. We were tired after our drive from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok (and a first-night-in-Bangkok stop at a brewpub David had to check out), so we really didn’t want to get up that early on our first morning in the capital of Thailand. Number two on my list was Wat Pho and its famous reclining Buddha. We knew it would be hot and crowded, too, but heat and crowds are pretty much a given for Bangkok and we weren’t going to miss the city hiding out in the air conditioning.

One of the many selling points of our AirBnB condo is its closeness to both the Skylink overhead railway and the main Sathorn water taxi station. The express boats (water buses) that ply the Chao Phrya River run from Sathorn to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace (side-by-side on the same side of the river) along with many other stops. There’s a tourist boat that costs several multiples of the regular boats, but is still a bargain. We opted instead for an express boat that’s ridiculously cheap at 14 baht (40 cents). There’s an express boat pier, Tha Tien, just in front of Wat Pho. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovations. That meant we needed to ride one stop further to the Tha Chang pier that sits in front of the Grand Palace, and walk back to Wat Pho.

The express boats are identified by colored flags. We’d read to get on the orange flag express boat, but staff at the pier told us to go ahead and get on a blue flag boat (the first to dock after we arrived) that would also stop at the Grand Palace for the same price. Boats pull in and out frequently, never stopping long. The tourist boat docked just next to the other express boats. There’s a private boat offering tours, but we ignored those touts, who were asking much more. There are also water taxis and long tail boats. The Chao Phrya is a busy river, teeming with water craft of all types.

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A blue flag express boat
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Looking back at the Sathorn Pier (also known as “Central”) as we pull away

The boat ride itself is fun and a great way to see the city. It’s actually fairly cool, too, since it makes a breeze, you’re in the shade and on the water. In less than half an hour, our boat dropped us off at the Tha Chang pier where we walked past stalls of vendors set up in a covered market to exit by the white walls of the Grand Palace. Since the palace wasn’t our destination for the day, we turned right, putting the walls of the palace to our left and walked along a sidewalk lined with stalls offering free food and ice water. All this is part of the on-going mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The generosity of the Thai people and camaraderie in their grief is touching. We assumed the refreshment was primarily for Thais journeying to the capitol to pay their respects to their king who lies in state in the Grand Palace. As foreigners, we were hesitant to accept the offered food and drink, but were repeatedly urged to do so by the Thais (who, of course, couldn’t help but see our obvious otherness). We gratefully accepted icy bottles of water as our walk to Wat Pho was long, hot and getting hotter.

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Free food and cold water at tents set up all along the Grand Palace; part of the nationwide mourning for King Bhumibol Adulydej. Note how nearly everyone is dressed in black.

At Wat Pho, we paid our 100 baht ($2.86) per person entrance fee, then pulled on the long pants we’d brought to wear over our shorts to comply with the temple dress code. As expected, the temple housing the famous reclining Buddha was a mob scene. The temple is long with two relatively narrow halls that run down either side of the Buddha. Large square columns separate the halls from the statue, which is so large, it’s hard to take in as you can only see parts at a time except for when he is viewed from one end or the other.

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Crowds viewing the reclining Buddha which lays behind the pillars to the left
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The only was to view the giant Buddha in its entirety is from one end or the other

At 150 feet long, the Buddha is gigantic, but the detail work on his face and mother-of-pearl inlaid feet is equally impressive.

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Buddha’s feet

Beyond the temple housing the reclining Buddha, many other stupa, temples and shrines dot the grounds of Wat Pho. We wandered in the shimmering heat, admiring the dramatic lines of the structures and the ornate ceramic, paint and mosaic work that covered nearly every inch of some of them. Clearly, Thais love bling and are big believers in more is more!

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Stupa ornamented with ceramic flowers and embellishments
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Galleys lined with Buddhas bring a welcome respite from a sometimes overwhelming ornateness
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A courtyard at Wat Pho
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Flower offerings placed before a seated Buddha

Reaching the far side of the temple complex, we happily accepted more free ice water in cups. I gulped some and splashed the rest on my face, neck and arms. David and I both peeled out of our long over-pants. We needed a break from the heat! A quick search on our phones turned up an air-conditioned restaurant not far away. I’d had some slight misgivings about the restaurant since it was located in a small hotel–usually not a great sign–, but the restaurant at Inn a Day turned out to be stylish, cool, and serving really great iced coffee and good food. Happiness!

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Bliss is iced coffee and green curry chicken in an air-conditioned restaurant!
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Shrimp pad thai

Refreshed by our break, we headed back towards the Tha Chang boat pier, detouring to explore a fish market tucked behind the pretty colonial era buildings that line the road in this part of town.

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Colonial buildings in the area along the river between Wat Pho and the Grand Palace
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Dried fish makes for a pungent market
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Smelly work. This group was, I think, making ingredients for fish sauce. Whatever it was was fishy, dark and entrail-y-looking.

Exiting the fish market and strolling back along the cafés and shops in the colonial buildings, we made a serendipitous detour into a covered market that turned out to lead to one of the many ferry piers along the river. For 3.5 baht (10 cents), we hopped a ferry to the far side of the river and Wat Arun.

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On the ferry with the scaffolding-covered stupa of Wat Arun visible on the far bank

Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) is famous for its massive, beautifully-decorated stupa. The entire structure is now covered in scaffolding with a temporary structure at its very top that is unfortunately reminiscent of an outhouse. Needless to say, we were less-than-blown-away by the stupa, although the glimpses of it through the scaffolding hinted at the hidden beauty. The rest of the temple complex is lovely, though, and we admired the pastel flowers covering the walls of one temple and the blingy gold and mosaic work of the building’s trim that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mardi Gras float.

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Detail work on a temple wall at Wat Arun

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Giant guardians outside a small temple near Wat Arun

Having enough of the heat, we hopped another boat bound for Sathorn Pier and home. Upon debarking, we made a slight detour to explore the riverfront Wat Yannawa, a temple with a unique boat-shaped shrine that we could see from our condo balcony. Stalls were set up on the temple grounds and the place bustled with activity that hinted at more to come. Later, hearing broadcast announcements that wafted up to our condo and seeing throngs from our condo balcony at Wat Yannawa, we realized it was Loi Krathong, a holiday famous for its floating lantern offerings. Candles, flowers (and fingernail and hair cuttings) are placed on banana leaf (or sometimes bread) holders and set afloat upon the water at night. In Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong is occasion for the famous flocks of floating lanterns released into the sky.

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Boat-shaped shrine at Wat Yannawa, near the Sathorn Pier
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Ladies making Loi Krathong floating offerings with banana leaf bases and flowers

Looking beyond Wat Yannawa, we got a good view of the 49-story derelict and supposedly haunted Sathorn Unique building. We could see the other side of the Unique from our condo along with an adjacent parking garage with overgrown ponds on the roof and had been curious about the story behind the abandoned buildings. It turns out that the building is one of a dozen-plus such derelict skyscrapers in Bangkok, forlorn remnants of the Asian financial crash. At one time, there were reportedly more than 300 unfinished high-rises in Bangkok. Apparently the Sathorn Unique was 80-90% completed when the crash hit and work was halted, so it’s structurally sound, but a wreck inside, and now a destination for urban explorers. The rumors of the Unique being “haunted” or cursed in some way arise from claims it was built on an ancient burial ground and that it casts a shadow on Wat Yannawa. In any case, it’s a strange and strangely intriguing structure.

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Wat Yannawa worship and traditional medicine center with the Sathorn Unique in the background. Our AirBnB condo is in the left-most of the two towers behind the Unique.

 

Kanchanaburi: Bridge on the River Kwai, Death Railway, Hellfire Pass

 

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Bridge on the River Kwai

David and I rewatched the 1957 movie classic “Bridge on the River Kwai” before coming to Kanchanaburi to help with the mood change from beautiful, tranquil Tup Kaek Beach to the infamous “Death Railway.” The movie, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, but it’s based on a real bridge (or bridges) and a real railway constructed at great misery and cost of life by POW’s and conscripted civilians forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. Over 100,000 people died building the 250 miles of railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway which connected Bangkok to Rangoon. Most of the dead were Asian civilians (“romusha”) and roughly 16,000 were Allied prisoners of war, the majority of whom were Australian, British and Dutch.

Conditions were much worse than depicted in the movie for the POW’s and even worse for the romusha who had no medical personnel among them. The Japanese deliberately underfed and overworked their prisoners, even hording Red Cross rations rather than distributing them or using them themselves. The result was widespread disease. Other prisoners died of beatings, torture and executions. Many of the camp commanders were convicted of war crimes after the war.

Today, a train makes several runs on Saturdays and Sundays along the historic railway. At one section, the train runs along a wooden viaduct that clings to the face of a 30m deep “cutting” or man-made cliff/gorge, a stretch where nearly every man who worked on it died. It’s a peaceful area now, with a nearby resort and floating bungalows available to rent. I was struck, as I was in Auschwitz and other places of past horror, by how a place where great evil was done can be beautiful and peaceful years later. Some people claim to feel a lingering malevolence in such places, but I don’t don’t feel it; just a sadness for those who suffered and that humanity can lower itself to such cruelty. It doesn’t seem to me that the birds that sing in such places now or the natural beauty that has reasserted itself are tainted by what people did there long ago, but I believe it’s important not to avoid such places, to remember and mark evil events in hope that they are never repeated.

The train starts in Kanchanaburi and runs to Nam Tok, some two hours away. (Actually, you can take a train from Bangkok, too, but I had no interest in that. Too hot and too long for me.) The train is old and rattling and un-air-conditioned and everything I’d read said the real views and interesting part happened just after the rural train stop at Tha Kilen. If we started our train ride there, we’d shorten the trip by an hour and miss the initial, hot ride that many described as “boring.” By car, the distance to Tha Kilen is only 30 minutes…and in private, air-conditioned comfort. Our decision was made!

There’s frustratingly little info on how to start your trip anywhere other than at the main Kanchanaburi station or the nearby Bridge on the River Kwai station. The internet yielded no details. We tried asking at our hotel, but they just wanted to sell us a tour (as did any number or tour touts on every block of Kanchanaburi) and tried to discourage us from driving on our own. So, we got up early and drove the five minutes to the main Kanchanaburi station to see if we could buy a ticket from Tha Kilen there. No, we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to buy the ticket at Tha Kilen. They were friendly about it, though, and showed us the schedule which indicated that the train would stop in Tha Kilen at 11:30am. This train had the added benefit of being the only train of the day with a “special carriage” where we were guaranteed a seat. I didn’t feel like standing up for an hour in a hot, crowded train and it was only 150 baht, one-way for the “special carriage” (50 baht more than the 3rd class fare). We could buy a ticket at Tha Kilen 30 minutes before departure or 11am. We had a plan.

Tha Kilen had the extra enticement of Khmer ruins in the nearby Muang Sing Historical Park. I was worried that the train might be full as I read that sometimes it is packed, so wanted to get to Tha Kilen early on the chance that someone might be there to sell us a ticket before 11am, with ticket safely in hand, we could go check out Muang Sing until it was time to catch the train. We arrived at 9:30am to find a few people around the Tha Kilen station, but we were told again that we could buy a ticket at 11am. Alrighty then, it was Muang Sing for us.

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Tha Kilen Station

Muang Sing turned out to be a very nicely set-up historical park. Very few people were at the park at this hour and we were able to visit most of the ruins in peace before a tour bus showed up. Even at that hour, the heat was oppressive. The ruins are partially rebuilt and worth a look (especially if you’re killing time until you can catch the train), but it’s a relatively minor site and not a big loss if you miss it.

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Ruins at Muang Sing

Back at the Tha Kilen station, things were starting to pick up. Vendors laid out food for lunch and we bought sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet karonda (or corunda) berries with chili powder. Other people started to arrive, but still the ticket seller was not open for business. I watched him through the open door and window of his office as he worked ancient-looking brass machines which clanged as he turned a shining handle. This apparently had something to do with incoming trains. A regular train came through and the station master handed off a lunch to the engineer as he went by. At exactly 11am, the station master took his seat behind the sales window and we were able to buy our tickets (which had the departure time printed on them as 11:45, not 11:30). We pointed to the sign about the “special carriage” and got the correct tickets. Our request for the left side (best view going towards Nam Tok), met with a nod of his head, but we had no faith that he understood us. [Note: There’s a red sign next to the ticket window stating that you have to show your passport to get a ticket. This is not true and no one asked for a passport. Since we weren’t crossing a border, I have no idea why the sign is there unless maybe some trains are going on to Burma/Myanmar.]

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Food vendors setting up at the Tha Kilen station

With a little time before the train was due to arrive, I bought food from the vendors: sticky rice with pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet pink karonda berries with chili salt for dipping. We dug into the chips on the spot, but saved the rest for the train.

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Unwrapped banana leaf packet of sticky rice and pork. Yum!
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Carunda berries

Some tour groups and individuals began to arrive and at 11:45am, the train pulled in. Since our tickets showed no specific seat assignment, we asked a guide we overheard speaking English. She told us the green cars were the “special carriages” that we had tickets for and asked the station master about our seats and said he said he’d show us to our seats. He made no move though, so we’re not sure where the translation went wrong. Not wanting to miss the train, we climbed onto one of the two front green cars and I staked out a left-hand seat. A uniformed attendant approached and said he’d lead us to our seat, then proceeded to lead us to another car and direct us to a right-hand seat. When I stated our preference for the left-hand seat (relying mostly on gestures), he took us back to the seat I’d originally claimed. Oh well.

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The “Death Train” arrives; the 2 green cars in the front are the “special carriages”

The special carriages are “special” because you get a guaranteed seat plus a cushion on the wooden bench that comprises that seat, a sealed plastic cup of water and a cold moist towelette to start the journey, and your choice of a tea or coffee. Pretty swank, huh? We were grateful for the water and the cool cloth, but wanted no part of hot tea or coffee in the tropical weather. All the windows on the car were open and the train made a nice breeze as we chugged and clanked along.

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Inside a “special car”; the ticket is 150 baht each way.

Shortly out of Tha Kilen, we came to the most dramatic scenery of the trip, the portion along the 30m “cutting” where so many died. Now, though, a resort and floating bungalow hotel rooms occupy the first portion of opposite bank. Tourists clustered along the way taking photos of our train as we passed. People on the train leaned out, taking photos of the resort and the people photographing them. Just beyond, the opposite bank peels away, opening up a lovely vista with the mountains beyond. Throughout this stretch, the sheer rock wall of the man-made cliff is all you can see our the right-hand windows…save for a flash of a Buddha statue in its cave at Kraesae.

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Looking back on the floating bungalows we’d just passed
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The River Kwai with mountains in the background

The view was beautiful, but both David and I were a little underwhelmed by this stretch, only because the descriptions we’d read tended towards the hyperbolic. We didn’t really have the sense of clinging to some precarious perch on a cliff. No doubt we were, but you don’t get that perspective much from the train itself because you’re so close to the cliff on the right (nothing but rock just outside the window) and there’s a lot of vegetation hiding much of the drop to the left.

When we arrived at the Nam Tok terminus, a swarm of songtaew, cars and buses awaited. An old lady near a songtaew with its modified pick-up bed crammed full of passengers approached me. David was aghast that I’d even consider joining that throng, but the lady was offering us a ride up front in the air-conditioning, for a premium, of course. She borrowed a laminated sign from a neighboring driver indicating the charge would be 800 baht ($22.86) for a round-trip ride. This is a fortune around these parts, but it was a 20+-minute ride to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a total 2-hour commitment for her since she had to wait on us, and we didn’t have time to waste since we needed to be back to catch the last train back to Tha Kilen which left Nam Tok at 3:15pm. We made the deal. David rode in front with our lady driver while I sat in the rear seat of the club cab with her middle school-age grandson. A couple kilometers away, we dropped off the throng in the rear of the songtaew at the local Tok Sai Yok waterfall/swimming hole before going on to the museum.

We had to pass through a military checkpoint to enter the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum grounds. The museum itself is small, but very well done and modern. It’s also free, but donations are encouraged. It didn’t take long to walk through and watch the 5-minute movie of prisoner recollections that runs regularly.

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Entrance to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum with the ramp just below the name on the building leading down to the walkway to the pass

Stepping out the back of the museum, there’s an overlook with a “peace vessel” created by an Australian former prisoner and a view over the path to Hellfire Pass, the deepest of the many prisoner-made cuttings through the mountains.

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“Peace Vessel” at the museum overlook
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Looking down on the wooden walkway that descends to the bottom of Hellfire Pass

The entrance to the Hellfire Pass walkway is just outside the front doors of the museum, to the left as you exit. At the base of the initial descent, you can choose to walk left down a wooden walkway or right. The lady at the Information Desk inside had suggested we go left, then return along the other path to make a full loop, so that’s what we did. It’s not a bad walk, but not for the mobility challenged. It’s a lot of walking and a lot of stairs going both directions. It’s hot, but much less so that we’d feared given the elevation and the shade.

The scale and magnitude of the work done here under such horrible conditions is really brought home as you walk along the base. You can’t help but be impressed by what the prisoners accomplished in this rocky jungle with basic tools and dynamite, especially while in such weakened physical states. Makeshift memorials along the way bring home the human suffering and loss.

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Makeshift memorials in Hellfire Pass
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Poignant memorial
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The scale of the cutting here is brought home as you walk along the old railroad ties along the bottom.

At the far end of the pass by a permanent veterans’ memorial, I was stopped by a group of Thai students wanting to interview me. Their questions had to do with where I was from, whether I liked Thailand and would want to return and why I chose to come to Hellfire Pass. As always in southeast Asia, “United States” was met with puzzled looks which brightened to understanding when I amended to “America.” Their English was pretty functional, though, and I enjoyed the lightness their young enthusiasm brought after the solemnity of my walk through Hellfire Pass. They insisted on photos together after the interview, so I got David to snap a couple for us, too.

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Mimicking the cheerful “thumbs-up” of my lead interviewer
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Veteran’s memorial at the end of Hellfire Pass with stylized railroad ties in the foreground and railroad ties of the actual railroad visible on the continuing path beyond.

The return path to the museum through humid jungle proved to be longer and a bit more arduous (and hot and mosquito-y) than the wooden path and steps on the descent. Mid-way through, I was wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off retracing our steps through the pass and back up the wooden walkway. [It’s also usually possible to hike much more of the railway line than the 40-minute loop Hellfire Pass loop that we walked. However, segments were closed when we were there. We felt we’d seen enough, though, and weren’t interested in hiking hours more anyway.] We made it back ten minutes earlier than we’d estimated to our driver, but she was waiting and we headed off back to the Nam Tok train station.

Once again, no tickets were available until 30 minutes prior to departure. This seems to be a hard and fast rule. So, we ordered a couple of Chang beers at an open-air restaurant across the dirt parking area. The train was ready to go early, but we were delayed a warm ten minutes as they waited for a tour bus full of German tourists. I think we understand now why the train is notoriously late. Ten minutes wasn’t bad, but I could see it compounding over the length of the journey to Kanchanaburi.

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Red flag until the German tour bus showed up

There were no “special carriages” on this train, so we got to try out 3rd class. The main difference was no cushion on the seat (and of course no drinks and cool cloth). Fans mounted on the ceiling and the open windows made for a nice breeze, though, and David and I spent most of the return trip hanging out the window, always careful to ease out and dodge any plants or rocks too close to the track. The lowering sun now on the right side of the train made it hot whenever we stopped at a way-station, but that was nothing new to our SE Asia experience.

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Inside a 3rd class train car

More passengers boarded as we went along so that most seats were filled by the time we reached Tha Kilen where we’d left the car. It was a shock to see the parking area at the Tha Kilen station filled with motor coaches and cars. We sprinted off the train and to our car to beat that mob scene and were soon rolling through the countryside back to Kanchanaburi.

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Tapioca fields by the road to Kanchanaburi

We got back into Kanchanaburi late in the afternoon with enough time for a visit to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. There were two bridges in the area during World War II, a concrete and steel one that the present one replaces and a wooden bridge built by prisoners. Both of the original bridges were destroyed by Allied bombing. The present bridge, pictured in the top photo above, was built shortly after the war.

 

Driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

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Suburban Bangkok traffic

We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.

I’ve done my share of driving in foreign countries, on both sides of the road, but one of the luxuries of my late-in-life marriage to David is leaving the driving to him. He actually loves challenging driving (and is fine with wrong-side stick shifts) and I’m a pretty darn good navigator, so we make a great team.

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Nerves of steel!

Bangkok, though, has a reputation of being a driving nightmare and there’s that always-present worry about accidents or police shakedowns in a third world country. Still, a car would be ideal and online research led me to believe it wouldn’t be that bad given the location of Don Muang. (Had we flown into Suvarnabhumi Airport to the south of the city, we’d have had to drive across Bangkok to get to Kanchanaburi. No way!) I showed David what I’d found and he was game for the drive, so I booked a rent car with Sixt…but made it cancelable in case on-the-ground experience in Thailand changed our minds. After two weeks in Thailand, David felt more confident than ever, so we made the drive.

Sixt provided us with a nice mid-size sedan with automatic transmission(!), Google Maps was up and working on my phone via my Thai SIM card, so all was good as we pulled away. Don Muang is a long airport whose length runs along a major highway. To get out of the airport, we had to drive through parking lots and drop-off lanes to reach a U-turn bridge to get us going north on the highway; no big deal.

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Yes, I know. The sign spells “Don Muang” differently. The airport spells it the way I have. Mostly. Thai spelling is a very changeable thing.

Traffic, as expected, was heavy on the highway with scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out among cars and trucks. We encountered our first problem when we tried to make our first exit. Massive construction of an overhead road was going on along the length of the highway and the exit was blocked. Thank God for Google Maps! We just kept trying to head west and after a series of Google re-routes that resulted in a lot of backtracking as we made long parallel straightaways and squared-off U-turns, we finally got onto the right road. Google Maps predicted 2h25 to go 142 kilometers (88 miles).

Traffic was insane in the early part of the drive as we made our way through Bangkok suburbs. [See lead pic.] Cars and passenger trucks mixed with tuk tuks, songtaews, motorbikes and brightly-painted big rigs. Major town signs usually had English, but not always. Most road signs were in indecipherable Thai squiggles and swirls. Worse yet, Google Maps would often show road signs and directions in Thai, not English. The robot lady still talked in English, but her “turn right’s” and “turn left’s” often came at the wrong time and I’d have to zoom into our little moving icon then tell David, “No! Not here!” more often than I would have liked. It required a lot of attention on both of our parts. Meanwhile, cars and motorbikes cut in and out around us. Traffic would occasionally come to a stop on a major median-divided road, to allow a stream of cars from the other side to U-turn. We could figure no pattern to that, and when I got the chance to research it, I found an expat message board where someone attributed it to “telepathy,” like us finding no rhyme nor reason to when cars would yield.

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Trucks sported all sorts of decoration.

Things got better as we moved into the countryside. The roads, all along, were in good shape, not much different from what we’d see at home (if you don’t count the temples, rice fields, loose cows and other signs that we weren’t in Kansas any more).

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Not unlike home, except for the Buddha

Thais protect themselves from the sun and it’s common to see people, especially on motorbikes, with their heads fully covered by cloth with only eye holes. It’s vaguely alarming-looking, like a bunch of bank robbers on the loose.

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Roadside vendor avoiding the sun

Getting hungry, we started looking for somewhere to grab a quick lunch. By now, we were used to and fond of Thai street food, so a local open-air market looked promising and we pulled in. A songtaew overloaded with locals pulled in beside us. This crowd headed to tables and vendors at the front of the market, but David bee-lined for a cloud of smoke emanating from the very rear of the big space, far from the other vendors. An old lady with a bandaged food greeted us eagerly while a man tended skewers on the grill. When we asked the price, she replied “5 baht,” about 14 cents. Sure we must have misheard, David asked her again, but got the same answer. Um. OK. She got out a plastic bag and quickly added several skewers. When we asked if it was chicken, “gai,” she nodded and repeated “gai.” Inspecting the skewers, I spotted a heart and some other odd bits. We asked her what part of the chicken those were. She waved her hand around her stomach. Intestines. That’s what I thought. The skewers were split down the middle then wired shut around the meat. Some of the skewers held flattened, unidentifiable meat with small bones visible. It looked like chicken back. Maybe. David tried pointing to his leg and chest, asking for more familiar cuts, but she just nodded and added another skewer, bringing our total to five. When she mentioned sticky rice, for 3 baht, we happily bought 2 plastic pouches for a grand total of 30 baht or about 86 cents. She’d moved her crutch aside for us to sit down, but I told David we should eat in the car, both for a/c and so we could spit out anything we wanted without offending her.

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Inedible barbecue with strange beaky bit on the right

Back in the car, we inspected our lunch. We tried nibbling on the flattened, bony meat, but could only get the tiniest bit of food. Were you supposed to just crunch through bone?! Giving up, we moved on to the tripe. Curling my lips back, I tried a bite…but couldn’t get through. An odd beaky looking bit was equally impervious to my teeth. Hmm. The barbecue sauce wasn’t bad, though. We quickly wolfed down our sticky rice and tossed the rest of our “lunch,” afraid to feed it to the two dogs wandering the front of the market for fear of choking them. Oh well, back on the road.

We arrived at our Kanchanaburi hotel without incident. The drive, while a little frazzling in some places (for me anyway–David has nerves of steel), wasn’t bad. It was nice to have the car, for privacy, comfort and just to be free to follow our own whims and timetable or lack thereof. For about $30/day, it wasn’t a bad deal either. It also turned out to be a great way to escape the myriad tours being touted in Kanchanaburi. More on that later.

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Great roads in the countryside (This is between Kanchanaburi and Tha Kilen the day we did the Death Railroad.)

Diving the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

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Top on my list of things to do while in Krabi–other than lounge on a gorgeous beach with David and drink mai tais–was to dive the Phi Phi Islands (amusingly pronounced “pee pee”). The Phi Phi Islands consistently get top marks as a world class dive site. All dive shops I’d found going to the islands were in Ao Nang, and that was a 20 to 30-minute ride from our hotel, Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort. I’d made some inquiries prior to leaving the U.S., but was frustrated by their requirement that we come into Ao Nang at least a day before to “show our dive cards, sign forms and try on equipment.” This sounded ridiculous to me and I had no desire to take time away from a coveted beach day traipsing into a town I’d deliberately avoided and back…Not to mention the pointless expense added insult to injury.

I tried emailing the resort to see if they worked with any dive shops that would pick up at the resort, but got no response to either my emails or my attempts to message them on their Facebook page until they miraculously responded to the FB message nearly 6 weeks later. Oh well, better late than never. They informed me they could book a 2-tank dive trip to the Phi Phi Islands, including pick-up at the hotel and we wouldn’t need to go in ahead of time.

Sure enough, when we got to the resort and asked, they could book us the dive trip we wanted with Local Diving and they’d pick us up. The price was exactly the same as with the dive shops I’d found previously which did not include pick-up, i.e., 3500 baht ($100) per person, including equipment, lunch and the 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang.

We had time for a quick breakfast before our ride arrived at 7am on our second morning at Tup Kaek. Our Local Diving “limo” was quite a sight: a battered red “SUV”/station wagon sort of vehicle with a red leather interior and red leather facing seats in the far back. The driver’s seat was broken so that it leaned a good 6″ back from the level of the front passenger seat (and into my knees). Hand cranks rolled down the windows…except on David’s side where the crank had broken off. Hmm. A questionable start, but the vehicle seemed to drive OK.

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The “limo” in front of Local Diving
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Driver’s seat “reclining” into me
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Rear seating

In twenty minutes, we were in Ao Nang. We made a quick stop to pick up a Norwegian sheep farmer, Per, who would be the only other diver to join our group. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Local Diving shop. Small and not impressive, they quickly produced qood-quality wetsuits and fins for us to try on. No one cared about seeing our dive cards; they just had us sign statements that we had them. So much for that other dive company wanting us to come a day early to present cards and try on gear!

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Local Diving in Ao Nang

Our guide then led us on foot across the parking lot and through a park to where a fleet of long tail boats were docked. We waded out to one, full of other divers, that tendered us to a larger, two-story dive boat anchored just off shore.

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It turns out that Local Diving and several other dive shops share large boats so that there were 3 or 4 groups of divers on our boat. Everyone did basically the same dive, shared the same fruit snacks, the same lunch, same everything. There were several of these larger boats operating in the area and this is apparently the same system for dives at the Local Islands as well as at the Phi Phi Islands. I seriously doubt whether it makes much difference which operation you pick so long as the equipment is good and the dive master attentive and knowledgable. (Big items, I understand; I just mean that the basic set-up will probably be identical so–once you verify reviews re safety and quality of equipment–it makes sense to choose by price.)

The trip to the Phi Phi Islands from Ao Nang takes 2 hours, but that’s only because the boats go incredibly slowly. We kept waiting for our boat to kick it into gear, but it never happened. Our dive mate, Per, said he loved the boat ride, but we were a little impatient going out and bored going back. It’s beautiful, but I could have enjoyed the beauty in an hour rather than two…and been back on our gorgeous Tup Kaek beach.

A dive master on board was pushing seasick pills claiming some “magical” properties to Andaman waters that induce seasickness. The water was very calm and we ignored his advice with absolutely no ill effects. If we could survive 3 hours crossing the Sea of Japan just above a typhoon without feeling sick, the Andaman held no threat at all for us.

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Relaxing on the upper deck of our dive boat

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We reached Hin Klai, just east of the Phi Phis, for our first dive right at 2 hours out of Ao Nang. A preliminary check of my gear revealed a damaged octopus so our guide quickly changed out the whole first stage and attachments. The new first stage set-up was in good condition, but surprisingly we had no depth gauge. We made our first descent into a curving school of silver and yellow fish that numbered in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Breathtaking! The sheer numbers of tropical fish were the most remarkable thing about this reef. We saw squid, lionfish (which we’re very familiar with as an invasive pest in the Caribbean), mantis shrimp (like small lobster with “wings” instead of claws…and very, very powerful front “legs”) and more, but it was the huge schools that really blew me away. They let me swim into their midst, so thick I could barely see out of the cloud of shimmering bodies. I felt like a kid playing among them, reaching with my hands to have the nearest dart just out of reach. We ventured off the reef into some pretty barren terrain where our guide later explained he was looking for black fin sharks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any although Per told us he’d seen a lot of them on an earlier dive to a nearby reef. Next time!

After our first dive, we had a 50-minute break during which we moved to our next dive location, Koh Bida Nok, just south of Phi Phi Ley. We anchored near one of the under-cut rock islands that give the Andaman Sea its exotic and unique appearance. Upon descent, we found ourselves on another beautiful reef. More large schools of fish swirled around us and we also came upon cuttlefish, a large barracuda, a turtle and more lionfish. As at Hin Klai, we saw lots of clownfish tucked in among sea anemone as if they’d been pulled straight from “Finding Nemo.” I half-expected to see the large schools of fish form themselves into shapes and talk to us!

The only real negative to the actual diving part of this trip is that there are just too many other divers around. The Phi Phis draw multiple dive boats to each of their reefs and we frequently ran into other groups of divers below, both from our boat and from others. Newbies are particularly bad about stirring up the bottom and visibility suffered in places.

Lunch was set out in the galley of our boat after the second dive and people served themselves then sat wherever to enjoy the Massaman curry and vegetarian noodle main dish with plenty of steamed rice. More fruit supplied dessert. Then, we settled in for the puttering 2-hour ride back…except it was closer to 2.5 hours on the return trip. It’s hard to believe that’s all the engine power the boat could muster, but apparently so. Again, it was beautiful, but too long for David and me.

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Our dive master–and pretty much everyone else–crashed out on the long ride back to Ao Nang

Then, it was back on a loud, exhaust-spewing long tail boat for the tender back to shore and the walk to the Local Diving shop and our red leather chariot.

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On the long tail tender

 

Local Diving did a professional job (even though they didn’t check dive cards) and I’d dive with them again. I’m super glad we dove the beautiful Phi Phi reefs, but I’d have loved a faster boat. You can find out more about Local Diving at: http://www.localdivingkrabi.com.

Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort near Krabi, Thailand

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I don’t usually do straight-up lodging reviews on Wanderwiles unless something really stands out. Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort is one of those:

I’d always wanted to visit the beaches of Thailand, but I originally didn’t think it would be possible on this trip because we’d be there during rainy season. I’d originally thought to go directly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then travel through Thailand, ending up in Cambodia, from where we’d fly home. When Luang Prabang, Laos, found its way onto my radar screen, I discovered flights that allowed me to reverse my original circuit. Flying home from Bangkok rather than little Siem Reap had the added benefit of bigger and better Korean Air airplanes for our much-anticipated First Class flight home. (We would have had to forego First Class entirely and settle for Business Class on the Siem Reap to Seoul leg of our journey home.) So, after Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and from there to Luang Prabang where we caught the Mekong boat to northern Thailand. This allowed us to push the south of Thailand to the end of our trip, and that meant we could add a detour to the far south beaches in November when the area would just be moving from the rainy to the dry season. Cheap direct flights were available from Chiang Mai. We had a shot a good weather and we decided to take it.

I considered Phuket or one of the islands, but opted for Krabi instead because I wanted somewhere less touristy, less nightlife-geared, and quieter. I also didn’t want the hassle and extra travel steps of getting to and from an island. Krabi (pronounced “kra BEE” rather than “crabby”) is the name of both the city and the region. The city itself is inland with gorgeous beaches not far away on the coast. The nearest beach town is Ao Nang where I found some pretty resorts, but descriptions of street noise, young crowds and bars led me to look farther afield. I researched lots of options up and down the coast before settling on Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort 45 minutes from the Krabi Airport. (Tup Kaek rhymes with “cupcake.”) It turned out to be the perfect choice for us.

Once we got past the AirAsia chaos at the Chiang Mai airport, the flight went smoothly. We arranged a transfer via the resort and our driver was waiting with a sign, as promised, when we exited the baggage claim area. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle that ended during the drive. David and I were the only passengers in the brand new silver van and we marveled at the dramatic landscape of steep rocky cliffs that jutted straight up from the jungle as we left Krabi proper and sped through Ao Nang. The shops and restaurants gave way to a rural landscape as we neared our destination. I worried when we spotted a tanker at a long pier, but our van turned inland, skipping that small commercial stretch to arrive on the far side and our hotel.

A smiling Thai lady greeted us in the open-air lobby, offering pottery cups of chilled tropical fruit juice to enjoy while she made quick work of check-in. A waiting golf cart then whisked us to our thatch-roofed beachfront bungalow. I relished the pleasure of expectations fulfilled when we stepped inside: The room was spacious with sliding glass doors facing the incredibly gorgeous beach, gleaming teak floors and furniture, a vaulted ceiling made of woven bamboo.

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The bathroom was sleek and modern in a back-to-nature sort of way with a big tub and a pebble-floored rain shower open to the sky above and a cut-out window facing the beach.

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Looking out our shower window

Beyond the sliding glass doors, two cushioned lounge chairs on a large roofed teak porch faced the beach where the still waters of the Andaman Sea lapped against white sand only 20 meters away. Rocky little islands and outcroppings dotted the blue water, improbably beautiful. There was no mistaking this beach for more-familiar beaches back home or in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. My parents had given us a generous 5th anniversary gift in July and we’d decided to use their present on this portion of our Asia odyssey, so we were considering this a late anniversary celebration. It was perfect!

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Beachfront bungalows at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort: all facing west, perfect for watching the sunset over the water

We were on the beach in no time, marveling at the bathtub warm water. Only a few small resorts shared this gorgeous beach and there were not many other guests in sight. At our resort, lots of cushioned lounge chairs and hammocks were free for the taking. Choosing lounge chairs near our bungalow, we ordered two mai tais to sip while we watched the sunset. The mai tais turned out to be the best of the trip: made with real juice, good rum, a little nutmeg and topped with a slice of fresh pineapple.

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First mai tais at Tup Kaek…but not the last!

We spent four nights at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort, enjoying mai tais every day save a day we dove the Phi Phi Islands, a world-class dive site a 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang. Breakfast was included with our room and was a generous spread of Thai and western food served in the open-air tented waterfront dining area. After trying a neighboring hotel, Tup Kaek Boutique Hotel, for lunch, we ended up eating the rest of our meals at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach. The food was good and the service excellent.

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Lunch at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort
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The tented open-air dining area; the only dining space while the main dining room is being renovated

The prices were much higher at Sunset (and at the other hotels on the beach) than we’d found elsewhere in Thailand as we were a captive audience and this was a higher-end hotel. There’s no walking distance town with food stalls and the usual little dive-y restaurants. Still, by American standards, the prices were very reasonable and much better than you’d find at a comparable resort back home. We could have hired a taxi or tuk tuk to try a little place in the closest town–or one of the six restaurants in the nearby Ritz-Carlton, but we simply weren’t motivated to leave.

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The weather turned out to be great. It was raining the first morning, but stopped by the time we got out of bed. There were a couple of other intermittent, brief showers and one impressive but not overly long deluge. We’d duck under our porch roof during those periods, then be back out enjoying partly cloudy skies and delightful temperatures for most of the day. Occasionally we heard a little thunder and saw sheet lightning on the horizon, but it only made for a pretty show. The water was warm with barely any waves. The bottom is soft sand, sloping very gradually so that you can wade far out before the water is chest-high.

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Cool water flowing into the sea from the mountains behind the resorts

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Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort has other non-beachfront rooms, including some very neat ones whose porches open directly onto a new blue-tiled swimming pool of Olympic proportions. There’s a pretty older pool as well and rooms that open onto small man-made “canals.”

Construction/remodeling is ongoing on a large, enclosed restaurant that is not currently open. It sits to one side of the resort complex, so did not really effect our stay. Construction noise wasn’t an issue, and the open-air beachfront dining suited us perfectly. Housekeeping kept the room spotless and were quick to respond to requests for things like extra towels. Two bottles of water were provided each day. We had a small minibar fridge with a few other food and drink items for purchase which we didn’t use. The hotel also provided a large safe, big umbrella, flashlight, robes and sandals. Local “long tail” boats pull up just down the beach and can be hired to visit the islands visible from the beach.

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View from our porch. Oh, the tough decisions: lounger on the porch or hammock?!

David and I have struggled to find negatives to this stay. The internet was sometimes–but not always–very weak in the room, but was always very strong and fast on our porch and in the dining area and other parts of the hotel. We did get some maybe-mosquito bites, mostly on our sandaled feet, although we only saw one while we were there. It’s a quiet, low-key location, especially during this shoulder-season, which we consider to be a huge plus, but it wouldn’t be for those looking for a party scene. (i.e., There were no backpackers and loud music.) We spotted a lizard or two in the room a couple of times, but they didn’t bother us and we just ignored them. There are several cats on the resort grounds and they’re happy to beg if you feed them, which we got a kick out of, but I guess if you don’t like or are allergic to cats, it might be an issue. That’s pretty much all we can come up with in the way of negatives. We loved the Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort!

We paid 28,420 baht ($812) total for our beachfront bungalow for 4 nights, including breakfast and taxes. Meals, mai tais and private transfer from and to the Krabi Airport cost another 8,270 baht ($236.29) total, including taxes and gratuities. (The airport transfer cost 800 baht/$22.86 each way for a 45-minute ride.) I consider the cost to be good value for what we got. Value is my goal whenever I purchase anything, often more important to me than the bottom line. You can find out more about the resort at: http://www.tupkaeksunset.com/en I had some trouble contacting them, pre-trip (re questions about diving companies that would pick up at the hotel), but was finally able to get a response by messaging them on their Facebook page. Also, I booked via booking.com this time, probably because they were offering the best final price and a rebate via Topcashback, one of my favorite sites. If you haven’t joined and are interested, please use my referral link: https://www.topcashback.com/ref/tcut It’s free to join and easy money for things you buy anyway. I always check it when I’m booking travel (or buying almost anything) to get rebates on hotels, rent cars, products and more.

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