A Whole New World-Thailand

 

Phi Phi Leh Island (the set’s location of the movie “The Beach”)

Thailand was never really at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit. I knew a little bit about the country from random pictures and movies, but it just never stood out to me until we moved to Japan. Being just a five-hour flight from our home, it quickly jumped the line of places I wanted to visit. Sorry Sydney, Australia…Thailand may have just taken the number one spot as my favorite destination!

We started the trip off with a huge mistake-flying during the day. As mentioned in my “Travel with Kids” blog, we try to take night flights-always. It was a bit exhausting to keep two littles focused, but fortunately it was a fairly quick flight and we were in Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket) in a relatively short time.

We headed to our resort, got settled in for the evening and were excited to start our adventure the next day.

Hilton Phuket

Our first full day, we signed up for the half-day Phuket City Tour. Around noon, we boarded a van full of other passengers who had been picked up by their given resorts, and made our way to the Kata View Point. This destination allowed us to look out and just take in the beauty of Phuket.

Kata Viewpoint

After the brief 10-minute stop, we got back in the car, and headed to the Phuket Safari, which would give us the opportunity to go elephant trekking. I know this can be a controversial topic to animal lovers, but if I’m being honest, it has always been a bucket list item for me. Jesse had ridden elephants before when deployed to Thailand many years ago, so we had agreed that if the kids couldn’t go (as expected), he would hang out with them and let me ride. Another controversial topic…allowing kids to ride elephants! The staff didn’t bat an eye allowing the children to ride. We just had to separate due to space on the seat, so I went on the first elephant with Maddox, and Jesse would follow with Asher.

And we’re off…

 

Caught in the selfie act.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Jesse & Asher trekking trough the jungle.

The things that other countries allow you to do…It happened so fast, that I don’t think either of us thought it through. Once we were seated on top of the elephant, a simple, rusty bar went across to “secure” us. No seatbelts. No additional bars. Nothing. I had a death grip on Maddox because he could have easily slipped through the bar. I would also like to mention in case you were wondering, riding an elephant is a bumpy ride, especially up a mountain through a jungle. Jesse had Asher secure in the Ergo Baby, yet he still had him gripped with both arms and admitted that he recited the Lord’s Prayer more than once. All this to say…we loved it! Maddox’s new favorite animal is an elephant, and it caused us to buy 1,254 different elephant souvenirs before leaving Thailand. All I could think was we were riding elephants through a jungle in Thailand on New Year’s Day. What an amazing way to start 2019.

Photo opp with Gabrielle.

After getting off the elephants, we had the opportunity to touch and feed Gabrielle, the elephant. The trainers didn’t hesitate to escort us right up to her. Maddox loved giving her bananas, and it was just an unbelievable experience from the beginning.

Feeding Gabriella

After, unwillingly, having to leave the safari, we were on to our next adventure…jewelry shop? Ok, this wasn’t an adventure, and our next two stops after this one reminded us so much of our experience in China. We walked through the jewelry store maze, only to finally get to a coffee shop and have a brief 15-minute break. Afterward, we loaded back up, and went to a Honey Factory. We were given an opportunity to sample some local honey. We passed. Finally, we drove to a cashew nut factory where there was an assortment of cashew flavors (wasabi was my favorite). Had I not been annoyed/drained from the jewelry and honey factories, I may have actually purchased a snack or two. I was just ready to get on with our actual sites for the rest of the tour.

After what felt like an eternity, we were all back in the van and headed to the Chalong Temple. This is Phuket’s largest temple and dates back to 1837. It is dedicated to two monks who helped lead the citizens of the district against the Chinese Rebellion. The most recent building on the grounds holds a splinter of bone from Buddha. Inside the temple, the walls and ceilings are decorated with stunning paintings illustrating the life of Buddha. Many locals and tourists come to pray and show their respect at the temple. Surrounding the temple is a large market area where we did a bit of shopping and ate street cart food before loading up and heading to our final destination: The Big Buddha.

Living in Japan, we have seen our fair share of Buddha, but this one was pretty impressive. It was so huge, we could see it from our hotel room several miles away. Standing at 50 yards (half the length of a football field!) the all white marble statue can be seen anywhere in the southern part of Phuket. The Buddha isn’t even the most impressive part; It’s the view! We just stood in awe for several minutes looking around all of Phuket. The country is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and this gave us the opportunity to just take it all in. After climbing to the top, and seeing a couple of monks along our way, it was time to descend and head back to the hotel.

It was an awesome start to our vacation, but a half a day tour is more than enough with children. Time to sleep and start again the next day.

 

Friends of ours had recently visited Thailand and had mentioned the beauty of the Phi Phi (pronounced Pee-Pee, noticing a trend?) Islands. There were day tours that visited, so we thought we would hop on one of those. TIP: If you want to visit Ko Phi Phi or the surrounding islands, book through your hotel in advance. The tours were completely sold out, so we did the next best thing…we went online and booked a ferry ride to the main island. Jesse got online and after 15 minutes gave a quick smirk and shouted, “Done!” We went to bed confident that our next adventure was in the bag. The first sign of difficulty happened when Jesse received an email basically stating that our ground transportation to the pier had fallen through. No problem, we will just procure our own transportation from the resort. Due to traffic delays and faulty math from my husband, we arrived at the pier with about 30 minutes to spare. At any other pier in the world, it would have been enough time, but the Rosada Pier in Phuket is packed like a Tokyo train station. There are countless ferry companies that all have stands set up and long lines of people trying to obtain their tickets. We spent 15 minutes trying to find the company we booked through and after waiting our turn, Jesse pulled out his phone and attempted to retrieve our confirmation email. After talking to an unusually rude Thai lady, we found out that we accidently booked a one-way ticket to the wrong pier in the more expensive “Premium” section of the ferry. To make matters worse, she said that technically, you are required to print out your confirmation attachment in order to obtain tickets. I looked at Jesse and all he could muster was “my bad..” through his gritted teeth. I took the kids for a stroll off to the side and let Jesse figure it out. After about 10 minutes of pleading with the Thai lady and some wi-fi help from a European stranger, all was right with the world again and we had tickets in hand and a promise of a ride back to our resort at the end of the day. We made our way to the ferry in standard Peppers fashion with minutes to spare.

Ferry Ride

The ferry ride is approximately two hours long. The premium tickets we purchased actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Premium is like economy plus on airlines – one step below first class. I highly recommend this option with children. It allows you access to the outside portion of the upper deck, which is less crowded, as well as the option to go inside on the lower deck where there are couches and TVs set up (perfect for our kids who needed a nap). The first class allowed access to an inside portion on the top deck with individual seating, but honestly the setup for kids was better in the premium cabin. If you don’t purchase premium tickets at the pier, don’t worry, you have the option to upgrade once on the boat for the same price ($10)!

Snuggles & Frozen

Once we began getting in view of the islands, we only wanted to be outside. The first island our ferry passed was Ko Phi Phi Lee. Tourists are no longer allowed on the island, so our ferry cruised by slowly allowing passengers to snap photos. The movie The Beach was filmed at this location and dozens of smaller boats hovered around closer to the inlet, taking in the site. After pulling away, we circled around the island and Jesse and I both agreed that this had to be one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen. We had recently visited gorgeous Fiji, and for us, Fiji didn’t hold a candle to the Phi Phi Islands.

Phi Phi Islands

Finally, we docked at Ko Phi Phi Don. Getting off the ferry was a bit hectic as the majority of the passengers were staying on the island, so they were searching for their personal luggage that was being corralled into one designated spot near the exit before departing. Once we were off, and unbeknownst to us, we had to pay a couple of bucks just to actually walk on the island. There was no time to question it as it felt a bit like a cattle call, and in the grand scheme of things, we didn’t mind the fee, but we were glad we had money on us because we had no idea of the charge.

The picture says it all.

Our original intention of visiting the Phi Phi Islands was to have a beach day, so we had brought beach towels, floats, swimsuits, etc. expecting to spend the entire time on the sand or in the ocean. We didn’t even walk on the beach! We grabbed lunch first, and of course, devoured some Pad Thai and margaritas. Then, we began to explore the area.

Walking through the Phi Phi Island markets.

There were tons of markets that we wanted to check out, and we only had about three hours total to do it. A couple of purchased shirts and a lizard bite later, it was time to get back on the ferry. No kidding, I got bit by a lizard while putting my hand into a back pack. Two hours later, we pulled back up to the marina, where a van was waiting for us to take us back to the resort. After a full day, exhaustion took over, and we couldn’t wait to get to sleep. I semi-jokingly wondered if the lizard that bit me was poisonous. I guess we’d know in the morning!

Welcome to Koh Samui

The next morning, we packed up our things and headed to the airport. We were going to jump a one-hour flight to Ko Samui. Similar to the last resort, this one was also about an hour van ride away. Once we arrived and got settled, we decided to grab a massage. All we had heard about was how cheap and good the Thailand massages were, and they did not disappoint. For about $10, we had a one-hour, full body massage directly on the beach. Although a little awkward getting massaged semi-nude on the beach in full view of everyone, it was amazing, and we made the goal to try to get at least one everyday we were there. Unfortunately, luck is bound to run out when one travels frequently…

Watching the waves roll in.

The following day, we awoke to an overcast sky and a relatively higher sea state. It wasn’t until the front desk called us about performing maintenance on our beachfront room and asked us if we wanted to switch that we began to have questions. One of the clerks mentioned the word “weather” and just as a curiosity Jesse googled “weather Ko Samui.” Wouldn’t you know that we were right in the path for the first tropical storm since 1989. Tropical Storm Paduk was predicted to have 22-foot waves and 40+ mph winds. Travel to and from the islands had been cut off. How was this the first we were hearing about it?! Our room was located directly on the beach, and we sat by the window watching the waves get closer and bigger through our giant GLASS PANED sliding doors.

Some of the destruction from Tropical Storm Paduk.

We decided to call back the front desk and take them up on the room swap. We traded our beach front view for a two story room complete with a beautiful spiral floating stair case, which was a nightmare for us as our 2 year old throws a fit if he can’t climb stairs solo, but it was the lesser of two evils.

We spent the entire day, and most of the next hanging out in our new room barricading our children in the living room and escorting our toddler up and down…and up and down the stairs. It wasn’t all bad. We rented movies, read, listened to the rain, and got room service, but the moment that rain let up, we were ready to go. At this point, we only had one night left, and we honestly hadn’t seen anything in Ko Samui, so we grabbed a cab and headed to Fisherman’s Village.

My latte & a side of cookies!

What a fun place! Our first stop was at a coffee shop, which hands down, is the neatest coffee shop I have ever been to (and I frequent coffee shops!). The lattes themselves were their own presentation. After leaving there, we headed out into the streets. Fisherman’s Village is just rows and rows of markets, spas, and restaurants.

Taking a little break in Fisherman’s Village.

We bought a few shirts for the boys, a dress for me, and while Jesse and the kids grabbed dinner at a pizza place, I got a doctor fish pedicure and a facial with the most amazing view. I know I could have spent more time in the area, but the boys were tired, and it was time to head back to our resort.

Doctor Fish Pedicure

Our first flight home didn’t even leave Ko Samui until 7:45pm, so we still had a full day to explore. It was a beautiful day, and we refused to waste it. We paid a little fee to have an evening checkout, and the hotel arranged a half-day tour for us to see the island. We had our own personal driver pick us up, and we were off to explore.

One of our temple stops. The image is NOT blurry. It’s how the temple was built (notice the elephants and myself are in focus).

 

One of our stops: Hin Ta & Hin Yai Rocks (Grandfather & Grandmother rocks). I will let you figure out why this is Grandfather.

 Our tour lasted about six hours in total, and we were able to see different lookout points, temples, and even the mummified monk, but my absolute favorite stop was the Namuang waterfalls 1 & 2. Waterfall 2 was the first stop and was attached to a safari park.

Headed up the mountain to the waterfall.

We loaded into an open truck and drove up a (very bumpy) mountain. We hopped out and began our exploring.

Maddox’s face should explain the bumpy ride.

 

Our start up the mountain to the waterfall.

It seemed pretty easy at first. We crossed a little wooden bridge and climbed some steps, but then it kept getting steeper and steeper…

Finally, it became too dangerous to climb safely with our kiddos, so Jesse continued on to the top to snap a few pictures. Upon returning, he talked about how beautiful it was at the top. He said he would hang out with the boys so I could go check it out, but even in the few minutes he was gone, the water had risen (an effect of the previous storm). He admitted it may be a little too treacherous as he had to walk through knee deep water to get back to us. Not wanting to end the day getting swept over a waterfall due to storm runoff, I decided I would pass and that we should just cut our losses. We steadily climbed back down the mountain, loaded up into the truck and headed back.

Jesse headed to the top.

Before departing for our next stop (Waterfall 1), we decided to walk around the safari for a bit. They had elephants like in Phuket and a cobra show, which we ultimately decided against. I know our parenting track record hasn’t been the best from a risk perspective up until now, but even Jesse and I figured we should skip this one. When you actually say, “I took my toddler and infant to a cobra show in Thailand” out loud, it doesn’t sound like most responsible phrase. Before I could dwell on my decision any longer something else grabbed my attention. There was a little area off to the side that advertised you could pet a tiger! Not a baby tiger, but a full grown Shere Khan! I couldn’t resist. Jesse had no real desire and decided he would continue the “responsible” trend we recently embraced and hung out with the kids as I waited in line, ticket in hand, caution to the wind, giggling like a little school girl. When it was finally my time, I walked into a fairly large room that only had two trainers and a massive tiger. From the moment I stepped in, I heard it purring, and my school girl giggles stopped. Fear took over, regret set in, and I realized that this was a real animal that could kill me or at the very least maul me in an instant.

Yes, it’s real!

 

Waterfall 2

One of the trainers took my camera, while the other stayed near the top of the tiger’s head and told me what to do. I was pretty stiff, and he had to keep moving my hands because I honestly don’t think I could lift them. The tiger even rolled back towards me at one point, and I jumped about 10 feet; however, even with the knots in my stomach and adrenaline pumping, I channeled some inner courage and posed my heart out as if it was no big deal. If given the opportunity, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Jesse and the kids were watching on a monitor from the outside and after about 10 minutes, I rejoined them. I was basically high as a kite on adrenaline for the next hour, but we still left and moved on to Waterfall 1.

If we had more time, we could have hung out here a bit. There was a small swimming area and no hiking was involved. It was a very quick, easy, and beautiful place. We were getting hungry and our driver called The Cliff restaurant to make us reservations. We had heard about the restaurant and seen it advertised pretty much everywhere throughout the island, so we wanted to try it out while we could. What a perfect way to end our day. The ambiance was incredible, but the food was amazing! Its not often we get both! The Cliff had won numerous awards, and it was famous for the breathtaking views – easy to see why. After a long, leisurely lunch, we headed back to grab our belongings and made our way to the airport.

The View from The Cliff

Thailand was an amazing country with so much to offer. It was so beautiful and even more affordable! (I mean $10 massages!) But the culture is so unique. The people we encountered were polite and willing to help, and yet, their “norm” is so far off what we would experience in the States. Mopeds are the preponderance of vehicles, and it wasn’t unusual to see 3-4 people on one. Even small children would have car seats attached to the front…or not. Routinely you would see mothers holding their infants in their arms riding on the back seat. Restaurants were mostly open air, decorated with picnic tables and plastic chairs and tropical wear was the style of clothing for the locals. Safari workers didn’t think twice about our infant and toddler riding an elephant through the jungle or hiking a steep, wet mountain. And petting a tiger….well, that speaks for itself. It’s one reason we love to travel to other countries because its easy to get caught up in our everyday normal, but when you step outside your comfort zone, and into someone else’s shoes, you truly realize just how small you are in this crazy world! Even after all the issues we faced, including a tropical storm that kept us inside for parts of our stay, Thailand is still my favorite place so far.

“ Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustav Flaubert

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