Every year, Kasma Loha-Unchit leads groups of her cooking students and other fans of Thai cuisine on trips to Southern Thailand. Highlights include hours of snorkeling on the extensive reefs in the Andaman Sea; relaxing on beautiful beaches; visiting a batik workshop; shopping in vast markets featuring fresh fruit, vegetables and prepared foods; swimming in jungle pools and hot springs; and eating lots of delicious Thai food. For a general overview of the experience of traveling with Kasma, see Visiting Thailand with Kasma Loha-Unchit.
What to Expect on the Southern Trip (Trip “So”, formerly called Trip “C”)
Kasma offers a 28-day Southern trip that covers the Andaman (West) coast of the peninsula and selected destinations on the Gulf (East) coast; in 2010, she offered a shorter 20-day trip focused on snorkeling the Andaman Sea; current and future itineraries may vary. Here are a few notes about these trips, based on having taken the longer trip in 2006 (and updated following the shorter trip in 2010).
Once you leave Bangkok, where restaurants draw on the full range of Thai cuisine, the dishes tend to feature more local ingredients and flavors. Along the peninsula, menus emphasize the bounty of the sea: fish, shrimp, squid, and crab arrive steamed, grilled, or fried; we sometimes enjoyed two different preparations in the same meal. Catering to the larger Muslim population, more dishes feature beef and preparations reminiscent of Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. The national parks and island resorts tend to offer simpler preparations than the city restaurants and land-based resorts. While there may be fewer culinary “wows” on this trip than the Northern trip, it’s hard to beat a box lunch of spicy squid over rice on a pristine beach overlooking gentle waves sparkling in the mid-day sun.
Breakfasts range from the full variety of a hotel buffet to bowls of rice porridge with a little fish or pork, sprinkled with fried shallots. At dinner, Kasma usually will order a soup, a salad or two, and several other dishes. A server typically will load your plate with rice, and then you can choose as much or as little of each dish as you like. Lunches may entail a visit to a seaside restaurant, a stand serving roti with savory curry or decadent sweet sauces, or a simple but filling box lunch. We never went hungry, even after snorkeling up a big appetite; refreshments always seemed to appear just when needed.
The Southern peninsula and Andaman sea islands are warm year round, and even the dry season can be a bit humid. With the exception of European tourists, dress in Southern Thailand is relatively modest: lightweight pants fashioned from a breathable fabric are a good bet for versatile day and evening wear.
It is advisable to pick up some Thai baht at the airport, and you can top up your wallet at ATMs in the larger towns. Some ATMs may charge an extra fee for U.S. cards. Shops in the smaller towns may not accept credit cards, so cash is useful for shopping, as well as for beer, smoothies, ice cream bars, and other extras.
Beyond Bangkok, access will be limited and often slow. We did visit some towns where you can find an internet shop to get online ($1-2/hour). As always, you need to be cautious about the possibility of spyware: online banking would not be recommended. Mobile data access was surprisingly good, available even on most islands, but the network offers EDGE (slow) connections at best, and often GRPS (slower) only.
- Ko Surin. Located about 60km West of the Thai peninsula, Koh Surin is Thailand’s premier snorkeling destination. The reefs here are in relatively shallow water and feature a wide variety of fish (from tiny anemonefish to reef sharks) and delicate corals. There usually is time to visit three to five spots per day, tooling around in a longtail boat. The park consists of two main islands, and provides tent camping and rustic bungalows. On one of the islands, a village was constructed for the local moken people (sea gypsies) after the tsunami. Native wildlife is limited: we spotted some monkeys and a flying lemur in the trees. The food service is basic, but satisfying. If you prefer whiskey to beer, make sure to bring it over on the boat with you.
- Krabi and Ko Poda. Krabi town features a modest commercial district and lodgings catering to budget travelers in transit to nearby islands and inland attractions. Bypassing the more touristy areas, Kasma’s groups stay in a very pleasant resort, dine at a fantastic restaurant, and browse the racks at a workshop that makes brightly colored batik clothing. The comforts of town bookend a visit to Poda island and day trips by speedboat to the Phi Phi islands. The cabins on Ko Poda had only a few hours of electricity per day, and during the dry season the water is somewhat saline. The joys of the island definitely lie beyond the accommodations. Poda is a great place for a peaceful sunrise stroll along the beach, and when the sun was out and we were not away on an excursion, we could snorkel a reef located just off the beach.
- Ko Lipe. A privately owned island in the midst of Tarutao national park, Koh Lipe has developed rapidly to cater to a flood of visitors, perhaps drawn by the nearby filming of Survivor Thailand. Its beachfront restaurants, party atmosphere, and regular boat traffic provide a sharp contrast to the quiet feel of Koh Surin. Still, the main event is snorkeling. Here we rode in two different types of boats, using a large boat with a covered top deck for longer distance cruising, and longtails for shallower spots. In these waters, colonies of impossibly colorful soft corals create picturesque backdrops. Many bungalows on Ko Lipe still have ceiling fans, but there seems to be a trend toward air conditioning. Dining rooms tend to be open air with a view of the sea. After dinner, nearby bars, shops, and massage parlors beckon.
- The Gulf Coast. During the Winter monsoon season, the main attractions here are the temples, museums, markets, shops, and restaurants of Nakhon Si Thammarat — the “cultural capital” of Southern Thailand — and Songkhla. Exploring regional crafts, art blended into commerce with visits to workshops featuring hand-woven yan lipao baskets and shadow puppets crafted from hand-hammered cow hide. From kitchenwares and Buddha amulets to batik fabrics and finely worked gold and silver nielloware, we were spoiled for choice — for ourselves and those back home. Meals here were delicious and memorable: the seafood feasts and decadently rich rotis at the night market were some of the highlights of our trip.
Travel Tips: Packing & What to Bring
I find it difficult to travel light, even after weeks of lugging and hefting and unpacking and repacking bags. You can read a wide variety of recommendations in guide books and in Kasma’s letter and FAQs. The following are my additional thoughts.
- Footwear. Flip-flops are handy for the beach, but sturdy walking sandals are more versatile, especially if they are made of materials that dry quickly. Most walks are on well established trails, but on occasion the additional traction of a running shoe is beneficial. It’s best to purchase and test the fit of all footwear before the trip.
- Power adapters. Thailand uses 220V AC outlets with a plug shape compatible with standard U.S. two-prong plugs. Many, but not all, can accommodate the larger blade on a polarized plug. Since many rooms have only one or two outlets, if you have many devices to recharge, you might want to pick up a multi-tap or power strip when you arrive in Thailand, or order one rated for 220V from an online source.
- Snorkel gear and wear. In addition to bringing a mask, snorkel, and fins, I also strongly recommend a high-UPF “rash guard.” A rash guard is a snug-fitting nylon/lycra or polypropylene top with either short or long sleeves that provides sun protection (saving time, money, and environmental contamination by reducing use of sunscreen) and also helps protect against scrapes or rubs (getting into and out of boats) and seasonal wildlife (tiny jellyfish or stinging plankton).
- Cameras and accessories. It’s a good idea to bring your battery charger and a spare battery, as these may be very difficult to find outside of Bangkok. If you are interested in underwater photography, you might want to consider one of the new digital cameras that are waterproof to 3 feet or more. There was a roundup last year at dpReview (‘Waterproof’ Camera Group Test (Q2 2009) Review), and with the rapid pace of new product releases, another generation of products probably will be available before your trip. Updated test: ‘Compact Waterproof’ Camera Group Test (Q3 2011) Review.