Around the Traps in Southeast Asia: Part 24
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Bangkok, Phuket & Phang-Nha
Another new year is upon us. I saw out the end of 2022 in Bangkok. Thailand’s capital is a place I generally tend to avoid. The traffic congestion, bad air, and the heat of a large urban metropolis are things I have no affection for these days. Of the few times I’m there, it’s normally because I’m transiting through to another destination, or I need something done which I can’t get sorted in Phuket. Towards the end of December 2022, I made the decision to see out the last few days of the year in the big Mango. I had a camera lens which needed looking at and there’s no longer a Canon Service Centre in Phuket. I also had an external hard drive, with two terabytes of raw files, which had malfunctioned and somewhere like Fortune Town seemed the obvious place to have it looked at. I booked a round trip flight with Thai Smile and resigned myself to the idea of spending New Year’s Eve in Krung Thep. As it turned out, I had a pressing medical condition and going to Bangkok to have it sorted was a wise decision.
A few days prior to my departure from Phuket I noticed redness and swelling in my lower left leg. There was pain and a rather large lump on my left knee. In August 2022 I’d done a motorbike tour around the far north of Vietnam (the Ha Giang Loop) and had taken a fall on a slippery road. I’d suffered a few abrasions which had healed okay. However, there was scar tissue on the left knee. The infection was possibly due to internal bleeding, after I’d bumped it somewhere. A few days before Xmas, with the lower left leg looking like a case of thrombosis, I made my way to Patong Hospital. The diagnosis was an infection, and I was given a week’s course of antibiotics.
Six days later I was on the plane to Bangkok and, although the swelling had reduced, there was still a good deal of pain and redness around the knee. After checking into the Nana Thai Mansion (a good budget hotel at the bottom of Sukhumvit Soi 4) I made a beeline to Bumrungrad Hospital, a place which is notorious for up-selling. I should’ve known better. Why I went there, I’ll never know. Possibly because it’s close to the accommodation area of lower Sukhumvit and is easy to access. When I went up to the 15th floor to check in, the place was jam-packed with Arabs all paying over the top prices for medication they probably didn’t need. After a bit of waiting time, and the scam “blood pressure check,” I was ushered into a ward and attended to by a doctor who seemed clueless. After a bit of prodding around the knee he announced, he was going to prescribe me another week of antibiotics and book me in for an ultrasound scan on the leg. When I inquired as to why I need the ultrasound, I was told I might have thrombosis as well as an infection. The price of the ultrasound was quoted at 9,500 THB. It was then and there that I determined I’d never go back to Bumrungrad Hospital.
Thankfully it was only mid-afternoon and there was plenty of time to get to another hospital. I jumped on the sky train at Nana and made my way down to Ekamai. Sukhumvit Hospital is the one the Thai middle class uses. The service prices are probably half those at Bumrungrad and the doctors seem to be more of the hands on, practical type. The doctor who looked at my knee only took a few seconds to determine it was a sizeable infection which needed draining immediately. After administering a local anaesthetic, he got to work making an incision then squeezing out all the gunk. I had follow up visits over the next 3 days for cleaning. The total bill was just over 10,000 THB. For anyone needing to visit a hospital in Bangkok, do yourselves a favour, go to Ekamai (not Bumrungrad), if you want to save money and time.
On a sobering note, I saw other farangs (westerners) at Sukhumvit Hospital, on each of my visits. All, except one, were being wheeled through the emergency ward in a prone position, on mobile beds. The younger guys all had casts on their legs, probably from motorbike accidents. The older guys (over 60) looked pallid, grey (almost lifeless) and had IV drips attached to them. No doubt suffering from heart ailments or strokes.
The Nana Thai Suites (aka Mansion) is a budget level hotel I’ve used for years whenever I’m in the Big Mango. Not to be confused with the Nana Hotel, this one is at the far end of Sukhumvit Soi 4 and well away from the mayhem of the nightlife area of Nana Plaza. The hotel is a bit rustic (probably built in the 1980’s) but at 1000 THB a night, it’s good value for a place on lower Sukhumvit. The rooms are large and spacious (40 sq meters) and come with a small balcony. The only negative aspect is the air-conditioning, which sometimes gets too cold.
When I first started staying there, some 15 years ago, the property was right next to the Tobacco Monopoly. If you had a room which faced the warehouses, you’d often get the strong whiff of tobacco if you were out on the balcony. These days most of the tobacco warehouses are gone and have been replaced by a scenic park, with walkways through a tree filled landscape. The gate to the park opens at 8.00 AM and you can walk down to Benchakitti Lake if you’re up for some morning exercise. If you need to head down to Sukhumvit intersection, the hotel provides a free tuk-tuk service which drops you at the Nana Hotel carpark.
Nana Plaza, in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, looked back to its vibrant best. The bars opposite the Nana Hotel carpark (Morning Night, Stumble Inn, Big Dogs) seem to have morphed into one continuous strip. All were packed by early evening with punters enjoying the charms of Bangkok. For some, it appeared that having a few drinks at night wasn’t enough. On my way to my morning hospital appointments there were always a few guys enjoying breakfast beers, well before midday. The earliest I saw anyone sat with a beer in front of them was just on 10 AM. There was the distinct possibility of course that these hard goers were carrying on from the night before. Certainly, along Soi 4, as I was heading down to Amazon for my morning starter, I’d see plenty of party hounds staggering home as the sun was coming over the horizon. Of the ladies wandering along the soi, none looked too appealing. The large African ladies, in the light of day, looked hideous. Does anyone pay to have sex with these girls? Each to their own of course but imbibing too much alcohol tends to do strange things to one’s vision and perspective.
For me, the attraction of the Nana area faded a long time ago. I figured out a while back that if one isn’t a drinker, then there’s no real enticement to go there. I think the main reason most guys go there, or any of the bar areas for that matter, is for the booze. The girls are just a bonus, or by product, of the bars. If you’re paying for a bit of horizontal folk dancing, there’s far better value in going to one of those soapy massage places over at Ratchadapisek. As much as we’d like to think the bargirl likes us, the reality is she’s working and we, the punter, are the job. If you’re fine with this scenario, then it’s quite harmless. However, emotional attachment can lead to all sorts of financially negative outcomes.
When it comes to bargirls, it’s often said, “You can take the girl out of the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of the girl.” For the long-term, hardcore ones this is certainly the case. A lady I’ve known for several years, who works at a bar on Soi Cowboy, proved as much. During the pandemic times I’d spent a few weeks with Noot, sightseeing around northern Thailand. I paid her a day rate of 500 THB to be a guide, interpreter, and bed warmer. The bars had been closed for months and her only other avenue of employment was farm labouring, for 300 THB a day. We got along quite well, and I even convinced myself her days on Soi Cowboy were in the past. She was getting up at a reasonable hour in the morning and was no longer a hard-core drinker. Was something of a more permanent arrangement in the picture? Unfortunately, not. My offer ok 10K THB a month, provided she worked in a normal job, was snubbed. As soon as the bars on Cowboy kicked back into life, she was back in Bangkok. I was hardly surprised. The bar life is the only thing they really know and have the skills for. And when things get tough, it’s the easy fall back. I spent 2 nights with her in Bangkok and quickly realised there wasn’t any future in the association. The late get-ups, the booze and hunger for money was all back as a normal situation. I paid her off and wished her well.
After 6 days of being in Bangkok and basically doing nothing except getting my knee attended to, I was back in Phuket. The high season weather had finally kicked in and the beaches along the western coast were picture perfect with calm blue seas, golden sand, and bright, sunny days. The only negative aspect being the place was absolutely packed to the gunwales with tourists. It was early January and the absolute peak of the high season. Patong Beach was flooded with Russians to the point it appeared the numbers were back to pre-COVID times. The streets through Patong were a madhouse of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and mini-vans all swerving and dodging to avoid the hordes of pedestrians. Thankfully, I live in Kathu so I’m able to escape the mayhem at day’s end.
I reside in an area where prices are considerably cheaper that the tourist traps along the beaches. Fortunately, I’m only 5 km down the road from what’s considered to be Phuket’s best shopping mall; Central Phuket. My standard daily routine sees me going there for lunch and a coffee, before heading off to the beach for a swim and a bit of tanning time. A few days after arriving back from Bangkok, I was at Central getting my lunch and got chatting to a Thai lady who had that look of the usual suspect about her. If a lady wants to make money by being on her back, that’s her concern and my days of judging them are long gone. It is, after all, just a job and everyone needs to earn a living. They’re just not relationship material. However, I was interested to know what her story was, so I invited her into Starbucks for a coffee.
Almost immediately after taking a seat she told me she was “a bit crazy.” Loosely translated, this simply means emotionally unstable, particularly for freelance hookers. She mentioned she was back in Phuket after a couple of years “working” in Abu Dhabi. She took out her phone and showed me some photos of her high life with sugar daddies, in the Emirates. It didn’t take much to figure out she was back in Thailand, looking for an income stream. Perhaps she thought I was an easy mark. We exchanged Line IDs. She was hoping for something more. As soon as I got back to my condo, I deleted her Line profile. I’d seen plenty of these types of my ladies during my years residing in Bangkok. The type that hangs out at Oskar, Levels, and Mix. They’re simply alcoholic whores, who want far too much money for the lousy sex they provide.
Something which is often seen on the YouTube vlogs about Thailand is commentary on the various scams tourists can encounter in the popular resort areas. The more well-known ones are the broken jet-ski scam, the double drinks order, and the inflated bar bill. There’s quite a list of them. One of the more recent to appear on the roads of Phuket is the government-sanctioned police checkpoint scam. People may not be aware of this but towards the end of last year, the powers that be decided to jack up the minor traffic infringement penalties fourfold. When the fines for not wearing a motorbike helmet, riding without a license, running a red light, etc., were only 500 THB, it was kind of acceptable.
With the penalties now jacked up to 2,000 THB, it’s nothing more than a blatant scam, targeting tourists and foreigners. Whenever I’ve ridden through the roadblocks, or been stopped, there are never any Thai people (unless it’s a Thai lady with a farang) being pulled over. The reason being is the Thai Police know the average Thai who rides a motorbike, doesn’t have 2000 THB for the fine. While a bunch of farangs are having their licences checked, or being fined for riding without a helmet, Somchai goes speeding by helmetless. Additionally, they’ve upped the ante regarding motorbike licenses. It’s no longer sufficient to have a license from your home country. You are now required to have an international driving license. Welcome to the Land of Smiles. Thanks for the 2000 THB and have a nice day.
On a final note, it seems if you’re a pot smoker, Phuket is the place to be. Along Bangla Road there are a plethora of weed outlets. The Government still can’t decide if it’s going to fully legalise it or restrict it. To be honest, I think it’s too late. The cat’s out of the bag and there are now just too many locals making a business from it.
Note: The following section of this trip report contains no references to bars, bargirls, whoremongering, or the adult nightlife industry.
Phuket high season: Towards the end of January 2023 the high season crowds in Phuket were starting to get to me. The roads around the island were a constant stream of mini vans ferrying tour groups from one location to another. Many of the beaches were so crowded, it was almost hard to find a spot to lay down. The popular restaurants had lines along the street each evening. If you hadn’t booked a table in advance, you’d have a lengthy wait to get into places like no. 6 and no. 9 restaurants. In Phuket, the quiet times of the covid era are a thing of the past. High season 2023 is back to the normal situation, crowded beaches, crowded shopping malls, traffic jams, and packed restaurants. I’d forgotten just how chaotic a high season really is. The two years of covid had given everyone amnesia. Phuket in the high season is a place to be avoided. Yes, the weather and the beaches are great but the hordes of Russians who’ve descended on the place make it no different to the Costa del Sol, Saint Tropez, or Ibiza. Looking for somewhere a bit quieter, I rented a motorbike for a few days and headed north to Phang-Nha Province.
Sai Kaew Beach: Phang-Nha Province (and city) is located approximately 95 km from where I reside on Phuket Island. To get there obviously means driving off the island and heading north on hwy # 4. I departed at just after 7 am but, even at this early hour, the main route up the island was already packed with traffic. It wasn’t until I got past the airport turn-off that the traffic thinned out. The top end of the island is an area which sees substantially less tourists. The few who are there, are the ones looking for a quieter location and make the effort to get there. One such spot is SAI KAEW BEACH. If you’re riding north, the road goes right past this great little seaside spot with a coffee shop and a restaurant. I pulled into the parking area and at just on 8 am, was the only one there. After a peaceful 20-minute stop, and a good strong americano, I was back on the road and heading off the island.
Mainstream tourism: Phang-Nha is not entirely free of the mainstream tourist mob. Places such as James Bond Island, the Monkey Cave and Samet Nangshe Viewpoint get convoys of minivans and boats each day. I wasn’t going to bother with James Bond Island or Samet Nang-she, as I’d been there before and didn’t need to waste time on substantial detours. The Monkey Cave (official name is WAT SUWAN KHUHA) however, was on the way to Phang-Nha City and just a couple of hundred meters off hwy 4. I hadn’t been there in 20 years and even though I expected the place to be packed with tourists, I was interested to see if there’d been any further development on the site.
The Monkey Cave: After pulling into the parking area, I could see the site had been fully upgraded for mass tourism. Even though it was only just on 9.30 am, there was at least a dozen minivans parked there. Along the edge of the parking area, and fronting the entrance to the site, was a one-story building with restaurants, cafes, and hawker’s stalls. The open-air cafes were already filled with Russians getting their morning caffeine fix. The Temple site has a large limestone peak with a series of caverns, with Buddha statues inside. Before entering the cavern complex, tourists can buy bags of bananas from the hawker’s stalls and feed the monkey’s which drop down off the cliff face to pester them. One of the positive developments of the site is there’s now a fence around the limestone peak which stops the monkeys from coming out into the carpark.
The Reclining Buddha: The cavern complex is large, there is no crawling or stooping to get around. The first cavern is the biggest and has the primary sightseeing attraction; a large (6 meters long) Reclining Buddha. Note: When you first enter the cavern there’s a ticket desk where you are required to pay a 20 THB entry fee. As I walked towards the far end of the cavern, where there’s a stairway leading up to another series of caves, there was the familiar sight of a monk tying a piece of orange string around a tourist’s wrist. The old ‘it gives you good luck” scam was still going on. The piece of coloured string isn’t free. A donation is always expected for the two-minute procedure, and the monks’ chants. When I went there 20 years previously, the Thai hooker I was with conned me into putting 500 THB into the donations box (for my piece of orange string). Completely naive of course but getting you to waste your hard-earned cash is something Thai hookers are experts at. How do you tell a newbie in Thailand? They’ve got a piece of orange string around their wrist.
The upper levels: As mentioned, a short metal stairway takes you to the upper-level caverns. These caverns are smaller than the main cave room but are more enclosed and have some good-sized calcified formations. There is lighting and a solid stairway in place for safe access. However, with the numbers that were already up there, I had to wait my turn to get up the stairway to the highest-level cave. If you haven’t been here before then the place is probably worth an hour of your time. However, it’s a mainstream tourist location and usually quite crowded in the high season.
Phang-Nha Township: Approximately 10 km further along hwy 4 is Phang-Nha Township. With a population of just over 10,000 it’s very sedate, compared with Phuket. The town is situated in a narrow strip, along both sides of hwy 4, and is surrounded by jungle clad, karst peaks. It’s a very scenic location and the vertical walls of the karst peaks are ever present. From the Monkey Cave I rode straight to the TP Place Hotel, my base for the following three days, and dropped off the gear I didn’t need for the rest of the day. My afternoon of sightseeing would include a couple of nearby cave sites and a rather unusual Buddhist Temple.
Sam Cave: This small cave is situated just to the north of Phang-Nha Town centre. It’s a place which few tourists visit possibly because other larger sites seem more appealing. However, although being relatively small, this site has historical significance to the area. The cave is not very deep (more a cavern than a cave) but the interior walls are covered with rock art which apparently goes back to the reign of King Rama VI. There’s a nice park and a lake to walk around to get to the cave. Worth thirty minutes of your time to check it out.
Tham Ta Pan Temple: This site is also near the town centre and is quite possibly the most bizarre Buddhist Temple in Thailand. I’ve seen stuff on the web before about it and one section of the site is seriously macabre. There’s an area at a lower level of the temple grounds which is a depiction of what humans can expect if they end up in hell. A lot of it is quite gory and as I worked my way around the display the only thing which came to mind was, who was the person, or persons, who created it. A lot of it looks grotesque but there’s a type of cartoon element as well. If you’re in Phang-Nha, this is a must visit location.
Reusi Sawan Cave: This cave site is part of a parkland area on the southern side of Phang-Nha Township. The park has a lake with a walking/cycling track around it, at the centre. The western and southern side of the park has a series of limestone peaks with caverns running through the base of them. A cement walkway runs through the caverns, from one side to the other, along the edge of a small pond. There are a couple of fountains, at the centre of the pond which come on at 4 pm each day. Note: The cavern area is populated with a large group of Macaque Monkeys. Do not under any circumstances, park a motorbike near the caves. Unfortunately, I made this mistake and after doing the walk through the caverns, returned to find the upholstered seat on my motorbike had been torn to pieces.
Sa Nang Manora Forest Park: This is a fantastic nature reserve located just 12 km north of Phang-Nha Township. To get there, head north up hwy 4 then turn right at the directional signage (or simply use Google Maps GPS). The reserve parking area is approximately 3 km east of hwy 4. This is a less visited location which is off the beaten track. As of January 2023, there is no entry fee. The reserve has a great little nature trail, of 2 km in length, which works its way up through a series of small waterfalls to eventually arrive at a limestone (karst) cliff face. The trail then works its way along the base of the cliff face, taking in several small cave/cavern sites. The Bat Cave is the final sightseeing location, at the end of the trail. A half day outing is enough to check out this brilliant nature reserve and it’s better to go earlier in the day, as closing time is 4.30 pm.
Tham Nakarach (aka Dragon Cave Temple): This is another hidden gem of Phang-Nha Province. It is off the beaten track of mainstream tourism and receives substantially fewer visitors than a site such as the Monkey Cave. The site is located approximately 22 km Northeast of Phang-Nha Township. Using Google Maps GPS, there are two options for getting here. The most interesting route is to go north on hwy 4, which takes in some fantastic mountain scenery, then turn right at the access road to the cave. Note: On the way take a few minutes to check out the view from the tower at KHAO NONG HANG VIEWPOINT.
On-site: The Dragon Cave Temple (Tham Nakarach) is well set up for sightseeing. There’s a secure parking area and a great little canteen to grab a cold drink from. The cave site has had extensive work done in developing it for safe access, and sightseeing. There are solid metal stairways up the cliff face to the main platform area. From the main platform area (at the front of the cave) another metal stairway takes you up to a short pathway (to the left of the main platform) which runs along the cliff face. At the end of the pathway there’s another viewing platform (with Buddha Statues) which provides a nice view across the landscape. This pathway is a dead end. You’ll need to go back down onto the main viewing platform to access the further pathways which lead through a labyrinth of smaller caverns above, and to the rear, of the main platform. These pathways run deeper into the limestone peak, through a series of smaller caves with more Buddha Statues. An hour is plenty of time to check out this amazing Buddhist Temple site.
Khlang Cave: This interesting mid-sized cave site is located approximately 46 km southeast of Phang-Nha Township. It is in KRABI PROVINCE but is an easy fifty-minute ride if you’ve got the time to check it out. The site is in a remote area of Krabi and gets substantially fewer sightseers than the more popular locations, such as Rai Ley and Ao Nang. If you’ve got an interest in caves it’s worth a couple of hours of your time, as the trail through the cave is quite extensive. As with most cave sites in the area the entrance is at the base of a large limestone monolith, with vertical cliff faces. This site is quite unique in that it has an excellent dry cave trail and next to it, a deep cave spring which is often visited by divers. The spring emanates from deep under the karst (limestone) monolith and pushes up to eventually flow out from a large cave opening. Note: The only way of penetrating into this wet cave is by boat.
Cave tour: If you’re an experienced caver, and you have the lights and equipment to go independently, then there’s no entry fee for the dry cave. The cave trail does a loop through the limestone monolith and eventually returns to the start point on the eastern side of the site. However, the trail has several tight spots and is slippery in many locations. For this reason, it’s probably worth hiring the guide who based at the site. Note: When you pull up in the parking area, he’ll present himself to ask if you need headlamps or want a guide. The guide speaks reasonable English and is an informative source of information for the tour.
Large cave room: The most impressive section of the cave is the large cave room in the initial area, once you enter. There’s a boarded walkway which takes you through an area of tight formations, hanging from the ceiling. The walkway ends just after this squeeze, and the trail drops down onto the cave floor of the large room. The trail then skirts the pond at the bottom of the large room and leads to an upper section which provides a nice view across the room and pond. The ascent path has a solid rope handrail in place for safety and to avoid slipping. From this upper section you get a good view of the impressive array of stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling.
Coming up in the next trip report: Bali and New Zealand.
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