Not to be missed… Haad Rin, Koh Pha Ngan, South Thailand

The first time I heard of Koh Pha Ngan was at Siargao Island, Philippines way back in 2008 from 2 British guys who just came from the island. From their stories, my impression of Koh Pha Ngan was drink-till-you-drop Full Moon beach parties which lasts all night. Not my kind of thing. So Koh Pha Ngan wasn’t really in my must-visit islands.

Days before the Full Moon Party, Haad Rin Nok is almost deserted. One can freely enjoy the peaceful blue sea and fine white sands

Haad Rin Nok, a day before the Full Moon Party

The South of Thailand was unfortunately not included in our 2009 Southeast Asia backpacking trip due to financial and visa constraints. So now, fast forward to 2011… with a free* 2-month visa sticker to Thailand (which we got at the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia, for those who are curious. See * at the bottom of the page for more information), we are making sure to explore as much of the South as we can.

Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

While in quiet and sleepy Khanom, we learned that the Full Moon Party is coming up in a few days so we thought of starting our Gulf of Thailand island hopping at Koh Pha Ngan. Not a bad idea to see the world-famous beach party once in your life right? So 5 days before the full moon night, we took a songtheaw (80B/US $2.66) to Don Sak pier and caught the 10am Rajah Ferry boat to Thong Sala Pier which costs 220B (US $7.33).

Haad Rin Nok from a viewpoint just a short hike from Seaview Sunrise Resort

The month of May is low season for Western tourists. That particular weekend though was the last weekend before the new school year starts for Thai students so there were a couple of Thai families on the ferry with us heading to Koh Pha Ngan. We met these amazing and beautiful kids; Wen Wei, Pei Wa, Phet and Pheng; who taught me several Thai words.

My beautiful 'teachers' =) Wen Wei, Pei Wa, Phet and Pheng.

Upon reaching Thong Sala pier, we were surprised that the songtheaw fare to Haad Rin was a fixed rate of 100B (US $3.33) per person. Don’t bother negotiating. It will NOT work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re alone or 8 of you are sharing the ride. Some French girls were unhappy with the fare rate as well so we thought of renting a minivan to take 8 of us to Haad Rin. Same story, 100B each. Renting a motorbike for 150B (US $5) crossed our minds. However, when we saw the winding and steep road on the way to Haad Rin by minivan, we were glad that we didn’t push through with the idea.

View from Sea Breeze Resort, Leela Beach or Haad Seekantang in Koh Pha Ngan. The sea is so calm and clear.

It’s a good thing that the minivan stopped at several hotels and guesthouses so we can check out cheap accommodation. 5 days before the Full Moon party, most inexpensive rooms are booked or reserved in advance! We decided to stay near the beach so we walked around the resorts just a few meters from the sea.

My first impression of Haad Rin, Koh Pha Ngan... 5 days before the Full Moon Party... it was a little piece of paradise!

My impression of Koh Pha Ngan, specifically Haad Rin Nok or Sunrise Beach where the Full Moon Party is at? I was stunned! The water is so blue, clear and calm… the sand so fine and white. Haad Rin is an amazing sight! The beach was not crowded at all. That would change though 2 days before the Full Moon party.

Mellow Mountain Resort... not so mellow when party music blaring until 6 in the MORNING!

We ended up staying in a double room with fan and attached bathroom at Mellow Mountain for 300B (US $10). The resort was up on the rocks, overlooking Haad Rin Nok. It would have been a nice place to stay longer but the cottages are not well maintained, some trash scattered near our cottage, music blaring at the Mellow Mountain bar and nearby Kangaroo bar until 6am.

Mellow Mountain Resort up on the rocks. Perfect location, but not the perfect bungalows.

After one night, we have to say goodbye to our priceless overlooking view of Haad Rin Nok and transfer to nearby Seaview Sunrise Resort (400B/ US $13.33). We got a good deal since we’ll be staying for a couple of days. Just a 100B difference and still a few meters from the beach, we got a well-maintained and clean cottage.

Seaview Sunrise Resort.. right on the beach... the best and affordable place in Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

Facilities which guests may enjoy freely includes unlimited coffee, use of the pool table, wifi, use of flat screen TV with wide choice of movies, hammocks, inflatable mattress for lounging at the calm sea, woven mats for sunbathing at the beach, sunblock and insect repellant. The resort restaurant also offers delicious Thai and Western food which suits a backpackers’ budget. The manager, Tim, a gorgeous Thai lady originally from Bangkok, is very accommodating and pleasant. The staff who are mostly from Burma, are a friendly bunch too. We learned that Tim recently took over the resort, barely 6 months. Her family owns the land where the resort stands and after leasing the land for more than 20 years, her family decided to take over. There were some bad reviews online about the earlier owners of the resort, which used to be named Seaview Haad Rin. But I’m sure under Tim’s new management, it’s not far-fetched that Seaview Sunrise Resort would welcome back previous guests and say hello to more new guests.

Nightly fun and party at the Drop In Bar. It gets more crowded as the Full Moon night gets nearer.

Bucket drinks for everyone!

Foam parties at Drop In Bar... where some 'crazy' things happen

As each night drew closer to the Full Moon, more and more people are arriving from different parts of the globe. The nightly fun and games at Drop In Bar and Cactus Bar gets merrier, crazier and more crowded.

Flaming jump rope... would you dare to try? =p

Games include the flaming jump rope which I dare not try, Tug o’ War and shooting a soccer ball from several distances where one can score a cup of whiskey coke, vodka red bull, beer and the grand prize of vodka bucket, which we won 3 times! Woot!

Fun and games! Vodka bucket shot, flaming jump rope and a sack race!

Nightly fun at Koh Pha Ngan

During the day, when mostly everyone is just lounging around Haad Rin Nok with a good book or catching up on sleep while sunbathing at the beach, one can also hike to nearby beaches like Haad Rin Nai or Sunset Beach, where you could catch an amazing sunset (what else?).

Sunset at Haad Rin Nai

Another option is walking to Haad Seekantang or Leela Beach for a swim and again to catch the sunset while having a drink at Lighthouse Bungalows.

Clear blue-green water at Leela Beach

Haad Rin town or the commercial area a few meters away from the beach have several cheap accommodation options for those who prefer to stay away from the beach scene. There are also a range of restaurants offering good value meals which includes a can of soda. Jaya Restaurant which also have rooms for rent, got one of the best tasting Tom Yum Goong for 90B (US $3) which comes with either a bottle of water or a can of soda. For my seafood pasta fix, I usually go to Little Home Thai Restaurant. 100B (US $3.33) for a generous serving of seafood in tomato sauce! Yummy! For those looking for near authentic Italian food, there are several restaurants to choose from, however, their pasta dishes can’t be lower than 250B (US $8.33). Still cheap for others, but not for me!

Moon rising over Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

It would have been a big mistake to skip Koh Pha Ngan or believe what everyone say about Haad Rin and head to the other isolated beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. My week stay at Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan was one of the best so far. I would definitely be back in the future.

* 2 month visa free Thailand stickers are issued to citizens of the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Tunisia and South Korea. Just give your passport at the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia in the morning. Before the consulate close at 4pm, your passport is ready for pick-up. For citizens of other parts of the globe, 2 month visa sticker to Thailand costs Malaysia Ringgit RM 110 (US $36.66). Information was good as of April 25, 2011.

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The Philippines: More than the usual* (Introduction to a series)

Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Mountain Province. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Philippines is a country blessed with amazing natural wonders. However, tourist arrivals don’t even come close to that of Thailand. I have read several round-the-world blogs yet a visit to the Philippines is almost always not included.

Clear blue-green water and limestone karsts in El Nido, Palawan

Why is that so? I have spoken with backpackers from all over the world whom I’ve met when I traveled around Mainland Southeast Asia last year and asked this question several times. One obvious answer is that the Philippines is not part of the mainland. Honestly, I half-heartedly believe that. Indonesia is also an archipelago, farther than the Philippines from the mainland yet tourism statistics is better?

The most amazing sunset I've seen in the Philippines. Saud Beach, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The main reason is definitely the security concerns in the Philippines. With all the news about kidnapping and terrorist attacks, who would want to fly in? But then, the same things happen all over the world, even much worse!

Fish pens in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

I am also almost a victim of my ignorance and almost didn’t see the beauty of Mindanao. When we were planning a 6-month backpacking trip around the Philippines in 2008, I was adamant in not including Mindanao. I’ve never been to this infamous island yet I believed all the things people have been saying that the whole of Mindanao is unsafe and that the Muslims are not kind-hearted people. Though it’s true that foreign and local tourists need to avoid very few places with continuous political instability in Mindanao, but just like everywhere else, being alert and common sense is necessary.

Bongao Peak, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Mindanao

Looking back, I was glad to make that trip to Mindanao. We even ended up staying for 2 months! It was in Mindanao where I met honest tricycle drivers and strangers who welcomed us to their homes expecting nothing in return.

The old city of Vigan, Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yes, one have to be truly adventurous enough to book a flight and hop on a plane to visit the Philippines. Those who do are pleasantly rewarded.

The magnificent Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I’ll be sharing my photos and (mis)adventures during my 2008 backpacking trip in the coming posts. From way up north in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte, all the way down south in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. Exploring most of Southeast Asia intimately for more than a year gave me a deep appreciation of my country and being Asian. It was a pleasure to see the Philippines first and I would love to share its beauty as I see it.

*More than the usual.. This line was part of Wow Philippines Tourism campaign which was successfully launched in 2002. Several well-made 30-seconder plugs were aired in CNN and other international channels. The line perfectly described what Philippines got to offer. More than the typical Asia that everyone knows.

Back (kut teh!) in Malaysia!

I have been to Malaysia countless of times yet the thought of indulging on my favorite local dishes keeps me excited each time. My flight last Wednesday, 15 December was no different. On the plane, though delayed for half an hour, I can’t help to dream of various Malaysian food I have missed for the past 6 months. Bak kut teh, xiao long bao, satay, kuey teow, laksa.. name it! I’ve drooled for it.

Walking at Level 5 View Deck of Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Since I arrived way too early for dinner, I took the time to explore the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). If you’re arriving from the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), a shuttle bus would take you to KLIA for only RM 2.50 (US $.80). The airport is huge but not as impressive as neighbor Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

Exploring KLIA

Shuttle bus from LCCT to KL Sentral charge RM 8 (US $2.58) while from KLIA, it’s RM 10 (US $3.22).

Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan, KL!

Now the highlight of my first night back in Malaysia.. Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan! The first time I tried BKT was way back in 2002, at the same stall. Never mind the sweaty forehead, nose and upper lip! I just love this piping hot local dish eaten along the busy streets of KL’s Chinatown! Though I have tried excellent BKT at a more comfortable place such as Pao Xiang Restaurant in Pavillion KL Shopping Mall last June 2010, nothing beats the authentic street-side way of how locals enjoy BKT.

Bak Kut Teh is definitely a must-try Malaysia local dish

We ordered the BKT in clay pot which cost RM 9. The serving of meat, mushroom, tofu and various pig organ is a lot. The mix of assorted spices on the soup base is just heavenly. According to the street stall vendor, their specialty is the pig trotter with peanut for RM 7. I’d probably try it the next time I’m back in Kuala Lumpur.  A mental note to also eat at the Kim Lian Kee Hokkien mee which I tried back in 2002 as well.

What else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

On the way to the Bukit Jalil Bus Terminal to catch a bus back to Batu Pahat, we noticed the National Stadium was well-lit, with hundreds of motorbikes and cars parked outside. Also, loud cheering can be heard that no matter how tired and sleepy I felt that time, I can’t help to suddenly feel energized too!  Well, what else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

2 - 0 in favor of Malaysia! Woot!

You guessed it right! It’s soccer! The Malaysia – Vietnam AFF Suzuki Match was ongoing so after quickly leaving my heavy backpack at the pay locker, we head to the stadium to catch the last minutes of the game.

The game was won by Malaysia (2-0) so the stadium was full of happy Malaysians! I can’t help to cheer with them too. Good thing it wasn’t a match against the Philippines or else I would really stick out like a sore thumb!

It’s not difficult to love the Malaysian culture, with the great food and awesome people. I’m really glad to be back!

The Marble Mountain of Da Nang

Welcome to the Marble Mountain, Da Nang

On the 6th day of our pleasant stay in Hoi An, we extended our motorbike rental for another day to see the Marble Mountain. We dare not take the bus again after the annoying incident which happened the last time we went to Da Nang.

The street leading to the entrance of Marble Mountain

You’ll know you’ve reached the place when you see the street with the stalls selling all kinds of marble figures. Buddha, dragons, tigers.. name it! Everything you can think of, made of marble. What do you expect? Welcome to Marble Mountain!

Whew! Climbing the steps leading to the pagoda was tiring!

The entrance fee is 15,000 dong (US $.85). Be ready to climb cemented steps to see the caves and pagodas.

Steps going up the Marble Mountain

There were several vendors selling cold drinks if you get thirsty from your trek up the mountain. Thanks to sponsored concrete seats scattered all around, you can enjoy your drink and have a good rest too!

I'm not a Buddha but a beautiful and graceful apsara =p

It took us the whole afternoon to explore all the caves, pagodas and altars all around the sacred mountain.

I think I'll just wait outside..

Inside one of the caves

The temperature inside the cave drops a bit. A relief from the humid afternoon.

Natural light source brighten the caves

Buddhas were all over the place!

Round and happy Buddha

Buddha on a lotus flower

Meditating Buddha

More Buddhas!

A panoramic view of Da Nang from the Marble Mountain reward the one who sweat it out.

 

Da Nang from Marble Mountain

We saw China Beach from afar so we decided to drive there to see the beautiful beach up close.

On the way to China Beach, here’s what we saw on the main road.. Cows! We have to stop to take photos.

We saw local men collecting seashells when we arrived China Beach. They sell it for 3,000 dong per can.

A last look of Marble Mountain from China Beach before heading back to Hoi An.

 

A day trip to My Son

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see German couple, Werner and Ruth, whom we’ve met in Dalat. They are the coolest couple we’ve known. Both are retirees and regularly flies to Asia to escape the winter months in Germany. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own motorbikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.

The ruins of My Son

We rent 3 motorbikes for the whole day; 1 automatic gear bike for 80,000 dong (US $4.57) for Ruth and 2 manual gear bike for 50,000 dong (US $2.85) each for Werner and Ming. Of course I shared the bike with Ming since I’m not as confident as Ruth to drive my own motorbike.

It took us an hour and a half to reach My Son. It was a pleasant bike ride because the weather was cool and not too sunny.

One of the less damaged structures in My Son

The entrance fee to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 60,000 dong (US $3.42). Worth a visit if you have the time to spare.

How splendid the temples may have been. It’s just unfortunate that the war between the United States and Vietnam ruined most of the structures.

My Son Ruins

Our wonderful excursion with Werner and Ruth was capped by plates of cake, coffee and tea at Cargo Cafe. Mango cheesecake and chocolate cheesecake for only 25,000 dong (US $1.43) each! Really a must try.

We had excess petrol loaded on our motorbike so we decided to extend the rental for another day.

A trip to DaNang’s Marble Mountain on my next blog!

Happy to be stuck in Hoi An Part 1

The riverside of the ancient town of Hoi An

It was more of a necessity that we have to stay in Hoi An for 13 days. Our passports were sent back to Saigon for the visa extension and we had to wait until it was ready. A quarter of our two month stay in Vietnam was spent in Hoi An and there’s no other place I would be happier to be stuck in.

Lanterns of Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns lit up the ancient town of Hoi An when night falls

Some of the hotels and guest houses within a kilometer walk from the ancient town have swimming pools, free use of internet and are under the US $15 rate. We wanted to stay within our US $10 budget yet lodged near the Old Quarter so we took time in looking for the ideal accommodation. Besides, we knew we have to stay for days so we wanted our lodging to be as cheap as possible. Right in the center of the ancient town, in Le Loi Street, we found Thuy Duong; a double room with fan, cable television and own bathroom for US $10.

One of Hoi An's specialty, the White Rose dumpling

Within an hour after settling in our hotel, we have roamed around the ancient town and have tried Hoi An’s specialty, the White Rose dumpling. Bits of pork, shrimp, herbs and spices are mixed together, wrapped in smooth rice paper shaped like a rose then topped with fried shallots. More than a year now, I can still remember how good it tastes, specifically at Mr Hong’s and at Friendship Cafe.

Cao Lau, another Hoi An specialty. Photo courtesy of http://travelhungrychef.com

Another specialty is the Cao Lau, a noodle dish topped with either pork or chicken, vegetables and herbs. What made the dish unique is that the water used in making the noodles are from the lone Ba Le well of Hoi An. The dish is not one of my favorites though I recommend first time visitors to try it.

Hoi An Chicken Rice. Photo courtesy of littl3monk at Flickr
Chicken rice is a common dish in most Asian countries including Vietnam. In Hoi An, we have discovered that the best tasting chicken rice is being sold in a small dark alley along Le Loi Street. When night falls, we often see the alley crowded with locals dining on small table and chairs so we got curious and tried it. It’s not just good on the palate, it is good on your budget too. 10,000 dong (US $.57) a plate!
A chicken rice alternative for those not brave enough to try street food on a dark alley is Ly’s stall at the open restaurant. For 20,000 dong (US $1.14) a plate, it’s almost as good.

Lanterns in Hoi An

One can never ran out of things to do around Hoi An. Museum and Cultural sites tickets can be bought for 75,000 dong (US $4.28). Each ticket allows one to choose 1 museum out of 4 and 1 cultural site out of 4 listed to visit. If you want to visit all 8, it would cost 300,000 dong (US $17.14). For the budget-conscious traveler, there are several museums which are free of charge. Most of it though are also shop houses but one is not required to purchase anything.
For those who love to drink and party, Hoi An got a lot of bars offering free or discounted priced drinks even beyond happy hour. One place we gave a shot offering free rum coke is the King Kong Bar. The young teens on motorbike giving out the flyers all around Hoi An were successful in promoting the freebie because the place was packed with tourists! Well, it just shows how backpackers love an occassional freebie. We didn’t stay long though as some of the tourists at the place makes us feel uncomfortable. The German couple we were with, Thorsten and Susanna felt the same way so we headed back to the Old Quarters and stayed at the Before and Now bar until 2 in the morning.

Late afternoon in Hoi An

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see another German couple, Werner and Ruth, we’ve met in Dalat. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own bikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.
More of My Son and Hoi An on my next post!

Unexplored Vietnam Central Highlands

While on the pursuit of renewing our Vietnam travel visa, we got the chance to explore some parts of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Although the Central Highlands got a limited number of tourist attractions, it is still worth visiting.

The roundabout in Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/zorrovisa/155498330/

From Dak Lak, we took a local bus to Buon Ma Thuot for 14,000 dong (US $.80). The 2 hour ride was a bit uncomfortable because the bus was too packed and smelly.

Our packed bus going to Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of Ming (mt_kang at Flickr)

We suspect that was where we lost an mp3 player too. The crowd of people standing on the  aisle made it difficult for us to see our bags stored at the back of the bus.

Busy market in Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/16796900@N00/520945833/

From the bus terminal, we took a motorbike for 10,000 dong (US $.57) each to Ly Truong Kiat Street where several guest houses and hotels were located. We stayed in Cong Ty Duoc, a double room with fan, cable television and shared bathroom for 90,000 dong (US $5.14). In Vietnam, it is not difficult to find a cheap guest house or hotel under the US $5 to $10 range. It is very important for us though to always check the bathroom first whether it is clean or not and this one didn’t disappoint. We usually don’t mind sharing bathrooms as we always keep it clean after using and hope other guests would do the same.

In the morning, we realized we weren’t so lucky for finding that cheap hotel. As early as 7 in the morning, we woke up to the sound of Vietnamese teens running around, shouting and singing along a music video blaring on television, one floor above us. Oh well, we can’t have it all.

Since we were unable to extend our Vietnam visa in Buon Ma Thuot as I have told in my earlier post, we then proceeded to Kon Tum to try our luck. We booked a non-air conditioned local bus for 80,000 dong (US $4.57). The 4 hour ride on a non-air conditioned bus was pleasant enough since the weather is less humid compared to Saigon and besides, the fresh air on my face keeps me from feeling dizzy when the road start to zigzag.

Sleepy town of Kon Tum. This is a common sight in some developing towns around Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Ming (mt_kang on Flickr)

There are a few hotels and guest houses in Kon Tum. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommended bigger hotels which were all beyond our US $10 maximum budget for accommodation so we walked around the town with our heavy backpacks and chanced upon Viet Tram for US $6 per night. Oftentimes, hotels and guest houses in Vietnam accept US dollars as it is unsafe and inconvenient for most travelers to carry millions of dongs around. The rooms were spacious but not so clean. Also, we had to use the shared bathroom one level up from where we were staying because the owners of the hotel left their half done laundry in the bathroom beside our room. We didn’t bother to ask the owners to move the laundry out since we were too tired from the bus ride and just wanted to take the quickest shower possible and sleep.

The next day, after we found out there’s no Immigration office in Kon Tum, we explored the small town and the surrounding village by foot. The wooden church, which also have an orphanage behind it, is beautiful and unique. We were at the churchyard during a school meal break so there were a bunch of kids literally hanging around a small tree like monkeys to gather some fruits. They were throwing some of the fruit for us to try but I gave mine to some of the kids surrounding us that time.

Wooden Church in Kon Tum

The weather was so warm that we had to stop by several drink vendors to have some nuoc mia or sugarcane juice, tomato juice and coconut juice to keep us cool and hydrated.

A few meters further, we reached a small native village with unusual house structures. Some were made of mud with a huge roof. I found out the locals are from the same M’nong ethnic group in Dak Lak but they don’t live in long houses.

A house in Kon Tum local village

As we were curiously walking around the small village, the local children were also curious of us.  They were probably bored of their usual day that they followed us around while we take photos.

A typical day in a rural village in Kon Tum

It was unfortunate that we just breezed through the Central Highlands of Vietnam. With the visa extension issue hovering above us like a dark cloud, we didn’t fully enjoy exploring the place as usual since we were in a hurry to get to another bigger town to have the visa issue fixed. It was still a great experience though to see a different side of Vietnam which most travelers rarely see.