Farang Dave’s Top 10 Dopest Destinations of Southeast Asia

  1.  Among the Hmong – Sapa, Vietnam

    Nestled in the north of Vietnam, several hours from Hanoi, near the border with China lies Sapa, a misty trekker’s paradise in the mountains. The true beauty and charm of this area lies nearby in the valleys and tiny hilltribe villages. The hike through the terraced farmlands and epic scenery to a local Hmong village for a homestay is not-to-be-missed on your journey to ‘Nam. Live like a local while exploring the terraces on foot, chatting with your fam, feeding the family hogs, and testing the traditional bamboo tobacco bongs while shooting rice wine around the fireplace.

Party Vibes  ~ C+

Beauty ~ A

Dopeness ~ B+

 

9. Street Art Capital – Penang, Malaysia

    Get lost in the stylish drags of southeast Asia’s destination for street art lovers. Hate cats? Well Bruce Lee kicks the shit out of a furry tabby in one of Penang’s most iconic installations. Hit the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill to peep a bird’s eye view of this splendid city along the Andaman coast.

Party Vibes  ~ B+

Beauty ~ C+

Dopeness ~ B

  1. Limestone Monsters – Halong Bay, Vietnam

  Off the coast of Northeast Vietnam, thousands of massive limestone formations jut from the emerald water topped by jungle. Mr. Baba’s junk boat led us past marine villages to a floating dock with kayaks. Hands down the coolest place I’ve ever paddled. We explored tunnels and coves while bright fish and coral radiated from below. You can also rock climb most of the cliffs, hike around the island, or have a dive. Our mood was temporarily dampened by freezing cold rain, but Baba saved the day with ice cold 333s and some bamboo tobacco bong hits!! Once the storm passed, the sky grew into an amazing hue that made this an unforgettable travel destination.

Party Vibes  ~ B

Beauty ~ A+

Dopeness ~ A

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  1. Baguettes & Waterfalls – Luang Prabang, Laos

    This UNESCO World Heritage site is probably the most charming city in Southeast Asia. It’s built on a peninsula formed by the graceful Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers in the heart of the mountainous region of northern Laos. The Kuang Si Waterfall is a resonating cascade, with enough swimming holes and hiking trails to keep you busy all day. When the French occupied this city in the early 20th century, they left behind a unique, oriental blend of architectural style and cuisine. Let’s face it, SE Asia just plain sucks at making sandwiches. But the tasty baguette has survived the ages! Coupled with quaint coffee shops and monk-filled temples, this city is a must for backpackers and affluent tourists alike!

Party Vibes  ~ C+

Beauty ~ B+

Dopeness ~ B++

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  1. Floating Bliss – Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

    If you’ve ever thought to yourself ‘Shit, I really wanted to go to Jurassic Park but not get eaten by dinosaurs!’ then Khao Sok is the next best thing.  I actually feel a bit unfaithful even sharing this treasure because it’s literally Thailand’s best kept secret. One of the reasons why it’s so incredibly special is because it’s unquestionably beautiful and you practically have it to yourself. The Riverside Cottage resort can arrange overnight stays on their floating bungalows in the pristine Cheow Lan Lake. An hours ride on a long tail boat takes you through bobbing limestone mountains to your peaceful, floating oasis. Basic(and I do mean basic) bungalows await you as do your kayaks tied to your front “porch”. You may be lucky to see wild elephants as they often come here to bathe and play. The hikes through the lake’s interior islands are quite the spectacle to say the leech.

Party Vibes  ~ C

Beauty ~ A+

Dopeness ~ A+

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  1. Pearl of the Orient -Hong Kong

   “You know, you sound a lot like you’re from Kowloon Bay as opposed to Hong Kong.” My pre-teen obsession with Cassandra from Wayne’s World was the sole reason I went to Hong Kong. Thank God I did because it’s by far my favorite big Asian city I’ve visited! It’s super diverse for a small island-nation and boasts activities for every type of traveler. There’s history and street food, hiking and surfing, surreal art and nightlife, and just culture galore. If she was a president, she’d be Babe-raham Lincoln.

Party Vibes  ~ A

Beauty ~ B+

Dopeness ~ A

  1. Reef(er) Madness – Koh Tao, Thailand

    It’s hard to beat the feeling of waking up on Christmas morning and running straight into the crystal-clear blue waters of Thailand’s gulf. Koh Tao, or Turtle Island, is also one of the top destinations in the world for learning how to SCUBA dive. With over 30 easily accessible dive sites, you can get open water certified for under $300 usd. It’s off-the-beaten-path-ish location means you’re free from the throngs of tour groups and jumping pictures. Koh Tao is Dope AF!!!  

Party Vibes  ~ A+

Beauty ~ A+

Dopeness ~ A++

  1. Stunning Ruins – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

    I’ve always been fascinated by ancient ruins, and Angkor Wat is the largest and most extensive religious monument in the world. Stretching over 150 sq miles, colossal temples and structures remain beautifully intact, dotted around the now UNESCO site. These structures from the age-old Khmer empire date back as far as the 9th century!! That’s some ancient dopeness! Masters of their craft. Being inside their temples and seeing their stone artistry face to face made it easy to envision yourself living in its heyday. And that’s an experience that is priceless my friends!!  

Party Vibes  ~ A-

Beauty ~ A

Dopeness ~ A+

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  1.  Stairway to Heaven – Ubud, Bali

    There are not many spots on Earth doper than Bali, Indonesia, so it’s no surprise that it made my Top 5. Ubud is the type of place, if your travel plans had no constraints, that you could stay for months on end without getting bored. It’s the artistic center of the island and fascinating sculptures and color envelope the landscape as far as the eye can see. Hike through neon green rice paddies fringed with lush jungle to hidden monkey temples. Hindi temples and shrines accompanied by chanting monks provide for a surreal stroll through the lively streets. Find ultimate zen and meditate the shit out of your chakras ‘cuz you’re never leaving this place!!!

Party Vibes  ~ A-

Beauty ~ A+

Dopeness ~ A+

  1. Motorbike Mania – Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand

    I never knew the true addicting quality of the open road until I was full-throttle with my best friends, weaving through northern Thailand on my motorbike. This 4-5 day, 375 mile motorbike loop takes you through mist covered roads and the stunning landscape of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. This off-the-grid exploration feels like Thailand’s last great frontier of the unknown. Yes I know, Pai is not on my list. That’s because it’s part of the loop. Getting to Pai after 3 days on your motorbike is like driving into hippy heaven. If you’re not covered in stone bracelets, bamboo tattoos, bandages from a moto wreck, and tank tops you’ll seem out of place.  You meet all walks of life here, and like Ubud, you’ll definitely want to stay longer than planned. On the loop you’ll find 50 Shades of Dopeness, and you’ll walk away having temporary cured your [adventure] travel bug.

Party Vibes  ~ A+ (Pai, everywhere else, not so much)

Beauty ~ A+

Dopeness ~ A++

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Lifetime Dopeness Achievement Award ~ BANGKOK, THAILAND

My all-time favorite Asian city to work and play is the hometown hero of Bangkok. I love this city so much it def deserves its own 10 slots of dope spots. My 2nd home in the Land of a Thousand Smiles will always have a special place in my heart. Peace out Thailand!!! Sawat de krap!!

Amongst the Mountain Goats: My Himalayan Homestay

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Two hours from Pokhara, the adventure headquarters of Nepal, lays a rural mountain village nestled on the side of an expanse of rice terraces. We journeyed on bus up dizzying roads of stone and dust, past goats and pastoral landscapes, shoeless kids and women shoveling gravel. We were literally being thrown from our seats in the back of the bus like the smallest kid in the jump castle who floats like an astronaut in space after being jolted from the older, larger children.

Rabindra didn’t speak much. He had a ponytail of long blackish hair, pulled back by a hand sewn, colorful head wrap. He dressed like a typical backpacker from the west: North Face fleece, hiking boots, and white tee. He looked no older than twenty-five, and his silence boosted my imagination of what our homestay over the next two nights might be like.

As we neared Panchase mountain, we saw the signal from Rabindra that we had reached his village. Damdame village is home to the Gurung people of Nepal, who speak their own language alongside Nepalese.

 

 

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Damdame boasts a meager fifty-person population, perfect for being completely cut off from the outside world and western influences for a few days. Their farmer-centric village was beautiful with the snow-capped Himalayas peeking through the nearby rolling hills, like giants looking down on a colony of ants. We were welcomed with cups of hot mint tea and greetings of “Namaste,” or hello, from the rest of the family.

The matriarch of the family (and entire village) was known as “Ama,” and she called all the shots and filled all the bellies. She was beautifully layered with Nepali threads and a red flower printed vest. Both of her ears were lined with small golden hoops, a tradition for girls and women in this region. She had strong, leathery hands, presumably from farming and years of hardships I’d probably never endure. Her smile was warm and inviting, and her pace quick for a grandma in her 80s!

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She pointed up the wooden ladder and above the kitchen, to our simple nook for the next two nights. The only bathroom was an outhouse-like squatter that was back down the ladder and near the garden. We were ready to live, eat, and shit like the locals!!

We grabbed our cameras and down jackets and decided to explore the village before it got dark. As I explored up the mountain, past funny-faced goats and stares from local kids, I found myself surrounded by a rural community devoid of western influences (minus the kung fu panda sheet drying on a clothesline nearby).

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Master Oogway approves this wise bedding choice

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Their family owned the only restaurant in town

I could smell the smoke of the wood fire stove as we returned to our Nepali family’s homestead. Each family member was in and out of the kitchen, preparing our feast of dal bhat, rice, and homemade wine. Dal bhat is the most traditional Nepali food that is basically just lentils and soup served over white rice. Some Nepali people eat it every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Dal bhat power 24 hours”, as a local will inevitably tell you. As we sat on the floor and chatted with our family, we finally got to learn some about their lives and their village as we shared our first hot meal of the day.

I noticed almost immediately these large, keg-like wooden barrels hanging outside of windows in the village. We soon discovered that most everyone in the village harvested honey amongst everything else that they consumed. The terraces were predominately rice farming and vegetables were grown in personal or community gardens.We were never served meat. It is only consumed for very special celebrations. Every single meal was composed of items from the immediate area, and I had a lot of respect for that.

People of Nepal are very poor, averaging under $300 usd per month in salary and wages. Wifi made its debut in Nepal just a mere two years ago, though no one in Damdame has it. Our Nepali trekking guide said his mother doesn’t even believe that the Internet is real; since his village is so remote it will likely never reach there. Most villagers still use push button cell phones and give out phone numbers and addresses when exchanging contacts. It kind of seemed like we stepped back twenty years in technology, and everyone was fine with it.

On day two we made our way to the local school to see the kids and experience Nepali school life. Classrooms were super basic with only a chalkboard and a few wooden benches. They had a small library, which Catherine helped them organize, with a few computers and Internet that was spotty at best. On the playground, the boys were spinning tops in the dirt, and challenging each others place on the totem pole of manliness by out-spinning their opponent.  I let some of the girls take my Gopro around the school and into the playground. They really loved seeing themselves in a fancy picture and live feed! Although they were quite shy at first, they quickly warmed to us me as I took an interest into playing their rubber band hacky sack with them. They were all really sweet and afterwards I organized a competition between two groups of kids, teaching time-telling phrases in English. Team Rabi and Team Bibi cheered and clapped after each round. Our visit here made me feel incredibly grateful for my own education and my school in which I teach. A truly humbling and heart warming experience that I’ll cherish forever.

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In the morning, Ama and the family prepared delicious departure donuts and a surprise glass of rice wine I didn’t finish from the night before. She made sure I finished it now though, at 7am! It was now Christmas Eve and we were donned with bright yellow flowers, a silky scarf and a red thumb print in between our eyes. They heard the bus rumbling down the dirt road, and told us to gather our things.

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Father, Catherine, Ama, Rabindra, Davis

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The girl on the right kept crackers in her hat because “You never know when you’ll need a snack and no one will steal them if they’re there.” Wise words!

There’s something incredibly special and touching when complete strangers invite you into their homes and lives, and you get a snapshot glimpse of their world and reality. The Gurung are a remarkable group of people who have retained their own cultural identity perched on their terraced nirvana at the foot of Annapurna.  At times I felt guilty, walking around in new hiking gear toting fancy cameras. All my possessions felt excessive. But everyone I met seemed happy surrounded by family, goats and cattle, and never-ending metal trays of hot dal bhat. All I know is that I’m lucky for the way my life has turned out and extremely grateful to be able to travel the earth and leave a positive impact behind. Some of the best moments in life are completely unexpected and are gone before you even notice them. But sometimes they’re hot Himalayan donuts and masala tea 🙂

If you are traveling to Nepal and are interested in staying in Damdame, check out their page on Airbnb here, to book and learn more about this once in a lifetime experience.

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Motorbiking the Mae Hong Son Loop: Thailand’s “Easy Rider” Circuit – Part 1

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View of Mae Hong Son province

The Mae Hong Son loop is a famous circuit in northwest Thailand that draws thousands of motorbike enthusiasts each year. The parkway-like circuit turns you 1,824 times (as the t-shirts claim) through beautiful and lush countryside and picturesque villages. Our epic 5-day journey began mid-October following the end of monsoon season, when the rice fields popped with electric greens and the air was cool and crisp. If you’re a full-throttle thrill seeker who doesn’t mind a few bugs in your teeth or the sorest ass you’ve ever had (minus that one time on Soi Cowboy when things got a little out of hand), then you need to add this trip to your bucket list.

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With spirits high and asses unbruised, we landed in Chiang Mai and joined forces with fellow nomads Bruce and Dakota fresh in from Charleston, South Carolina. We (mostly Bruce) were disappointed to find out that the famous ladyboy cabaret at the night market was closed due to the king’s passing the day before. Bruce cried out in rage, “Are you telling me I brought these assless chaps halfway around the world for nothing [kicks heel on sidewalk]?!” We all walked around the market and met up with our friend Kelly, who was off to a yoga retreat in Pai the next day. With the shock of the Kings passing just now settling as a reality for the Thai people, Chiang Mai seemed a bit somber and the usually peppy night market was a bit tame. I did manage to find some tasty khao soi at the night market and Bruce bought me some super comfy traveller shorts. Life was good. We retreated to our room for some much needed rest.

After arriving at the motobike rental place early on Saturday morning, we soon discovered they were already sold out. Hmm. So we walked literally next door to find Dee Dee’s motorbike shop and test drove four, semi-decent 125cc Honda automatics, red and white with faux leather black seats.

They were a little beat up and we actually had to ask them for a new tire on one because the thread was so worn down. Dakota Dunbar (ironically also known as Dee Dee since her recent nuptials) had never driven a motorbike in her life and Catherine had only driven on little island roads. Needless to say the ladies’ nerves were a bit on-edge and they weren’t completely sure they wanted to ride the circuit on their own bikes.  I pretty much had to teach Dakota how to drive in the parking lot of the rental place. After a few figure eights in the train station parking lot with the ladies, they made the decision to get their own bikes. None of us had ever done a cross country, multi-day motorbike trip, so our mental and physical boundaries were definitely going to be tested over the next few days.  But long story short, within a few days on the curvy roads at high speeds, they were basically driving like Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious, except white and on mopeds and their pack leader had a sweet denim vest. No other differences though.

We bungied our packs and mounted our motor stallions early the next day and set off towards our first stop, Mae Sariang. Once the cars and trucks began to clear a few clicks outside of Chiang Mai, we got our first taste of the open road. We were getting lit up from driving in the direct sun, and after a few hours we pulled over to some little off-the-grid, no name Thai town that only has a 7/11 and a street market. After two plus hours in the sun on our motos, eating some street meat while sweaty and tired was not appealing, so we bought doughnut things and extra large bottles of water. And if it wasn’t by the lucky graces of Buddha that we found a Khao soi  vendor with tables and fans in the shade. Decent khao soi, which is a coconut curry chicken dish with crispy and soft egg noodles, is pretty difficult to find outside of northern Thailand. It’s my all time favorite Thai dish, so I was happy to keep running into it on our trip.

We hopped back on the bikes and cruised the rest of the trip with newfound love of the road. Day one took us 193 km (119 miles) west towards the Myanmar border to arrive in Mae Sariang by dusk. Above the streets of this quaint little Thai town hung paper lanterns and festive flare. Apparently they were celebrating a Buddhist holiday similar to Lent. We hadn’t expected a town full of people and we had made no previous booking to stay the night. Needless to say, our plan-as-you-go, book nothing in advance mentality started to seem short sighted as sleeping outside soon seemed to be our last option.

We managed to find the LAST room in town and ended up sharing the space meant for two. They had to lay mattresses down for Bruce and Dakota as a makeshift “bed” approximately one inch thick. After some showers and an obligatory trip to 7/11, we walked into town to have a look around and find food. Their night bazaar was interesting enough, if you were in the market for an angry birds t-shirt, orange crocs, or maybe a hat that said BOY (a fan favorite here in Thailand).

 

We started a drizzly day two with some delicious rice soup with minced pork and our first mindfulness session, which we continued each morning throughout the trip. Our destination was Mae Hong Son, the namesake of the loop, 163 km north. As the fog and morning dew began to dissipate, we revved up and snaked through what really was one incredible day of driving. The colors of the landscape were so bright due to the immense downpours of monsoon season; we couldn’t help but to pull over every 20-30 minutes to take pictures and adjust our GoPros to capture it all.

I was lagging behind a bit and came around a curve to find our crew all sitting at this tiny wooden coffee shop nestled atop the foot of a gorgeous rice paddy. We ordered some iced coffees and blended green tea frappes, just grinning ear-to-ear from all the adrenaline still pumping through us from the ride. The baristas brought us out some homemade snacks on the house consisting of some congealed coconut paste with nuts wrapped in banana leaves. They were really pleased to have us and we chatted a bit in Thai before heading off.

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Couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day!

After 3.5 hours of driving, we arrived at Mae Hong Son and crossed town until we found the turnoff for our resort, a few minutes outside of the city. The Golden Pai Resort was full of coconut palms and stilted Thai bungalows. The restaurant sat on a river overlooking the mountains, and we were the only guests. After a dip in the pool, we headed to a local wat for sunset overlooking the sprawling mountains. The city lights flickered on one by one, lighting up Mae Hong Son from end to end. The colors around the white stupas were a pleasant creamsicley pink and orange. After the sun sank into the mountains, we cruised down the hill into town bringing an end to our second full day on the open road.

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We made arrangements to visit a local long neck Karen tribe early the next morning. More to come on our experience there and the last three days of our trek in my next post!

Mourning for the King of Kings

I have a profound respect for King Bhumibol. It is obvious the mutual love that is shared between him and the Thai people. It is quite inspiring, as a farang and as a Westerner, to see unanimous love and respect for a nation’s leader. That is something I’ve never experienced first hand until now. And that says so much about his character and the positive impact he has had with everyone he encounters.

Many years ago, he discovered a chemical combination that would enable rainfall during the infamous dry season of Thailand. Once this concept and practice was shared with the agricultural community and nation, his fame and veneration was elevated to a status that no one in the land could dream to reach.

His dedication to the arts, jazz music, his wife and family, dogs, sailing, farming, and photography makes him a relatable and likeable leader to Thais and foreigners from all social realms. I sympathize and mourn with the people of Thailand this week and month. We’ve lost a great leader and the father of this great nation.

RIP King Bhumibol

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Bountiful Culture of Hong Kong

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Last February, we journeyed west to a brand new country, eager to experience the hip spin-off culture of mainland China. With only 3 nights and 4 days, we covered quite a lot of ground of this unique Asian-island lifestyle. One of the first things we noticed was how fashionable the people were. Especially coming from Thailand where your average Thai citizen sports a Donald Duck t-shirt, ripped jeans, and bright yellow crocs. It seemed very metropolitan, an oriental New York City, but with dim sum and clean subways. It’s taken me forever, but I’ve finally edited my footage from our trip. Check out  A Weekenders Guide to Hong Kong: A 3-day Trip  if you plan on visiting the Hong Kong area and would like a rough guide of what to do if you only have a few days. I hope you enjoy!!!

6 Must-Dos of Bangkok You Won’t Find in Your Guidebook

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Floating Markets of Amphawa

Certainly you’ve read in your Lonely Planet about visiting the reclining Buddha and the floating markets of Bangkok. But did they tell you how to sneak onto a helicopter pad atop a 50-story skyscraper or where to get chained to a wall at an S&M bar?

Luckily That Dang Farang is here to share 7 of the most daring and downright naughtiest Bangkok jaunts that won’t make it on the postcard to mom.

1. Smoke “Illegal” Shisha in Little Arabia

The Nana area of Sukhumvit Rd. is one of the most hustling places in all of Bangkok to shop for the best deals on extended erection supplements, samurai swords, ladyboy prostitutes, or just a casual game of table tennis (minus the table and the tennis aspect of course). One time, while walking by the local McDonalds ,also known as McDongals, a ladyboy stared into my soul while he/she deep throated a French fry in an amazingly misguided attempt to lure me as a customer. But if you keep walking past the groping and cat calls, you’ll find Soi 3. Walk to Bamboo restaurant a few minutes down on the left hand side and find a table in the smoking section. Shisha, and/or smoking hookah, is technically outlawed by the military in Thailand, but most anything can be fixed with a few thousand baht notes. The food there ranges from Middle Eastern to Thai to Russian. And it is the bomb.com!!! All of it. You won’t be disappointed. Just don’t be intimidated by the Middle Eastern females who smoke their own pipe and blow out more smoke than the Hiroshima bomb. You’ll never be that cool.

2. Shoot Pool with Siamese Ladies of the Night on Soi Cowboy

At some point on your trip, head over to Soi Cowboy to see the seedy spectacle of Bangkok “strip clubs”. Just tell your girlfriend or wife it’s an authentic Thai experience, more so than the night market she wanted to go to. This short soi is jam packed with wide-eyed Chang drinkin’ farangs who are most likely being sexually harassed for the first time in their lives. There is actually a decent bar at the end called Country Road where you can cue up against sexy Siamese pool sharks who will not only shame you on the table, but will also make you question your own manhood and self worth.

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Soi Cowboy  Photo by: BarNewsBangkok

3. Climb the Infamous Ghost Tower

This abandoned skyscraper is home to wild dogs, drug addicts, toothless hobos, and of course crazy, thrill-seeking farangs. This 49-story skyscraper was abandoned during a financial crisis in the late 90s, and what’s left is a spooky yet exhilarating view of Bangkok’s slithery spine, the Chao Phraya River. At one point in its history, the body of a Swedish backpacker was found hanging in the bathroom on the 43rd floor, now presumed to be haunted and extra creepy. The only way up is to bribe these little Thai ladies who own a noodle shop directly in front of the entrance. For 200 baht, they will unlock the staircase and send you up into the ghostly observatory. Get off at BTS Saphan Taksin and look up, you can’t miss it.

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Photo by: Matthew Karsten

4. Get Inked with a Magical Sak Yant Tattoo

Hey, so I was thinking about getting a huge Ganesh across my back. Maybe like throwing up a peace sign and smoking a hookah on top of “One Love” written in a Laotian hilltribe dialect. Yeah, save that shitty idea for when you’re wasted on Phi Phi, bro. Come to Ajarn Thorn’s ink palace for sacred designs that have been warding off evil spirits for thousands of years. This guy is Über famous in Thai standards and his work is on point. Pick a design beforehand; one that is meaningful to you. Bring 2,000 baht and some menthol cigs as payment. Check out my full write-up Take a Stab at Thai Culture: The Ancient Art of Sak Yant Tattoos for more info and directions to his wat.

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Ajarn Thorn is famous for his style and art.

5. Get Spanked at Demonia S&M Club

This dominatrix club is off the chain! Whip up a crew of your closest bros (or freaky amigas too) and head down Sukhumvit soi 33 until you see a daunting black door with a slit at the top. The dominatrix-clad mama san will slide it open and determine if you’re the right clientele for the night (Hey farang…don’t seem too drunk or wear your Same Same But Different neon tank top, you’ll get turned down faster than your grandma’s hearing aid at a Bassnectar show). This is also the kind of place where literally “anything goes” and is also out in the open, so grab one of those extra masquerade masks by the front door before getting chained and spanked against the wall. Mostly hi-so businessmen from Japan and China come to get dominated as a slave or maybe just a casual dripping of wax down their backside.

A Dutch regular(who has no shame or skin left on his ass) was once quoted by saying, “I’ve been a doctor, a Japanese warrior coming back from battle. One time I was a traveler lost on a remote island and I met a mermaid … it’s like there’s no limits to these kinds of scenarios.” If you’re thinkin’ hmm, not really my style. Well you’re wrong. Just go and make sure your best friend gets slapped by a braided leather whip while chained to the wall with his pants around his ankles. If anything, it will be a great story when you’re super old and need to convince your grandkids that you were indeed a badass at one point in your life.

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Photo by: Coconuts Bangkok, Courtesy Demonia

6. Sneak Onto a Hella Dope Helipad

If the idea of climbing the ghost tower gives you the heebie jeebies, than your best-unhindered rooftop view of the city lies here. Farangs beware: There is NO railing or safety ANYTHING atop this 50th floor landing pad. The hardest part of getting to this rooftop is making your way into the keycard-only elevator. Just hang around the lobby of the Waterford Diamond condo building on Sukhumvit soi 30/1, and wait until someone unlocks the elevator door. Ride to the highest floor and find the fire escape staircase leading to the roof. The top stair of the final staircase will literally be the edge of a skyscraper with no railing; so don’t look right. Once you reach the center of the pad, euphoria takes control of your body and your jaw will drop. Hang you legs off the side and take a selfie, you probably won’t ever get this view again!

Check out a cool Gopro video here…Caesar Sunday’s in Bangkok

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Bangkok is a wild, wild place full of incredible food and even more incredible people. It’s a thrilling adventure as soon as you walk out your door. It definitely takes some time to get used to the craziness, but once you’ve sunk your teeth in, you’ll never want to let go!

Featured Image: Coconuts Bangkok, Courtesy Demonia

 

Searching for Whalesharks: The Mighty Mantas

After a wonderful night of being rocked to sleep from the gentle waves of the Andaman and the hum of the engine room next door, we awoke in time for a beautiful sunrise. After some tamarind paste cookies and a cup of hot tea, we geared up and were in the water by 07:15. Our dive spot was called Koh Bon, and we would stay here for the remaining 3 dives. Other divers across on a nearby boat had already signaled to us that manta rays were swimming around the area. There was no guarantee, but I just knew we were gonna see something big that day.

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Koh Bon dive site

We descended slowly, equalizing the pressure in our ears by pinching our nose and blowing out. The visibility was fantastic and we went down deep, practicing our newly acquired buoyancy and control. I was grinning from ear to ear; still hopeful we’d cross a whale shark at any moment. An enormous Grouper swam beside us with its big ol lips lookin’ like a Kardashian with fresh collagen. Next we watched Bluefin trevallies hunt by corralling their prey into whirling clusters and attacking the outliers. It’s always fascinating to watch fish hunt underwater, and today the lengthy visibility provided spectacular viewing.

I stopped for a minute to watch more of my favorite underwater creature: the shrimp. The coral-banded cleaners were hard at work, collecting food from the crevasses of the coral and rock. We floated by some oriental sweetlips and trumpet-like cornet fish. Our bottom time was 52 minutes!! Our longest dive of the entire trip. And a great way to start our last day of diving.

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During our fifth dive, we set out to practice our underwater navigation skills using a compass. This skill would enable us to navigate if we were ever diving on our own. The current was quite strong, and we were getting swept around like a goldfish swirling around the bowl of a toilet. I consider myself a fairly smart diver, but I don’t think I’ll ever just go on a dive by myself and rely solely on my compass navigation skills to plan and execute a dive. We completed the tasks as best we could, and we just kept swimming.

Then he appeared. He was flapping his glorious wings with incredible poise and grace, and was swimming straight at us. This manta ray was by far the largest thing I had ever voluntarily swam with in my entire life. He must have been about 12 feet from tip to tip. A small sedan!! I was completely stunned and at a loss for words, even though I wouldn’t have been able to speak if I wanted to. I think it was better that way anyway. Because my camera had drowned, I wasn’t worried about getting the perfect shot or fiddling with the settings. I was able to completely live in the moment and appreciate this ginormous specimen that glided just mere feet in front of my eyes.

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He began a small circuit in front of Catherine, Carly, and myself. Feeding and flapping, coming almost close enough to reach out and pet his wing. Mantas are harmless and inquisitive to their human counterparts. After a few minutes of on looking, I realized that maybe we were the ones being observed. Just floating amongst each other a few meters above the coral, our curiosities were mirrored, without a care in the world. I stretched my arms wide, mimicking the giant manta, while trying to gauge its wingspan. He continued feeding and swimming for about ten minutes, and just as innocently as the manta had appeared, he slowly drifted back into the fizzling dark blue.

We continued on our journey, all giddy with adrenaline from our bucket list encounter. My desire to see a whale shark dwindled a bit, which is good because we never saw one. Even on our 6th and final dive of our trip, no sharko de whales. But another pair of mantas and a banded sea snake helped to fill the void.

Banded sea krait

Black and white striped trouser snake

I felt very content with everything we had seen and learned during our two days out at sea. I had just completed my 25th all-time dive and was now a certified advanced open water diver. I feel so fortunate that I’ve experienced so many incredible things under the sea in a mere 16 months. Every time I dive, I uncover a new puzzle piece of how this planet actually works. How everything in our world feeds and relies on other species in order to grow and evolve. And just how vital the ocean is to survival of everything on our earth.

My time will come one day, when out of the deep blue, a whale shark will appear, with immaculate visibility, and my favorite diving buddy will be by my side. Everything in its right place.

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“Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter. Under the sea!!”

Dive Number 4

Bottom time:  52 min
Max depth:  26.2m (86.9ft)

What we saw:  Oriental sweetlips, brown marble grouper, yellow-masked angelfish, Bluefin trevally, batfish, sand lizard fish, cornetfish, Durban dancing shrimp, coral banded shrimp

Dive Number 5

Bottom time:  43 min
Max depth:  16.3m (53.4ft)

What we saw:  Manta Ray

Dive Number 6

Bottom time:  45 min
Max depth:  19.3m (63.3ft)

What we saw:  Manta ray x2, pacific lionfish, yellow trumpet, banded sea crate (snake), titan trigger, giant puffer, trevali, pyramid butterfish, Moorish idol

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Searching for Whale Sharks: Diving in the Dark

You can see the bottom. Look. Carly assured us as we put our head underwater for the first time. It was true. There was the bottom. Still some light was trickling down from the sun that just set and the moon that suddenly lit the sky. If felt like we were in an aquarium with no walls. Only endless clusters of coral and curious fish filled the light beams that shined from our torches. We knew our bad luck had come to an end.

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Some divers surfacing after finishing their sunset dive

Nothing can fully prepare you for the feeling of descending into the dark depths of earth’s most mysterious component. It was phenomenal. I could go as far as saying life changing without a flicker of doubt. Suddenly we’re seeing the ocean in a completely alien way. Catherine perfectly described it as being like treasure hunters, seeking out the nocturnal creatures that hid in the coral with our magical light sabers. The visibility was crystal clear and you could easily see 20 meters without hindrance. Every time I shined my torch, I was hoping to uncover something mystifying and vibrant. We must have seen fifteen lionfish, lurking and hunting with crafty ease.

Carly had spotted something big and we swam over to see. She shined her light on the bottom of the creature and worked her way up. It was snapping its ferocious mouth, which could take any of our fingers instantaneously if he had wanted. It was a giant green moray eel, humongous and intertwined in the holey coral. He was intimidating, but stayed put in his cozy rock. We passed a beautiful crown of thorns that was purple and black on the way to see some marble and commensal shrimp.

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Lion fish come out in full force in the night time

I continued swimming until something urged me to stop. I shined my light around in front of me until I saw him. I wasn’t expecting something so big to be right in front of my eyes, but there it was. A stealthy barracuda 4 feet long and as thick as my calf, was looking directly at my light and into my eyes. Maybe even into my soul! Duhn duhn duh!! As the initial fright wore off, I noticed him following me, in a very eerie kind of way. Carly later explained that he was cleverly using the light from our torches to hunt for fish.

We floated to the sandy bottom, and rested our knees on the ocean floor (a total badass feeling by the way!!). We followed our dive master’s lead and put the flashlight into our chests, shutting out all beams of artificial light. The bioluminescent plankton whirled in front of our faces as we waved our hands like aquatic magicians. We were 50 ft below the surface of the sea, in complete darkness, entranced with psychedelic swirling specs. It was hard to actually fathom what they were. I felt like I was on some other planet, discovering new life for the first time.

As we breached the surface, I couldn’t help but rip off my mask and howl at the moon. It felt primal. It felt electrifying. I was riding an adrenaline high no doubt. I glanced at Catherine and our eyes locked, dripping with salt. It had all been worth it. Even for just this one dive.

Dive Number 3

Bottom time: 45 minutes
Max depth: 16.5 meters (54ft)

What we saw: Indian bannerfish, Big ass barracuda (pickhandle), purple crown of thorns, masked porcupine, Moorish idol, tube anenomes, marble shrimp, hinged beak shrimp, commensal shrimp (clear), bioluminescent plankton, and giant green moral eel

Searching for Whale Sharks: Creatures of Richelieu Rock

“Hi, I’m Carly, your instructor for the next two days. Follow me if you want to live.” Okay, maybe she didn’t say that exactly, but her accent was cool. She was from South Africa but had been working seasonally in Thailand for 3 years as a dive master and instructor. It was just the two of us in the advanced open water course, and we were getting along swimmingly with our new friend/master. We chit chatted for a bit before hopping on yet another song tao to take us to the pier. The motorboat was going to taxi us out to the big dive boat, where we’d be staying for the next two days. I didn’t want to jinx our luck and ask about the whalers, but I did over hear that they were seen just a few days prior around Richelieu rock. Nevertheless, my fingers were crossed and my bucket list remained unchecked.

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Ready for a night out in the open seas (Catherine, Davis, Carly)

We tossed our flip-flops in a trash bag, not to be seen or needed for another 48 hours. Up on deck, we checked some homework and began our first briefing on the upcoming dives. Diving takes a lot of planning. Knowing how and where you’re going to enter the water. Your route once you’re down there. Currents. Surface conditions. Air supply. Hand signals. Safety procedures. Plus, we were learning how to breathe and be buoyant at almost twice the depth of any previous dive! It’s quite a lot to take in.

Within an hour of coming on deck and having some fruit for breakfast, we were queued up for dive number one. Suited and booted and ready for whatever was down there. Hopefully whale sharks or manta rays. Our first dive site was it. Richelieu Rock. With lower seas and tide, the tip of the rock poked out of the seemingly normal ocean surface. We buddy checked using the trusty and clever acronym BWRAF, or Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas. The letters actually stand for Bcd/buoyancy, Weights, Releases, Air, and Final check. We jumped in and started the swim for the buoy.

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The amazing crew did all the heavy lifting and changed our BCDs to new tanks every dive.

Our captain did not do a great job getting us close to our entry point, and we ended up swimming a solid 10 minutes against the current to reach the buoy line on which we were to descend. Coupled with the other divers getting there and swarming the line, we were out of breath and a bit stressed. Needless to say, the dive started out horribly, and it didn’t get much better.

We were so excited about our trip and bought brand new masks back in Bangkok. But having never used them before, they came with some problems we did not foresee. Catherine’s was leaking and didn’t fit her face correctly. Mine was fogging to the point that I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me. We were rushed and stressed. After about 2 meters, we called the dive and surfaced to re-evaluate. We caught our breath, talked it out, and went back down. My mask continued to give me problems and I had to fill and clear it about every 15 seconds in order to see anything in front of me. I couldn’t see shit and the visibility was horrible as well.

At a depth of around 30m, divers are known to experience an unusual feeling of euphoria or even being drunk. It’s called getting “narked” or nitrogen narcosis. It happens in deep water diving when increased gases enter your body tissue. The diver’s ability to focus, along with their coordination and multi-tasking skills decreases, like when you’ve been drinking. So Carly gave us a series of underwater, mental tests to show us the effect. It’s not really dangerous but divers often have a false sense of confidence or act strangely silly. I’ve read stories of divers taking their alternate air source and trying to give it to the fish. Harmless, right? The simple cure is just to rise to shallower waters, and the symptoms will subside.

After we shook off our aquatic hangover, we did get a couple of glimpses of spectacular fish like the ornate ghost pipefish, pineapple fish, and a yellow boxfish. Because of all the stress, we used our air much quicker than expected and were back at the surface in just 24 minutes. It was very stressful and kind of awful and I sure hoped our next dive would be better.

Pineapple fish

Pineapple fish. Photo by Carly Marsh

We had quite awhile to reflect and talk about the first dive. We ate a nice, filling lunch and did some more studying and homework. Carly was great the whole time and reassured us that our next dive would be better. It was not.

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Logging our dives just after recovery

Believe it or not, things got worse before they got better. We used an old divers trick on my mask and burned the thin layer of film on the inside, then used toothpaste to clean the black smudge and hopefully lessen the fogging. We jumped in. Same site. Closer to the buoy line thankfully and began our descent. All things seemed to be going fine when all of a sudden I see Catherine flailing her arms and grabbing her mask. She was inhaling salt water through her nose and her mask was completely flooded. We learn how to deal with these situations and I’d seen her clear her mask many times underwater with no problems. But she was overwhelmed and was forgetting to breath. Initially I became nervous and a bit worried, but I knew my girl would pull through. And she did. Carly worked her magic and got her to breath in the regulator. She cleared her mask and slowed her breath. Phew!! My wife didn’t drown on dive #2, yay!! A stressful situation like that uses a lot of air, so yet again, our tanks were half done within the first 10 minutes of our dive.

Ornate ghost pipefish

Ornate ghost pipefish. Photo by Carly Marsh

Then as I glance down at my Gopro, I notice moisture starting to form on the inside. Drops of water came next. Within 15 minutes, my camera housing was flooded. SHIT!!!! I was so concerned about my GoPro that I subconsciously just couldn’t relax and enjoy the dive. It was also bad visibility and my masked was still fogging.

Yep, this dive was worse than the first one. We surfaced after making our safety stop, but I knew the end was near. My old pal had taken in too much salt water, and he never came back to life. Tear. But at least my wife survived. And our bottom time increased to 34 minutes. We also got to see quite a lot of my favorite underwater creature: the shrimp. We saw peacock mantis and coral-banded cleaner shrimp covering bright, luscious coral, just doin’ their thang and being chill as hell. We also glimpsed a bearded scorpion fish and a seal-faced puffer, but a whale shark did not grace our presence.

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Peacock mantis shrimp

We got back on the boat and were feeling down. We felt like idiots. Amateurs. Embarrassed beyond belief. We were supposed to be completing our advanced certification and here we are making rookie mistakes. We checked into our rooms that were finally ready and laid down for a nap. Had we made a mistake coming on this trip? Could it get any worse? It had to get better, right?

Next up was our first ever night dive. And it was 45 minutes of pure rush and excitement. Just the adventure we’d been chasing and needing all day.

 

Dive Number 1

Bottom time: 24 min
Max depth: 27.7m

What we saw: Ornate ghost pipefish, pineapple fish, yellow boxfish, pickhandle barracuda, trevally (with big eye)

 

Dive Number 2

Bottom time: 34 min
Max depth: 24.1

What we saw: Peacock mantis shrimp, coral-banded shrip, blue sea star, false clown fish, clark’s anenomefish, spatfin lionfish, grey puffer, bearded scorpionfish, white-eyed moray eel, seal faced puffer, cornetfish, golden damsel

Searching for Whale Sharks: From Bangkok to Khao Lak

Ever since my first dive a year and a half ago on Boxing day in Koh Tao, I’ve been hoping to swim with the largest fish on the planet. I basically knew nothing about whale sharks before I moved to Thailand, but I’ve become somewhat fascinated by them. Their immense size and commanding title leave them quite the reputation. Well deserved too. But the gentle giants are actually classified as sharks, not  whales. Reaching a maximum length of 46ft makes them the biggest fish in the sea. Just knowing that they are always out there, and that I could see one at any moment, is an addictive rush that has made me want to become a great diver. I love being under the sea with the coral and fish. The oceans of planet Earth behold some of the greatest mysteries to mankind. And I want to see…well, some of them.

So our mission was to:

1) travel to famous Richelieu rock around the Similan islands in south Thailand.

2) train and become Advanced open water divers while living and diving off of a liveaboard for 2 days.

3) find a whale shark and dive with them.

Our Grab taxi awaited us as the school bell rang at 2:30 and we were off. No thinking about work or real-life responsibilities. Only making it to our boat and getting ready for deep water training. A normal 45-minute ride lengthened to 90 as we, and everyone else in Bangkok, rushed to Don Mueang International Airport to flee the city for Songkran celebrations. It was Thai new years and probably the biggest travel weekend for the entire year. Big cities like Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Thailand wear gearing up for the world’s largest water fight. It seemed like everyone had a brand new plastic water gun strapped to their moto or backpack. But what we wanted laid south of Bangkok, off the west coast of Khao Lak. Swimming around the Similan and Surin islands.

I’d always read about a place called Richelieu Rock, which was known for the most sitings of whale sharks yearly around April. You had to get there from Khao Lak. So that’s where we started. This coastal, Scuba and snorkel driven town was an hour and twenty minute drive north of Phuket. The Khao Lak area was devastated during the 2004 tsunami that flooded southern Thailand. Thousands and thousands of casualties along this small region alone. All along the coastal highway were memorials and sites dedicated to those lost. But by April 2016, it was booming with tourists searching for picture perfect islands and world class diving and snorkeling.

We had no hotel reservations, as we often like to do, and were just dropped off in the middle of “downtown”. After inquiring at a few places, we found a towering strip of a hotel named Go to Zleep, which had decent rooms with breakfast for $24 usd. I love the freedom of not knowing where I’ll sleep each night, and feeling things out as you explore each spot. It leaves your docket blank and your adventures more spontaneous.

We showered and changed and went out to find some local cuisine. We popped in down the road, to the only place in town that seemed like it had some sort of nightlife, Monkey’s Bar, across from Go to Zleep. Khao Lak certainly had a different variety of people than what we were used to while traveling Thailand. We kept wondering where the backpackers were? Where were people closer our age? We seemed to be about 15-20 years younger on average than the mostly grey-haired Euro and Russian retirees and families that combed the strip. Damn Russians and their mankinis (this won’t be the last you hear about them, trust me)!!

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The pinnacle of Khao lak nightlife

There were two guys on stage, both Thai, one with long hair and a cowboy hat playing guitar, and the other playing the box drum and other acoustic accompaniment. They were actually decent and had the whole crowd singing “If zou liek Pina Coladas, ind gitteeng caut in ze rain.” Nevertheless, we hit the sack and called it a night.

Our favorite activity when traveling in a new city is to rent a motorbike and just drive all day, exploring the area. So we hopped from beach to beach, heading north along the highway and getting off to explore or have a bite to eat at one of the many beach restaurants or bars. The beaches were refreshing, but it was too hot to sit even in the shade, so we basically just drove around all day exploring.

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White Sand Beach (that’s the actual name)

One of my good friends Kelly Pettus was traveling around Thailand and decided on a whim to come to Khao Lak with her friend Amy and meet up with us for a few days. She too was drawn by the elusive fish and white sandy shores. We eagerly awaited their arrival and were so happy to see familiar faces from Charleston, South Carolina. Kelly and I go way back to Wando high school and even attended the same college together. Her sidekick Amy was cool as funk and we were all instabuds. Kelly’s a glorious troublemaker and kindred spirit and we had a blast catching up and knocking down a few cold ones at good ol’ Monkey’s Reggae bar, our go-to social hot spot.

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Kelly and Amy: Crusaders of fun

Our next day was an early one, as we were getting picked up to go on our 2-day liveaboard diving excursion to dive the great Andaman sea. Basically we were going to be shoeless on a boat for two days, diving and studying to get our advanced open water certification. Now allowing us to descend to depths of up to 30 meters (98 ft) as opposed to the 18m(50 ft), in which we were currently certified. The pick-up truck, or song tao, scooped us up from Go to Zleep (a blatantly obvious attempt to pigeonhole ze Russian tourism boom) and brought us to the dive shop. As we pull up, a short blond with a clipboard and a funny British accent asked our names, and after a quick introduction said, “Ah!! Davis and Catherine, my students!!!”

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