Thai Beach Vacation in Hippie Paradise
May 4, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
Somehow we’ve been on the road for 6 months, but haven’t been on “vacation” yet, so we decided to fix that by planting ourselves on a beautiful little beach for two weeks. Fair warning: this post is super long, so here’s the CliffsNotes: “awesome beach. chilled for two weeks. saw some fish.”
The Notorious Koh Phangan
We have several friends from home who have gone to Koh Phangan, an island in Thailand, and gotten “stuck” there for weeks, months, or make annual month-long pilgrimages there. The island is notorious as a backpacker party shitshow, but with so many recommendations, we decided to read more and check it out.
Here’s the scoop… the island has a jungle interior that is surrounded by gorgeous beaches, and was apparently the inspiration for the book and movie The Beach (which I’ve never seen, so can’t comment). The main tourist center is this beachy peninsula called Haad Rin on the southeast corner of the island (“koh” or “ko” means island and “haad” means beach in Thai).
From our limited experiences passing in and out of Haad Rin (we stayed on the next bay which was a COMPLETELY different vibe), it is a complete and utter mess of a party. Seriously, we only passed through Haad Rin when we were coming and going from the island, and coming and going from our one day-trip away (more on that later), and it was a total shitshow. Haad Rin is famous for a monthly full moon party, but to keep business steady, there is also a new-moon party and a half-moon party, which are complemented by boat parties, foam parties, jungle parties, waterfall parties, and any other excuse for a party.
On our one day-trip, we got to Haad Rin around 6:30am (we were being picked up from there at 7am). It was 2 days after the full moon party, so apparently way more mellow, but people were still up partying, the beach was trashed – both with trash (bottles, straws, buckets, lost flip-flops, lost clothing), as well as a whole bunch of people passed out on the beach. In some areas, the spilled alcohol made a stinking slush that you could barely step over or around. The partiers were mostly western, but some Thai people too. This one guy from Koh Samui tried to talk to us in broken English, but he was so wrecked that every time he opened his mouth I was overwhelmed by essence of liquor and vomit, and he started crying at one point and then tried to buy us a drink… at 7am.
Because of this party culture, around the island you can see how some locals make money by washing buckets for re-use. Buckets (of alcohol), it should be said, come with about 6 straws, but people often get one of their very own, and they are made with some deathly combination of local liquor and mixer. Remarkably, when we passed back through Haad Rin at 3:30pm, the beach clean-up crew had systematically made their way down about 2/3 of the beach, and there was a distinct line between the beautiful white sand beach and the parts where they were still clearing post-party wreckage.
Anyhow… On the east side of the island, on the next bay over from Haad Rin and accessible by boat, is a series of three beaches that you can easily walk between by foot (but are a boat ride from Haad Rin). These are Haad Yuan, Haad Tien, and Haad Why Nam. Collectively called Haad Tien Bay, they are a pretty awesome place to plant down.
Welcome to Hippie Paradise, a.k.a. Haad Tien Bay
Voila! Welcome to hippie paradise! It’s something of a Burning Man flavor with zero sense or radical self-reliance. There’s a perma-community of people who live here, people who stay for a few months at a time, or people who leave and come back, leave and come back. Then there are the visitors, like us, who come for a few days or a few weeks, and slide into the community without setting down permanent roots. And then, sometimes you get partiers who make their way over for a night event, clutching their buckets in a good-natured yet very “bro” sort of way. The community seems pretty welcoming and we enjoyed many of the connections we made, but – understandably – you could see how the perma-community family is fairly insular, and how there were several strands of escapism. (Because really, is there a better place to escape to?)
And, similar to that burner vibe, here in the bay, you can rock at dance parties a few nights a week, and the bass resonates and echoes around the bay so you feel that playa sense of your heart synching to the rhythm while you sleep. There’s a permanent scent of weed and hash, and easy access to a wide variety of whatever else you might want. But then there are also daily meditation and yoga classes, massages, and a variety of other types of healing arts.
And, of course, the beaches. All three beaches in the bay are spectacular. The water is crystal clear, brilliantly blue, calm and warm as a bathtub, and shallow – waist deep to 150 feet out.
The bay consists of three beaches. The center one, Haad Tien, is where the famous Sanctuary is, a multifaceted boutique wellness retreat center that brought tourism to the bay. It’s on the pricey side, but a keystone in the community. Just south of it is Haad Yuan, which is where we stayed. There are several places to stay in Haad Yuan and it has a bit more tourist activity but less of a holistic vibe. There is also a bunch of activity in the area between these two. Just north of Haad Tien is Haad Why Nam, which is a super peaceful spot with one set of bungalows at present, plus a yoga platform, and the beach has a rocky area with tons of amazing fish and marine life to check out. Walking between the three beaches is super easy and we did it just about every day, although when we were figuring out where to stay the first day, it was less than ideal to walk between them all carrying a pack.
Two Lovely Weeks
During our two weeks there, the days blended one into the next. Often, the days had a pleasant monotony… We would wake up, have breakfast, go for a swim, take a shower, have lunch, go for a swim, bum around, have dinner, bum around, go to sleep… Interlaced with other activities around the bay.
We went to a few yoga classes, which ranged dramatically. We went to one class at Sanctuary, which was both bad and expensive. Literally, I ended up with neck pain that it took me two days to shake, wrist pain, and general discomfort with little benefit from a meditative, pranic, or other perspective. The class was called “yoga alchemy” and the teacher (Simon) was just as bad and pretentious as the class name might lead you to believe. We took a class at Blooming Lotus (on the hill above Bamboo Hut), which was a pleasant slow new-age experience and the teacher was decent and had a nice vibe. It was equally expensive ($10/class at both Blooming Lotus and Sanctuary). Funny, though, I think that the teacher, Annette, owns the studio and runs teacher trainings, but she was vocal in the fact that she is currently trying to train herself to teach by mirroring students. Sigh. Also, she varies the style that she teaches based on her whim, so you never know if you are going to get a fast vinyasa class or a chill hatha class. We also went to an afternoon hatha class with Jason on the Why Nam platform, which was sweet and chill. It was one of those important reminders that teaching yoga well relies much less on formal training and the checkboxes of “being a good teacher” and much more on attitude. It’s an ever-important lesson (in my critique of myself as a teacher as well as other teachers), and Jason had an amazing welcoming personality and seemed to genuinely shine.
Every Sunday there is a hoop jam, which was super fun to take part in. I haven’t been that inspired about hooping the past few years outside of Hoop Vinyasa, but it was really fun to get into that groove and to have even a short time of my own hoop play on some rocks by the ocean. I wish I had brought smaller hoops (my travel hoops are huge, but better for teaching people), or even some tape to fix up how trashed my hoops are from traveling… and I am aching for a pair of flags and fire tools. One of the girls we met here, Sofia, brought a few fire wicks for her hoop, so I lit up for the first time since we left home, which was really fun and made me feel both rusty and homesick.
While we were there, I taught a Hoop Vinyasa workshop at Sanctuary, which was super fun. The students ranged from people who were really solid hoopers to people who had never kept a hoop on their waist before, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. If we were staying longer, it would be interesting to try to teach other yoga classes and Hoop Vinyasa workshops, and see how it would feel integrating and contributing to the community more.
Sanctuary hosts a free meditation every day at 6pm, with different teachers and styles each day. One person taught a sound meditation (we went twice), which was super powerful. It was an hour of monotonous chanting and om-ing in the very resonant sound dome, and a great experience. I’m still pondering some of the things that the leader of the sound meditations said as offerings to focus meditation… “the magic point where air turns into breath.” We also went to a lovely if not slightly over-the-top moving meditation and yoga nidra. (Have you ever noticed how sometimes you can take the words that new age teachers say and arrange them in any order or throw together a random assortment of catch-words? This one centered on “nourish your body temple.”)
We went to a few dance parties, which we desperately needed. Some of the DJs were awesome (electronic Pink Panther mix was a highlight), and we were down with the mostly-house music. Because we were there near the full moon, there was apparently a larger-than-normal Haad Rin insurgence, but we still had some great dance floor moments of connecting to rhythms and connecting with other people. The only problem is that we are no longer on a late-night timetable, so we only stayed up late a couple of times.
Most nights, we saw one, if not two, movies. Big Blue shows back-to-back movies each night starting at 7pm, so we would often go over there to have dinner and catch one or both movies. And every Thursday, Sanctuary hosts an open mic night, with some sweet highlights and songs and performances from people living or visiting the bay. Some of the best moments were people who said they always had a fear singing in front of people, but then had impressive voices or performances – it was inspiring to witness.
The only issue we had was a skin rash that I got while we were there. I think it was a heat rash and became super itchy, and I spent a few nights in comatose sleep after taking Benadryl to stop the itching. Sometimes the water had little stingy things in it, which was a big mystery of the bay – everyone seemed to have some theory of sea lice, pieces of jellyfish cut up by boat propellers, etc. But as problems go on our two-week vacation, it was pretty idyllic.
Accommodation and Restaurants
There are a bunch of housing options in the bay, and most of them don’t allow for advance reservations, so you just have to show up and walk around. In Haad Yuan, there are several places (Ocean Rock, Barcelona, Big Blue, plus one fancy place), then on the hill between Haad Yuan and Haad Tien there are Bamboo Hut, Eden, Horizons, in Haad Tien there is Sanctuary, Beam, and a couple of other options in the back, and then in Haad Why Nam there are the Why Nam Huts.
We stayed at Barcelona on Haad Yuan and felt satisfied with our experience. We weren’t as excited about Barcelona itself, but really loved our bungalow: it was cute and yellow, with a balcony view of the ocean and palm trees, yet not super far uphill so it was easily accessible. At $20/night, it was in the mid-range pricewise. There were a few options in the $15 price range when we were looking, but they were not as nice, not as clean, not as spacious, or didn’t have the great location and view of ours.
At this point, we are not planning any repeat trips, although so many of our friends have gotten stuck repeat visiting the area that we don’t want to rule the option out. Knowing what we know now, our top choices of places to stay would probably be Big Blue in Haad Yuan, Bamboo Hut on the hill between Haad Yuan and Haad Tien, or Why Nam Huts in Haad Why Nam… all three seemed to have great staff and vibes, a nice community, and good restaurants.
Our favorite restaurants were the ones at Big Blue and Bamboo Hut, and we ended up eating almost exclusively at those two… they were the best in terms of quality, pricing, staff, etc., and both had lovely atmosphere. Bamboo Hut is where the perma-community seems to hang out the most and where most of our friends recommend as their top lodging and food choice, but we were equally impressed by Big Blue. Also Big Blue shows two movies every night during dinner time, which was a lazy and loungey way to end many lazy and loungey days.
Most of the staff at these places are Burmese/Myanmar. Someone said that Burmese/Myanmar people are to Thailand what Mexicans are to the U.S. They’re apparently able to be hired for much lower wages than Thai people, get very few days off, and work long hours with their work including room and board. And Burmese/Myanmar people are known for being hard workers and super friendly, both totally true based on generalizations from the people working here.
We loved hearing the sounds of little geckos all around us and our bungalow, and kept wishing them well in eating all of the little bugs and mosquitos that might be around. We saw one large Fuck-You Lizard in our bungalow, and heard plenty of their noises all around us. (Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you… it’s worth googling about how they got their name.) There were plenty of little lizards on the pathways, a few frogs in the evenings, and I saw one fierce lizard (like a baby monitor maybe?) scratching away at the dirt.
There were a whole bunch of dogs who lived on the beach and the various establishments, which seemed good-natured and would trot up and down meaningfully, or sleep on the walkways and beaches, or start barking just to create a cacophony of echoes. There were a few cats around, some of whom were friendly in that cat-like way, and Mitch got a surprise cuddle session while we were watching the moon and stars reflect on the ocean one evening.
And, of course, there were fishes… So many fishes!
Snorkeling and SCUBA diving
A little background on us (for those of you who don’t know). Mitch has been diving since the wee age of 12, but Jewels has never felt comfortable in the water and had a traumatic experience nearly 15 years ago that fueled the need to be on dry land. Thanks to a bunch of lovely and shallow swimming pools in Cambodia, and these two weeks of constant exposure to a really calm giant bath-tub of an ocean, I’ve been working on my relationship with being in water – and learning to swim.
With my increasing comfort and ability to deal with water, we decided (very successfully) to keep pushing my boundaries. I had some inspiration from an Israeli couple that we met. The guy, Adi, also has a deep-seated discomfort with water but had a great first snorkeling experience and was going out of his way to seek out more snorkeling and learning to love the water through it.
So, about one week into our stay, we tried snorkeling in Haad Yuan – not actually to see anything but sand (there are no fishes there aside from in a rocky bit on the side that I was not comfortable swimming to), but so I could experience the feeling of flippers and a mask, which was totally feasible with a life jacket. Even though I was miraculously dysfunctional and couldn’t keep water out of the snorkel, I still had amazing success getting more comfortable, much aided by a life vest and Mitch holding my hand. And, in less than an hour, I went from clutching onto Mitch to being able to kick around on my own (as long as I was in a place where I could stand on sand when I felt nervous).
In Haad Why Nam, there is an area where you can sit on your but in the shallows and play with fishes, which let you pet them (ie: they eat the bits that you stir up when you drag your fingers through the sandy bottom and run right around your fingers) and nibble on your toes and fingertips. We put on masks (no flippers, snorkels, or life vests available) and I was able to just stand, or even sit, and check out all of the crazy stuff happening underwater. There is just so much happening down there! Crazy underwater plants and corals and weird brain like things with so many fishes of all shapes and sizes and personalities – rainbow ones and stripey ones, and a school of white ones with black tips that look silver as they flash turn.
It was really exciting to see and experience everything through those very sheltered experiences, and the desire to experience more things like that helped me get over some of my fears. Plus, Mitch was super eager to dive while we were there, so we decided to arrange a day-trip with Sail Rock Divers out to Sail Rock. The trip was reasonably priced, $130 total for Mitch to dive and me to snorkel with my special friend (to be explained), including breakfast, lunch, and pickup from Haad Rin. There were cheaper options available, but the company was very well rated and could provide the two very different experiences that we both needed. We were super pleased with our experiences with them.
Mitch went diving, where they had three divers per divemaster, and I went snorkeling, and we paid an extra $15 so I could have my own dedicated divemaster-in-training (my best friend for the day). Harri (short for Harriet) was a super phenomenal life-saving, calming, amazing presence, and I am so grateful to have had her there.
We went to Sail Rock, and were in the same place for two dives. Sail Rock is this giant rock sticking out of the ocean halfway between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan and teeming with life because all the fishes congregate there. The only issue is that there were a million other divers around – apparently there are usually 3 or 4 boats, but there were 12 on that day. The extra crowding was probably due to the peak in tourists for the full moon and Songkran (the Thai new year, which we decided to avoid by staying Haad Tien Bay), plus many dive shops had been closed for those reasons for the several days prior.
There were so many incredible plants and anemones and corals and fishes and mollusks… the diversity and colors were incredible, and it was like visiting an alien world. There were batfish, parrotfish, scorpion fish, groupers, pipefish, barracuda, but my personal favorite was the moon wrasse for its incredible colors, electric blue with magenta and yellow. There were schools of fish in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, and some of the schools would swim in a line, as though there was some invisible marker they were following. This is whale shark season, but we were not lucky enough for that experience. (Mitch was hoping for it, I think I would have freaked out.)
I did great, thanks in equal parts to my lifevest and Harri. It just made such a huge emotional difference to know that she was always within arms reach and would make sure everything was okay. The first time in the water, we looped all the way around the rock twice. The second time, there was a bit of a storm brewing and the waves and current was a bit choppier, so we stayed on the calmer side of the rock nearer to the boat, and she helped me feel so supported and comfortable. The trip from the boat to the rock was really scary for me and Harri had me swim on my back so I didn’t have to look down into the nothingness… but on the way back, when we were nearly back at the boat, I decided to take advantage of my mindset and support system and swim on my belly and experience looking down into the abyss. So… I asked if she would be willing to hold my hand while I swam back, and then kicked my way back to the comfort of having a floor beneath my feet!
All in all… super amazing and eye opening and I am going to face my fears and do it again. But hopefully I can do it again with my wonderful lifevest plus special friend combination so I can continue to build confidence.
Getting to Haad Tien Bay
Before we close this post, we need to talk about the travel time… Between our friend’s place in Bangkok and Haad Tien Bay, it is nearly 24 hours of travel, involving just about all forms of transportation apart from motorbike and plane (although you could do those too). It was a bit confusing at first, but super easy once you figure it out.
For a $45/person combined ticket, we left Bangkok on an overnight 12-hour train headed for Surat Thani. We were in an air-conditioned second class sleeper car (apparently the combined ticket is $30 if you get a fan instead of AC car, but that requires more advance booking), which was super awesome. There was dinner available on board ($5 for a totally decent and large meal with curry, rice, soup, vegetables, and fruit), and the evening and morning you end up with two comfy seats facing each other, which they convert into two beds (one upper and one lower) which are quite comfortable and seem to be totally clean with freshly laundered bedding.
From the train, you get on a bus from Surat Thani to Donsak, which takes about an hour. Then, from the bus you get on a 3-hour large ferry ride with an air-conditioned interior to Thong Sala, which is the main pier on Koh Phangan. Both the bus and ferry are included with the train price in the combined ticket. On the way back, I loved standing on the ferry deck and watching a multitude of tiny fishes jumping up out of the water in the wake of the ferry, probably having a feeding frenzy on what the ferry stirred up.
It’s really amusing. On our travels around Asia, we often feel like we are the chattel of different local people when we are in transit. As you get shuffled from bus to bus, on rest stops, etc., local people seem to take “ownership” of you and you feel like you are “their farangs” (foreigners). They repeatedly count us, and look at us like we’re crazy if we try to understand their systems (the systems are completely incomprehensible to us but somehow seem to work out). If you are transferring between modes of transit, they often put a sticker on your shirt, which feels kind of like a little temporary dog tag. Sometimes the stickers are color coded so they can easily keep track of who is going where, and sometimes they are blank white so they can write on your sticker once they assign you to your vehicle. It’s strange yet somehow endearing.
From Thong Sala, it’s about $3/person for a truck taxi to Haad Rin, and then $10/person for a boat taxi from Haad Rin to any of the beaches in Haad Tien Bay. The boat taxis are this weird boat mafia situation. It is only a 5 minute boat ride, but the only alternative is a 30+ minute muddy messy 4×4 truck ride for an absurd price, so you’re at the whim of the boat taxi guys. They used to charge $3/person, but then at some point it got upped to $6/person in calm water and $10/person in choppy water. Now, it seems to be $10/person anytime in the high season or when there is a tourist influx, and $6 when they feel like giving you a break.
For reference, there are three alternative ways to get there. (1) You can take a bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then follow the above. It’s apparently cheaper but not nearly as nice, plus friends have said that there is a lot of petty theft on that bus. (2) You can fly from Bangkok to Surat Thani, and some airlines (Bangkok Air, Nok Air, Air Asia) have combined tickets from Bangkok to Surat Thani and include the bus and ferry to Thong Sala. (3) You can fly from Bangkok to Koh Samui, which is the island just south of Koh Phangan, and then you can get a ferry from there to either Thong Sala or to Haad Rin.
We didn’t take a lot of photos, but here’s the set if you want to click through ’em all: