This year is my family’s first Christmas away from the United States. We decided to join a few other teachers from my school on a trip to the island of Phuket in Thailand for a 5 day vacation. This sunny, island paradise was a welcomed adventure and our first opportunity to get out of China since we arrived in August. Our goal was to relax, visit some historical sites, and do a few more exciting activities. This trip was definitely one to remember!
The teachers and I decided on Thailand months in advance based on cheap flights and recommendations! My family was joined by two teachers in my Social Studies department, James and Maxine, and English teacher Jen. I think we really wanted to get to a warm, tropical climate because it had already started to get cold in Beijing. Beaches and swimming sounds awesome when you are wearing snow jackets! James found the best country to visit, Maxine took care of finding our flights, and Jen found the Airbnb. All we really had to do was pay and show up! We found out just before our trip that James had coincidentally booked the same flight out as us and Jen would meet us there. Our flight took off early around 5:45 am and we decided it would be best if Maxine just drove in with us so we could stick together through the airport! The Beijing airport is HUGE and I was worried about getting lost or going to the wrong place. So, she spent the night at our house the night before and we were in a Didi headed to the airport by 2:00 am! I thought we would be exhausted with only a few hours sleep but we were all too excited to be in a bad mood. The airport wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be because they let us go into the Chinese nationals line with our residency permits. As I said, the Beijing airport is huge. They even have a subway to take the passengers to their gates!
The airline we took to Thailand is actually one of the best I have ever used before! Thai Airways was so awesome to us that if I ever have the chance, I will definitely be using them again. We couldn’t figure out how to check-in to our flight in the 24 hours before we got there, so we kind of figured we would be at the mercy of the airline. When we got there, they told us it was no problem and that we were all going to be seated together because we bought our tickets together! WHAT?! You mean there is an airline out there that won’t charge an arm and a leg to seat you next to your own family members?? I couldn’t even get that when I was on my honeymoon. We were so shocked and happy. Not only that, but the seats were just as big and comfortable as the international flights we took with American Airlines. They also had TVs with a ton of movies, games, etc. The stewards and stewardesses’ uniforms were traditional Thai garb and they looked fantastic. Almost all of them were multilingual, able to speak Thai, Chinese, and English at the drop of a hat. This helped considering that there were a ton of Chinese nationals and international tourists on this flight. The food wasn’t bad at all either!
The 5.5 hour flight wasn’t bad at all. We mostly slept through the beginning and watched movies towards the end. We arrived at the Phuket airport around 11:00 am and were welcomed with warm 80 degree temperatures! James had worked with the airbnb manager to get a taxi van to meet us at the airport when our plane arrived. Jen met us at the airport and all 6 of us were heading to our private beach condominium. The Thai island landscape reminded me a lot of my honeymoon in Cancun! There were large green, tropical trees and fruit everywhere! The architecture, however, reminded me a lot of pictures I have seen of Cuba. Buildings were long instead of wide and painted a variety of colors, it was quite beautiful. It took us about 45 minutes for us to get to our Airbnb called Waterside Condominiums. It really was on the water and we had to walk down three flights of stairs with our luggage to reach our door. The cleaning crew let us inside and finished up as we changed into more temperature-appropriate attire. It had been so long since we had worn shorts!
After we changed, we all went down the beach to get some food. The manager had told James about a few places that were not too far away and we were all starving by this point. We headed out and were amazed by how beautiful the beach was, even during low tide! There was barely anyone on the beach and it seriously felt like our own personal island. It took us a little longer to get to lunch because we were checking out all of the sea life! We saw tiny brown beads circled around holes in the ground. We were taking pictures and guessing what kind of creatures created these little works of art everywhere because they were pretty! Jen even touched a few to see if they were little creatures themselves or just what they left behind. Some of you make think it is obvious, but half of my group is from the American Southwest, so we don’t see this too often. Anyways, we later found out that these little beads were left by crabs as they dig the silt out of their homes. Actually, they eat and then vomit out these little balls, so I got to say that Jen played with crab vomit! These crabs are literally ALL OVER this beach because there are so few humans running around on this side of the island. We would see them again and again over our stay.
Eventually we would make it to the first beach restaurant and we decided on it mostly out of hunger. It was beautifully warm out and we had already worked up a sweat just looking at the beach. We all picked Thai dishes, with the exception of Calvin, and stuck around for over an hour. After living in China for 5 months, I was surprised by the amount of English everyone spoke. I understand that Phuket is a tourist attraction for people of many languages, but it was still shocking to me. The waiters at the restaurant knew enough to answer our questions and take our orders, which is more than I have experienced the past few months. Before our meal started, we started hearing a loud meow very close by. Korey looked under our table and there was a cute, full-grown cat with only half a tail sitting beneath the table trying to get our attention. You could tell he was used to tourists because he immediately started pawing at Korey for head scratches and eventually jumped up into his lap. I thought the waitstaff would get upset by having an animal in their outdoor restaurant but they didn’t look twice! The cat, whom we named Bahtler after the Thai currency mixed with ‘butler, had gotten what he wanted from both Korey and Calvin, ran off for pets from other restaurant patrons. I could tell that island life was a lot more relaxed then what I was accustomed to!
After lunch, we continued to wander down the beach and found a small collection of shops and food stalls right there on the sand! Half of the group was closer while some trailed behind and so the shop owners quickly got up to meet us and asked where we were from. We told them we all lived in China and they had the most confused look on their faces. They kept asking, “China? China?” while we are nodding to answer their question. They eventually started pointing to their own faces as if to say, “But you don’t look Chinese”. Our friend Maxine, who is a Chinese teacher at our school, finally caught up to us and the shop keepers started nodding with understanding, as if Maxine’s presence suddenly validated our claims. We found the Beach Bar a little further down and had a few drinks to pass the time! They had amazing margaritas and everything was so reasonably priced. For myself to get a margarita and Calvin a fresh coconut cost 140 Thai Baht ($4.64). We had such a great time that we spent over an hour there talking and enjoying the view from beneath the shade of the Beach Bar. As we were leaving, I decided to go barefoot on a beach, which was a mistake from the first step. As I was walking down the (what I thought) were cement steps, I stubbed my toe awfully on the cinder block step where the sand began to erode. I tore off a good chunk of skin from my pinky toe and had to wear bandaids and closed-toe shoes for the rest of the trip. Darn margaritas. We headed back to the condo and napped the rest of the day to recoup from our trip.
The next day, we all slept in until 9:30-10ish because we wanted to. We didn’t really have a plan for the day so we decided we should go hit up Old Town and maybe a few of the historical sites. We could have rented scooters for 300 baht ($9.95) per day to get around, but not all in our group were comfortable with that and I didn’t want to risk it with a kid. We talked to the manager of the airbnb and were able to rent a private taxi van for 1800 baht for 8 hours. Old Town was our first stop and I was pleased with what we got to see there. There was a ton of shopping, restaurants, and street art all over. It wasn’t a party town, definitely more site seeing. We went shopping for gifts down a few different walking streets and like many tourist places, many shops sold the same things. This made it easier to see what was or was not a good deal and we actually bought a lot of gifts for family. We also stopped by a place called Getty’s Tours and looked up a few different tour packages because we knew snorkeling was a goal for many in our group. We found a tour that included transport to and from our condo, boat ride to Raya Island, beach time, and snorkeling time and gear, and lunch. An 8-hour tour in all. We managed to negotiate a price from 2,000 Thai Baht per person to 1,600 baht per adult ($53.06) and 1,000 for Calvin. We scheduled it for Christmas Day to serve as our big celebration for the holiday. We were in Old Town for a few hours and managed to get a lot done, including buying bandaids! We used our taxi time to our benefit and headed out to see Wat Chalong, the most famous temple in Phuket!
Before we headed to the temple, the taxi guide was sure to give us a few important tips about Chalong Temple. Firstly, there is a bit of a dress code that is enforced to preserve the sanctity of the site. Men and women are expected to have their shoulders covered and women have to be wearing a skirt or pants to hide their legs. Luckily, Jen let me borrow a sarong to wear over my shorts so I could still visit the temple. Also, one of the temples was never to be photographed. It had been burnt down years ago and the guide said photographing the rebuilt temple would make the gods angry. I was confused because I was under the impression this was a Buddhist temple but decided that questioning it wouldn’t be the best decision. We began walking around and I was amazed by how peaceful the temples were despite being right next to a major roadway. These temples are the most ornate I have ever seen in person. They are covered in an array of colors such as gold, blue, red, green, etc. We were walking around the grounds and I kept seeing the funniest thing…sleeping cats everywhere! I guess the temple isn’t just peaceful for humans, the cats enjoyed the peace too and were sleeping anywhere. I saw some on walls, in the middle of sidewalks, etc. The people of Thailand must treat these cats well because they didn’t seem to fear being disturbed or harassed. It became a game in my family to take pictures of as many of them as we could!
We kept walking around taking pictures of all of the approved temples and even got the chance to enter a few! There were signs posted everywhere about removing shoes before entering the temples and we were very diligent about following all of the rules. I lit a bit of incense and placed it on an alter because it seemed to be encouraged by the establishment. There were many people worshipping at the temple and I eventually saw some monks walking around! Eventually, one of the monks climbed up a ladder to the top of a bell tower and rang the bell with a giant hammer to call the monks to worship. The monks gathered together in one of the large temples and were chanting and bowing to their statues of Buddha. I had never seen monks worship before so it was an amazing sight. They would allow people in the temple while they worshipped and were very hospitable. We were getting hungry and went outside the temple are where there were a few food carts roasting meat and vegetables on a wheeled grill. Calvin and Korey picked a few skewers and even roasted both themselves. We had a few hours left of our rented taxi van and headed to the Big Buddha statue!
We could see the Big Buddha statue across the bay from our Airbnb, so it was extremely big. It was a bit of a drive up the mountain to get the statue. We passed by jungle and elephant trekking companies (I will talk about those later) to get to the statue 30 minutes before sundown. It was free to go to the statue and had the same rules regarding dress, though it didn’t seem like many people followed those rules this close to closing. The views from the top of that mountain was amazing! We took a few pictures and headed up to the statue. We met a Buddhist monk at the top that spoke wonderful English. He told us he was half Thai and half Chinese, spending 6 months a year in Nepal at another temple. He was kind enough to take pictures with us and tell us a little bit more about his life. After we took pictures in front of the statue and looked at the other statues at the base of the big one, we started to notice something flying fast over our heads. They were bats!! Flying out of the surrounding jungle and circling close to the heads of leftover tourists. We began to make our descent because we were intimidated by these flying missiles and almost ran straight into a monkey! It was the size of a miniature schnauzer and was so fast that I only got a picture of his butt. We finished heading down and got into the van for home!
After we got back home, we dressed in our swimsuits/sarongs and headed to the Beach Bar for dinner and drinks! It was a lot of fun because the bar put the tables out on the sand next to the ocean and the water started creeping up to our feet over the course of dinner. We had a great time and planned for the next day! Afterwards, most of us went to the infinity pool and relaxed for over an hour listening to the waves the sand. It was such a great day! Well I know you are probably tired of reading so I am going to end this post and pick it up with another post in a few days detailing the rest of out Thailand adventure! I hope you come back to finish reading it!