Traveling by bus from Siem Riep, Cambodia, we entered Thailand [known in Thai as Prathet Thai ประเทศไทย] at Aranyaprathet city. The border crossing was crowded with tourists and locals alike, and we waited for more than two hours in line before we could present our passports to immigration officials. After one month on the road, we decided we needed a vacation from our vacation, and there is no better place to unwind than at the white sands and azure waters of Thailand's beaches.
We arrived to Bangkok on March 21 in the evening, checked in to the very pleasant Dinso Mon hotel in the Wat Bowon Niwet district, and set out to explore our neighborhood street food scene. Just down the block, we found excellent fried rice and delicious coconut fritters, validating Bangkok's reputation for excellent street food. The following morning, we paid a visit to Google in the Park Ventures Ecoplex building, down the block from the famous Erawan shrine. That was followed by an outstanding lunch at Nahm (don't miss the crab curry), and the late afternoon spent hanging around at Iwane 1975. The evening started with a massage, then a bar hop through Bangkok's little Tokyo, where we found Hailiang, managed by an Osaka native serving every variety of whisky you can imagine.
The following day, we used the Chao Praya river [เจ้าพระยา] to traverse the city by taxi barge. We made stops at Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple complex that includes the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and Bangkok Railway station to procure our tickets for that evening. Shortly after sundown, we boarded Bangkok Railways train 167 bound for Surat Thani, where we would transfer to a bus to take us to Phuket city.
We arrived to Phuket city in the morning and checked into the Bandai Poshtel hostel in the city center. Phuket island’s namesake city is the provincial capital, and the historical hub for traders and industry in the region. But with the transition to a tourism-based economy, Phuket city has declined in notoriety and importance, and these days most visitors to Phuket head straight for the Patong area and other beaches. But we enjoyed the old school charm on offer in Phuket city. We found delicious cheap eats at Raya, and cozy local cafes like Bookhemian. There are strong Chinese and European influences in the city’s architecture and you can spend a day admiring all of the century old buildings that still dot the city.
Phuket island is where we started our island hopping tour. In all, we would visit 5 islands in the Andaman sea that run alongside the West coast of the Malay peninsula. (Phuket island, Phi Phi Don island, Lipe island, Langkawi island, and Penang island).
From Phuket, we boarded a comfortable ferry bound for Phi Phi Don island, better known as Ko Phi Phi (“ko” means island in Thai). Ko Phi Phi Don is the largest and most developed of the group known as the Phi Phi islands, which are a part of Krabi province. Ko Phi Phi’s economy relies heavily on tourism, and every type of vacation activity is on offer. We were seeking beaches and diving, both of which Ko Phi Phi is very famous for.
We stayed at the rugged Phi Phi Relax Beach Resort in a bungalow that offered neither air conditioning nor a hot shower, but only steps from the beach and accessible only by long-tail boat. The morning views of the sun rising over the Andaman Sea were worth the sacrifice. We did our dives with the Adventure Club based on Phi Phi Don. We set out at sunrise, the first boat to leave the harbor, and headed straight for Phi Phi Le, the smaller island just South of Phi Phi Don. The waters were calm and crystal, and visibility was excellent. The highlight was when our dive guide Lewis spotted a giant sea turtle, and we got to swim alongside for a few minutes. On the second dive, Lewis and Joshua also spotted a reef shark for a fleeting moment, unfortunately not long enough to alert Ayumi for a view.
The next day we boarded a morning ferry bound for Ko Lipe, about six hours South and part of Satun province. We checked into our bungalow at the Lipe Sunset Beach Resort, in time to catch the eponymous sunset from the beach below our cottage. Fortunately for us, this cottage had a hot shower, but unfortunately for us, this cottage also had a bit of a cockroach problem. We captured three of them and endured the first night, then tried a new bungalow on night two. Without much around, we stumbled into the restaurant at the Time to Chill Resort right next door, and wound up spending lots of our time there with the friendly owner, and his delicious mojitos and curries. Highly recommend if you ever visit !
Our next ferry would cross the Thailand-Malaysia border en route to Kuah city on Langkawi island. Ko Lipe has perhaps the world’s most miniature immigration checkpoint that is literally planted into the white sands of Bundhaya beach, offering perhaps the most beautiful view for immigration officers in the world - quite a stark contrast to those at Narita or JFK airports. We had just deboarded the ferry at Langkawi when a sudden thunderstorm descended on us - not the welcome to Malaysia we had hoped for. But the skies cleared and the view of Kuah city and it’s harbor from our highrise Airbnb the next morning was spectacular. We enjoyed a feast of local specialties at Restoran Paradise in downtown Kuah that evening, and set out to plan our travels in Malaysia.
We learned quickly that food in Malaysia is a big deal, and nowhere more so than in Penang, a cultural melting pot that has brought together flavors from around the globe for so many years. Penang can refer to Penang island, or the province of Penang, which consists of the island as well some parts of mainland Malaysia directly across the Melaka straits. George Town city, which sits on Penang island, is the provincial capital and the second largest city in all of Malaysia. It was a center of activity during the British colonial period, and saw an influx of people and influences from China, India, and elsewhere, all of which contributed to its modern multicultural character.
We arrived by ferry and checked into the Spices hotel in George Town city. Our first order of business was laundry, but as soon as that was taken care of, we got to eating. First up, a stop at Line Clear for nasi kandar, a heaping pile of rice topped with fried chicken and an unknown number of various Indian curries. And then a stop at the Chinese street stall market for Penang-style Hokkien mee, followed by a Penang white coffee. All in all, a wonderful and filling introduction to the Penang food scene. You might think that after such a meal, playing basketball in the still suffocating heat is a death sentence. But Joshua proved otherwise. When we returned to our hotel, we spotted a group playing right across the street, and the urge to join and run some pick up games with these guys proved too great. So much for that clean tank top.
Instead of sharing more about Penang here, we are going to do a dedicated post to the cuisine of Penang in our Food section. Please stay tuned !
Penang island would be our final stop on the island hopping tour, and we returned to the mainland by ferry to spend a short night in Butterworth, the city that is directly across from George Town and which hosts the regional intercity train station. From Butterworth, we would travel North to South down almost the entire remaining length of the Malay Peninsula, stopping first in Kuala Lumpur, then in Melaka, from where we would take a ferry to reach Sumatra island, part of Indonesia. Indonesia being an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands, you could say we left Malaysia for another island hopping tour since it is impossible to be in Indonesia, and not on an island. But more on that will be shared in a Part 2 of Island Hopping Adventures. Thank you for reading !