John-Suwan Viewpoint – The Best View On Koh Tao

OUR ADVENTURES AROUND THE SOUTHERN TIP OF THE ISLAND

The view from John-Suwan

On Koh Tao, the biggest tourism lure is scuba diving. You get the chance to see an incredible array of fish, coral, and various sea critters. However, there’s another fantastic reward if you reverse the verticality and climb above sea level.

We stayed at The Place, which was a solid, uphill walk from Sairee Beach on the west coast of the island. On our last full day on the island, we wanted to explore the southern region of the island. We took a taxi down to Chalok Baan Kao Bay and were met with gorgeous water that was the perfect temperature. We could have spent the day here, but we were on a mission today…

We strolled down the road, heading further south, passing a bunch of tourist-centric businesses – dive shops and English-language restaurants, until we got to Freedom Beach. There wasn’t an entrance fee, but you are expected to buy a drink from the bar. This may have been due to us arriving in the shoulder season.

The walk up/down had plenty of great views.

After taking a dip in the water and toweling off, we made our way up to the destination-of-the-day, the John-Suwan Viewpoint. As you approach the trail up, there will be someone sitting in a shack to take your 50 baht (~$1.60) entrance fee. The walk itself is about 20 minutes, winding through a jungle of trees, with a few beautiful vistas you can see through the trunks. Once you near the top, there will be ropes you can use to pull yourself up on top of boulders with.

The final stretch requires a little bit of climbing, being especially easier with a second person that can take your belongings while you ascend the rocks. What you’re rewarded with at the end is, in my opinion, the best view on the whole island.

We took a few minutes to take in our panoramic view of the island and surrounding water, before swapping pictures with a German couple that had arrived shortly after us.

*Top Tip: Wear comfortable shoes. Uncomfortable flipflops or going barefoot isn’t the best choice, in my opinion.*

The journey back down was leisurely; we stopped at a few lower viewpoints to enjoy some different vantage points. Once we were back down to street level, we decided to keep going around the island to see Aow Luk Bay (I’ve seen this spelled a million different ways.) This required backtracking a little on the street, allowing us to stop at one of the restaurants and get some noodles and coconuts to nourish us after a day at the beach and mountain.

The walk turned out to be a lot longer than we expected, leading to “I told you” stares from Rachel and “We’re almost there, just a little longer” responses from me. We eventually reached a sign for the location and after a sigh of relief, we started down the hill. We had made it! Or so we thought…

As we reached the bottom of the hill and realized there was still a significant walk ahead of us, a pickup truck comes rolling by and urges us to hop on. We did, and he drove us the rest of the way down to the parking lot for a resort where you have to pay 100 baht (~$3) to enter (they included a drink for us both in the price.)

Sidenote: All of the beaches on Koh Tao are public and free. Any entrance fees you are met with are to walk across resort property to get to them.

This was the busiest beach of the day, but I only use “busiest” for lack of a better term. There were only a handful of groups there, with the largest being a group of young guys and girls playing badminton. We had borrowed snorkel gear from The Place and wanted to see what we could find.

We swam out and took a look around the water, seeing a vast array of fish swimming around the rocks on the side, including a dozen or so rainbow-colored fish that were the highlight. Swimming between the two sides wasn’t as enjoyable. There was a small, but noticeable, accumulation of trash and fish poop that we had to swim through. Due to the time of day, the tide was rocking everything around as well.

All of the water movement and waves led Rachel to hitting her foot off of a rock and cutting it open. We immediately got out of the water (1- to treat the cut, 2- the area is known for small sharks being in the area.)

Like some sort of scene from a medical tv drama, she started ordering me through a variety of processes:

Get the small travel towel.

“Grab my hairtie from the bag. No, the other one.”

“Hold this here, while I wrap it.”

I felt like the significant other of Drs. Gregory House or Meredith Grey on vacation.

Shark Island, aptly named for its doresl fin appearance.

She eventually finished and showed a make-shift compression bandage and what she used to clean up the initial cut. We took a taxi back to our room where they had an actual first-aid kit for us to get it disinfected and re-wrapped. The rest of the evening was for relaxing before we flew off to Chiang Mai the next day.

Getting a Sak Yant in Thailand

Sak yants.

Tattoos are polarizing. Some people are completely against them, describing them as heretical, rebellious to society, or just tacky. Others, like myself, see them as art. We see them as reflections of our personality, either through sentimental imagery or just a picture we like.

Sak yants are deeper than that. Peformed by monks, they offer prayers, protections, fortunes, and peace. Originating in indigenous tribes, it is often now associated with Hindu-Buddhism, and mirrors the regional language and stories.

Being tucked into this ball was less than pleasurable.

Yantra tattoos are available throughout Thailand; it’s a fairly large industry for Chinese tourists. There are plenty of options on where to go for yours:

Just outside of Bangkok is Wat Bang Phra where up to 50 people may be queued into a mass yantra tattooing session in one day. There are several designs to choose from or you can let the monk read your aura and make a suggestion.

The pros to this route is really just the cost: you are only required to make an offering of flowers, incense, and menthol cigarettes – about $3 worth of items.

The cons are more numerous: while the tattoo itself is quick, you must wait in line with dozens of other people, so if you’re last in line, you better have an open day. There are also safety concerns, with the same ink being used on several people and the needle being cleaned with a mere alcohol wipe if not replaced between each guest. I can’t find any statistics on this, but that could lead to transmission of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Additionally, I can’t find any validity to the claim that charcoal and snake venom is used to concoct the ink, but that is a prevalent rumor.

Ultimately, we opted against this route due to the concerns and went with a place in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand called Sak Yant Chiang Mai.

After exploring some Wats in Old City in the morning, we entered the location and were met by a very nice, helpful staff. It had a waiting room with pictures, memorabilia, and of course, Buddhist statues. We were asked what kind of Sak Yant we were interested in and after explaining our desires, were presented with a binder of stencils that included their protections.

I went with a depiction of the Phra Narai Song Khrute, which depicts a scene of Vishnu, the King of Gods, leading a truce between the gods and the demons. The link above has a really good summary. The prayer with this yantra offers me success when working with others and protection from bad spirits.

The original design. All of the characters and most of the symbols were free-hand.

Rachel had fewer options. Being a woman, she is limited in where a monk is allowed to make contact with her and the fact that she has her entire back and one arm covered in tattoos already, she was left with just her right arm, where she chose a deer symbol that offered a charming ability with its prayer.

Rachel goes first.

We made a similar offering to the Bangkok temple, purchasing a pack of cigarettes from a nearby 7/11 and the building staff gave us some incense and flowers to offer, along with a small monetary donation (~$60-80USD).

We were tattooed by Arjun Sam, a former Buddhist monk. Rachel goes first and me second. If you aren’t familiar, a typical tattoo is done in two parts – the initial outline and the shading. The second half is always what gets to me because there is usually a break in between where your adrenaline wears out and the shading is often done by rubbing that you feel on the bone. A Sak Yant is different; it’s hand-poked at a rhythmic pace, slower than that of the electromagnetic-powered coil guns used in your typical tattoo shop.

The needle itself is at the end of a steel rod and doesn’t hurt. I go numb to the sensation within twenty minutes. What sucked, however, was being balled into a small position so that my skin was as tight as possible. I am far from the most flexible person you’ll meet, so it took me a little bit of time to recover once I was allowed to stand back up.

Once both of our tattoos were done, Sam performed a chant and blessing, bringing our protections to life.

Arjun Sam blessing us.

You’re supposed to have a ceremony once a year to refresh the blessing, and I do want to go back and get another one.

This is my coolest ink experience and the most memorable keepsake from my first trip to Thailand.

Have you been to Thailand? What is your opinion on Sak Yants?

How To Stay In Luxury On A Budget In Koh Tao, Thailand

The smallest of the three islands in the Koh Samui Archipelago, Koh Tao, isn’t as popular as its larger neighbors in terms of partying and vacationing, but it one of the most popular spots in the world for obtaining your scuba licensing.

The island was, for the most part, abandoned until the 1980s-90s, meaning its infrastructure isn’t quite capable of handling much in the way of a luxury vacation or holiday.

Unless you know where to look.

The Place was only a brief walk from fresh coconuts.

When we arrived on Koh Tao and were met by Lamai at the pier, we hopped into the back of a pickup truck and were driven past Sairee beach and the roads that ran parallel. We ascended a few steep roads and as we rounded a corner, we saw the gate to The Place.

This was a ridiculously steep hill that started its incline almost immediately (we would workout our leg muscles a few times climbing the adjacent stairs over the next couple days) until we plateaued and were met by a dozen or so employees who clapped at our arrival. We were greeted with hot towels dipped in lemongrass water. Honestly, we were pretty awkward in our reception. Why are people being so kind and hospitable to us, like who are we to deserve such special treatment?

We approached the gate to our villa and saw an entrance sign with our names on it (this was a really nice touch), opened the gate and were met with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. All of those hills we climbed put us above the tree canopies and gave us a gorgeous view of the Gulf of Thailand.

Our view of the Gulf of Thailand.

We toured around our villa, were given a cellphone preprogramed with a few convenient phone numbers and a giant basket of food and goodies, shown how to use all of the amenities, asked if we needed anything, and left to enjoy our mini life of luxury.

Some of the highlights are straightforward from the pictures, but there were so many extra services that we really appreciated:

📱 The preprogrammed cellphone gave us instant access to Mr. Bear, a local taxi driver with incredible timing and solid rates.

🚲 Free access to bicycles which we never used for some reason that escapes me still.

🤿 Free use of snorkel equipment that we took out on Aow Leuk Bay.

🧺 A laundry service. When you’re traveling more than one to two-ish weeks, these services help you cut down on your packing list. They use line drying as part of their commitment to Save Koh Tao and eco-friendly practices.

The inside had a long, stretching couch with a bagillion comfy pillows to lounge on, a full kitchen along with some food staples including a delicious banana jam that we crushed. The large bed sat elevated from the rest of the floor, enclosed in a mosquito net with some entertainment options (I took a nap to Casino Royale in our comfy, included robes while Rachel was sorting through some things one day. When I woke up, she had passed out too from the comfort.) The best part, however, was the bathroom – the glass ceiling, the stone pathway, and the numerous plants making it look like we were bathing in a tropical jungle rather than a bathroom.

My favorite bathroom ever.

Once we stepped outside the floor length sliding doors, we were met by plenty of lounge, bean bags, and chaise chairs. Seriously, we could have sat on a new chair every day for over a week. There is a bamboo fence around your deck that provides plenty of privacy from the neighboring villas. But the number one feature was the infinity pool that we got to hop in and take in the view. It’s not heated, so the water was fairly cool when we went during shoulder season in October. We also only used it at sunrise or sunset, so the middle of the day may have been better, too.

The Place is currently priced at $450 for two nights (prices went up ฿1000/night after we went), but when you compare that to a stay at a traditional hotel on a beach in the US, you’re looking at a great deal for all of the added luxuries that you get.

A little souvenir that now sits on our travel wall at home.

Is Koh Tao on your bucket list? Let me know if you’d stay at The Place or if you’d rather find a budget hostel in the comments below.

How To Help Save Elephants In Thailand

I’ve definitely thought about riding an elephant. Bruising through the trees atop a 4-ton behemoth, claiming your throne as Hannibal of the jungle. But this thought is best left as just that… a thought.

A vast majority of Thailand’s elephants live in captivity, with the estimated 2000 still in the wild being declared endangered due to loss of habitat. A large tourism sector in the country centers around elephant encounters. People from around the world come to watch them paint pictures, play with soccer balls, or ride them. All of these can be cute when you first see them, but they’re very destructive to the elephant’s well-being. Hooks and chains are used to make the animal docile and submissive, causing pain and restricting their ability to move freely.

Currently, the best weapon against this type of animal abuse is education through organizations such as Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. Located in the Chiang Mai, they rescue elephants from logging companies, riding camps, and circuses, usually by purchasing the animal with donated money. They then offer visits to the sanctuary for a donation that goes towards saving more elephants.

Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
My experience

Our visit started off by being picked up from our guesthouse before circling around the city to pick up a few more travelers. After arriving to the sanctuary, we were greeted by a couple young, enthusiastic Thai men who taught us about each of the five elephants they had, what their mission was, and how we were helping. You could really tell they cared about the animals.

We were given a change of clothes, a ridiculous amount of bananas that we stuffed into every pocket and pouch we could find, and let through a gate to meet the friendly giants.

At first, the nerves are there. It’s you standing right beside something nearly twice your height and fifty times your weight, so you hastily hand them bananas because that’s the only muscle movement you feel comfortable doing. The nerves subside fairly quick, though, as you realize what marvelous creatures they are. You begin to pet them and slide your hands around their skin, finding scars from their old lives. The elephants remind you, however, that you have more bananas – and they want them. Their trunks will find its way into every nook, cranny, and crack you have to get what now seems like a never-ending supply of the fruit.

The camp has four adult, female elephants and one baby boy – an obvious crowd favorite. They all had welcoming, gentle personalities and the size of our group made it easy to interact with the elephants without feeling like you were imposing on their space. We took pictures and pet them as the last few bananas were fed to them before heading back to the main hut.

Our instructor led us back to the trucks and said we were going to get some more food for the elephants while they took a little break.

We ended up down a path by a pond and a banana tree grove and were one-by-one given a machete to chop down our own tree. The way we were lined up, I was going to be the last person to cut my tree and I absolutely refused to be embarrassed by some failed cutting attempt, so I watched each person ahead of us and their technique:

  • That guy hit the middle of the trunk where it might be too thick.
  • She was standing straight up, not enough leverage.
  • He swung it hard but his leg was on the other side of the tree. A bit dangerous there.

Rachel went in front of me and did a fantastic job with hers. A nice, hefty trunk, hacked down with great form. She handed me the machete and I stepped up to the biggest trunk I could find, squared up, and let a nice slice into the trunk. Perfect strike. Our group struck a pose with our tropical tree trophies, dragged them back to the truck, and drove back towards the sanctuary.

More snacks!

When we got back, we were brought back onto the grounds and led the elephants on a hike into the nearby jungle. After a short walk, navigating a narrow trail beside our large friends who had zero interest in ceding right-of-way to us when we got to a bottleneck.

We arrived at a clearing and the elephants still had an appetite, stripping the banana tree trunks of their leaves and going to town on them (they are loud chewers.) It was really neat seeing them use their feet to hold down branches to get a good grip on the leaves. I left my phone in the lockers at the main hut, and I missed out on some great photo ops between the trees. One of the female elephants kept trying to walk away with the baby until his mom came over and took him back. Watching the dynamic relationship was really astounding.

As the elephants finished up their banana leaves, we began to lead them along another path until we reached a clearing. It was mud bath time. The elephants went straight for the mud pools while we stripped off our denim outer layers to just our swim suits. By this point, one of the volunteers had already dived into the mud, fully covered. You couldn’t help but hesitate when you saw all of the elephants had started peeing and pooping. This wasn’t just mud we were playing in.

The elephants showed visible enjoyment, plopping down and letting us rub mud all over them. It was a great way to exfoliate their skin and cool them down on the hot day. The same guy that had gone head first in was now chucking mud balls at people and slathering anyone’s skin he could find to make sure we were all equally sharing in the experience. After spending some time here, we hopped over a mound of dirt and got into some cleaner water to rinse off, said bye to the gentle giants, and finished off in a human-only shower and swimming pool.

Before leaving, the volunteers had set up a make-your-own-noodle-soup station at the main hut and we each had unlimited access to lunch. This was super fun and the soup was delicious. The entire time we were there, one of the guides had been taking very high-quality candid pictures of everyone and they had each group of people come up to see if they wanted to purchase a package based on their visit. I really, really kick myself for not getting ours. The proceeds go towards saving more elephants in the future.

Takeaways

As social media and internet access has expanded, tourists have put pressure on the institutions that previously held elephants in abusive situations. As our dollars go towards sanctuaries and education, the riding camps and circuses are forced to remove the negatively-associated activities in order to maintain a profit.

You can absolutely enjoy an elephant encounter in Thailand, but do so responsibly.

Bananas. So many bananas.

How To Arrive In Thailand

Using every form of transportation to get to Koh Tao

When you fly into Suvarnabhumi airport (BKK), it will most likely be a late night flight, having you land sometime near midnight. Despite the influx of international flights, getting through customs is fairly quick. We chose a taxi because our hotel wasn’t close to any train stops, but it was somewhat close to the train station we needed to use the next day. Rachel had sent an email to the hotel letting them know of our late night arrival. Our taxi driver didn’t know any English, but we had an app that translated our hotel’s address to Thai. I had my Apple Maps up and when we got close, I told the taxi driver he could drop us off and we’d walk the rest of the way, but he insisted on driving us to the front door, which took us around several more blocks to get there.

When we found the front door, it was gated shut, presumably closed but there was a door bell. *Ring ring ring* *Ring ring ring.* Nobody came, we sat on the stoop for a solid twenty minutes pressing the door bell and waiting. Nothing. Rachel checked her email and looked at me… Because it was so close to midnight, she had told them we’d be arriving the next day, by mistake. Nobody was going to answer our door bell ringing. So here we are… In hot Bangkok at midnight, with no place to go.

Waiting for the train.

We started to walk towards the Hua Lamphong train station, where we were headed to the next day, fully prepared to sleep on a bench in or right outside of the station. Luck would have it, as we were strolling down the block, a guy was walking towards us on the same sidewalk and entered a door right before we passed. It was a hostel.

“Excuse me,” I quickly interjected before the door closed, noticing that he worked there rather than being a guest. “Do you have any rooms available right now?”

He very politely got us set up with a room and some bath towels for what equated to $11/each (the towels were a deposit that we got back). He showed us to our room, and we hit the sack. When we woke up, Rachel went to take a shower. Somebody had knocked the sink handle off in the girl’s bathroom and it was spraying water everywhere. The water had flooded the entire floor and began seeping into our dorm room. She had run down to inform the front desk and it seemed like they didn’t understand, because nobody responded. She came back up to the room and let me know. I went in and shut off the quarter-turn valve to keep the water from spraying anymore, but it was still enough to continue flooding the entire floor.

She finished her shower and I took one in the somehow dry men’s side. When we went to check out, the desk attendants presented us with a delicious breakfast of soup and fruit. We had some time to explore the local area and found a bright, llama themed café and a bookstore that doubled as a pad thai shop where we got our first dose of mango sticky rice.

The greatest culinary invention ever – mango sticky rice.

The agency we bought tickets through was right across the street from the train station, so we picked them up, enjoyed a beer across the street, and got ready to board our train. Sleeper trains are a great way to save money in Thailand. You get a ride and accommodation all in one. You fall asleep in one place and wake up in another. That is, if you can get any sleep. Our seats turned into bunks that just happened to be right beside the loudest sliding door that led to the restroom. So all night, the door wooshed open and closed three feet from our pillows. I was fully awake at least an hour before we reached our final station. Everyone creeped out of the train, dragging from half-sleeps and crowded around some benches for the next hour while we waited for a bus to arrive. I managed to grab some shut eye here before arriving at the dock in Surat Thani around dawn.

Boarding the ferry was a waiting game, first for our boat to arrive then to actually take off. The water wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t calm either. We took some dramamine and quickly nodded off from continued exhaustion.

The Gulf of Thailand

It was either the ocean air or the excitement of finally arriving at our destination that woke us up with energy. Koh Tao was the last island in the Chumphon Archipelago that the ferry would go to, so our anticipation was building greater and greater.

When we finally docked at Koh Tao, we hopped off the boat and were met with some craziness. There are tons of people there – some awaiting friends, some trying to sell you rides across the island, some waiting to get on the ferry back the way from which we came – but it’s a relatively linear path to exit the dock area.

We made it under a canopy when Lamai met us with a sign that had our names. We introduced ourselves and she led us out to the parking lot where we hopped in the back of a pickup truck and drove into the island, following streets that had a visible incline, until we reached our home for the next few nights – The Place.