A Thai Christmas

Our last day of classes in December fell on Christmas Eve last year. Since our last class ended at 7:50pm and no international flight leaves out of Seoul past 8 o'clock at night, all of us were stuck in the city for the night before Christmas. That night Justin and I had a Christmas Eve Party of drinks and dessert at our apartment.
The next day we left for the airport to fly to Bangkok with our three friends Claire, Tracy (from New Zealand) and Tanya (from Canada). We doned linen Thai pants and t-shirts in six degree (C) weather and hustled to the bus stop with our backpacks to catch the airport bus.
We landed in Bangkok at mignight local time. Walking outside to the transportation platform, we were hit by the musty, hazy, polluted air of the city. Instantly I felt my throat effected by the horrible air. We spent the night in a big backpackers hostel off Ko San Road in the middle of Bangkok.
The next morning we flew an hour to Surat Thani, a port city in the south of Thailand. We took a bus and eventually a ferry (with tons of fellow backpackers) to the island of Ko Samui, one of Thailand's most popular islands known for its gorgeous beaches and the infamous Full Moon Parties on the nearby island of Ko Pha Nan.
We stayed on Big Buddha beach on the north side of island, appropriately named for the enormous Buddha statue at a temple off Big Buddha Pier. We rented small (airconditioned!) bungalows fifteen meters from the beach in a quiet, not so touristy area of the island. The night of the first day was the Full Moon Party, so after some great curry at a nearby restaurant, we hopped on a speed boat, destined specifically for the party on Ko Pha Nan. The drivers of the boat, not Thai nor Westerners, are sure to be making a huge profit, since they cram as many party-goers as possible onto this high powered boat. There were three boats driving back and forth from the island all night. Our boat tickets were on a string (I'm assuming so we wouldn't loose themm in the coming chaos), reminding us of us in bold print the times we were to catch the boat back to Ko Samui when we'd had enough of the party. The earliest time was 3AM and the last at 11AM.
Arriving onto the island of Ko Pha Nan, we made out way through the small town of clothing shops, 7-11s and curry bars, until we reached the huge beach on the north end of the island. I couldn't believe the masses, as we stepped out onto the sand. There were people pouring out of the beach front bars with buckets of liquor, dancing on large platforms on the beach, surrounding bonfires and firedancing performers and the occasional party-goer releiving himself in the ocean. Men and women, to be exact... The party was fun, a long night of dancing and drinking cocktails out of buckets. Then it started to rain so we headed back to the pier and tried to get a spot on the next boat back to Samui.
The next morning we rented motorbikes, one of the biggest highlights of the trip by far. Justin and I enjoyed them so much, we're looking into getting one here in Seoul. Although even driving through the busier beaches I was a bit nervewracked trying to keep up with the madman Justin. Also, getting used to driving on the left side of the road was a bit hard for us North Americans, but no sweat for the Kiwis among us. At one point we were heading back to our bungalows via motorbikes from the other side of the island, and of course Claire and Justin were leading (racing, actually). Only the slower 'ajimmas' (as Tracy and I called ourselves) didn't fail to see the huge blue sign to turn right to head towards Big Buddha beach. Tracy and I ended up spending two hours drinking a couple Chang Beers outside the little shop across the street from our bungalows with a couple of German guys, waiting for them. Two hours and one full tank of gas later, they rolled in. They ended up circling the whole damn island before ending up at the spot that took us twenty minutes to get to.
Of our four days on the island we spent a lot of time shopping at Chaweng Beach and Big Buddha Pier. We got quite good at bartering as well. I admit I was a bit hesitant to push such a low price on the shop owner, but eventually I got real into it. Although each shop owner differed in how much they would budge, most of the time if you follow a simple formula you'll get the lower price. The formula is this: always cut the price by half and then debate from there. Once you get just over half, start really pushing your price. If you really think they're bluffing, say no and walk away. Most of the time, they fold and agree to a price. Many shop owners pause when you ask the price and look you up and down (probably trying to figure out if you have the money to pay double) before offering a price. The bartering is really expected on their side and look stunned when a foreigner agrees to the first price they shout out. It's a real game, and so many of the shop owners are really good at it. Although some have a few selling speeches in common, such as "Good for me, good for you." or "Give me more. Give me more."
We spent our last three days in Bangkok. We took the ferry to Surat Thani and then an overnight train to Bangkok. Both our ferry and train rides we spent with three French men, traveling the same route. One seemed like he belonged in the 1980s, sporting a portable radio blasting American rap. On the ferry ride, which was packed with travelers, he tried to start a dance party right there on the deck! In the morning on the train, he set his radio above the communal sink and danced to the rap as brushed his teeth! We should know, as our beds on the train were right in between the sink area and their beds. In any case, they were good fun.
In Bangkok, we met up with Justin's friend Matt who had been living in Thailand since he came to see us in Korea. We stayed at a great hostel/bungalow style motel near KoSahn road. We shopped along KoSahn road almost every day, but did get out of the touristy area to see the Gold Mountian Temple and Grand Palace, among some other places. We hired two Tuk Tuks for the day, as they charged only 30 baht per Tuk Tuk. The Thai government tries to increase tourism, by giving Tuk Tuk drivers gas coupons, if they bring tourists to diamond shops and tailors, in between taking them to various monuments around the city. The first tailor we went to, we didn't stay long enough and act interested, so our driver didn't get his gas coupon. So we agreed to stay at least fifteen minutes in the diamond shop and act as if we could afford the diamond jewelery. I made the most of it, trying on a $37,000 diamond ring! I actually didn't want to take it off and that frightened Justin a bit. We all tried on the most expensive rings, necklaces, bracelets we could find, with the exception of Justin and Matt.
Another great thing we did in Bangkok was take a long boat ride along the canals in the city, where we could see more of Bangkok that wasn't in Lonely Planet. The ride took us through mainly residential areas in Bangkok and then along the river that flows through the city. Our driver paused at one point where we bought bread from a little stand on the bank ofa small canal and fed an enormous school of really fat catfish. Their heads were about the size of baseballs! The driver even encouraged us to try and pet them. Justin did, of course. We witnessed some other interesting sites along the way, such as a man opening a window of a rickty wooden house, leaning out and puking into the canal! And a short distance further, a little Thai boy bathing in the canal.
On our last day before we flew back to Seoul, we took a bus from Bangkok to the famous floating markets, which were two hours outside of the city. At first we thought the ride was much shorter and were worried we'd miss all the market action. But we were lucky and made it there with plenty of time. We hired another long boat, although this one was much lower in the water than the one in Bangkok. Our driver, a young Thai man, took us through a small, somewhat abandoned canal and then turned a corner which revealed a large explosion of the colors, action and liveliness of the floating market. As we slowly drove into all the action, vendors in boats wold approach us selling things from sliced mango and pieces of coconut, to small wooden dishes and other Thai souveniers. The banks of the narrow canals were packed with vendors squating amongst their goods, waving people over to dock their boats and take a look. A couple times we pulled up to the side of the canals and admired the hand carved furniture, or handmade traditional Thai hats. But most of the time I was snapping pictures of the vendors in their boats. There is absolutely no space wasted in the floating market, as with every inch you move there's another vendor, boat or possible sale in your face. Our driver kept warning us to kkeep our hands inside the boat, as we often collided with other boats. We got out of the main canal to one of the smaller areas of the market, which was mainly a food market. My favorite vendor was an old woman selling huge raw pieces of red meat which were layed all over her wooden boat, covered in flies. Tanya, the vegetarian in the group, especially enjoyed that one. We tried to buy some pad thai from a woman who was stirring some up on a wooden boat/kitchen, but she said she was "sold out", as she was making it for the enormous group of male vendors all pulled up beside her. Our driver ended up taking up to a small stand near the bus terminal, after the ride was finished for some amazing pad thai. The floating market was definitely the best thing we saw in Thailand, not only because of the dizzying array of colorful smells and sights but because we got to see a part of Thailand that isn't aiming to please tourists, where tourism isn't their main industry.
Bangkok is a great city, as it doesn't seem as dense as other major cities, in terms of population. But it certainly is dirty. Walking down the streets, you can see dark stripes of dirt on the formerly white facades of the older buildings. Of course, the enormous portraits of the Thai King framed in gold at every intersection does distract one from the dirtiness. One portrait, on the exterior of the BMW dealership, is over two stories tall! Thai people I thought were very friendly, always offering helpful advice in English. But of course, a fairly disturbing part of the Thai society are the young Thai women on the arms of older western men. It's hard to ignore it, as they were everywhere we went, from Ko Samui to Bangkok.
And of course, as most people will tell you, the best part of Thailand, despite it's friendly people, golden temples, gorgeous beaches or great shopping, is the food! By far, I think the best pad thai or red curries we had were the ones that cost the equivalent to a US$1 that we bought on the street in Bangkok. We watched most of them cook it right in front of us, in stands about the size of phone booths. Everywhere we went, we ate amazing food, right down to the ferry terminals!
After our contract is finished in Korea, Justin and I are going to travel for the month of July to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Because, of course, no one in their right mind can resist seeing Thailand twice in one year.