Where to begin?
At the beginning I suppose.
When I was at Dreamtime, Benji told me about this festival just north of Chiang Mai called Shambhala In Your Heart. He had such an amazing experience last year that upon returning home to Vientiane he promptly quit his job and has been living life ever since. It just so happened I would be in Chiang Mai at the exact time the 10-day festival was taking place, so I decided to check it out.
At my hostel I met Gina, who had also heard of this festival and was curious to see what it was all about, so we decided to take on this adventure together. On Monday we boarded a bus for Chiang Dao. It was a very full bus so they placed the only other Western girl in the seat with me and Gina. She introduced herself – Kel from Oakland – and somewhere in my mind I recalled what Simo had told me before we parted ways: “An awesome girl I met in Don Det from Oakland might be going to the festival too. You should meet her.” So I asked, “Do you know Simo?” She looked at me like a crazy psychic person and responded that yes, she did in fact know Simo, how do I know Simo? Long story short (that we love to tell people), Kel had been to Dreamtime and told Simo about it when they met in Don Det, then Simo met up with me and we went to Dreamtime where I met Benji who told me about Shambhala, who had also told Kel about Shambhala when she was there, and now we were sitting next to each other on the way to the festival. The world is mind-blowing sometimes.
Kel was with Johannes, who had also been part of the Dreamtime/Don Det group, and a new friend Josh, so all five of us jumped on a tuktuk and entered Shambhala together. It didn’t take long to find Benji, Mike, and Michelle (from Dreamtime), and the 8 of us – plus new friends Till and Romina – became one happy Shambhala family. These people are the main reason I had such a fantastic time there. They all mean a lot to me, and are missed daily.
Shambhala as a whole felt like one happy family. The festival is all on one field; from across the river you can see pretty much all of if. There was one main stage, a second music area for daytime acts next to the kitchen, stands of incredible cheap food (my favorite was the place that served curries and rice in banana leaves, but the avocado burrito place was very popular), a dorm building, a bathroom building, a few teepees for daytime shade lounging or warming up by a fire at night, and scattered hang out spaces around the river, in the field and by the campsite. Tent villages were set up in two areas; the larger one down a hill behind the stage was where we called home. In the afternoons people set up bamboo mats near the food, creating a little shopping gallery where you could buy amazing handcrafted pieces from wool scarves to essential oils to the silver earrings I picked up, as well as Thai massages and Kel’s by-donation Neck Up Check Up neck massage. Despite the small size of the festival we were still discovering new food places and chill spots every day. It never ceased to amaze me.
We quickly met many congenial festival-goers who we would greet like old friends as we continued to see each other around the grounds. People from tents next to us or nighttime campfire singalongs or attempts at acroyoga or just sharing a table for a meal – everyone was a friend at Shambhala. It’s this atmosphere that made the entire experience so incredible.
It’s hard to explain the days at Shambhala, and I’m not even sure I want to try. It was 6 days of doing whatever it was that felt right at the time. I hung out at camp with the family; Kel led Gina and I in some morning yoga; I learned how to juggle, spin poi, and do acroyoga with Kel; we relaxed in the hot springs, and cooled off in the river next to them when they got too hot; I played in the river with a Thai girl, even though we had a terrible language barrier; I listened to didgeridoo and drum circles by the water, and chill daytime acts near the kitchen; I read in the shade; I stared at nature, wondered at the colors and the movements; and I snacked on all the delicious offerings. It was relaxed, it was blissful, it was the kind of experience that’s impossible to share through words.
After the sun set the music would start. Most days I almost forgot we were at a music festival till someone would start playing on stage. The music was incredibly varied, and pretty much all Japanese and Thai performers. We saw a solo experimental guitarist who blew us away. We danced like no one was watching to a didgeridoo/brass/guitar/drums band who got everyone on their feet. We cheered for Johannes and Josh when they took up the offer of a solo act for anyone who can play music to join them on stage. Every act was a guessing game, no night had a theme of music. It could go from a shaky sounding trio to a professional level full band. That was the fun of it – we knew none of these bands or what they would play, so nights were filled with new discoveries.
When the bands stopped the festival kept going. One night there was a fire performance show that I watched with jaw dropped. They were incredible. Most nights people simply wandered around with their guitars and drums looking for whatever campfire had something going on. Impromptu drum circles or jam sessions would pop up for a while, and whoever knew a song would sing along. We were the main camp one night with probably 30 people at our tiny little campfire enjoying the spontaneous music of anyone who felt like playing. Till took it upon himself to make sure that we would never have such a small fire again, and Benji picked up tea and coffee to give out next time. Everyone just wanted to make the festival better for all. I never knew what time we went to sleep. I never cared.
I went to Shambhala for 1 day. I stayed for 6.
I had planned to go to Pai for two days then back to Chiang Mai to do the things I’d heard I should do but didn’t get to yet. Everyone said I had to go to Pai, it was the best. For me, Shambhala was the best. Pai, the elephants – these things aren’t going anywhere. But what I lived for a week at Shambhala can never be duplicated, replaced, or forgotten. That mixture of the atmosphere of the festival, the people I was with, and the excitement of what I had discovered outside of and within myself is something truly special.
I didn’t get why it was called Shambhala In Your Heart and I haven’t looked it up to find out why. I just know that to me it makes sense. Shambhala is in my heart, forever.
Chiang Mai is a bigger city than I thought it would be. When I arrived I was initially surprised by the built up busy streets and seemingly sprawling urban landscape, and the fact that it was rush hour didn’t help. But once I got to explore more on foot, especially venturing into the Old Town, I started to get a sense of why so many expats stay here longer than planned.
It’s actually a manageable, walkable city. The traffic is not nearly as overwhelming as it is in other major Southeast Asian cities, with a noticeable absence of honking horns. The food is reasonably priced and good, with a plethora of fresh fruit and cold drink options. Markets, abundant across the region, are actually pleasant to walk through. The park in the corner of the old city is, as a friend put it, “Venice beach for expat hippies,” where slacklines and acroyoga are a focal point for the people lounging on bamboo mats. I have been hard-pressed to find any city in Asia that I felt like I could live in, but Chiang Mai might be the first one.
My days in Chiang Mai were a mixture of exploring and hanging out. I happened to be there during the Flower Festival (the second Flower Festival of my trip, the first was in Medellin), so I watched some of the morning parade and checked out the floats by Thapae Gate on my way into the Old City. I entered the Old City with a plan – temples, lunch, massage – and quickly discovered that a plan was not only not necessary, but not wanted. This is a city to wander around. Everywhere I walked I passed another temple. Which one is this? No clue, most of their names are written in Thai. It doesn’t matter really, they’re all pretty. I just roamed the streets toward the one destination I knew I wanted to find, stopping in any temple that looked worth stopping at, happening upon an outdoor photography display outside the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center, and getting a sense of the city. I had the traditional soup of Chiang Mai for lunch, kow soy – which honestly was a bit disappointing, I added some extra spice to the curry but the chicken piece was fatty and it was overall a bit greasy, but at least now I know – and then reached my one destination: my first Thai massage.
There was no better way to cure the feeling my body had after a rough 24 hours cramped on minibuses than getting all my muscles worked out by a Thai prisoner. The Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Centre trains inmates in massage techniques, which is where I originally tried to go but it was all booked for the day, so I ended up at the place where the graduates work. One hour massage is just 180 baht. What a steal! A Thai massage is unlike any massage I’ve experienced before. I was bent, twisted, poked, and rubbed in all kinds of ways, and even had to participate at times, like when I was asked to lift my upper body off the bed as my arms were pulled behind me into a back bend. Different, but still felt great.
As the afternoon wound down I made it to the final big temple I wanted to see and ran into Pat and Mirco, companions from my Laos minibus adventure. We roamed the temple and went to the park – they had bicycles so I rode on the back seat of one of them – but before we got there we found a street fair with food and the Flower Festival floats. It was a happy surprise and great to walk through, plus we got snacks for the park. This solidified my opinion that just wandering through Chiang Mai is the best way to see it; you never know what you’ll discover.
My second day was unexpectedly chill; I meant to go play with some elephants but unfortunately overslept, so I joined Pat, Mirco, Ivana, Katharine, and Leon for a motorbike adventure to a nearby lake, Huay Tung Tao. Just driving around was enjoyable with this group. I rode on the back of Mirco’s bike, and this crazy Swiss wanted to see how fast he could go on the highway on our beaten up moped. We hit 100 km/h. A bit fear-inducing but fun nonetheless. We spent most of the day hanging out in bamboo bungalows suspended over a picturesque lake; it was lovely. And a good way to get over the hangovers.
My nights in Chiang Mai were unexpectedly lively. Just hours after I arrived I went to a drag cabaret show with some people in my hostel. It was entertaining, to say the least. The next two nights I went out with the group I was at the lake with. We would meet up on the street outside the tattoo shop – an odd meeting point, but the only place we all had in common since we were riding to my hostel on the bikes when we ran into Ivana who had just gotten a new tattoo, and with her injured ankle she took my place on the bike for a ride back to their hostel and I walked the rest of the way home. Random, but it worked. I should go in and thank them one day, they have no idea how helpful they were for us. We started our nights at bars near the tattoo place and twice ended it at the club Spicy. These were late, drunk nights with lots of dancing and playing with Leon’s tourist tchotchkes that he kept buying – the frog, the light-up spinning top. It was fun to have some nights out like this with new friends.
The day I left Chiang Mai for Shambhala In Your Heart Festival I planned to go from the festival to Pai then come back to Chiang Mai on Friday so I would have another day in the city before my flight on Sunday to Myanmar. As I will soon write about, those plans changed entirely. So I never did get to play with the elephants, do a cooking class, or spend more time in cafes or the park, which I don’t regret, I had a great time in Chiang Mai, it just means that I’ll have to go back. I’m already thinking that I could go back after my big plan is done. It’s a city worth revisiting for sure.
I have two night bus border crossing stories for you: first crossing from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos; and second from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both started out seemingly straightforward but turned out to have unpredicted waits and unforetold transfers. It’s because of these experiences that I ended up buying a flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I think I’m done with land crossing for the time being.
Bangkok to Vientiane
I got a bus ticket direct from Bangkok to Vientiane, including transfer from my hostel to the bus station, from a hostel-recommended travel agency near Khao San Road. It sounded nice and easy. It was not.
I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30 like they promised, but oddly in a taxi which was too small to fit all of us for the hour drive to the bus station. Once we got to the “station” we were told to wait on a patch of grass where a group of Westerners had already been deposited. People were going to Phuket, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, but I was the lone Laos traveler. After about 15 minutes our driver came back and called out “Vientiane!” I had to fill in a flimsy ticket and he gathered me and the Chiang Mai group and pointed in the direction of a building. It just had a bunch of minivans outside and we all knew we were getting on big VIP buses so we went right to the main station. We heard someone yelling something but didn’t knew what it was or who it was directed towards – we were all used to ignoring random yelling around us at this point – so we just kept going. The Chiang Mai people found their gate and I found where mine would be if there was a gate 99; it ended at 98 but there was a random bus along the sidewalk near it that could have been 99. Still, I asked someone, and they told me it would leave from 86 instead. I found that one and sat down to wait. I had 2 hours to kill.
About 45 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave 86 was still empty. I got up to ask some people again. Long story short, I found out I was at the wrong bus station. This is the South Station, no buses go north from here. I’m sorry, WHAT?! I found the Chiang Mai group and they were just as pissed as me to learn that we were at the wrong place. We all ran to the ticket booths to try to change our buses since we were clearly not going to make it to the North Station in time. We finally made the decision to split a taxi to the North Station when we ran into our original driver. He was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He ran with us to a minibus and promised to take us straight to the North Station and get us new tickets at no extra cost. At this point we’d figured out that we were supposed to get on one of those minibuses we ignored and it would have taken us to the North Station. That would have been helpful to communicate to us.
The Chiang Mai group got on the next overnight bus no problem, but Vientiane was no longer a simple option for me; I had to get a new ticket to Nong Khai, the border town on the Thailand side. The driver gave me 100 baht in cash to cover the border crossing expenses. Then he made sure we all knew exactly where to go so we would get on the right buses this time. It was after 9 by the time I was finally on the bus.
I was woken up at 8 am in Nong Khai. A Frenchman approached me – Westerners stick together – and we shared a tuktuk to the border. Leaving Thailand was simple enough – the tuktuk dropped us at the immigration building, quick line for the exit stamp, then a bus over the bridge to the next border station – but crossing into Laos took forever thanks to the visa upon entry process. I chatted with a Lithuanian girl on a border run from Southern Thailand while we waited and once we were finally through we split a cab with an Israeli duo into Vientiane. Just a few extra steps thanks to the Bangkok miscommunication. I arrived in Vientiane at 11 am.
Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Every travel office in Luang Prabang advertised a bus from LP to Chiang Mai. Pick up from guesthouse included, big bus, some even promised it had a bathroom. So imagine the shock of all 22 travelers when we were led to a minibus for the 12 hour overnight ride to the border. What happened to that big bus with reclining seats? We were packed in like sardines to the 1-by-2 straight-backed seats, with one unlucky passenger stuck in a fold down center aisle seat. To make it even cozier our bags were placed in the small aisle. At least they served as pillows for some people. We looked at each other in minor disbelief at the complete unsafety of our transportation and the fact that we would be stuck this way all night.
I took a melatonin to try to sleep but the extremely bumpy roads and constant inhalation of dust (I was right behind the driver so I got to breathe in all the dust that was being kicked up through the vents) made it tough. Eventually I curled up into a ball with my feet on a backpack and at least time passed faster.
We arrived at the border at 6 am. It didn’t open till 7:30. We were told to sleep in the minibus so that’s what we did until about 8, when we found out we were waiting for another bus to take us through the border. It arrived at 9. You can imagine how unhappy we all were that we just spent 3 hours in a parking lot. Now we finally got on the big VIP bus that took us to the Laos border for exit stamps and over the bridge to the Thai border for entry stamps. That was the extent of our VIP bus ride.
We were loaded back into minibuses for the ride from the border to Chiang Mai. Someone guessed it was about 6 hours and we’d arrive around 3. No one could have predicted our driver would stop every hour for seemingly no reason, and that he’d take us actually into Chiang Rai for a lunch stop that no one really wanted. We didn’t arrive in Chiang Mai until 5 pm. I had been picked up at my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at 4:30 pm the day before. Over 24 hours on minibuses to get to Chiang Mai.
So there you have it. The hell of land crossing between Thailand and Laos. A quick side note: both of these night buses gave us snacks and blankets. An odd perk in two stressful journeys. The only silver lining I can find is that border crossings like this really bring people together. I am still in touch with Eugenija from Lithuania, and ended up running into the Israeli guys in both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, where we happily greeted each other like old friends. I also ran into two guys from the Chiang Mai bus at a temple the next day and proceeded to hang out with them the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. Nothing like trying travel experiences to bond strangers.
I may not have seen all that Bangkok has to offer tourists but the two things I did see I can definitely recommend.
First, the weekend market.
If you’re ever lucky enough to be in town on a weekend, go check out this massive market. We went on a Sunday expecting the usual market packed with touristy trinkets and knock-off electronics. We were stunned to see small stalls selling awesome clothes, shoes, accessories, and jewelry that were not only nice but reasonably priced. These cool items would’ve been a lot more expensive in the states. I wanted to buy so many things, especially a sick wolf ring that I am still kicking myself for not getting. Ben and Alex gave in to temptation by purchasing a few hilariously fantastic animal shirts. We did eventually wander our way into the more expected, less hipster side of the market and the cheap Thai food area. Pad Thai and a Thai iced tea please and thank you.
The only warning I would give about the weekend market (other than the fact that you’ll want to spend all your money) is that it is a serious trek to get out there. We managed to haggle down a tuktuk to 150 baht (50 pp) to go from Khao San Road, but getting back had to settle for 200. I’m not surprised they wanted more. We must have driven half an hour to get there, to the point where it felt like we weren’t even in Bangkok proper anymore and were worried the driver would take us down an alleyway and rob us. It didn’t help we had the shoddiest tuktuk and a burly driver. We made it safe and sound though.
Second, Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace.
This is the number 1 recommended thing to do in Bangkok, and rightfully so. The complex is culturally and architecturally stunning. It is also not cheap at 500 baht, and one of those moments I had to tell myself “in the States US$15 for something like this is a bargain.”
Wat Phra Kaew, aka the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is an Asian art history student’s dream. The Three Spires are ornate pieces of architecture done in different styles: a seven-tiered Thai roof, a Khmer-style stepped roof, and a gilded stupa. These are accompanied by a huge model of Angkor Wat. Then there’s the boht, or Ordination Hall, that holds the Emerald Buddha, who is actually made out of jade. The hall again is incredibly decorated, including the most impressive interior I’ve ever seen in a temple, from the wall murals to the collection of statues topped by the tiny green Buddha in his seasonal gold dress. Pictures were not allowed inside, but if you look closely at my shot of the entrance you can see him glowing. I sat there for a long time trying to memorize what it looked like. I was impressed. There are many other important pieces around the Wat that grabbed my attention, such as the yakshis (mythical giants standing guard by the entry), the buildings decorated with porcelain, and the mural of the Ramayana on the wall that surrounds the compound. The whole thing is beautiful and deserves a slow wander.
The second part of this attraction is the Grand Palace. The main building here, the Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall), is an interesting mixture of architecture: Western on the bottom, Eastern on the top. That’s about as interesting as it gets though; tourists can’t go inside, with the exception of a small ground floor weapons museum that was missable.
I took my time walking around the complex, completing my exploration in about 2 hours. This was partly because I had time to kill before my bus later that afternoon and partly because it was so damn hot and I was hungover. So the only warning I would give about the Grand Palace is to not go hungover. It’s sweltering in there and filled with tour groups. People constantly stopped in front of the large fans just to feel some moving air. If you have a big night out (or few), do yourself a favor and save it for the next day. But still make sure you go at some point. It’s a gorgeous complex.
Bangkok. This metropolis of Thailand has polarized travelers: some love it, most hate it, everyone has to go through it. I’d gone through Bangkok twice already without actually seeing the city, so the three days I spent there at the end of January were finally my chance to experience this supposedly insane place.
I spent 90% of those days on Khao San Road. It’s not that I didn’t think it was worth it to explore more of the city, and I did get out twice to do some sightseeing activities, it’s just that my time in Bangkok was focused more on the people than the place.
Alex, Ben and I were reunited. The three musketeers from Siem Reap couldn’t bear to be apart so the day I left we devised a plan to meet up in Bangkok. I arrived hours before the others and anxiously waited in the hostel common space for their arrival. Alex was first, with a new haircut and a lost voice it took a second to register who this tall guy standing in front of me was, but once it clicked a jumping swinging hug was all that seemed appropriate. Then we had to wait hours and hours for Ben’s midnight flight to arrive and once he finally walked through those doors we triple hugged in pure excitement.
We had picked a hostel near Khao San Road so we would have close access to the bar scene and quickly learned that we didn’t need much beyond this road. Since the whole point was to just hang out together we weren’t too fussed to go far, plus we had one mission that had to be accomplished: tattoos.
Somewhere along the way in our group chat it was mentioned that we should get tattoos in Bangkok. Alex wanted his first, Ben wanted another, and I was into getting one, but then got one in Khao Lak so I ended up not participating in this round. We searched around Khao San for a bit and found an awesome shop, Ferrider Tattoo.
The first stop at Ferrider was just to check it out, see if we liked the vibe, the art, the cleanliness, and it was all great. Alex had to go back later that night to check about the unique image he was going to get, so our second stop in was after dinner and a few beers. Alex and Ben set a time for the next day now that they both were set on this place and what they wanted to get, but since we were already there Ben decided to get a tattoo immediately.
Of our names. On his ass.
The way I understand it, at some point during Alex and Ben’s reunion in Sihanoukville this idea of getting our names tattooed on Ben’s butt came up. We each had a cheek and were allowed to pick an image or phrase to accompany our names. So when we arrived in Bangkok, Ben told me to pick what I wanted with my name. I got left cheek and picked the Facebook emoticon of Scooter Cat, a personal favorite, to ride forever underneath Kristen. On the right cheek he got ALEX TO THE MAX, a favorite saying from Siem Reap. Nothing says true friendship love like an ass tattoo. After it was done the Ferrider guys gave us a drink in celebration, and later that night Ben would show off this new tattoo in the bar to strangers who now have pictures of his ass.
We returned to Ferrider the next day for visit #3. Serious tattoo time. Ben and Alex both got tattooed at the same time while I hung out and went on a lunch run: McDonald’s and it was so damn good. We listened to music, the guys made a video, we had some Jack and coke while waiting for Alex’s 3 hour artwork to be done; it was a great time. At the end of the afternoon Ben had an awesome new piece on his arm – a bottle with a pirate ship and skull that says Sailor’s Grave, an image that he discovered on the wall of the shop that perfectly accompanies his Sailor Jerry style tattoo ambitions – and Alex’s Angkor Wat stone relief was beautifully replicated on his side. The guys told us to come back later that night for a drink and we’d all go out.
So after a celebratory Swensen’s ice cream stop (what an American food day, but we had to after the excitement of Swensen’s in Siem Reap) and some relaxing at home we went back to Ferrider for visit #4. After drinks in the shop we went to The Club (seriously that’s what it’s called) with our new friends for a bit before going to explore a different part of Bangkok nightlife. They’re great guys. If you ever want a tattoo in Bangkok I really recommend Ferrider.
So that’s how I ended up spending most of my time in a tattoo parlor in Bangkok. The relationship I have with Alex and Ben facilitated the lack of movement around Bangkok because really all we wanted to do was hang out. We could’ve been anywhere and it wouldn’t have mattered, these three days were about us reuniting. So we hung out at the hostel and had dinner and drinks on Khao San Road every night. Because when you know that this is it, after Bangkok everyone goes their separate ways that won’t overlap again without some serious effort (Europe motorcycle road trip 2019), all you want to do is spend time together while you can.
And when that time together involves a butt tattoo, even better.
I was on a train for over 24 hours.
I didn’t exactly realize it would take so long, I thought maybe 18 or 19, but I was wrong.
It started out fun enough. The Butterworth to Bangkok train was just 2 cars, both old sleeper berths with two facing benches and a secured upper level that would turn into beds later. I made good progress on my book – Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, a mystery that I’d picked up in New Zealand and been saving for a long haul like this when a book that reads like a movie would help pass the time – while waiting for the border stop.
The border was easy enough: all stuff off, stamp out, stamp in, stuff on scanner, back on the train. When I got back on my warm vegetables and rice dinner was all set up in my booth for me (a rip off at 17 MYR but a good decision on my part since I’d underestimated the next day’s train time and would need my snacks then). It was decent and at least came with enough fruit to last me three breakfasts.
I figured we would get moving any minute but I was very wrong. Again. It was almost 2 hours until the train started rattling along. I have no idea why. But I’d gotten out my computer during this time and productivity struck. All those blog posts that have been posting daily for the past couple of weeks were written on this train, from leaving Khao Lak to Singapore.
Around 8:30 the guy came to turn my seat into bunk beds. I had the bottom bunk, thank god. I cocooned myself in my private room and read more Grisham till I felt tired enough to fall asleep. It was nice to finally have a bed on overnight transportation.
The morning was a little brutal. I kept thinking we would be arriving any minute and we kept moving. Morning turned into afternoon and I was still crouched in my little bunk. Where was the guy to make this a seat again? I kept shifting positions, trying to read. My iPod had died the night before when I fell asleep listening to it. Time kept passing and we still weren’t there. It wasn’t until around 2 when the train finally pulled into the Bangkok station. About damn time.
I was relieved to get off the train after such a long trip. The feeling of air rushing past me in the tuktuk felt fantastic. I was in Bangkok, and just hours away from another reunion with travel friends. That always makes the trek worth it.
We took a 24 hour bus to Singapore.
Kara, thank you for bearing with me on this one. I know it’s the last thing you want to do on vacation but the budget savings are always so helpful, and at least you had a three-week vacation so a day wasn’t the end of the world.
To get from Krabi to Bali was going to cost more than we wanted to spend on flights. That’s what you get trying to fly around during the holiday season. We discovered that it was possible to take a bus from Krabi to Singapore, which was our end destination in mid-January, and then we could take a round-trip flight from Singapore to Bali for a fraction of the price of multiple one ways. So this is what we did.
We left Krabi at 6:30 am on the 4th in a van. This van was the most crowded one I’ve ever been in; they didn’t leave any seats open for bags so they were all piled up in the aisle next to me. It was not a short ride to the border either. Somehow I slept a lot and podcasts got Kara through it. We were dropped at a border town in Thailand and told that the Singapore bus didn’t pick up there. I’m sorry, what? The van driver was not helpful and just kept trying to leave, not giving us back our tickets so we had no proof that we’d paid to get to Singapore.
The new man in charge at a travel agency was an outright dick. This guy and the van driver are hands down the two most frustrating men I’ve dealt with so far. Eventually we found out that the Singapore bus knew we were there, had our tickets, and would come pick us up at 12:30. This is all we knew and we had to trust it.
They were late, but eventually a glorified pick-up truck with a back door came around to take us to our bus to Singapore. We got in and were greeted by two young smiling American faces. This had to be a step in the right direction. Our new companions were doing a semester in Singapore and had just celebrated the New Year on Koh Phangan, where all their stuff was stolen on the beach. They were just trying to get “home.”
We were taken to the bus and at 1:30 were on our way to Singapore. We could breathe again. Made it. From then on the bus was par for the course; freezing, long, with two quick border stops. We made it to Singapore around 8:00 am and went straight to the airport.
We spent the morning sipping Coffee Bean using their wifi until we could board our afternoon flight. It was a relief to check in and make it on the plane. For me, just another crazy long travel day trying to get to an exciting destination: Bali. For Kara, an unfortunate bump in hopefully otherwise a great vacation. Now we just had to fly to Bali.
So the nerves weren’t gone just yet. I wonder when flying through Indonesia will stop being so scary, if ever. I haven’t been so tense on a flight in years, since I went through my brief fear of flying in early college. When we touched down in the Denpasar airport we looked at each other relieved. We made it to Bali.
We were slow to get moving January 1st. It was our last day with Kate and Garrett, and their last day on Phi Phi, so we knew we wanted to make it to Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed. Eventually we got going, just in time to get on a 2:00 boat.
The boat out to Maya Bay is another organized snorkeling tour but we were hoping to avoid some crowds by going late in the day on New Year’s Day. The first stop was Monkey Beach. This is actually just a small beach that has aggressive monkeys on it. Tourists in bathing suits unload out of their boats to take pictures with monkeys eating snacks. It’s a strange sight and Kara and I weren’t so into it. Kate and Garrett got less into it after Garrett was ruthlessly attacked and bitten by a monkey! He had to get 12 preventative rabies shots when he got home. Sorry Garrett! Stupid monkeys.
Next up was a drive-by past a cave. Not too impressive, but the Phi Phi Leh island was beautiful to ride around. We stopped for some snorkeling and it actually was pretty nice. We jumped off the two-story boat into warm clear water and swam around with the fish for about half an hour. There were so many fish it was like swimming in a fish tank. The coolest part was probably the silver school of fish darting around near the surface of the water.
Then it was time for the main event. The boat turned a corner into Maya Bay and shuttled us to shore. There were still a good amount of people around so we did the quick walk through the jungle to the opposite side, which was more or less just a viewpoint out to another rock island and the sea. By the time we got back though the beach had started to clear out. It was nice that we were some of the last people on the beach; we were able to enjoy it without the crowds and boats everywhere. It is a stunning beach. You wonder if it’s really worth the hype, and it’s pretty damn near perfect. As the sun was starting to go down there was a glowing light coming through the entrance to the bay that created a beautiful, peaceful scene. We got back to the boat before the sun went down and were served fried rice as we started to go back home. Once the sun set it was instantly rocky and colder, and we were happy we hadn’t waited too much longer.
We had a low key night, fitting after the night before, and just hung out at a chill bar, Sunflower, near our hotel playing scrabble and sipping on crazy big frozen mojitos. The next morning Kate and Garrett stopped by to say goodbye on their way out. It was so fun having friends around for a little bit. It’s incredible seeing friends again after so long, and in such remote places, and feeling like it hasn’t been all that long. It felt weird how not weird it felt to see them. It was a perfect time to join together too; an epic New Years party, some chill time in Tonsai and Phi Phi, and an afternoon of snorkeling and beautiful beaches.
Kara and I had one day left on Ko Phi Phi. It was probably one day more than we really needed there but we took advantage of a nothing day to just chill. We had a gorgeous view from our hotel’s infinity pool and spent most of our time there talking about her upcoming wedding (yayyy!) and my thoughts on the next few months. It was more of that sister time that I was so excited to get when she arrived and it was a perfect setting for it.
That evening we ventured to the other side of the island to check out a different beach and again found a nice happy hour spot. This time we were sitting on reclining cushions listening to reggae watching the fire performers practice. We hung out there for hours, through dinner, and eventually got coaxed into the fire show. Kara’s guy had barely had time to practice but he didn’t need it; clearly the pro, he spun a firey stick around Kara in double time. My guy had the poi balls and as he spun them in patterns around me he asked about my single status and if I would wait for him. I teased him about needed to trap girls in fire to hit on them and told him just don’t burn me and we can talk. It was a lively way to end our time on Ko Phi Phi.