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Sailing in Koh Lanta – Thailand

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Sanctuary was one of the most picturesque hostels that we stayed at in our trip across Asia. It was a series of bungalows, wrapped with trees, with the ocean for a front yard. If you walked off of our limited front porch, the only thing between you and the water was a large outdoor cafeteria. On the right was an upscale hotel, to the left was one of the dozens of beach bars that make Koh Lanta a great place to exist.

I loved being able to walk out off the front porch, across the scorching sand, and step into the ocean. And even though I enjoyed swimming, I hadn’t ever considered sailing, until we met Xaviar.

We had seen him walking around and both me and Joanna mistook him for a local. The implication being that were we to talk to him, we would be limited to the most primitive conversations. That turned out to not be the case. After we had been at Sanctuary for a few days he came up to me and didn’t beat around the bush.

“Would you guys like to go sailing?”

Surprised at his English, I replied “You have a boat?”

“That one down there” Xaviar said, pointing to a twelve foot sailboat resting on the edge of the beach.

“That sounds like fun. What do you think?” I said, turning to Joanna.

“Do you know how to sail?” She asked him skeptically.

“Sure, I’ve been out a lot. It’s not actually my boat, it’s my Uncles, but he taught me how to sail it.”

“Ok”. Said Joanna.

“I don’t know when we can, maybe in a few days. I’ll let you know.” I said.

Xaviar smiled, “Cool.”

Going to School

The day came, and I had to talk Joanna out of bringing her phone.

“We’re going on a boat, crazy shit happens. I would definitely say don’t bring the phone.”

She agreed, and we left our electronics in the bungalow. We met Xaviar on the beach as he was preparing the miniature sailboat. Without flipflops, walking on the sand felt like walking on top of a pizza oven. We jumped around like lizards that only ever put two of their feet on the ground, and the moment when we pushed the boat into the water brought quick relief.

We shoved a few Nordic tourists out of the way, and pushed the boat out to chest level before jumping aboard. Xaviar got the sales up, air collided with cloth, and we left land behind. Similar to chess, learning how to sail took only minutes, but mastery comes after a lifetime. In a sentence, we tacked in one direction, running far off course, then we ducked under the boom, scooted to the other side, and started tacking back. The most exciting experience was catching the wind just right. The boat would lift out of the water on one side and we would make incredible time. How exciting! When I retire I’ll leave the golf to everyone else, I think sailing is the true sport of champions.

Tacking west along the beach, it took us twenty minutes to reach a formerly hidden beach.

“Two years ago the only way to get here was by sail boat. Now there’s some kind of trail that you can take.” Xaviar informed us.

We pulled the boat directly onto the beach, just twenty feet to the right of a forty-something white man throwing a ball with a twenty-something Thai girl. Regularly seeing such “relationships” was one of the most depressing aspects of being in Thailand. I felt bad for the girls, and let down that a man would let himself get to the point where he has to come to a foreign country and spend money to feel loved. A personal failing of sorts, in my view.

Joanna swam far out into the ocean, and I stayed close to the sand. Laziness. Unrepentant relaxation. Xaviar with his shoulder length hair, crushed sand flat with his back. I bobbed up and down in the salt water, actively working to savor the moment. While waves were tumbling over me, my entire family was back in New York, being molested by blizzards and that awful puke-colored slush that accumulates as the snow melts.

The Physics of Sailing

Leaving the man and his Thai mistress to their intrigues, we sailed out half a mile offshore. I watched out for sharks, of which I am terrified, and Joanna failed miserably to light a cigarette. We sailed the better length of the most popular beaches along Koh Lanta, then decided to turn around.

An elementary lesson in sailing may be in order. If there’s one thing that you should be aware of, it’s that sail boats aren’t actually good for anything unless there’s wind. That’s a fun lesson to learn the hard way. Just as we had our hopes up of a swift return and a cool beer, the leaves in the trees stopped moving. Our sails hung limp, like curtains in a widow’s mansion.

After several minutes of drifting with the current, Xaviar suggested “Let’s swim the boat to shore and get a beer.”

So we did it. And we had the beer. And there was no wind. And we were a mile from our hostel, with a sail boat that feels feathery on the water and obese on land. A speculative mood developed.

“I think I saw a few leaves move” I said. We all looked at the trees. A single leaf moved a quarter of an inch and everyone shifted in their seats. It was the most attention I’ve ever given to foliage in my life. But a single leaf didn’t turn into a cascade, as we were hoping for. The sun was setting and it was time to take action.

The Last Resort

If hearing Xaviar speak English was surprising, hearing his ten year old sister speak even better English was the real surprise. A precocious kid, she had the personality of a firecracker. The sun was keeping other parts of the world light and the four of us were eating pizza at a restaurant across the street from our hostel.

“Is that a standard sailing experience?” I asked Xaviar, in between bites.

Laughing, with a tinge of guilt, he said “No that’s not usually what happens. Most times I don’t make my guests push the boat back home.”

“I’m not complaining, I’m just wondering if you do everything different in Thailand.” I said absentmindedly.

We were tired because we had pushed the boat back, and it had taken us an hour. Xaviar on the right side in the deepest water. Joanna behind the boat, pushing way harder than you would ever give a 110lb girl credit for, and me on the left side, closest to the beach. It had been a hell of a site, and at least a dozen tourists took pictures. An American guy, a Dutch girl, and a half Thai, half English dude pushing a sail boat through the shallow water, going as fast as a man on crutches.

When we reached the hostel it was a beautiful moment, we felt like marathon runners who had just crossed the 26. 2 mile mark. The sail boat was back safe, the light was almost gone, and our calf muscles were wrecked. There was the heroic struggle of pulling the boat up onto the beach, and then the day ended with beer and pizza. A lesson to all would-be sailors. If you’re going out, it’s essential to realize the limitations of your boat. If it’s too small to have an engine, it should be small enough that you can push it. Being stranded by the doldrums is a good story, but when you’re pushing your boat down the beach it doesn’t feel that heroic at all.

The Three Best Hostels in Pai, Thailand

Pai is an awesome village to visit in Thailand. The scenery is great, it’s cheap, there’s plenty to do, and the area is beautiful. You can rent a scooter for a couple of dollars a day, or splurge and get a dirt bike for $15. There are dozens of restaurants to eat at, and the night market is something special. If you’re planning on making the trip to Pai you’ll want to find a great hostel, and that’s what we’ll look at in this article. These Pai hostels are all popular and they’re a great deal too.

1. Darling Hostel

A picture of Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandSituated on the outskirts of town, it takes about 10 minutes to reach Darling from the main street in Pai. Most people who stay here choose to rent scooters and the parking lot is often jammed with them. Darling offers a couple of nice features that make it a fun place to stay. Foremost it has an excellent view out over the whole town of Pai, and you can watch the sunset over the mountains. In the morning you can order breakfast, and it’s one of the few hostels in Thailand with decent coffee. There’s a pool that’s ice cold, plenty of deck chairs to relax on, and a communal fireplace that often gets lit at night.

The best accommodations at Darling hostel are the two and three bedroom private rooms. The dorms are reputed to be less comfortable. The WiFi works OK in the common area, but don’t expect to get any kind of decent coverage in your room. Darling is really the best fit if you want to stay somewhere quiet, and you’re travelling with someone and can split a private room. It’s a beautiful hostel and the atmosphere is excellent.

2. Circus Hostel

Pai Circus HostelCircus hostel is one of the most unique hostels in Pai, and in all of Thailand for that matter. The hostel is situated on a large hilltop and everything takes place outside. There’s a small pool, plenty of space to lay out a mat and tan, or do anything else for that matter. Next to the pool is an outdoor bar which opens around four and closes at midnight. By the bar is a popular pool table and a set of couches and chairs to hang out on. A short walk away is an outdoor eating area where you can bring food in to eat, or buy your own from the hostel. There are communal bathrooms and fire shows at night.

Living at Circus hostel is akin to high level camping. Half of the bathrooms don’t have hot water, and the rest are a decent walk away from the bungalows. Also, it has the worst WiFi in all of Southeast Asia. Even getting a connection to check your email is often impossible. That being said, it’s a fun hostel to stay at. Something is always happening, it’s very social, and there’s always someone to meet. Also, the private bungalows cost less than $10 a night, which makes this an ideal choice for anyone on a budget.

3. Purple Monkey

Purple MonkeyThe first two hostels Pai that I mentioned I’ve stayed at and can vouch for. The Purple Monkey I’ve never stayed at but I have heard good things about it from several other travelers. While Darling and Circus are both ideally suited for people travelling in groups, the Purple Monkey is a better fit if you plan on staying in a dorm. The beds are cheap and comfortable, and there’s a large communal space to meet people. With an outdoor bar and pool table you won’t be bored at night. There’s also a pool, but in the tradition of almost every hostel in Pai, it’s very small.

If you have the time you may want to consider staying at several different hostels. Each has its own unique flair and has plenty offer in the way of entertainment. Pai is a lovely place to stay, and with the difficulty of getting there it doesn’t really make sense to stay a few days and leave. And for anyone else that’s been to Pai and knows of other good hostels, leave a comment to let everyone else know about them!

The Fear of Going to Bangkok – Thailand

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Pattaya was the worst city we ever visited. The town consisted of two things. A crummy beach that was bordered by the main road, and lots of old white men with young Thai girls. Me and Joanna had a room in a building that often felt more like a brothel than a motel. This was our next stop after Koh Rong, and we stayed for two weeks because I had to work. SnookerWe drank Chang, made fun of the fat white guys in their fifties, watched snooker on TV, and Joanna played her Ukulele at Joe’s, the local coffee shop.

Two weeks was fourteen days too many in Pattaya, and on a typically sunny Thai day we got into the back of a taxi and left to catch a bus. In Asia, minibuses are a way of life and we paid $5 each for our ticket. With half an hour to spare, we sat on the beach and looked at the water. Tourists were zooming around on rented jetskis, and a portly woman was parasailing. The driver of the boat was a tease. He let her come down till her toes were dragging in the water, then he would take off, her round figure jumping back into the sky.

An hour later and we made it onto the highway. In Thailand cars drive on the left hand side of the road. It felt disconcerting to go 100kmh down the left side of the highway, with all opposing traffic driving past on the right side. Though these thoughts were quickly washed away, as I thought about what was to come. Even though we had only been on the highway for five minutes, there were already signs telling us our final destination. Bold white letters half a foot high, framed against an army green backdrop, boldly proclaimed our final stop: Bangkok.

Advice from Pavel Tsatouline

Use kettlebells, they’re amazing. In order to build strength perform fewer reps, don’t go to exhaustion. Getting exhausted at the gym doesn’t mean that you’ve had the best workout. Such is the advice of Pavel Tsatouline, an ex-Belarusian strength coach who has worked with movies stars and the Navy SEALS. His words, through the medium of a podcast with Tim Ferriss, were the backdrop for the drive out of Pattaya. I was packed in next to Joanna on the cramped minibus, and her music was being pumped into her ears at such a volume that I could hear it through my headphones.

Pavel’s two hour interview came to a close and I put on one of my favorite Russian pop music mixes. Taking stock of the situation, the first hints of anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. For the first time in more than a month me and Joanna were splitting up. She was going to an upscale hostel to meet her Danish friend Asger. I was going to a different hostel, bordering Chinatown, to fend for myself.

There were several things that made me anxious. Having to split up with Joanna played a role. As did the thought of going to Bangkok alone. It was the first massive metropolis that I was visiting in a long time. There aren’t that many cities that I’ve been to that can claim an urban population in excess of fifteen million. Moscow is one, and Bangkok is the other. Strictly by contrast, New York City looks small with a mere eight million. I love big cities, but they can also feel like bewildering, you’re on your own type places. I felt this acutely because on that day, there was one thing that kept causing my anxiousness to grow as we got nearer to the city: I had virtually no money.

In cash, I thought that there was a 50% chance that I had enough to pay for a taxi and my hostel. On my debit card I didn’t have enough to even cover the $5 foreign withdrawal fee. I had no credit cards. I had no ideas about how I would buy food. More importantly, in a polluted city where you can’t drink from the taps, I didn’t know how I’d be able to buy bottled water. All of this contributed to my anxiety, which grew noticeably worse every mile we drove.

Welcome to Bangkok

Bangkok starts off gradually. It’s like wading into warm water, you start with your toes, and before you know it you’re up to your belly and you don’t even realize how you got that deep. As we approached the limits of the city, the houses began to get closer together. Then they got taller. The sky assumed it’s perpetual polluted, always overcast appearance. When we got out of the bus for a refueling the air was ripe with the smell of tailpipes.

Back on the highway, off to the right I saw the first skyscrapers since Saigon. Glancing left, I was impressed by a Lamborghini dealership. In Dubai I saw several luxury car sellers. In Moscow there is a well known Ferrari dealership, but this was the first time I’d seen Lamborghini represented. I felt like a boy on his first day of school. 10% excited and 90% too scared to even take a deep breathe.

The traffic grew denser, the pollution more evident, and my anxiety worse. Twenty minutes after the dealership and the bus pulled over. In typically Asian fashion we hadn’t arrived at a bus stop, but instead a bazaar. A meter from the door of the bus a group of Thai men we’re eating noodle soup for lunch. People we’re selling cheap t-shirts and magnets. Controlled chaos reigned all around us.

By now my thoughts were moving so fast that it was impossible to stop them. It would be like trying to dam the Niagara river with a piece of plywood. You’re fucked. This sucks, how did this happen? What if you don’t have enough money for the hostel? You shouldn’t have bought that smoothie this morning, you’re going to need that extra dollar. Joanna wouldn’t even want to be with you if she saw what a wreck you are right now. So this is what people in poverty feel like.

Bubbly and excited, Joana walked six steps ahead of me. I followed her, and we reached the taxis seconds later. Joanna gave me a quick kiss, said goodbye, and her taxi was pulling out into traffic before I even had time to understand it. Standing there alone in that massive city, it was the most lost I’d ever felt in my life. After several minutes I hailed a taxi. Functioning at the level of a boiled lobster, I conveyed the directions to the driver. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the hostel, and I paid him our agreed upon amount. After that ride, and paying for two nights at the hostel, I was left with less than $1. My expectations were so low at this point that even if I couldn’t afford dinner, I was happy to just have a place to stay. Numbly I stowed my bags, then dragged my laptop downstairs to start writing a paper.

Fasting in the 21st Century

In the next thirty-six hours I had one beer, two coffees, and a bottle of water. I was so anxious that I lost my appetite, which was the only good thing to come of my addled mental state. I knew that Joanna would have lent me money for food, but even though my anxiety was so acute, I wanted this experience. Poor financial decisions had left me in this place, and I wanted to vividly experience the consequences. The more emotional a lesson, the more it’s a catalyst for change. I went into this self-imposed fast with the idea of using it for motivation to never end up in a similar situation again.

I succeeded. Six months later, on the other side of the world, I can clearly recall my time spent being broke in Bangkok. It was stressful and very difficult, but it lasted for less than two days. On the evening of the second day I got $90 into my account and I went out to eat. Thai noodle soup, mystery meat, mystery pastry, a cup of ice cream. I ate until my belly was ready to burst. By the time I met up with Asger and Joanna two days later, all was forgotten. We spent a night at their hostel, and then took a thirteen hour train ride to Pai.

Learning my lesson the hard way stamped it into my memory for life. Take finances seriously and think ahead. Never go to Bangkok without any money in your pocket. That’s one lesson that I’ll never have to learn again.

Riding a Rocket on Koh Samui – Thailand

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We drank Chang and played pool in Bangkok the night before we went to Koh Samui. At five the next morning we boarded a bus, switched from that to a ferry, and fourteen hours later, just as the sun was setting, we arrived in Koh Samui, Thailand. The seas were choppy, dozens of people had thrown up, and the inside of the ferry smelled like a theme park. 

 Phalarn Inn Koh SamuiDespite inaccurate directions from Google Maps, we managed to find our hostel and toss off our heavy bags. Phalarn Inn was a great place to stay, one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia. There was a large pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the whole place was tucked into the jungle. Every morning we woke up to the sound of hundreds of birds demanding attention.

Even though the hostel turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, there was something else that held my interest hostage. In the course of my research I discovered that you could rent a motorcycle on Koh Samui for nearly half of the price of other areas in Thailand. By this point I had rented several dirt bikes and a small, 250cc motorcycle, but I had never gotten the chance to take out a bike with a proper engine. This time, Thai Moto was going to be my accomplice in crime. The bikes were affordable, I was dying to drive something fast, and we had a reason to rent one. Driving around the island was the perfect excuse to justify the rental.

Fuckups and Misdemeanors

SongthaewAll over Thailand there are unique taxis that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They;re pickup trucks (usually red) with elevated roofs covering the beds. Not quite high enough to stand up comfortably, you have to crouch to reach your seat. There is no gate on the back of the truck, and you simply hop on after flagging him down. The Songthaew (as they’re called) follows a fixed route and is usually about a quarter of the price of a regular taxi.

Several days after arriving in Koh Samui, after I had drank too much gin and made an ass of myself in front of the other guests, we flagged down a Songthaew and rode into town. I held onto the bars on the back, perilously close to the road. In Southeast Asia there may be safety regulations in law somewhere, but the day they’re actually enforced will be the day that wealthy musicians stop doing Bolivian cocaine.

Downtown, we pounded on the roof, paid 100 Baht, and started walking towards the rental place. In this moment, I can pinpoint the precise second where I fucked up with Joanna. There were about a dozen such fuckups in the course of our five month relationship, and this was one of them.

After getting off the taxi, I hadn’t checked how long it would take to walk to the rental place. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was already approaching 90 degrees, and we were walking on the side of the road. No sidewalk, no shade.

“How much further is it?” Joanna asked me.

Zooming in and out on Google maps, taking a terrible guess, I told her twenty minutes. The problem was that I had been so caught up in my own selfish thinking, I had failed to think about what Joanna might be feeling. I have no aversion to so called death marches in the heat. Hot and sweaty, being uncomfortable, nearly getting run over by traffic multiple times, these things don’t bother me. But more sane people (like Joanna) don’t have the same reaction.

With all traces of a smile gone, she flagged down a real taxi and he drove us to the rental place. A walk which wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes, but closer to 45. We arrived, and I said thank you to the taxi driver.

“Thank you Joanna” she said to me, as she paid for the taxi. It was one of the very few times that I ever felt Joanna was truly angry with me. Like any relationship there were times we’d get upset with each other, or have disagreements, but I felt ice in her voice. If I was a hermit crab I would have retreated into my shell. To make things worse, the fucking rental place was closed. I felt like Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple, the company that he founded. Ashamed, embarrassed, and distraught. At this point, I would have welcomed getting run over by an insane Thai driver.

Instead of being crushed, I ended up standing there lamely, like a kid who’s too scared to ask out a girl to the prom.

“I’m getting a drink” Joanna said, and went into the cafe across the street.

Before I had a chance to make a wild dash into traffic, I was surprised to see our taxi driver standing in front of the rental place and waving to me. I walked across the street to him.

“Open soon, you see. 10 they open, I know this place. You see.”

“Alright fine” I said, stress creeping into my voice, avoiding eye contact with him.

He was right though. A few minutes later a man pulled in on a bike and began to unlock the doors. Without glancing at us, he began to move the dirt bikes out in front of the building. Ignoring me, it turned out that our taxi driver was just as interested to look at the bikes as I was.

If the Bike Fits, Rent It

Ninja 650I already had a good idea of which bike I wanted. Unlike other rental agencies, Thai Moto actually had a comprehensive website which I had already spent nearly an hour browsing. I immediately gravitated towards the far corner of the shop, and there she was. A Ninja 650, black on black. 649ccs of race tuned power. Zero to sixty in under three seconds. Top speed: faster than 95% of the other shit on the road. I gingerly sat down on it, balancing it with my legs, kicking up the stand and getting a feel for the weight.

Glancing to the left I saw another bike, just as sexy, just as black. I was a kid in the candy store. The problem is that as a kid, you can pick out a couple of your favorite candies. As a semi-responsible, sort of adult, with a beautiful girlfriend who’s going to be riding on back, you only get the chance to pick out a single bike.

Finally making contact with the owner of the shop, I asked him how much the Ninja was.

“1,000 Baht” he said with a Russian accent.

“Ты говоришь по-русски? You speak Russian?” I asked him.

“Да, конечно. Я из России. Yeah, of course. I’m from Russia.”

“Круто! Я преподавал английский язык в москве восемь месяцев. Cool! I taught English in Moscow for eight months.”

A transformation came over his face. When I had first entered the shop he looked like his wife had left him. Now he was smiling and ignoring the taxi driver, who was asking stupid questions about motorcycle tires. Sensing that most two year old’s with down’s syndrome speak better Russian than me, he switched to English and showed me around.

“So you like the Ninja. It’s a good bike. This one is nice too” he says, starting up the other sexy monster that was parked on the opposite side of the shop. “It’s got a custom exhaust kit on it and when you rev it up..” He pulled the throttle back and I thought it sounded like god speaking the ten commandments to Moses. I was tempted, but not persuaded. I had an aversion to loud motorcycles, and me and Joanna had made fun of dozens of them so far in our trip.

“It sounds great!” I said to him after he shut it off. “I like it, but I don’t think my girlfriend will. She doesn’t like loud motorcycles.”

“So you want the Ninja then?” He asks.

I look at it the way parents look at a newborn baby, and say: “Yeah, I want the Ninja.” I handed over my passport as collateral (illegal, but common practice in all of Southeast Asia), give him a thousand Baht, and carefully selected the least smelly helmet from the large rack of loaners. Mr. Russian parked the bike on the street, turned the keys over to me, and it was time to go to the cafe and make it up with Joanna.

Two and a Half Times the Fun

“Sam I’m going to kill you!” Joanna screamed into my ear, as we squeezed through a three foot gap, between a pair of dump trucks, going 85 mph. I understood how she felt. Riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most powerless feelings in the world. You sit back there, your entire existence at the mercy of the driver. In a car there are seat belts and airbags to cushion the crash. If there’s an accident on a motorcycle, the first thing you run into is a dense piece of asphalt which is going to rip the side of your face off.

There’s a great paradox here though. The driver of a motorcycle feels just as confident in his or her abilities, as the passenger feels powerless. Tearing a narrow gap between forty thousand pounds of metal going close to 90 felt as safe as taking a sip of room temperature coffee to me. No matter that I would have been just as dead as Joanna should something have gone wrong, my experience of that second in time was totally different than hers.

The Ninja ended up being the fastest thing that I’ve ever driven in my life, and that record may stand unbroken for a long, long time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of driving an average car. You jam your foot onto the gas pedal, what happens? It feels like pressing into a wet sponge. Even though you may have the pedal fully depressed, there seems to be a lag. It takes a moment for the engine to catch up and give you the speed that you’re looking for. Unless you drive a M4, that’s the type of throttle response most people are used to.

Now imagine this. As you push down on the pedal, the engine matches your wish. If you push hard, you take off. Push it all the way down, and you’re going 100 mph before your brain can process what’s happening. That’s what it was like to drive the Ninja. Turn the throttle and you explode forward like a bottle rocket. If you keep the throttle held down, the next thing you know you’re doing 110 and you become very aware of how mortal you are. I never took it that fast, but it would have gladly performed should I have asked.

All Good Things Come to an End

We circled the island twice and Joanna said she was going to kill me exactly three times. That’s once every two hours. Not bad considering I was having more fun than a kid in high school getting laid for the first time.

The second time around Koh Samui we stopped at one of the more pristine beaches that I’ve found in Thailand. Palm trees, tropical breeze, and a white sandbar stretching well out into the ocean. I parked the bike in the shade. We stripped down, waded out into the ocean, and lay in two inch water, with barely perceptible waves lapping up against us. Joanna’s head was resting on my stomach, and we listened as Russian tourists walked by.

Sunrise at Grandfather rock at Koh SamuiThen it was time to go. We dressed, donned our helmets, and got back onto the rocket ship. Two hours later we were back at the hostel, the bike safely parked for the night. The next morning we would drive across the island to see the sunrise at Grandfather Rock, and then I would return it to the Russian.

Faster than Superman on meth, that bike was the most exciting thing I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m a die hard motorcycle addict, and feeling the power of that engine did nothing to cure my sickness. For me, driving a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. Combine that with a stunning tropical island, an awesome girlfriend to keep me in check, and we had a hell of time. Back in the states I’ll drive my own significantly slower bike and enjoy every second of it. But as I feel the sponge throttle, there will always be the memory of letting the Ninja loose. Tearing between the dump trucks, and my amazing motorcycle candy Joanna threatening to kill me, if I didn’t do it first.

Getting Dinner in Pai – Thailand

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To reach Pai from Bangkok you have to take a thirteen hour train ride through the oscillating countryside of Thailand. You disembark in Chiang Mai, take a taxi to the bus station, and then take a four hour bus ride up through the mountains.A bus ride to Pai Thailand If you’re lucky your driver won’t be a homicidal maniac. However, most people are unlucky, and they spend most of their ride clutching the seat in front of them, as the bus barrels through hair pins turns at 40 miles an hour.

Despite the hardships, the journey is worth it. Pai is a small town tucked up in the mountains of north Thailand. It’s easy to imagine it twenty years ago as an underdeveloped village with cows and people riding bicycles. Tourism has changed that. The main road that runs through the center of Pai is a quagmire of inexperienced tourists driving scooters, and people selling fruit smoothies along the side of the road.

In our five months of travelling together, this small village held me and Joanna’s attention longer than anywhere else. We had planned to spend a week there, and wee ended up staying for three times as long. In one sense, it’s funny that we would choose to spend so long in a small mountain village, while actively hating the bustling Bangkok. The pieces fall together once you know Pai, and it’s easy to understand how you can become trapped.

Switching Hostels

Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandWe started our journey in Pai three strong. Me, Joanna, and her friend Asger from Denmark. For a week we stayed at Darling Hostel, where we had an incredible balcony that gave us a beautiful view of the entire town. Every night the expansive deck became a bar, and after five days we had filled a thirty gallon wicker basket with empty bottles of Chang.

Apart from drinking a liver busting amount of beer, the most fun we had was our two days playing with the bikes. In Thailand it’s easy to rent a dirt bike or motorcycle. This was especially true in Pai, as multiple shops had shiny new bikes sitting in front. Asger had driven a bike twice in his life before, and he was confident he could do it again. So I rented my first crotch rocket, albeit a small one, and Asger opted for the dirt bike. We drove them for hours through the mountains surrounding Pai. A better time was never had.

Asger riding a dirt bike in Pai ThailandUnfortunately, unlike me and Joanna, Asger had limited vacation time. After just five short days he flew back to Denmark, leaving me and Joanna to continue the adventure in the tiny town. While staying at Darling, we had been hearing music waft over from another hostel about a quarter mile away. One day a particularly loud drum caught Joanna’s attention and she went to check it out. She came back two hours later.

“Guess what?” She said to me with a grin.

“What’s up?”

“I booked us a room at Circus.”

“Damn, so it’s cool huh. When are we going over there?”

“Tomorrow. Do you remember Eddy from Koh Rong? He’s over there right now. We can go over later and jam with them. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s really freaking cool!”

So it went. That afternoon we went over to Circus and we met Eddy, who we had seen for the first time in Koh Rong, 1,400 km away. Even though the odds of this happening seem low, it’s simply not so. There are only so many popular tourist destinations in Asia, and when you potentially meet dozens of people at every hostel, you’re bound to run into some of them again.

Living at the Circus

At Circus, the bungalows are made out of bamboo with no insulation. High up in the mountains, we nearly froze to death our first night. Three blankets did little to dissuade the frigid air. I remember being close to Joanna under the blankets, hugging her like I would drift out into space if I let go. Poor sleep became a theme at Circus. Loud music, an uncomfortable bed, too little beer. None of it helped. None of it mattered. Circus was a great experiment in happiness.

In our five months of travel we had few lasting rituals, as we changed cities to quickly to allow for them. However, at Circus, we developed the great habit of a nightly dinner. Circus is located fifteen minutes outside of Pai and we rented a scooter to get around. $2.50 a day gets you a ride that turns on and violently protests if you try to go over 20 mph.

Sunset at Pai ThailandEvery night around sunset I would take our wheezing scooter into town for dinner. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, food stalls began to populate the streets. Pad Thai, meat on a stick, sushi, and various other dishes were available. With just $5 it was possible to get a belly busting amount of food, and my favorite part of the night was picking it out. Parking the scooter, I would walk up and down the street, passing dozens of stalls, filling my bag with food. Once it reached breaking point I would coax the scooter to life, ease it through the crowd of people, and zoom back up to Circus.

Spreading a towel on our bed, me and Joanna would dig into the food. She preferred sushi, and my main dish was usually something Asian with a list of unidentifiable ingredients. After the main course, we would both finish dinner with meat on a stick. If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, or presumably other places, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Business card sized pieces of meat, skewered on a piece of bamboo, doused in sauce and grilled to perfection.

I enjoyed our nightly ritual and I believe Joanna did as well. Every night dinner was different, and it was always exciting to unpack the bag and see the pile of food laid out. Inevitably after dinner we would go out for a beer and a game of pool. The days and nights passed quickly, and before we knew it we had been at Circus for two weeks.

Back to Bangkok, the Saga Continues

After nearly three and a half weeks in Pai we were ready to call it quits. It’s a testament to beauty of that place that a town as small as Pai was able to hold us for so long. In the coming weeks and months I would talk to other people who had been there, and the conversations usually went like this.

Me. “You were in Thailand, did you go to Pai?”

Random person at the hostel “Oh yeah we went there. We we’re going to stay for four days, but then we ended up staying for two weeks. It’s so crazy, we loved it!”

“Yeah the same thing happened to us. Did you stay at Circus?”

“No we didn’t but our friend did. We went there for a day though it seemed so cool.”

The Mountains in Pai ThailandThis conversation repeated itself as we made our way through southern Thailand, and across borders. The above conversation (word for word) happened in Singapore, 2,636 km away from that legendary town up in the mountains.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Pai. The memories I have of the town are so closely tied to Joanna that it may be more painful for me than enjoyable. Walking through the town, going rafting on the river, drinking beer and playing pool, eating lunch at the same place every day. Dinners on the bed, in a bungalow that was hot in the day and cold at night. Even though Pai may be off my radar for the rest of my life, I look forward to finding other places like it, and creating new lasting memories. When in doubt, take the road less traveled.

The 7 Best Cities to Visit in Southeast Asia

Backpacking Southeast Asia was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I started in Hanoi, worked my way through half a dozen countries, and got to experience more cultural quirks than I’d ever conceived of.

This article isn’t about me though, it’s about you. It’s a chance for me to take my experience and share it with you. That way, when you’re trying to decide whether to travel to to south Thailand, or visit the stunning beaches of Bali, you’ll know what the best fit is. At just five months in six countries I’m not an expert. However, even in such a short amount of time you can find out all sort of interesting facts.

Food prices, food quality, scooter rental, hostel prices, gas prices, corruption levels, quality of beaches, attitude of the people, and so much more. Even though Bali was the last country on my Asian tour, I’ll make it the first one to receive some love

1. Bali, Indonesia

A Dirt Bike at Mt. Batur BaliFirst off, this island is huge! I thought Koh Samui was big, but me and my girlfriend drove through around it in only three hours. Bali is more like a 12 hour trip. The advantage of the size is the sheer diversity of the place. In the course of three days I got to visit the base of a large volcano (Mt. Batur), a tourist beach with a life changing sunrise, and a stunning beach, more than a mile long, with only six people on it. I couldn’t have been living better if I had $10,000,000 (the above picture is from the beach I’m speaking of).

Now for the bad. The traffic on Bali is worse than those people who dose themselves with Axe spray in the locker room. If you’re on a scooter (and brave) you can jump around the traffic. If you’re in a taxi, get ready to wait. That being said, all of the roads I encountered were in great condition and you can easily take a scooter almost anywhere. I rented a dirt bike from Bali Bike Rental (they have scooters too) and I highly recommend them.

I stayed at a hostel in Seminyak called Capsule Hostel. Loved it. The location isn’t fantastic, but with comfortable beds and air conditioning, sleeping is a breeze.

Cost of living in Bali: 6/10

2. Hanoi, Vietnam

I didn’t appreciate Hanoi as I should have because it was the first place I went in SEA. Now, after twenty or thirty other cities, I have a totally renewed appreciation for Hanoi. You can get a cheap hostel downtown, everything is walking distance, the people are nice, the beer is cheap, as is the food. You can get a scooter taxi to almost anywhere in the city for $3.

Downside, people consistently hawk you for stuff. Restaurants, stalls, tourist crap. It really starts to get old to have everybody yelling at you as you walk past. The solution is to wear headphones. Of all cities in the SEA, this would be one of my favorites to visit again.

Cost of living in Hanoi 4 /10

3. Pai, Thailand

The Bus ride to PaiNestled up in the mountains, three hours from Chiang Mai, is Pai. This place is paradise! What sets it apart from other cities is that it’s been developed naturally. No ostentatious high rises or condos, none of that shit. Just lots of bungalows, cute restaurants, and mountain views everywhere. You’ll probably want to rent a scooter to get around, but at $2.50 a day you can’t go wrong. Hostel recommendations include Darling, Circus, and The Purple Monkey.

Trying to think about the bad is difficult. I suppose the terrible crowded downtown main street is definitely a minus. Also, it can get chilly at night. So if you’re only packed for tropical weather, you might want to buy a hoodie and some jeans. Another downside is the bus ride to Pai. You’ll take a about a three hour bus around hairpin turns where the driver’s sworn duty is to kill you. Someone people rent scooters and drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. Even as an experienced driver, I would never do this.

Price 3/10

4. Koh Rong, Cambodia

If I had more blog readers I wouldn’t even bring up Koh Rong. This is a small island just off the mainland of Cambodia. It’s heaven. Perks includes no police, no roads, no cars, no scooters, crystal clear beaches, cheap hostels, cheap food, and loads of other crazy cunts who like to drink and play beach volleyball just as much as you do.

Downside, internet can be spotty. All of the affordable hostels don’t have AC, and a mosquito net is a must. That being said, you can read about my experiences drinking Jameson on Koh Rong, and I would instantly trade all inconveniences to go back. If I ever decide that the world is too much, and I want to cop out by drinking myself to death Hunter Thompson style, Koh Rong is where I’ll do it.

Cost of Living 4/10

5. Koh Lanta, Thailand

Sunset at Koh LantaLoved this place. Some of the best beaches and atmosphere. Also, it’s really easy to explore the island on scooter. The roads are all well paved and you can go to the end of the island in less than two hours. Keeping in mind that there are two sides of the island, and you’ll have to decide which side to go up (I vote west side, it’s like driving through a paved jungle. Pro tip here, stay at Sanctuary hostel. It’s right on the beach, the bungalows are great, you have a beautiful private bathroom. The food they cook may be overpriced for Thailand, but it’s delicious. Also, three minutes from a  7/11. Convenience is a law of life.

If you’re into drinking, you’re in luck. There are more bars on the beach than there are cartons of Ben and Jerry’s in a fat ladies freezer. If you want to get to a club farther down the island , Tuk Tuks rarely charge more than $5.

Cost of Living 6/10

6. Singapore, Singapore

The Banana Building in Singapore

I know, a city with the same name as the country. What kind of anarchy is this? A well maintained anarchy. Singapore is a first world country and may pale to London and New York, but it’s still an important financial powerhouse. Everything is modern, with chewing gum being illegal the sidewalks are so clean.

Rumors abound that Singapore is too expensive to have a good time. Yes and no. Look, you can find an awesome hostel like the one I stayed at (Happy Snail Hostel) for about $12 night. From there, a subway ticket is just $1.50 or so one way. Sure, some food costs more than the GDP of Nigeria, but you can also go get chicken and rice for $3. I honestly believe that Singapore is as cheap or as expensive as you make it.

Cost of Living 8/10

7. Mui Ne, Vietnam

Fishing boats in the Bay at Mui NeIf you’re going to explore southeast Asia, you have to hit Mui Ne. In particular, stay at Mui Ne Hills Budget Hostel (which I assure you is anything but a budget place.) They’ve got a great pool, then another. Then there happens to be another one, and if you get curious, you’ll find the fourth one. Three of the four pools have a fantastic view straight to the ocean. You can order two beers and a delicious dinner for less than $5. You can drink in the pool. Everyday there is a volleyball tournament at four.

I met Joanna here, which turned out to be a defining experience in my travels through Southeast Asia. I simply cannot recommend this hostel enough. Or the whole town for that matter. There are dozens of bars directly located on the ocean. You can sit in a chair, sip your Tiger, and hawk a loogie into the South China Sea. In America this privilege would cost $20 a beer. In Vietnam, about $1.50.

Price 4 /10

The Sun, the Sea, The Cheap Beer

After backpacking Asia for five months, I have so much more to say than what I just mentioned. Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Phuket, Koh Samui, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Nha Trang, Dalat, Saigon, and so on. I just mentioned the places that I enjoyed the most. If you’d like to learn about more SEA, leave me a comment or hit me with a short message.