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The budget travel guide to Phuket

by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

My first introduction to Thailand was Bangkok. We  were met at the airport, whisked into a van and checked into an expensive hotel in Bangkok’s Siam Square, where we stayed for the next two days. I knew what I was going to do and who I was going to do it to.

Phuket was a completely different experience. I arrived in Phuket with half an itinerary, a missing Kindle and absolutely no idea where anything was: all I knew was that I had an island to explore and and, well, other things to do.

  1. Get away from the action
    Most travellers’ first introduction to Phuket is Patong Beach. And perhaps, if you’re not tired, the infamous Soi Bangla.  Both of these are fine locations, for reasons we’ll get into later, but if you want to find a good place to stay, this is the not the place to be. Instead, navigate to the Jungceylon Mall and the Eating market, then follow the road that leads directly away from the sea.jungceylon
    It’s fairly laid-back, you’ll be able to find much cheaper hotels there; decent double bedrooms start at 600 Baht a night. Food is also super cheap, because there’s a street market barely a hundred meters from any hotel you take; there’s also the mall for clothes and eating out.
  2. Make a trip to other beaches, especially the three K’s – the Kata, Karon and Kamala stretch. Then get to the islands.
    The three K’s are Patong minus some of the noise and the bustle; almost the perfect place to sip a beer, read a book, and take a dip without being run over by a jetski or an indignant American.Screenshot_14
    On the way, you’ll also be able to explore some towns, a temple or two, and indulge yourself in some surprises on the road – be it fine dining to the colorful bar-truck combinations that peddle these streets.Screenshot_20
    Nobody comes to Phuket without wanting to go to the islands that orbit it, so make sure that you have an island tour planned.
  3. Don’t take tuk-tuks. Invest in a scooter. And in a good pair of Crocs
    There’s a reason everyone drives a scooter in Phuket. For just 200 Baht a day (and petrol is dirt cheap), you suddenly gain access to the entire island. There’s an excellent road network and nothing gets you from A to B like a two wheeler. It’ll vastly expand your travelling range, unlock parts of Phuket you’d take too long to get to otherwise, and save you thousands on tuk tuks, which are the only  other viable option – this place has no public transport to speak of.Screenshot_12
    You’ll also need Crocs. Cheap, indestructible, comfortable and totally weatherpoof; these sandals are something of a cult in Thailand. Avoid the legitimate Crocs in the mall and go for the 200 Baht pairs sold in practically every other shop. It makes absolutely no difference.
  4. Become friends with your hotel receptionist.
    In Phuket, hotels often have some game going on – especially when it comes to island tours. The best deals invariably come not from Tripadvisor but from the receptionist who has ‘a friend’ who does tours. We snagged an epic 1,800 baht-per-person deal for an island tour package generally pitched at 2,500 baht and higher online, and the organization was such that a very sharp driver picked us up, ferried us to the place, and we spent an entire day snorkeling and being ferried from one island to the other.

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  5. Stay away from espresso, beer and western food. Go local.
    All these things cost unreasonable amounts (compared to food prices as a whole here). If you want to get drunk, get local hard liquor; if you want coffee, be aware that most places make cheap and overpriced coffees that just aren’t worth it. You’re better off finding a fast-food franchise and buying a cuppa there. If you want to save on food, always opt for Pad Thai or similar local stuff. It’s totally worth it.Screenshot_16
  6. Invest in oil and foot massage from old ladies
    I know this sounds strange, but here’s the deal: look for old women and massage shops with “no sex” on the front doors. A proper oil or foot massage is heaven on earth and can bring you back to a hundred and thirty percent even after an excruciating day of activity. Most massage parlors with pretty women tend to be front shops for sex and handjobs; it’s the old women that you can trust to do a proper job.
  7. Don’t buy anything from tourist streets
    There’s nothing the average Thai likes more than a gullible tourist. A general rule of thumb is that anything sold in a place frequented by white people is guaranteed to be prices about 3 times higher than it actually should be. Instead of blowing your money at street shacks, look for night markets frequented by the Thai. There the deals are better, and if you’ve got the hang of bargaining, you can make some excellent purchases.Screenshot_19
    When eating, look for streets lined with food shops: these generally offer better deals. This is where that scooter comes in really handy, by the way.
  8. Learn to love 7-11s
    A 7-11 is a sacred institution: these  shops will not only sell you anything you need at any time of the day: their 35-baht burgers and megalithic 20-baht coffees are something special. Especially if you’re tight for cash. They also stock Uncle Tom’s, which is the beverage of choice if you’re looking to have an epic night out or you’re looking to be completely fucked up. Be warned that your sinuses will protest mightily and the resultant hangover may take some time to vanish.
  9. Keep your money in the hotel room
    If you’re going out, never carry all your cash with you: that’s a sure-fire way to lose it all. Keep around 3000 baht on you-that’ll allow you to do pretty much anything (or anyone) you want. If you’re spending more than that in one night, you’ve just lost the right to call yourself a budget traveler. Or you’ve had too much Uncle Tom.
  10. Bargain.
    Unless it’s food, drink, sold in a mall, or a taxi meter, never accept the first price. Bargain. It’s best if you take a friend with you: one of you act interested and all googly-eyed, the other can scoff and say it’s overpriced and demand a better price. It works, trust me. In most instances we’ve been managed to knock off at least 50% off the first sale price, and in some cases we’ve managed to get a whopping 70% off the sale price.Screenshot_18
    Remember to never buy anything until you’ve explored the vicinity and made sure you’re getting the best price. Also remember that there’s strength in numbers: you’re much more likely to get better deals for services (say, parasailing or jetskiing) if you’re buying as a group.
  11. Hit Soi Bangla early in the evening late at night.
    Soi Bangla is best explored between 8 PM and 1 AM.  Strip clubs, contrary to popular belief, are an excellent place to sit and chill from the noise outside; draft beer is 60 Baht. Soi Freedom, a little off-shoot from Bangla, is ringed with open bars and a stage in which bands perform sometime; highly recommended, especially since you can buy vodka-redbull mixtures by the bucket (and I mean plastic buckets).Screenshot_15
    At various times, people will also distribute get-in-free tickets to various clubs. Collect them. They come in handy when you want to go party and suddenly the bouncers decide to extort you for money.
  12. Stay away from Hong ThongScreenshot_13
    I don’t know what the hell is in it, and neither does Google. All I know is that it tastes like fungus and makes excellent tile cleaner. Avoid, for the sake of your liver.

All good? Here’s a map of Phuket. Keep in mind that different maps of Phuket show different things, and that outside of Phuket town and Patong, Google Maps is woefully inaccurate. It’s always best to keep the maps that you get with brochures. Two to three of these on hand will generally give you the best picture of the island you’re on.

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What I Learned From Thailand

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.  

– Marcus Aurelius Ceasar, the last great emperor of Rome | philosopher

Anyone who’s had a serious chat with me recently would have noticed a tendency to go on and on about Thailand.

Thailand happened at a crucial time for me. I was lost: I was falling out of love with what I was doing, losing my sense of who I was and what I wanted to be. Life seemed like giant balloon inflating inside my skull. William Blake had it easy: I was angry at the world, and though I told my wrath, my wrath never did end. I suppose it was my version of a quarter life crisis. A bit premature, but there you have it.

And so I packed my bags and went to Bangkok.

Here’s what I learned. Before we begin, a disclaimer: I am not a happiness guru. I have not found enlightenment.  This is simply a record of what I learned from my journey there and back again. 

HAPPINESS
IS IN OUR HEADS

“Money can’t buy happiness,” is an old saying. Like most things, it’s only half-true. Whoever designed it had clearly never been to the seedier parts of Bangkok.

But I digress. In a sense, happiness can be bought. Happiness is Chardonnay and a good dinner; happiness is a plane ticket to an exotic country; happiness is a good hotel room with a hot bath and a soft towel. You really can buy happiness; we do it all the time – we buy shoes; we eat out; we go clubbing; we travel to places far away. It’s very hard to be happy and poor. Not impossible; just so hard most of us can’t make it.  Money buys you new experiences and beautiful moments.

happiness (2)

At the same time, you have to want  to be happy.  No amount of money will suffice if you insist on being unsatisfied. The room will never be clean enough. The temperature will never be right. The food will always be too spicy. You will always find some fault with the world.

In truth, we need two things to be happy. The first is money. Money buys us the experience. But at some point, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kicks in; money becomes secondary, the means to an end; and everything else depends on how much you really want to enjoy what you have. This is the second need: the desire to be happy. This is what makes the night magical; this is what lets us see the good moments in life and scrub out the rest. Remember the pleasant buzz of wine working its way into your head? Remember the night sky; the smell of good coffee in the morning; the sun as it rises over the cityscape? This desire is what keeps the wine from being bitter, the coffee from being too hot, the glare of the sun being blinding. This is what makes these things more important than the litter on the pavement  and the angle of your hairdo.

I took a long time to realise this second truth. I took a long time to want to enjoy the world. But there came a time when I could step outside, breathe in the air, watch the sunshine glint off the tall towers and just be happy. Money can buy the cake; it’s up to you to enjoy it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
EVERYONE NEEDS IT

If there’s one thing we all crave, it’s to be acknowledged. That little nod is more than a mere bending of neck muscles; it is a sign, one human being to another, that I have seen you; I understand.

We don’t do this enough.

Anonymous crowd of people walking on city street

Day in, day out, we pass each other on the roads, strangers with blank thoughts and stern faces. To smile and nod to a person becomes a complex calculation. Are they older? Is this appropriate to my social rank? Will this be misread? Will this be impolite? Flirtatious? We surround ourselves with so many directives and unseen social cues that to acknowledge someone else becomes social torture.  To look a person in the eye becomes impossible. Better, then, to look past them; to look straight ahead and march on with purpose. We ignore everyone from street cleaners to businessmen to the waiters who bring us our food. Heck, we barely even smile at the friends of our friends when we meet; we usually hang around at a safe distance, waiting patiently for the conversation to be over, burning with curiosity but rarely daring to look up and smile. I wonder if this is a uniquely Sri Lankan thing.

I don’t know why we do this, but it’s pitiful.

Wherever we are, whoever we are, acknowledgement matters. It could be a smile. It could be a greeting. It could be a thank you for services rendered. It may be nothing more than a brief glance and a nod. And it makes such a huge difference. But doing this, for us, is often a lot harder than it should be.

go pro -3

I realized this when I was (temporarily) freed from the system; the society I lived and made my living in was miles away, and I was free to wander and interact with people without the inherent social blocks that become second nature to us. I realised it again when I came back and noticed myself falling into the old patterns.

Breaking free of this social conditioning is hard, but it’s not impossible. Do it.

AND LASTLY
MAKE FRIENDS WITH EXCELLENT PEOPLE

Not everyone is worth your friendship.

Opinions might differ as to the market value of your friendship, but at the end of the day, we, as humans, have limited time and a psychological limit on the number of meaningful connections we can have. (And yes, I’m throwing science at this sub-heading to make it more appealing). Find people who add value to your life. They may not be the prettiest, the kindest, or the most outgoing. That stuff is trivial.

Find people with ambition, with intelligence, and above all, a different perspective on life. What they will bring to your life is not the kind of thing that can be written about in a blog post. But try it: avoid people who subscribe to the same beliefs as everyone else; look for the mad ones.

friends

Until then, you who read this far –  I see you; you are part of my world; you matter.

Thank you.

Sak Yant: Getting Inked At The Wat Bang Phra

“I’M GETTING A TATOO,” I SAID OVER THE PHONE.

go pro -3

The average response of the average Sri Lankan mother is to recoil in horror. Tattoos are bad. Tattoos are unclean. Tattoos belong on drug addicts, ministers, and those old men who function as the default odd-job men for any village. Honestly, I don’t mind being lumped in with the Mahathung s, as the old men are called. They’re a useful part of society. It’s the drug addicts and ministers that I object to.

Fortunately, if my mom recoiled, I couldn’t hear it. My phone chose precisely that moment to die out (I have to say, smartphones really are very smart). It also helped that le Hive Queen was on Sri Lanka, and I was in Thailand. To be precise, I was on a bus heading to the province of Nakom, armed with nothing more than a thousand baht and a companion, Dulitha Wijewantha. His phone was also dying.

I did not go to Thailand to get tattooed. I was there on roughly 10-day vacation, and we had an itinerary packed full of things to do. A couple of days into the journey, we heard of Sak Yant.

SAK YANT IS PART ART, PART RELIGION, PART LIFESTYLE, PART TATTOO CULT.

“Sak” means “to tattoo” and “yant” is an abbreviation of “yantra”, which is Sanskrit for holy diagrams.  Sak Yant, in short, are sacred tattoos: geometric designs worked with intricate symbols and Pali sutras, combining Buddhist verse (which I’m fairly well-versed in, being a Buddhist myself) with cultural symbolism. Each individual design has its own blessings and meaning: they’re believed to ward off hardship and evil, bring good luck and magic powers to the bearer, and even change destiny.  It’s like the Tatau of Far Cry 3, except it’s real and you’re not a psychotic video-game character chopping off heads until the next cutscene shows up.

sak-yant-4

Note: this photo does not belong to me. I’m not sure who owns it – all credit to the great god Google.

Sak Yant is an intrinsic part of Thai culture. At first you don’t notice it, especially if it’s the first time you’re visiting Bangkok and you’re wandering around (like yours truly) getting utterly lost in everything. Then you start noticing these symbols cropping up everywhere. On women’s shoulders. On men’s backs and arms.  Lines of blue ink across golden-white skin. A design that looks like an inverted Dharmachakra turns out to mean protection from the eight directions. Five rows of text turn out to be a series of blessings for good luck.  The tradition is roughly 2,000 years old. It made sense to us. I don’t pretend to be able to read Pali, but blessings I can use in spades. Even Anjelina Jolie has one.

The downside? The process goes like this:

tattoodo

Photo from tattoodo.com

Yes, that looks painful. But to hell with pain, I thought. Dulitha agreed. Getting your first tattoo in a country where a) nobody speaks your language and b) you have no idea where to go and c) if done right, ends up with you coming into contact with ink that is rumored to contain snake venom? He was all for it.

So first, I got in touch with someone who really, really knew the subject: Ian Ord, professional adventurer, writer, and photographer. Ian runs Where Sidewalks End, and he basically ended up guiding two complete strangers (thanks, Ian!) through the whole process. And we did a lot of reading. And a lot more. Especially Yvonne’s blogpost on Just Travelous, which detailed a journey they’d already made. I learned that the tattoos were done by Ajarns (masters, some of whom are monks), each of whom seemed to have their own recipes for ink (ours reportedly uses snake venom). I learned that we had to get to a temple called the Wat Bang Phra, which is famous for being cult central for Sak Yant, in the province of Nakom, about 50 km outside Bangkok. And while the infection stats (HIV, Hep-B, Hep-C) were almost non-existent, it was best to show up in the morning, make the offerings and get inked before infected skin could pass beneath that needle and screw up the rest of the assembly line for good.

EVENTUALLY, WE ENDED UP ON THE MORNING BUS TO NAKOM CHAI SI.

It wasn’t easy, given that nobody spoke English, but it turns out you can express remarkably complex concepts when all you have at your command is a broken version of the Thai greeting, a calculator and a lot of fried chicken.go-pro-1

I’m not going to lie: we expected a village in the middle of nowhere. We ended up at Thailand’s version of Maradana – a place where the roads are the best part of the scenery. A row of men in orange vests waved to us. They, it seemed, knew where we were going. We had no idea. They were mostly old, had Honda scooters and wore gloves that looked like they’d be very handy in a fistfight. 100 baht each, they said, and off we went, weaving through a side lane through fields of grass towards Wat Bang Phra.

It was seven o clock in the morning, I think. Thailand seems to have a late sunrise and a late sunset – at least, later than in Sri Lanka. The sun shone over straight roads carving through lush fields of rice. We ducked lorries, errant tuk-tuks, neatly weaving in and out of the few vehicles on the road at the time. We rolled up in front of an impressive-looking temple with snarling concrete tigers leaping out from the gate.

temple

Inside, an aide smiled and pointed us in the direction of the – main residence? workplace?. We bought the requisite offering at a table just outside – flowers, battered-looking packs of cigarettes. 75 baht per person. I later learned why they looked so battered: the monks recycled them, sending the packs back unopened to the vendor outside, keeping the money flowing into the temple and letting the man make a living without needing to replenish his stock.

pointing

Smart. That’s Thailand for you.

Inside was a room with two monks in it. The walls were covered in ink stains (at the bottom) and – well, I’m honestly not sure what was above the ink stains, because most of my attention was diverted towards a young-looking guy who also looked like he was trying very hard not to cry. That may have been because four strong men were holding him down, or because a monk was chanting and poking his back with a very sharp, very long metal spike. Occasionally the monk would pause, dip the spike in a vat of ink (it was at least eleven inches long) and resume sticking the guy in the back with it.

This is the Sak Yant process. Some tattoos, I’m told, take 3000 strikes of this needle. It’s painful. At first sight, it’s also fairly scary. For a thorough description of what it feels like, with photos of the venue, read Matthew Karsten’s post “Blessed By A Monk: My Magic Sak Yant Tattoo”. I’ll just say this: I now know what a block of marble feels like when someone picks up a chisel and starts tapping away.

WHEN WE WALKED OUT, WE HAD (A VERSION OF) THIS ON OUR BACKS:


gao yord

This is where the reading paid off.  This, as I explained on Facebook, is the Gao Yord, or the Nine Spires Yant.The spires represent the nine peaks of Mount Meru, which appears in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmology. In all three, it’s known as the center of the universe.  The design is a grid mounted by spires; in between the peaks and the grid there are a set of circles meant to represent 9 Buddhas. Inside the grid are symbols with blessings. 

Often, this design is the starting point of the Sak Yant tattoo journey, which is one that devotees seem to take constantly; I’ve met people with the equivalent of their spiritual careers mapped out on their backs – the twin tigers, the circles of protection, the works. The Nine Spires is often called the Yant Kroo, or the Master Yant; perhaps it’s because of its importance as a starter.  The grid changes from master to master, but the general blessings are similar: kindness and compassion towards others, power, authority, a willingness to fight for the correct reasons, good fortune, and protection from accidents and unwanted spirits; prime requisites, I would think, for a traveller, a missionary, or a businessman.

Matthew’s blog had a section where he asks himself: WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?

inked

Yes (and that really is my back, by the way).

To me, the Bangkok trip was as much a vacation as it was a disconnect – a space to think things over and understand what I want to do and to be in the not-too distant future. It’s a long and complicated story, but this tattoo is a memento – a memory not just of a great journey, but a trek that fundamentally changed how I view the world (not an easy thing, given how stubborn I am about my beliefs). It’s a permanent reminder that no matter where I am in the world, or what I’m doing, someone out there once wished me luck and good fortune on the road ahead. I will forever be a stranger in a strange land; and perhaps, in time, this will be joined by others, subtle, life-long reminders of journeys that will shape me in the years to come.

And thankfully, once I explained this to my mom, she didn’t kick up too much of a fuss. Win-win, I’d say.

Running around with suddo (aka TBCAsia, the recap)

TBCAsia’s done and dusted, and I’ve finally gotten back to work. For those who haven’t heard of it, Travel Bloggers’ Conference Asia was an event put together by Cinnamon Hotels and the might of John Keells; it brought together some of the world’s most popular travel bloggers – into a single conference room.

But perhaps more important was the tour, held before the conference. In it, they took some 40-odd bloggers to Colombo, Habarana, Polonnaruwa, Beyruwala and Galle.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to harp on how awesome Sri Lanka was. It is, but that tale is perhaps better told by others – travelers with a more experienced eye, perhaps, and more lands in their wake. Instead, I’m looking at the conference as a whole.

Firstly, few people in Sri Lanka understand content, and how to leverage content for pushing something. Sri Lanka, as a whole, is still stuck in 1999. Banner ads, horrible, overcomplicated marketing copy, pompous dressing up of even the stupidest of affairs, people trying to pay for higher review scores – yes, that’s good old Sri Lankan marketing at work.

Cinnamon went about this in a very smart way. Get down a whole bunch of people with massive digital reach. Give them a really good time – on Cinnamon properties, with Sri Lankan hospitality, at Cinnamon’s expense. Give them something useful so that everybody benefits (the conference). And when they start talking, on their own channels, it’s a tidal wave of content reaching out to millions of people, pushing both Sri Lanka and the hotels.

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All of this is honest. It’s honest, believable content – real stories, real tweets, real photos – delivered by people who’ve spend years crafting online reputations, and it’s entirely free of the automatic knee-jerk suspicion one directs to a press release written by an ad man.

It clearly worked. Notice how many times I’ve mentioned Cinnamon in this post alone?

Secondly, travel blogging. It’s an amazing field, one dynamically at odds with the tech blogging I indulge in day in and day out. The techscape changes fast: something’s interesting only as long as it’s news, unless it’s an interview. In contrast, travel blogging is much more laid back: a destination is a destination and it’ll be the same today, tomorrow, a month down the line. The velocity of information is much, much less, which means there’s more time to experience the subject and craft meaningful narratives around that.

I envy that. I envy the fact that you can sit down by the sea and let it sink in until the perfect sentence forms in your mind. There’s a strange beauty in that, a sort of stillness miles apart from the hyperconnected now-now-now information mill that we live in everyday.

Somewhere along the line I also picked up some great advice by Allison Busacca, editor of BBC Travel: look at the traffic, find your audience, find your voice, and write. That seemingly-simple piece of advice is something I needed – both for work and for more personal forays like this blog. It’s a conformation of the old Sri Lankan proverb – you can’t build your house to please every man’s wishes: at the end of the day you have to pick one path and stick to it.

(I’m not sure if that makes sense to you, the reader, but it certainly does to me).

I certainly did enjoy the TBCAsia tour: it was hectic, it felt rushed and my rear acquired more familiarity with a bus seat than I’d ever thought possible, and allocations certainly could have been much smarter – but at the end of the day, one cannot lightly brush aside the hospitality and facilities that Cinnamon brought to the table.

As one blogger pointed out, this was the very first travel blogger’s conference, and they didn’t have it in a hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere – instead, they really went for it lock, stock and barrel, and they did a good job highlighting how powerful one guy with a good blog can be. It was really something to see CEOs and marketing department heads walking up to bloggers and trying to get their attention instead of vice versa. That, I think, is progress.

And also, I’d never been to Galle before, so kudos to TBCAsia for getting me out there. I think I’ll pay those shores a visit – soon.

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