So, I guess we kinda live here now.

“Some people never find it. Some only pretend. But I just want to live happily ever after, now and then.” – Jimmy Buffett

The plan was to stop on Koh Tao (a very small island in the Gulf of Thailand) for a week or two. We were going to try scuba diving, enjoy the beach, then get back on the road heading North for Chiang Mai. That did not happen.

Instead, our week or two is now at about six and we don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon. When we started the trip we always talked about scouting out places we really liked for when we wanted to take a break from traveling for a few months. We didn’t think we would end up staying on an island and training for new careers… sort of.

The first two weeks here were great. The weather was beautiful and the beach was fantastic. We swam and enjoyed all the Western and Thai food on the island. I got my open water scuba certification and we were just hanging out with no cares. We stayed up late, woke up whenever we wanted and generally relaxed. Lauren got food poisoning which was not fun at all, and the weather turned bad for about 5 days due to the remnants of a typhoon, but we were really enjoying it here. Our Visas were going to expire and we debated on what to do.

We considered a standard boat/van visa run to leave the country then come right back or maybe taking a boat to the mainland and riding the bikes to Burma and back. We thought about riding to Burma then just continuing up the Eastern coast. Finally we thought about just heading up to Cambodia. We debated for days and ultimately decided to just do a visa run and stay on the island.

We had an interesting mini-adventure for the visa run. We took the night ferry from Koh Tao to Chumpon and slept in bunks on the boat.

We arrived bright and early on a seemingly abandoned port at 5:30 AM and looked around confused. We waited with the other westerners and eventually a guy in a van showed up and started coralling us around. We ended up in a van, then switched to another van, then finally got on the road. What a road it was! The drive took us up and over the mountains toward Ranong. It was the same highway we had so desparately avoided on the bikes on the way down. Being in a car in and of itself was novel and the driver was downright insane. The road was a series of windy blind curves for miles. We spent at least 30% of the time on the wrong side of the road. Basically, there are lines painted on the road in Thailand, but they are purely for decoration. The other side of the road and both shoulders are all fair game. Passing on a blind curve just requires a simple toot of the horn and off you go.

It was about a two or three hour trip before we arrived at Ranong. We were shuffled to a place that copied our passports then stood in line to get exit stamps. We jumped on a boat that could only be boarded with crisp new ten dollar bills from the US for some reason.

The boat was a traditional longtail and we thought we had made it to Burma after a short trip. It turned out, this was the immigration checkpoint #1 of 3. The next thing we knew they were handing us life jackets as we laughed until we realized why. We had to cross a big gap of no-shit ocean to get to Burma. The boat was maybe 25 feet long and the waves were not small. We were splashed and rocked around for 40 minutes as we crossed the sea to Burma. “You may know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

We spent a grand total of 20 minutes getting our passports stamped, then immediately left to come back to Thailand. The return journey was just as fun and re-entering was pretty easy. One gal in our group had a bit of trouble, she had done this several times before and the immigration officials basically told her she couldn’t come back into Thailand. Our guide stepped up and had some words with them and somehow it was magically resolved in ten minutes. +1 for booking through an agency and not trying to do it yourself. On the ride back, we got to know Cecilia from Argentina and had wonderful conversation about the island, diving, travelling and life in general. After the van ride for some reason we stopped to swap vehicles again and another gal in our group became beligerant. “If she missed the ferry, she was going to flip her shit!” she informed everyone over and over. We, along with Cecilia thought it was amusing and were glad that “shit flipper” ended up in a different van for the remainder of the trip. During the last leg which was a high speed chase to catch the ferry that involved dropping off a random Thai lady at a restaurant we chatted about how nice it feels to leave emotions like that behind. I proclaimed that if we missed the ferry the first round was on me and I knew a great seafood place at the pier. We laughed and decided we didn’t really care if we made it or not.

As luck would have it we showed up a few minutes late and they hadn’t even started boarding. That didn’t stop old shit flipper from cutting the line and ensuring she was among the first to be on the ferry so she could wait 30 minutes for everyone else to board. The whole thing was a great lesson in how far attitude can get you in life. Here is one person who is worried so much about something she has absolutely no control over. Additionally, the worst case scenario was that we miss a boat and take the next one. She was worried sick, embarassing herselft as she acted like an asshole. She was verbally abusive to the driver who was just doing his job and stressing out about missing a fricken boat! So much for the island attitude! On the other hand, Cecilia, Lauren, and I, took the oportunity to make new friends. We shared stories about how we might have reacted similarly in our previous lives, but have since learned that most of the time, it’s not worth it to get upset. The whole experience was a great reinforcement of all the decisions we made that brought us to that point.

When we got back we tried a new scuba shop called Goodtime Adventures, they also do rock climbing and flying trapeeze. The vibe at this place was exactly what we were looking for: stress free, laid back and focused on fun. I decided to keep pushing further with scuba and started my training to become a professional divemaster. I’d always thought scuba diving would be a great second career (if you can call it that) and Koh Tao is known for being one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) scuba destinations in the world. Lauren gave scuba a few more tries and decided it really wasn’t her thing so she started a climbing course to become a rockmaster. Like me with scuba, it is something she has always wanted to learn. She has fallen in love with climbing and comes back every day covered in bruises, calluses and smiles.

We’ve made such great new friends on the island, and it’s starting to feel like home. It feels good to have a purpose for awhile. We are absolutely going to get on the road again at some point, but for now we are living cheap and doing what we love on a tropical island… Why would we leave?

The last few weeks have been interesting. We’ve settled into a bit of a routine and our training kinda feels like work… But in a good way. Lauren is already guiding beginner climbers and I’m close to finishing up my divemaster training. She’s seen some amazing views from atop the island and I’ve dove with whale sharks twice! The bonus is once we complete our training we might even be able to make some extra money doing something we and a lot of other people are paying to do for fun.

I’ve fallen in love with the underwater world in the same way I love flying. The silence and serenity are unexplainable unless you’ve done it. I’ve blown a fair amount of money on scuba gear and training, but somehow justified it by the fact that I will be able to work anywhere in the tropics forever if I so choose. The long hair, no shirt and wearing flip flops to work style is fitting me a little better than a buzzcut and a prompt military schedule. The best part is that Lauren is climbing out of the same shop I’m diving at. We share lunch most days and go out to dinner every evening. It’s been busy, but once we finish the training we plan on settling into a part time work schedule and slowing down again.

I think we’re “supposed” to be on a bicycle trip, but I guess this chapter is a little more spontaneous and a little less spinning. In the meantime, we’ve got the two most expensive clothes hangers in all of Asia!

*Underwater photos courtesy of Logan Brown.

*Whale shark videos courtesy of some girl with a go pro who was on the same boat as me.

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2 Weeks in Bangkok

We originally planned to stay for one week but if you’ve read this blog at all, by now you know that we don’t follow our plans and we are always late!  One of my biggest concerns about arriving here was the airport and how we would get to the hotel.  This turned out to be one of the simplest things with only a few hiccups.  We started by going to the wrong line in customs and filling out a bunch of paperwork before realizing that Americans do not have to do any of that stuff.  We found the right line, waited 5 minutes and made it through with no issues even though we only had half of the actual paperwork filled out.  They didn’t look through our bags and didn’t seem to care about the bike box.  Only one bike arrived with us, but the other one was delivered the next morning.  
Qatar airways made 25 hours of travel with two flights and tons of issues that we caused a relative pleasure.  These were credit card points well spent and if they fly to where we are going in the future, we will not hesitate to book with them again!  
We grabbed an Uber which was cheaper than expected and were treated to our first glimpse of Bangkok traffic.  The best way of describing it is courteous chaos.  Lane markings are merely a suggestion and scooters routinely drive on the wrong side of the road, on the sidewalk and between cars at ludicrous speeds.  Sometimes there is a passenger sitting side saddle, sometimes 3 or four people on one bike, and once I saw a mother holding an infant side saddle on a scooter whipping between cars in traffic.  Speaking of sidewalks, apparently there are no wet cement signs because there are constantly scooter tracks, human footprints, and I’ve even seen a few paw prints in the dried cement on the sidewalk!  It is chaotic, but the people are courteous and it somehow works.

We arrived at True Siam Rangnam Hotel in the Sukhumvit district near the “Victory Monument.”  The hotel was very nice, and had a rooftop pool.  Not bad for 40 USD a night.  

At this point, we both had colds and were very jet lagged so we spent most of our time in the room sleeping and resting for a few days.  Before we left the States, we debated on where we wanted to stay in Bangkok.  We chose the area we did because it was away from major tourist areas while still being safe with lots of options for food.  We made a good choice.  The street food was phenomenal and hardly anyone at the markets spoke English so we had to work hard to accomplish the simplest tasks.  It motivated us to learn some basic Thai quickly just so we could get water and food.  Most backpackers tend to gravitate towards Khaosan Road which is basically Bangkok Bourbon Street.  We went out once which was plenty.  If you want to drink, eat a fried scorpion and buy souvenirs from The Hangover movie then this is the spot for you.  I recommend checking it out just to see it, but I don’t think I’d stay here unless I was a freshman in college.  

Santiphap Park

Khaosan Road
That’s not Nirvana!

One interesting thing we found about Bangkok was the complete lack of pad thai anywhere.  The only places we found pad thai were on Khaosan Road and at the restaurants near the malls that catered to westerners.  More common was crispy pork, salt fish, duck soup, fish balls, chicken satay, roasted chicken with rice, and a myriad of things we could not identify.  There are usually 2 menus, one in Thai, and one with pictures for dumbasses like us who came to Thailand and can’t speak Thai.  Nothing made us feel worse than someone apologizing for not speaking English.  We are the ones who came to your country, why are you apologizing?  Can you imagine that happening in America?  It was different around Khaosan though, they spoke enough English to do business and had no qualms about ripping off tourists.  I can’t say I blame them based on some if the westerners we saw.  We did miss out on an amazing opportunity when we were sat next to a kind old man drinking a glass of Chang beer on ice at a food stand in a gas station parking lot.  He smiled at us and knew enough to introduce himself in English.  We wanted so badly to communicate and learn from him, but instead just pointed and smiled a lot.  This was motivation to practice our phrases in Thai.  At one market, Lauren was so excited to try out her new phrase.  She walked up to a lady and said, “Hong naam yu nai kha” to ask where the bathroom was.  The lady responded in Thai.  Having no clue what the directions were but being so excited she understood, Lauren forgot how to say thank you.  Instead she grunted, nodded, turned around and walked away in the wrong direction smiling with no clue where the bathroom was.  We eventually found it a few minutes later and realized these signs we had been ignoring were for the bathroom.  I’ll give them points for accuracy.

The first few days were a challenge but it got easier.  A lot of the stress came not from being in a foreign country, but rather just big city life in general.  Neither of us are city folk so we had some adjusting to do.  As concerned as everyone at home was for our safety, we actually felt way safer in Bangkok than we did in New York!  Eventually we got over our colds and started venturing into other districts.  It is crazy how you can go from the street where a meal is less than 1 USD and walk through a door into a mall selling Rolex watches and Gucci clothes.  They even had restaurants in the mall selling “Thai street food” for 10x the price…  we passed.  

We did more shopping here in the first few days than we have done in the last several years at home.  I was on a quest to find a folding bluetooth keyboard to type this blog on the bike and we ended up at a bunch of different malls selling everything from electronics to used clothing and silverware.  We quickly got used to the pace, although having no kitchen meant going out to eat for every single meal, which sounds awesome until it is raining or you are tired and want to stay in the room.  Poor us, having to walk 50 yards to eat amazing authentic Thai food for next to nothing.

We took a day trip to the “Government Complex” which is a massive building that houses dozens of government agencies in order to get extensions on our Visas.  We could have done this in the states but big surprise…  we didn’t.  It wasn’t too difficult of a process and had we not arrived right around the lunch break it would have only taken about an hour.  The lunch break was not so bad though because the food there was fantastic.  For US citizens, you can extend your visa for a fee.  You just need to fill out some paperwork, attach a photo to said paper and wait in line.  If you need to go through the process, check out the state department website or this blog.  While in the building, Lauren had a bit of trouble in the bathroom.  I waited outside the ladies room for 15 minutes wondering if everything was ok to find her walk out soaking wet and laughing hysterically.  She tried to flush the toilet, but instead hit the pedal for the bidet which proceeded to spray all over the place!  She tried to stop it with her hands like a cartoon character which clearly did not work and the result was a soaking wet Lauren.  To make matters worse, they don’t use paper towels or hand dryers here so options were limited.  So there she was, at the immigration officer’s desk soaking wet and hoping no one noticed.  We did get our extensions though so we were happy about that.

We also delayed our immunizations and were not planning on getting them at all until Lauren decided to at least get the Hepatitis A vaccine.  We went to the tropical disease clinic and the doctor suggested she get several more based on the nature and length of our trip.  She got a little bit of a flu for a day or so from the vaccines so we decided to extend our time in Bangkok by a few days.  I had most of mine up to date from the Air Force, but decided to get a few additional ones:

Hepatits A – Not super common but can be transmitted by people not washing their hands which is not as normal of a practice here.

Japanese Encephalitis – Only prevalent in rural areas, it is transmitted by mosquito bites so we figured this one was worth it.

Tetanus – Can be transmitted by a wound so we went for it as well.

Typhoid –  We passed on this one because the vaccine was only 60% effective.  It’s passed through food/water so we are just going to be careful

Rabies – Dogs are not vaccinated here so we elected to go for this since we are on bikes. 

We should have taken care of these in the states but we didn’t so we ended up spending some extra time in the city.  The good news was the price.  Mine were about 60 USD and Lauren’s were 90 USD since she got the hepatitis shot as well.  It is a pretty cheap and painless process overall if you decide to get them here and have the time.

We decided to move to another part of Bangkok to granny bike.bed which is a little guest house hostel that caters to bike travelers.  Parn and Neemo, our hosts are two of the kindest people we’ve ever met and their home is a great clean and quiet place to stay and assemble your bike.  Our private room was cozy and reminded us of our tiny house.  The room had AC and the showers were open air.  We put our bikes together and spent some time wandering about learning a new area of the city.

On the cab ride from the hotel to the hostel we had a very interesting experience.  We thought we would be better off calling the cab through the hotel since we needed a van to hold the bikes.  He showed up in a small van and it was entertaining to say the least to watch the driver and the bellhops playing tetris to get our giant bicycles and luggage into the back of the vehicle.  Eventually it sort of worked and Lauren was tucked into the back with the bikes quite cozily.  Then the real madness ensued.  The hotel gave the driver the wrong address.  He was headed to “Bangkok bike and bed” while we were supposed to be going to “Granny bike.bed”.  They are literally 2 blocks from one another but explaining that proved impossible.  We tried google translate but were failing on an epic level.  The next thing we knew the driver was calling his relative to put us up in his house for 250 baht a night.  We kept trying to explain we wanted to go to the hostel but he was insisting it is bunk beds and we do not want to stay there.  Keep in mind, all of this is being done very poorly on google translate.  The word confused came up at least a dozen times!  I kept trying to show him the map on my phone but after awhile it became apparent that he was trying to give us the runaround.  Eventually we got the point across and he got us where we needed to go, but the last 15 minutes was a very awkward silence with a pissed off cab driver.  Oh well, we got there and were met by Parn and Neemo who were fantastic!

We finally put the bikes together and found out Lauren had a bent spoke and a wheel that needed trued up.  Why not another 2 days in Bangkok?  We went on another scavenger hunt to find a wheelbuilder who fixed the wheel.  He dropped it off the next day, but the tire was no longer mounted and all the sealant I had just put in was gone.  Thus began the quest to find a compressor and more Stan’s sealant.  We went all over Bangkok and eventually got everything squared away right about the time the last train out of the city was departing for the day.
We stayed one more day and were not upset that we did.  We meet Arne, from Germany, at the hostel and spent a nice evening with him.  He was also cycling and had been all over the world.  We picked his brain and shared stories and explained several of the dumb phrases that I use without thinking like “hauling ass” and “knock yourself out” which I said while offering him beer which confused him.  It was a nice evening.  The next morning, we procrastinated again and missed our intended train in the morning.  We caught the next one though and it was quite an experience!

Parn gave me directions and said that it would not be a bad ride… only a few kilometers.  We got a grand total of 20 feet from the door and had to stop to adjust straps and a rubbing brake pad.  Then we tried to go the wrong way down a one way street and had to turn around.  Next we found an impossible intersection and had to push across a roundabout up a 1 foot curb to get on our bridge which was actually quite nice.  Finally we got off the bridge and merged onto the next road.  We went under a tunnel and popped out onto a 10 lane circus of soot spitting busses from the 1960’s, taxi cabs, cars, and scooters flying by us on both sides with no shoulder on either side and no other choice but to press on.  It felt like the New Jersey Turnpike and LA freeway combined and we were on 70 lb bicycles on the first mile of our trip!  I have no footage of this portion because I was task saturated and in survival mode however this scene is an accurate reenactment…

Our plight must have been obvious because some good samaritans gave us a break and allowed us to change lanes 4 times to get to the outside and eventually into a scooter lane.  We crossed through the worlds largest roundabout and somehow made it to the train station.  It was the most insane 2 miles of my life on a bicyle and I’ve been T-boned by a crazy lady pulling into a trailer park in Mississippi!  What a start to the trip and what a ride!