Ko Samet: Fruit Feasts, Snorkeling & Sunburns


Our slightly-earlier-than-anticipated return to Bangkok resulted, obviously, in a little extra time not only to further explore the buzzing metropolis but also to entertain the idea of a small journey to one of Thailand's famed beaches. Neither of us are really beach people, as you might have noticed by my near translucent pale, but with a Thai holiday weekend freeing up and inspiring Casey's (father's) cousin (our most excellent host for all three stops in Bangkok) and a coworker friend of hers, it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Enter Ko Samet. It's maybe not the most famous of the beaches, being only three hours to the southeast, but it suited our wants perfectly. A late night speedboat took us across the water to Lung Dum beach where we had a couple of beachside bungalows waiting and for two days we did something that we haven't really done at any point on this trip: totally touristic nothing. We read (a lot) and ate fruit acquired from the entrepreneurial men and women carrying baskets over their shoulders laden with mango, papaya, bananas, oranges, and sweet corn. We went swimming (and, despite our best efforts BOTH ended up with shamefully bad sunburns) and took an evening snorkeling trip that included watching the sunset from the west side of the island. When we decide to do something, we like to try to embrace it as fully as possible and nothing says Tourist Weekend like sharing a 99 baht special ($3 USD) Sex On The Beach. On the beach. At sunset.

And it was gorgeous.

Snorkeling in the crystal clear aqua blue water was an experience more engaging, eye-popping, and perplexing than just about any other I can personally think of. Maybe it was my rookie status, but the mix of awe, terror, curiosity, claustrophobia, and little-kid excitement that overtook me was a bit overwhelming; clams the size of my head, huge blobs of coral with spiky black sea anemones clinging to the sides within arms reach, schools of fish doing the undulating thing you see in nature documentaries, and the occasional deep dark abyss that just faded away into the nightmares of my imagination. It's something I always thought I might enjoy, but never guessed it would be such a complex and powerful version of enjoyment.

BKK, In the Details

It's not saying much, I know. But take a gander at that leg room above! Plus, a bottle of water and a snack (bun) provided by our neon pink polyester clad hostess. Why doesn't Greyhound get this memo? Minus the polyester, of course. Additionally, the rest of the lavender tinged bus looked not unlike Sparta Lanes a la 1980s fabulousness. This also brought Eli some happy kneecaps, as they did not suffer from cramming themselves against the built-in plastic desk in front of him. This equals major bus success.

All of this magic happened on our eight hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Until about twelve hours prior to this trip, we were thinking that our general trajectory would be through Northern Laos, to Vietnam and down through Cambodia to Bangkok after the New Year. In conversation about plans, or lack thereof, something clicked with reversing that idea. Thus, we hopped on a an air-conditioned (read: hella-fancy-to-us-post-Nepal) bus and it heralded us to the Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok. Right before our late night arrival, we - well, mostly Eli given that I had zonked out, witnessed some of the major damage from the floods.

People had established makeshift huts between cars on the freeway and the Don Muang airport area was full of water up to the brim of the same type of trucks that had been bringing us from one point to the next in Chiang Mai. It was all quite surreal - especially considering the difference between flooded and not-flooded that we witnessed firsthand, once in the city itself. In hindsight, as I write this, we had quite an easygoing visit to Bangkok, despite the tragic flooding so nearby in the farming areas. In fact, it is representative of the country on the whole, as we have thus far experienced it. The flood itself is a distinct, physical expression of the divide between different classes. For this, we feel conflicted, but simultaneously cannot deny the time we did spend.

The tile work above was reminiscent of our time in Istanbul, but surrounded by excessive opulence (to an almost stifling degree) at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We decided to have one touristy day in the ever sprawling city by visiting the palace and Wat Pho all in one afternoon. The palace was bustling but still managed to be somewhat serene in certain nooks. Each building, and there are many, was decadently and meticulously covered in either gold, mother of pearl inlay, mosaic, intricate carvings, paintings of an epic story or some combination thereof. Our favorite parts were inspecting the inlay on the doors (we are still unsure how people had the patience to create this) and searching for the 'secret' story asides hidden within the long paintings. There are battles and Wat visits and the like, but also a smoking monkey and risky business in the shrubs next to the palace to be found. History should always be this entertaining.

Wat Pho is the home of an enormous reclining buddha statue, which also receives many visitors but exudes a calm presence, as one might expect of a large golden Buddha. It is difficult to convey the sheer size in images due to the somewhat cramped quarters, but the statue was more impressive than expected. The soles of it's feet are covered in inlay illustrating 108 auspicious renditions of the Buddha, and it is covered completely in gold.. What struck us was the sound in the hall directly behind the statue, where a line of people dropped single coins into dozens of small metal bowls all in a row. That sound combined with the echoing, almost ghostly voices from the other areas of the building was meditative almost. Listen here.

In addition to many good meals shared with Sharon, my cousin and fearless host in Bangkok, we went to a famous restaurant that educates on family planning and their own organization's focus on community development. Added bonuses to this is that it is all done in good fun and the food is actually tasty! Cabbages and Condoms (you heard me) topped off our tourist activities with good style - anyone up for wearing this dress? It probably isn't too comfortable, but it is definitely safe.

A few suggestions for what not to do in Bangkok include going to Khao San Road - the standard hotspot with backpackers is really just a dingy row of overpriced restaurants, stalls of trinkets and nothing much more, going IN to one of the places on Cowboy Soi, or is it Soi Cowboy? - the red light district lite of Bangkok, where ladyboys beckon you in with promises not to check your ID, free drinks and the like (you will also be sharing the premises with a heap of older, white men who give you the willies), or trying to use a crosswalk - because, like in the rest of Thailand, it won't do you much good. One just needs to develop extra eyes and walk intently while attempting to ignore the close calls. Do, however, test out Lao-Lao: an herb infused, honey sweetened moonshine offered on the street in shots, accompanied by a little fruit chaser. Perhaps choose the one for strength, like we did, over the UP all night version (aimed, perhaps, at the creepy men above). I have to personally thank Sharon's awesome friend Ji for her expertise on this one!

We will be returning to this metropolis in January sometime, so you may hear some more about it soon enough. In the meantime, we are looking forward to going back to the place with the most amazing foot massages for $3 and the stalls across the street from Sharon's place for some of the best Thai iced tea yet. A little indulgent, yes, but in a city as dense, huge and overwhelming as Bangkok, it's the little things on the side streets that are, so far, the most memorable.

Location:Bangkok, Thailand

A Thousand Ways

As a continuing part of our travel/life philosophy, as well as a means to literally get our hands in the dirt, we have been weaving in stays at organic farms wherever it makes the most sense. At the last minute, we had an opportunity to make sure Thailand was no exception to that rule.

Our trusty steed, pictured above, spirited us - ok, bounced us - up and out of Chiang Mai for a few days around the 12th of November. We were headed to a place called PunPun, just northeast of the city and about 50km out. We would be part-time volunteering - paying a small amount to have our room and food covered while working about 4 hours a day. Eli and I were looking forward to some time out of a city, however small, and the sight of hills and dustier roads was welcome. As the vegetables, dry goods and random bags of supplies were emptied out at each small village stop, the back of the truck got roomier. We felt much like happy puppies in a pickup bed must, ears flapping in the breeze and eyes squinting into the sun.

The title of this post is borrowed from the poetic Thai meaning of PunPun. As an "organic farm, seed saving operation and sustainable living and learning center", which also focuses on natural building techniques and application, the name illustrates the philosophies and approach to living that PunPun embodies. As we settled in to our first afternoon, we got even more excited to spend a few days digging in and learning as much as possible about it all. Here are just a few of the terraced plots, currently home to many lettuce and tomato plants:

A group of twelve dynamic individuals are the human power for this living project - a heap of personality and knowledge rich, culturally diverse folks from Thailand, Burma, Scotland, the US and probably a few we do not have the specifics on. Each individual brings skill and intention to the table and is committed to seeing (and helping) this place succeed. Though we were only there a brief time, it was inspiring to be around a collective of people that manage this well. The myriad complexities of community living floated through my mind often as we participated in many of the ways that help PunPun tick. How exactly are these people self-wrangling? Community meetings, clarity of tasks, shared goals and philosophy, and the overall desire to be exactly where they are - and this, I'm sure, is just part of the puzzle. Now - I'm also not making any claims to having found utopia in the rolling hills of Northern Thailand. This is the result of a lot of work - and the continuous input of such, as well as the constant openness for and ability to change. Since PunPun works regularly with local individuals and farmers, there is consistent conversation about what role they play in their greater community, what education/skill-building workshops benefit all & what the future might hold. All this makes for a tasty brew, as wells just makes a whole lot of sense to the two of us.

Since the specifics of what they offer is outlined wonderfully on their website, highlighting what stood out the most to us (besides what has already been noted) is better than offering a play by play of our time there.

First, the lay of the land - a great and natural network of paths between houses, common areas like the kitchen and meeting rooms, bathrooms and showers, and planting areas. These buildings are all naturally built - mostly adobe, straw, clay and bamboo structures that have emerged over the past eight years. Our stay for the last two nights in the VIP room - which is more of a small home, minus the kitchen, felt downright luxurious:

Next, The seed saving operation here is vibrant and incredibly ambitious - and working well. To see a small refrigerator full of heirloom seeds in the middle of a jungle is both bizarre and encouraging somehow. Spreading the word, and seeds, of these special varieties ensures more diverse farming and, hopefully, more awareness of the need for a more organic approach. Additionally, the watering is all done by hand - which is an amazing forearm exercise for anyone looking for a new move to try. One watering can in each hand, each bed covered twice, equaling very sore arms and very happy plants. What is fantastic about this is the water holding tanks strategically placed throughout the property near the beds, making it quite simple to access it for watering. You can spy a few in the picture of the beds above. It is first held in collection tanks at the top of the hill or pumped up from a small nearby pond. Additionally, the shower water is heated entirely by the sun - which is possible when you live someplace with such reliable, year-round sun. Regardless, the water systems worked efficiently and simply and gave us lots of ideas:

Finally, the food! Oh Lordy, were we spoiled at this table. Fresh veggies everyday, some soup or curry, all full of flavor and spice, cooked up on rotation by a few members of PunPun. Happily, we got a chance to work in the kitchen on a few goodies one afternoon. We made some tasty fresh salad, used the gigantic mortar and pestle, grilled on the clay stove and learned some things: Butterfly pea juice, which is bright blue until you add sour and it turns more purple, is delicious with a little cinnamon in the mix. Mushrooms just look cooler when they are pulled into strips by hand. And sticky rice cooked en masse, steamed properly in a basket, can be flipped in a giant lump if you are talented enough. Basically, we had a lot of fun,even though everyone looks so serious in these pictures:

If we could have, we would have stayed longer - PunPun had a month long internship/workshop coming up a few days after our departure. For now, we are just happy to have spent the time we did. The people are incredibly open, engaging and full of knowledge. The land is evidence of hard work, attention to the details and lots of love. The thousand ways are constantly multiplying, with each eager set of hands that shows up.

Location:Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand