Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The road (+ rail + ferry) to Ko Pha Ngan

The neon pink taxi screeches to a halt. “You must be the best taxi driver in Bangkok.” I declare to the driver, and I mean it.

Moments ago we were at a complete standstill for nearly twenty minutes, in the center of a jammed four-lane road. An everyday occurrence in Bangkok. I had already started considering alternate travel plans, since I was sure that I’d be missing the southbound train.

Could I still make it to Ko Pha Ngan for the full moon party? Were there night buses? How could I have been so foolish as to not account for traffic on the way to the station? And of course, how much would the miscalculation end up costing me?
Luckily, the taxi driver was capable of maneuvers that I didn’t know were possible in a moving vehicle. And apparently, he was used to performing them in these situations. The two previous drivers that I had hailed took one look at the departure time on my train ticket and laughed, telling me it wasn’t likely and then quoting an equally unlikely fare. But this courageous driver gave a grin and said “Don’t know, but think it’s possible. We try.”

He nods at me in the mirror and I hand him the amount on the meter plus a few extra baht. I exit the car and rush towards the departures board in the large open-air station. I find the correct platform and at the end of it, the one sleeper car of the train. The sleeper car is easy to spot – a few gargantuan North Face® backpacks are clumsily making an effort to squeeze through the train’s doors. Bingo.

The train is basic. There are no compartments, but rather fold out bunks – two to a berth, with curtains to shut out the light that would remain on all night. In the berths adjacent to me: a girl from Prague, a couple from England, a DJ from Italy, and a Thai family. The train starts rolling, and the sun sets over small packets of wooden shacks that weren’t visible from the lively streets of the city. As we get further outside of Bangkok, the sharp smell of bonfires becomes more frequent and the landscape gradually transitions into dense palm trees.

With every station stop, vendors come on board carrying tea, small cakes, and snacks down the aisles. Instead, I opt to make a trip to the restaurant car where a few tourists are seated playing card games and staring out the window. A young British man that’s had a few too many Changs is asleep at one of the tables, oblivious to the chatter and laughter around him. I ask some of the others for the best strategy to find lodging on Ko Phan Ngan the day before the full moon party – I’ve not booked anything in advance.

Halfway through the night, the spirited head waiter of the restaurant car begins to hook up a television and an amplifier. I’m unable to figure out what’s happening until it’s too late. Thai karaoke.

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I would’ve paid more for my ticket if I’d known the train included karaoke, but I guess some gifts in life are free. I try to keep a straight face along with the rest of the tourists in the car, as the slightly tipsy waiter sings his heart out to the songs and the equally humorous music videos that accompany the audio.

(Listen to a quick sample of the karaoke by clicking play)

There’s an inaudible sigh of relief when the Italian DJ offers to hook his computer up to the amplifier and spin some electronic music. Conversation resumes, and it’s a memorable scene: warm summer air drifting through the open train windows. The unhurried repetition of the train’s wheels on the tracks. Scattered palm trees floating by, reflecting light from a nearly-full moon perched high in the night sky. And a little techno music to help prepare us backpackers for the scene that awaits in Ko Pha Ngan.

At four in the morning, those of us departing the train at Surat Thani are prompted awake by the conductors and shuffle out into the bitter morning air. There is a large coach waiting at the train station for those that bought combination tickets – which conveniently whisks us to another bus stop that is packed with other frazzled, sleep-deprived full-moon pilgrims.

One more hour-long coach ride takes us to a ferry pier, where about 150 people sprawl out in under the early morning sun to catch a few moments of sleep. I’ve never traveled with so many other tourists at one time, and I realize that it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being on a guided tour. It’s a nice feeling. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going…just follow the crowd.

Eventually the fatigued mass is corralled onto a narrow boat. As the ferry begins to cut through the choppy sea, passengers take turns basking in the sun on the outdoor deck and retreating to the indoor seating area to buy a freshly made ham sandwich.

There’s not much conversation among the passengers at this point, so I silently take a seat next to a few people dangling their legs off the side of the upper deck. The seawater sprays our bare feet and we stare out across the Gulf of Thailand, searching for a glimpse of our destination.

For the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column. If you’re looking to do a similar trip and would like details on the specifics of the transport, feel free to leave a comment below.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Bangkok

The city of Bangkok is a dichotomy between peaceful Buddhist temples & sordid red light districts. Beautiful national monuments & shoddy patches of low-income housing. Large, upscale shopping malls & equally large, rickety floating markets. Bright pink taxis or loud tuk tuks that jam the streets & a convenient but limited elevated metro line. Gleaming skyscrapers & lowly guest houses. The list goes on.

For the Americans out there, imagine a metropolitan area with a spread just about double that of Los Angeles, containing one million less people but three times the spice.
The area developed as a small trading post at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and became the capital city of the kingdom of the Siam Empire in 1768. Around that time, it was given the ceremonial name of (take a deep breath) Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. That became shortened to Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, which is still the official name in Thai – but the name Bangkok stuck with foreigners and became the official English name for the entire city.

Brightly lit and ornately decorated gold signs stand tall on the corners of the streets, proudly displaying pictures of Thailand’s King and Royal Family. The King’s face is a familiar sight due to it’s prominence on everything in Thailand. Money, pictures, posters, signs. I’m told that Thai people really love their King, yet it seems that most people are reluctant to discuss thoughts on the Royal Family with foreigners.

There are a few stops that are mandatory in Bangkok. The first is the Grand Palace, which was the official residence of Thai Kings from the 18th century until present, when the current King chose to live in a different palace. The detail and architecture of the entire complex is mesmerizing. On the grounds is The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which was built as the Monarch’s personal place of worship. It’s a breathtaking collection of holy buildings, statues, and pagodas – and regarded as the most sacred temple in Thailand. I find the visit to the temple alone was worth the 350 baht entrance fee for the Grand Palace.

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Wat Pho is also worth the short 10-minute walk from the Grand Palace, where for 50 Baht you can see Asia’s largest reclining buddha (46m long) and gaze at the remarkable mother of pearl inlaid into the buddha’s giant feet.

From there, it’s easy to jump on a river taxi (don’t fall for the overpriced tourist boats) for 15-20 baht or so and take in a different perspective on the city (or avoid the notoriously bad traffic jams). The Skytrain is also another option for avoiding street transportation, although it doesn’t cover the areas near the Grand Palace & Wat Pho. On the elevated train there are two lines to choose from, and you’ll need coins to pay for tickets which should cost anywhere from 15 to 40 baht depending on the destination.

The Skytrain provides access to Bangkok’s most popular mall – MBK, which is near the National Stadium stop on the Silom line. Shoppers can find virtually anything at MBK, and can even attempt to barter with independent shop stalls – but it will help to have a Thai friend with you.

The Bang Ramat Floating Market is also a major attraction in Bangkok, although only open on Sundays it’s easily accessible from the adjacent Taling Chan Floating Market, which is open on weekends. Whichever floating market you visit in Bangkok, make sure to plan an early morning visit when the markets are most active and transportation is readily available.

There are plenty of great local & foreign restaurants around the city, and a variety of upscale bars and nightclubs at the city’s fancy hotels around the downtown area.

One word of warning: when you’re looking for transport, watch out for tuk tuk drivers that offer ridiculous multi-stop city tours for ridiculously low prices (10 baht per person), or that tell you that your destination (a temple) is closed until 3pm, so they can take you somewhere else instead. These usually end up being a series of spontaneous stops at tailors or travel bureaus, where they’ll receive commission for your possible patronage. Stick to metered pink taxis if you’re not looking for the thrill of the tuk tuks.

Whatever adventure you’re looking for in Bangkok, it’s likely you’ll find it – no matter the time of day or night.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Street music

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and most of the rowdy backpackers have deserted Bangkok’s Khao San Road. A large rat scurries down the gutter of the street, stopping only to inspect trash and empty plastic buckets that have been strewn about the pavement. A few dispersed food vendors finish packing their stalls for the day and roll them towards wherever home may be.

Compared to the energy of the road during the daytime, it feels eerily silent and motionless. I begin the walk toward my $8 USD-per-night hostel when the reverberation of a guitar slowly starts to fill the void of the early morning. The sound grows louder and I see a small crowd of maybe ten people sitting and standing around a guitarist on the sidewalk.
The guitarist is outfitted with the flare of a seventies rock star. Skinny bellbottom jeans, a pocketed shirt with shoulder straps, and American sneakers. He has long, bushy black hair that bobs at his shoulders as he strums an acoustic guitar. He’s playing the chorus of Yesterday by the Beatles, and the handful of young tourists are fervently singing along. When he finishes, a young girl with a British accent shouts out “Let’s hear some Dylan… I know you know Dylan!”

I sense a little of reluctance from the guitarist – “I don’t know all the words, but maybe you can help me”. He obliges and strums the opening chords. “How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man…”

The British girl leans over to me and boastingly says, “See he knows it, he just needs a bit of prompting.”

I settle in to the small crowd and hang around for a couple more songs. Radiohead. Neil Young. Eagle Eye Cherry.

It’s my third night staying on the Khao San, and I’ve seen him out here both previous nights. Each time I passed him on the side of the road there was a group of travelers crowded around him, half listening, half engrossed in their own conversations with new acquaintances. I want to know why the guitarist is out here at this hour. For money? For fame? For friends?

As the crowd starts to break away and socialize amongst themselves I move closer and ask what his name is. In a thick Thai accent that was undetectable during the song, he gives a small smile and says “Diow. Did you like my songs?” I tell him that I did, and ask if he’s ever bothered by the few rambunctious stragglers that stagger up to him and try to compete for attention. He softly replies in broken English, “Well if they come and respect me, I would appreciate it. But I play here, I’m not ask someone to come to listen or play, if you don’t like – you go, if you don’t like then stay and that makes me happy.”

I ask what makes him happiest – why does he come out? “When I play and then have alot of people listen and sing along, it’s what makes me happy. For money it’s not really important – but the feeling is much more important for me.”

My inquiries keep coming. What’s your biggest dream? He stops to consider it, repeating the question to himself. “To buy a Ricken-backer.” He laughs. “For now, I don’t really have a long goal, I just a short goal everyday I want to finish. For this goal today I make short goal first – I guess long goal is maybe to buy a house. Even maybe big goal is to grow the tree all over the world…” he trails off, looking down at his guitar, and starts to pluck at the strings.

He looks up, ready to change the subject. “Do you want to hear my song?” he says. I feel honored that he’d share an original with me and I tell him that I’d love to hear it.

The strumming is edgy with a distinct, steady rock beat. I can tell that he’s far more into this tune than the previous covers he’s been playing all night. He closes his eyes, letting his voice break into high notes that are remnant of his influences from British rock. The lyrics are extremely simple, but it’s my favorite song of the evening.

He looks up for approval at the end of it and I tell him how much I enjoyed it. I mean it. I ask why he doesn’t play original songs more often. “Most people, they want to hear things they know. Things they can sing with too. Sometimes I play my songs, but most of the time they like things they know.”

How ironic. Wandering souls coming from across the world to have a solo performance from a talented local musician, and we’d rather hear something familiar, something from our side of the world that we can spout off to as well.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing – he’s intentionally crafted his image and style from the legends of the West…and it draws people in. It gives him the small crowds that he enjoys.

I’m struck by how soft-spoken and genuine he is. No real big goal. Just short goal. Maybe buy a house. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it’s way past my bedtime, so I thank him and say goodnight.

A pair of lively Italian twins from Naples come up to take pictures with him. The crowd is smaller now but has reformulated around Diow. They call out a few more requests, and he accommodates them, starting up on a well-known Doors song in a crisp western accent. I hear the opening lines as I walk down the deserted Khao San…

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted, streets are uneven when you’re down…”

Diow can be found playing on the sidewalks of Khao San Road most evenings during the week & weekend. You can check out a recording (audio only) from the performance below:

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Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The Khao San

All this month, Dim Sum Dialogues will be bringing you stories from the road. The first destination: Thailand – from Bangkok to Ko Phan Ngan…to discover the hype behind the legendary Full Moon Parties.


It’s approaching midnight fast, and the immigration lines in Suvarnabhumi Airport are long. Walking through the modern, sprawling airport, I remind myself not to touch anything in the Duty Free stores, thanks to a Gadling article that I read a few weeks prior to my trip.

The immigration official examines my passport. “First time to Thailand?” he asks. I nod my head. He points a small, futuristic Logitech camera in my direction, presses a key on his keyboard and waves me through. I skip baggage claim. All I’ve brought is a backpack, a camera, and a sense of adventure – my ideal vacation.
Once outside the airport, I scan the sidewalk for the signs advertising the A2 Airport Express – which I had been told would take me to a place called Khao San Road. Everybody recommended the area. “It’s really the only place you want to stay in Bangkok”, friends had told me.

I find the bus at the last minute, pay my 150 baht and find an empty seat among a few young people that look well-traveled. I settle in to the large seat and stare out the window as the bus merges on to a large, elevated highway. The cleanliness and engineering quality of the highway takes me by surprise. I had heard that Thailand was a developing country, but the bright LED lights that adorn the skyscrapers seem to suggest that Thailand is a little more prosperous than the other developing countries I’ve been to. But then again, the view from the highway can be deceiving.

After 45 minutes of driving through the expansive city, the bus rumbles to a stop at the end of a busy street in the Banglamphu neighborhood. I step out of the bus and am immediately overwhelmed with the amount of activity buzzing at this hour on a weeknight. Hundreds of people are milling around one long street that’s lined with neon signs and advertisements for hostels, bars, and restaurants. Vendors peddle goods out of small road side stalls and mobile carts: t-shirts, hats, pirated DVD’s, fake driver’s licenses, jewelry, souvenirs, falafel, pizza, beer, pad thai, even fried insects – crickets, beetles and worms are all available for purchase.

A boom of tourism in the 1980′s gradually made the area known as a place for cheap accommodation with easy access to the Grand Palace and temples that are popular with tourists. Now it’s a destination in its own right, touted as “The Gateway to Southeast Asia”.

The first few hostels I wander into are fully booked, but there’s a seemingly unlimited number of options in the area, and I’m able to find a basic room with a fan, a bed, and not much else. I set my bags down and head outside to explore the rest of the scene. Every type of traveler imaginable is represented. The street is full of dreadlocks, tattoos, Havaianas sandals and oversized backpacks. New arrivals look lost and overwhelmed. They blearily rub their eyes while thumbing through guidebooks in search of a place to sleep.

Taxi & tuk tuk drivers are everywhere, discreetly offering passengers rides to ping-pong shows or late night clubs. As the night gets later, they all seem to be offering rides to the same place – a late night club called “Spicy”, which apparently pays taxi drivers commission to wrangle tourists to the club with a cheap fare, so they can command an exorbitant cover charge upon arrival. I wander down the road frequently stopping to chat with welcoming groups of people sitting on the curb of the road. They sip large bottles of local brews – Chang or Singha – and swap stories of their recent adventures of tubing in Laos, trekking in Chiang Mai, or diving off Ko Phi Phi.

An especially engaging American tells me about a 3 month motorcycle trip he just finished. He bought a Russian Minsk in Hanoi for $400 USD and rode with a friend through the north of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, eventually selling the motorcycle for nearly the same price when they had reached their destination. The following month he plans on riding a bicycle through India & the Himalayas.

Patrons of the sidewalk bars are momentarily interrupted from conversation by a young Thai girl that begs them to buy roses so that she can go home for the night. She can’t be older than 8 years, but is already an expert saleswoman – offering to place bets on a game of thumb-war when the roses are declined. A few moments later, an old woman with a bag full of cheap Thai souvenirs comes and places a funny hat on a tourist. Everyone laughs and takes pictures, but no transactions take place and the woman moves on down the road.

I’m completely taken in by the stories, the laughter, and the energy of the place. It’s a paradise for backpackers with a passion for meeting new people and making spontaneous travel plans with new friends.

Things begin to quiet down around 2.30 in the morning, and I decide to call it a night. Several people around me have made plans to go to the full moon party – and we exchange phone numbers, promising to find each other when we get to Ko Phan Ngan. If that plan fails, then we agree to track one another down on Facebook so we can be best friends for the rest of our lives…

Dim Sum Dialogues: Wan Chai

The streets are seedy, ragged and flooded with dim red, yellow, and orange neon lights. In between tiny food stalls and convenience stores, dozens of young filipino and thai women in short leather miniskirts loiter outside modest club entrances.

Sometimes they call out offers for free cover charges or beseech pedestrians to come inside for just one drink. Sometimes they sit quietly, poised and complacently staring off into the distance, taking a drag from a freshly lit cigarette.

An electric sign on the street depicts a yellow sun traced by a multi-colored rainbow. Beneath the rainbow a kitsch, outdated eighties typeface spells out “Wan Chai” in English. However tacky the sign may be, it’s an appropriate ambassador for the district – a place that’s equally well-worn and colorful. A patchwork of individuals from all walks of life and professions.
Down the street, young men in business attire mingle outside of Carnegies, a loud pub famed for late-night dancing atop it’s central bar. Inside, mixture of ethnicities and ages sing along to the YMCA song – while a handful of people on the bar recklessly clutch a long brass railing for support.

A few more steps down the road, a group of high school students celebrating graduation stumble out of a 7-11 holding Smirnoff’s with straws. They hold a spontaneous competition on the sidewalk to see who can drain theirs the fastest. It’s permitted to carry open alcoholic beverages on the streets in Hong Kong, and a much cheaper option for those that would rather not pay the standard $6 or $7 USD for a drink inside the bars.

Many places in the area feature live 80′s and 90′s cover bands that perform songs by bands such as Eagle Eye Cherry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and of course… Michael Jackson. One of the most popular spots is a small place called Dusk ‘Till Dawn, and certainly lives up to it’s name – it’s not uncommon to see revelers spilling out on to the streets at sunrise, wearily hailing a cab. Others trek to the MTR station to catch the first morning train at 6.30am or catch the minibus routes that are run 24 hours a day.

The establishment of the district stemmed from the growth of the British administration in Hong Kong. It was once the central landing point for the British Royal Navy and other incoming foreign ships. Wan Chai became legendary for its nightlife and prostitution circles, especially in the 1960′s with US servicemen resting there during the Vietnam war. Stories from this era were featured in Richard Mason’s book The World of Suzie Wong, which was then turned into a feature film in 1960.

While Wan Chai is notorious for it’s nightlife, there’s no lack of activity in the district during daylight hours. A HK$4.8 billion extension was added to the waterfront Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in 1997, providing a total exhibition area of 65,000 m². Book fairs, art conventions, film festivals, technology expositions, and cosplay competitions all frequent the space – there’s a good chance that something interesting will be happening if you’re visiting on a weekend, so check out their schedule of events.

The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and Hong Kong Arts Centre are also situated near the waterfront, making Wan Chai one of the few areas in the city to take in a selection of musicals, plays, and concert performances. For dining, there are restaurants of every price range and nationality – Thai stalls, Vietnamese cafés, Irish taverns, Mexican cantinas and of course Chinese Dim Sum or dai pai dong.

For bargain shoppers, there are plenty of small shops that specialize in clothing, shoes, sportswear and cheap domestic appliances. It’s not the high-end shopping found in Central, but there are plenty of great bargains that have found their way over from the mainland. Wan Chai also offers a few wet markets, with one of the busiest being on the fringe of neighboring district, Causeway Bay – near the Times Square MTR stop.

It’s safe to say that the face of Wan Chai is changing – especially from it’s heyday of infamy in the 50′s and 60′s. But it’s attraction to night owls will stay the same – which for many is a cheaper, grittier and more adventurous alternative to the steep streets of Lan Kwai Fong.

If you only have a few days in Hong Kong, don’t hesitate to include Wan Chai on your agenda.