On our wedding day, sometime after the ceremony, sometime between mouthfuls of pork belly rolls and champagne and nightfall, it dawned on us that we were leaving the very next day for a week of relaxation in Thailand. The lead up to our wedding had been all-consuming, so we chose a destination that would provide soothing rest and relaxation and one that was familiar as we’d had no time to research extensively. The choice was simple: Thailand – specifically Koh Tao, with a stopover in Bangkok.
We set off the next day and headed to the airport for the first stopover. We’re lucky that the Qantas First Class Lounge is a familiar stopover whenever we head overseas – and one we always look forward to so we went to the the airport early to spend some extra time in the lounge. There I discovered that the Co-pilot had pre-arranged for us to have a private suite! Ostensibly this treat was organised as a romantic gesture as it was our honeymoon but with the cricket turned on almost the instant we entered the room, I’m not sure who was the true recipient of this treat… Still, I’m pretty content to put up with cricket if I can indulge in delicious food and an endless flow of Champagne, followed by endless chasers of dessert wine. Yes, cricket is a small price to pay.
Some 8 odd hours we landed in Bangkok. Bangkok is surprisingly polarising city amongst travellers – some love it, some hate it with a vengeance. The Co-pilot and I love the city and its bustling, packed, sweaty streets crawling with life and we inevitably find ourselves in Thailand around once every 2 – 3 years. Although it was late and we were tired when we landed in Bangkok, we dropped our luggage off at our hotel in Silom, one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Bangkok and where we normally stay. We meandered down to one of the many busy stalls lining the roads for a late night snack and one restaurant in particular had caught our eye with industrious som tum, or green papaya salad makers industriously pounding away at their traditional wooden mortar and pestles.
These stalls are a display of fast food at its very best, as within minutes of our order there was a melee of noise with bashing of the mortar and pestle, crazy wielding of a large cleaver and the powerful wok after burners put to work. The result was a plate of spicy delicious som tum, rougly cleaved chunks of grilled pork with a spicy sweet prawn paste laden dipping sauce and crunchy Chinese kale. All for the ridiculously cheap price of about $5AUD. How, I ask, can you not love Bangkok?
Som tum is one of our favourite salads and I’m convinced a good som tum is a cure all remedy, so when you find a tasty som tum, it’s worthwhile keeping the peepers peeled and being very observant on the techniques and ingredients used – or as the Co-pilot demonstrates in the video, just stand your ground in a good vantage point and refuse to budge.
Morning in Silom provided a little glimpse into suburban Bangkok life. It is admittedly, a pretty affluent, tourist-friendly neighbourhood so perhaps not your typical representation of Thai suburbia, but still a welcome if sanitised insight for farangs like us. There are throngs of school children and office workers constantly milling around on busy Convent Road buying their breakfast, lunch or one of the many tasty looking street snacks.
After a quick snack of skewered meats and sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes, we amble our way slowly through the searingly, oppressive Bangkok humidity across to Chinatown – a place that always seems busy and packed to the hilt with purposeful people: people appraising the produce with a critical eye determined to haggle the best price; or people who seem determined to get elsewhere and aren’t adverse to using their elbows as cattle prods for crowd control.
The best thing to do is to arm yourself with a street snack (my choice is tart green mangoes smothered in sweet, spicy chilli salt) and plunge yourself into the throng of people bustling along.
When the sights and smells of Chinatown overcame us and snacking wasn’t satisfying enough, we headed off for lunch at Krua Apsorn, a small eatery apparently favoured by the Royal family. Perhaps it was the address we had, the directions we got or the heat – or more likely a combination of these factors that made Krua Apsorn incredibly hard to find. Hunger and sheer stubbornness made us persist with the search for the restaurant and we were glad for it. The menu, though scant, beckoned to our grumbling bellies, the restaurant was blissfully air conditioned and the staff quick to hand us icy cold beers of salvation.
The food was indeed delicious and standards a small notch above the usual eatery in cleanliness, presentation and decor. Not that any of that is actually important when the food is delicious. The succulent tasty morsels of fleshy crab leg meat drenched in a garlic laden sauce alone made me a fan of Krua Apsorn. The Southern style lotus shoot curry was thinner and spicier than expected but quite enjoyable once the raging chilli fire was doused by beer. Not the cheapest meal by Thai standards, but for a mere 680 baht or $20 AUD; still a bargain in my books and a delicious teaser of the flavours of Bangkok.
We left Bangkok and flew to Koh Samui, transferring to Koh Tao by ferry. Our destination was Koh Tao Bamboo Huts, an expansion of the resort we’d stayed at previously and a location that to us epitomised the utter slothlike, jelly-legged, droopy eyed relaxation we were so desperately seeking.
Weary from the transfer from Bangkok, the oppressive cloak of afternoon heat and impressive vistas of clear warm water so inviting, we could barely wait to ditch our luggage and slip into the water. Conveniently, the rocks in front of the hut made for an easy climb down and instant access to the water. Just as we remembered last time we were in Koh Tao, the water was oh so luxuriously warm and the fish were friendly, curious and plentiful, crowding around us like nervous jittery butterflies. Some could actually even be lured closer if you clicked your fingers underwater, darting right up to our snorkel masks for a better look at us. We only climbed out of the water when the sun sank low in the sky casting a deep burnt orange glow over everything and decided it was an apt time to swap snorkels for Champagne glasses. We’d been hoarding the bottle of Billiecart Salmon Champagne that the Qantas crew gave us upon learning we were on our honeymoon and it was savoured with relish in the balmy afternoon heat.
And because we were feeling so decadently lazy and relaxed, we could muster little more strength than to amble down to the resort’s restaurant, aptly named Starlight. It was the perfect end to the evening, sipping icy cool fruit shakes whilst watching the sun sink into the ocean and flood the sky with bursts of spectacular colour. Watching the last of the long boats trail back to shore navigating in the dim dusk light whilst the bright twinkling lights of squid boats bobbed on the horizon. Just reminiscing on this scene transports me back to that calm, relaxing state so vividly I can almost feel the warm evening breeze rolling in off the sea.
Dinner at the a resort restaurant is something we’d normally avoid, but the fare at Starlight was surprisingly good. In fact, amazingly, their crab fried rice might have been the best fried rice I’ve ever had. The soft, fluffy warm wok tossed rice flavoured with garlic powered crab sparked a weird fried rice obsession that would follow me for the rest of the holiday, much to the chagrin of the Co-pilot. Sadly, I forgot to photograph said amazing fried rice, and sadly, the rest of the fare at Starlight though tasty, did cost the equivalent of about 10 Thai meals at a roadside shack diner. However, with the stars twinkling overhead and the waves lapping gently against the platform, it was conveniently ignored.
Our nights were always shared with noisy nocturnal Tokay geckos, that lived in and around our hut. These are very large geckos that derive their onomatopoeic name from their very loud and very distinct mating call: a clearing of the throat that resembles a rumbling chuckle before the gecko belches out a hearty “to kao” to all in the vicinity. There was no way you could ignore the gecko’s call. It set up reverberations in your bones, and inevitably, my even if deep asleep, my eyelids would flick open instantly from the first preparatory throat clearing. Perhaps it did think we were ignoring it, as occasionally it would leave a small pellet on our bed to remind us they were in fact always voyeuristic peeping toms that would wouldn’t think twice on defecating on us as we slept if it weren’t for the mosquito net in the way. To be honest, they weren’t that bad – they were actually pretty cute and I mimicked their call back to them whenever I could (much to the chagrin of the Co-pilot).
The next day brought bright sunshine and another glorious day promising yet more snorkelling and exploring.
Our hut had glorious 270 degree views of the bay – the alfresco bathroom in particular provided a very unique view. The shower was designed and angled to provide privacy from neighbouring huts, but otherwise open to the elements allowing you to soak up the warm sun as you showered and perhaps provide the odd unsuspecting snorkeller or passing long boat as unexpected eyeful.
The real unexpected treat for us and one that provided days of enjoyment can be seen in the photo below. See that dark round blob in the middle of the photo? That’s a large bait ball of fish and once we discovered it, the Co-pilot and I dashed in to frolick amongst the melee, all prior learned knowledge about large predatory fish being attracted by bait balls conveniently forgotten.
We had out trusty camera mask with us, so we managed a few photos and videos of the bait ball. It certainly did attract predators, but thankfully nothing we saw that was larger than a school of juvenile barracudas that would flash with frightening speed to pick out their victims, and lumbering large fish that scooted near the edges. We swam amongst the bait ball fish so often that they seemed to learn that we were of no threat to them and eventually started crowding around us for their safety.
I’m not a comfortable swimmer. In fact, I’m not sure you could classify my abilities as “able”. But in those warm, clear Thai waters, I am quite comfortable snorkelling and the lure of seeing an abundant myriad of exotic fish was enough to get me past my fear of swimming and in the blue. Our days were typically spent snorkelling and as I regained my confidence in the water, were explored further offshore, swimming out past the treacherous long boat highways where one had to look around every few strokes to ensure no errant long boats were speeding their way out towards rocky outcrops with 20m drops that harboured an amazing variety of large fish.
Swimming, snorkelling and general lazing about is a pretty comprehensive and satisfying itinerary, but if one wanted to properly explore what the rest of Koh Tao had to offer, the freedom of a motorbike was required. Once we hired ours, I dutifully transformed back into Bao, my unimpressive alter ego. I’m continuously astounded at how effective my sun and motorbike safe outfit of shorts, sneakers, one of Co-pilot’s oversized shirt and a motorcycle helmet are at transforming me into a small child of indeterminate sex. Still, I assumed the familiar position behind the Co-pilot, clamped on for a motorcycle hug and we went off exploring.
The main benefit of a motorbike for us is being able to explore the many beaches around the island – particularly important when strong coastal winds are blowing and you need to find a calm snorkelling sanctuary on the protected side of the island.
Equally important is the easy, at a whim access to all the roadside eateries just a short ride from our resort. Our favourite find on the island was a small eatery called Bam Bam, a pretty simple spartan offering with just a few straw covered thatched huts. Remote from any sea breeze, it was guaranteed to be stinking hot during the day and a mosquito haven at night, but the food was always super tasty and almost embarrassingly cheap, not cheerful mind you, but cheap nonetheless.
The crepe cart on the main street provided ample dessert options, but somehow, more often than not we’d invariably end up with a crispy hot nutella and banana crepe, generously drizzled with condensed milk.
Night time exploring missions uncovered this roadside thatched hut on the road to Sairee Beach. The deliriously fragrant aroma of grilled chicken or gai yang plumed in thick clouds, the tendrils of which would draw unsuspecting passerbys in.
Continuing on to Sairee will lead you to a large white sandy beach littered with bars squatting on the sand right at the waters edge. During the heat of the day, there are sun tanned bodies frolicking in the water and at night these bars come alive with young tourists lounging on the sand, fire twirlers that light up the darkness like beacons and draw crowds in and cocktail happy hours that seemingly extend long into the night. Speaking to some of the other travellers will reveal that many are in Koh Tao to experience go scuba diving. The warm tropical water, abundance of coral and fish and clear visibility make it a very popular scuba diving destination, so it’s not surprising to learn that since the 1990′s Koh Tao has become one of Thailand’s most popular diving sites.
And scuba diving was of course something we were keen on doing on our honeymoon. Well, when I say “we” I mean mainly the Co-pilot and when I say “keen” I mean slightly petrified. You see, almost 2 years ago now the Co-pilot and I, along with some good friends convinced ourselves that it would be great to do a beginner’s scuba diving course in Sydney. A marvelous and rewarding experience, and if you like peering at and chasing fish as much as I do, then worth your while to do the tests and training. You do need to pass a basic swimming test to even undertake the scuba practical exam, which is only logical as you’re preparing to dive deep into the ocean, and only a problem if you can’t swim. Ah. Yes, a small but significant barrier as I indeed can’t swim. Yes, berate me all you like, I am an Australian born and bred but yes, I can’t swim.
So for a few months I took adult swimming lessons to build up my non-existent confidence in the water and attempt to train the distances I needed to swim: 200m – a mind boggling distance for a non-swimmer who threatens to melt on contact with water. Miraculously somehow I managed to backstroke 200m (albeit very slowly and very awkwardly) then tread water for 10 minutes. I passed the rest of my scuba practical and against all odds, I got my basic scuba diving license! Who would have thought it would be possible? I still couldn’t swim to save myself but now I had a license that would legally put me 20m under the surface of the water!
And then I had my little bathtub accident late last year and collapsed a lung. A collapsed lung or pneumothorax is a contra-indication for any scuba diving as anyone who has suffered a pneumothorax before is at higher risk of having another one. And having a pneumothorax whilst diving is a bad idea as the air from the lung typically escapes into the chest cavity and as a scuba diver ascends from the depths, this air trapped in the chest cavity expands crushing the lungs further and can cause all sorts of unwelcome life threatening scenarios. No one wants life threatening scenarios. So to ensure I was cleared to dive I saw a vast number of specialists, doctors licensed to assess dive medicals and even had a CT scan of my lungs. All the results came back clear, but with semi non-committal vague advice along the lines of: “I can’t really say whether or not you’d be safe, but you could probably dive if you wanted to”. Honestly the medical advice was far from convincing, but with some none-too-gentle encouragement from the Co-pilot I took the chance and found myself on a dive boat in Koh Tao with the Co-pilot, oscillating somewhere between mild excitement and extreme hysteria. I found my brain was unhelpfully fond of remembering the recent so-called honeymoon murder, a husband murdering his wife whilst scuba diving by switching off her gas tank.
Given my apprehension, we’d elected to go with the dive outfit with the best reputation on the island. They were a tad bit more expensive than their competitors but given I craved the assurance of safety, it was a small price to pay. Our boat chugged along to our first dive site 11km from Koh Tao: Chumphon Pinnacle, a large granite boulder starting at 14m and descending down to 44m. We jumped off the boat and once we descended beneath the surface and the vast curtain of bubbles disappeared, I was faced with amazing visibility and squillions of schools of different fish all congregating around the pinnacle. My inhibitions were lost as we swam along marvelling at the swarming fish, colourful coral, waving anemones and even a hawks bill turtle foraging for seaweed and algae. I ascended to the surface at the end of the dive and thankfully could report no pneumothorax emergencies!
I was so buoyed at the experience that a few days later we went on another dive. Previously we’d had a young English girl as our instructor – a careful, alert and aware instructor; and this time, we had a young English male instructor training for his masters. Unfortunately, this dive didn’t go so much to plan and about 20 minutes into the dive, I noticed a steady stream of bubbles making a mad dash to the surface from a split in the tubing feeding into my regulator and realised that I had lost a lot of oxygen quickly and I was suddenly dangerously low – I was in the proverbial and literal “red danger zone”. I signalled to the instructor, pointed hysterically at my regulator and we cut our dive short and made for the surface in an orderly fashion. Then it happened somewhere near the surface on a safety stop: I actually ran out of all my air, the needle had dropped to almost zero and I had to swim over to my instructor, and putting my emergency training into practice swapped my regulator for his backup regular to breathe from his tank. I then ascended to the surface on his air. Crisis so very narrowly diverted. Trust it to happen to me.. Back on the boat we checked my tank and a weak wheeze sighed out of the tank. It had barely a breath of oxygen left in it. I was very glad I’d taken the refresher course in diving safety and emergency techniques, but it was all too close for comfort.
Our second dive on the same trip unhappily didn’t go quite according to plan either. Dive groups will typically have divers from a range of backgrounds and experience levels. Very experienced divers will breathe very shallowly and conserve their oxygen, nervous beginners like me will suck down air desperately, particularly having just experienced running out of air a mere 30 minutes ago, I really needed the reassurance of oxygen in my lungs. The downside of course is that I will run out of oxygen faster than the other divers and will need to ascend earlier. As the entire group dives and ascends together, I understand this is rather annoying for the very experienced divers who still have enough oxygen for a long dive in their tanks. Instructors will tend to navigate this discrepancy by trying to balance extension of the total group dive time, and beginners like me not running out of air again. My instructor seemed a little lax, cruising along nonchalantly as I gave him running updates on my dwindling air supply. When I had 100 bar of oxygen I signalled to him. He nodded and kept swimming along. 80. 70. 60. 50!! He relented and started to ascend to the surface leaving the group to hover around 5m beneath the surface. 30!! Incredibly, he turned and started to descend again. I’m at 20!!!! The time for gesticulating and underwater charades was over. The Co-pilot and I looked desperately at each other and started to ascend to the surface without our instructor. On seeing us ascend he too started to ascend. Almost running out of air twice, or more accurately, actually running clean out of air was far from a nice experience. I thought those running out of air scenarios were hypothetical. I hadn’t expected that I’d be experiencing them so intimately.
I grew tired of life threatening scuba diving and made it my mission to instead frequently sample the resort’s massage services. The main massage “room” was an open air pagoda, with an impressive view perched high above the turquoise water on a rocky outcrop with the sounds of waves, and the occasional squeal of an excited swimmer as your massage relaxation soundtrack. Much better than suffocating underwater and a much nicer way of spending my honeymoon.
As each day settled into night, we were treated to the daily show of spectacular sunsets, flame coloured fingers stretching languidly across the sky and painting the sea surface a glowing neon orange. One memorable evening I recall us sitting on our deck watching the sun sink below the horizon and the light play race across the sky. In the far distance on the horizon we could see a storm brewing and after the sun set we watched the occasional arcs of lightning flicker through the clouds whilst sipping a cold beer, listening to Mark Farina’s San Fran sunset sessions and enjoying the gentle lull of the warm sea breeze. We fell asleep nestling in each other’s shoulder nooks and the crazy anxiety and bustle of the wedding became a distant memory. So relaxing that I finally stopped dreaming about complicated wedding spreadsheets and anxiety laden wedding to-do lists that night.
That is what I associate with the words ‘pure bliss’.
503/05 Samsen Rd (between Thanon Rachathiwat and the National Library), Bangkok
Tel: +66 2 66 88 788
Koh Tao Bamboo Huts
30/2 Jax Trek Koh Tao, Thailand
Tel: + 66 (0) 77-456394by