#TRAVEL – Thailand: Koh Samet – A Convenient Paradise

Koh Samet

Thailand is world-famous for stunning islands. Whether it’s Koh Phangan for the full moon party, Maya Bay aka “The Beach”, the diver’s paradise; Koh Tao, or the tourist hotspot; Phuket.

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Unfortunately, many travelers don’t have the time or money to make their way down to southern Thailand to experience these great places, but MAI PEN RAI (Thai for “no worries”) – Koh Samet is a worthy alternative in a more opportune location.

Koh Samet is easily and inexpensively accessible, as it is just a 2-hour bus journey and 30-minute ferry from Bangkok.

Koh Samet is the perfect beach getaway for expats living in central Thailand, or for those staying in Bangkok a few days and seeking to escape the concrete chaos. Naturally, it gets quite busy during the long weekends throughout the year.

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There are several tropical beaches scattered around the island, ranging from secluded and uncrowded, to the popular and packed.  Regardless of whether you’re looking for peaceful relaxation or water activities, music, and plentiful beer  – this place has it all.

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I highly recommend renting a scooter or ATV to explore the more remote parts of the island, as they are stunningly beautiful.

Like many other Thai islands, Koh Samet has no shortage of bars, restaurants, and places to stay. I’ve visited Koh Samet a few times and I would recommend a night or two on the main beach, Hat Sai Keaw, as well as a night or two on the southern beaches of Ao Wai and Ao Kiu Nok.

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Have you been to Koh Samet?  What did you think?

DK Eyewitness Thailand (Travel Guide) Paperback

#TRAVEL – SOUTH KOREA: GLISTENING GEOJE

When thinking of countries that boast tropical islands, Korea isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind. I didn’t think the R.O.K would have much to offer in terms of island beauty, but how I was wrong…

#TRAVEL - SOUTH KOREA:  GLISTENING GEOJE
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Geoje Island is a small landmass located in the southeast of Korea. It’s so close to mainland, it’s connected via a road bridge.


I visited in May 2015, and it was hot. Perfect timing!

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Green. The first thing I noticed, whilst driving along the coast to our pension was the colour of the ocean. It was majestic. It is easily comparable to that of an ocean view in South East Asia. Later, I did find out that the water is a lot colder than those famous oceans, but when the suns out, who cares?

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Geoje island is not just a pretty face—in fact, there is plenty to do. You can participate in many activities from sea kayaking (beware of the armies of jellyfish) to quad biking, where you can drive an ATV through the sun-dappled forest and find some extraordinary views.

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A handful of tour groups offer a selection of trips to Geoje that depart from various cities across the country. I used a company called ‘Waegook Travel’; they were decent, but a bit overpriced.

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I would recommend a few days on this island to both travelers who are in Korea, and the many people that call Korea their home.

Teaching in Thailand vs. Teaching in Japan

Teaching in Thailand vs. Japan

by Rachael Hornsby

Having started my TEFL adventures in Thailand, I have now spent a year teaching there, and another 6 months teaching in Japan (with a year back in the UK in between). If you might be considering either of these countries to teach English in, or are deciding between East and South East Asia in general, here’s my brief take on how these countries have compared so far for me. Enjoy!

The dosh

It’s of course not all about the money, but, in terms of bare numbers, in Thailand my teaching wage was 30,000 baht per month (around £ 700), whereas in Japan I earn 250,000 yen (~£2000). In both cases it is pretty much the standard amount for an inexperienced teacher.

My Thai wage obviously wasn’t a lot in UK terms, but the cost of living is so low in Thailand that it’s PLENTY to live on. My rent was about £80 (although my friends’ were cheaper!), and I could eat out every night for as little as 25 baht for a Pad Thai (about 50p!). Thailand and S.E. Asia as a whole is SO cheap that my Thai wage managed to take me on tonnes of adventures, such as tripping around Vietnam in my school holidays, and numerous weekends around Thailand, to Chiang Mai, Bangkok etc.

Living expenses obviously all cost so much more in Japan. My rent is 45,000 yen per month (over £ 350), (although I know in big cities like Tokyo it can be MUCH higher), and bills and food add much more on to that. Again, I seem to have spent a lot of spare cash so far in Japan travelling, and unfortunately just exploring mainland Japan can be really pricey- a bullet train to Tokyo from my island of Kyushu is about £170 (as opposed to a train I took to Laos from Southern Thailand for £15!).

In short, the main difference is, if you are strict with your money, and don’t go off travelling every spare minute (it’s just so tempting!!), your savings in Japan will stretch much further if you take them elsewhere, especially to other economically rich countries, like if you wanted to pay off debts in the UK (with the pound plunging, at this rate you could go home with a small fortune!). My friends have also taken extra tutoring jobs on the side if they really wanted to fill up their wallet, although this might not be allowed in your contract. And if you’re really looking for the big bucks, jobs where the company actually pay for your flights or accommodation, like ones in South Korea, might be an even better bet.

(*WRITTEN OCTOBER 2016! The pound is changing so much these days, so god knows how long these currency conversions will be accurate. A couple of days!?*)

Culture

If you’re not hoping for a culture shock, then you’re in the wrong game! There are obviously hundreds of wonderful/fascinating/infuriating sides of Thai and Japanese culture, but here’s a few:

Although there are reasons not to get on the wrong side of Thailand (in a rare case some people I knew had a pretty rough time being deported…), the country generally really does live up to its reputation as the “land of smiles”. From the random people I’d find to help me when my moped got a flat tire (more than once!), to the chatty monks on the train (let them talk to you first, don’t just go barging up to one!), it’s a great place for restoring faith in humanity. It’s also VERY laid back. The famously slow pace of pretty much anything there can drive many people absolutely up the wall- a train that should take 2 hours, ends up taking 5 hours, etc.-, but you will start to adopt the local “mai pen rai”, care-free attitude, and pretty much all of my friends left Thailand a less uptight person than when they arrived (who couldn’t do with giving themselves that gift?).

Japan is in some ways the opposite of Thailand’s laid back attitude. From the notoriously prompt trains, to the meticulous dividing of household recycling, everything is fantastically organised and reliable. I’m constantly amazed at how efficient things are and by the different things Japan has come up with to get stuff done! As in Thailand, people in Japan are exceptionally polite and friendly, and the hospitality in Japan is second to none, to the extent that I admittedly found myself feeling a bit aggrieved without it in on a recent trip to Hong Kong, making me appreciate Japan even more. The level of politeness did at first it come off as a bit oppressive (train carriages are often silent, etc.), making it seem hard to ‘break in’ or really socialise, but of course with a little more patience you get to meet more people, and make amazing new friends. I think you could say Japan is more like the UK in that way!

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“mai pen rai” life on Koh Samet vs. ingenious conveyor belt sushi

The job



As far as the job goes, each school can differ widely depending on the age you’re teaching, whether it’s private or government, etc. etc., but there are a few general trends, which seem to be mainly extensions of Thailand’s “mai pen rai” culture vs. the super efficient Japan.

Although I had textbooks for some of my classes at my Thai school, this wasn’t that common, and it tends to be a “do it yourself” kind of attitude to the curriculum/ teaching in general. This can obviously be a bit scary if it’s your first time teaching, and can be frustrating if you feel like you’re not getting the help or direction you’d like, but it’s also great as it gives you freedom in what you want to teach, allows you to experiment with your teaching style, and is a great challenge to get you tuck into the job. You also pretty much never know what’s going on- most weeks I’d turn up to work with all my lessons planned, only to find out at least 1 was cancelled for some random reason I didn’t know of, like the day we found ourselves ushered onto a school bus first thing, with kids all prepared wearing traditional outfits, and we spent the morning sitting in front of monks in a temple listening to them chant!

Japan, on the other hand, is a lot more organised in its approach. In my job teaching at a private kindergarten, I have tonnes more support, like a curriculum, weekly meetings, many of my lessons already planned for me etc. In comparison to Thailand, my job feels so much more coherent, although I’ve heard that other jobs for the larger companies can be even more structured. In a way this means you can’t use as much creativity in your teaching, and aren’t being pushed quite as hard. And I do sometimes miss the manic spontaneity of Thailand (in my first month here, I was actually thrown into presenting an assembly without notice, and secretly loved it!). I also have to work evenings this time, like many other language schools, but I do have a lot more free time in the day that I don’t have to spend planning lessons, and generally feel a lot less ‘at sea’.

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Thai assembly 

Things to see and do



You obviously can’t spend all your time gallivanting around if you have a teaching job, but you can pack plenty of sightseeing into your free weekends and holidays if you fancy (and why ever not?!). In Thailand you’ll find more elephants, street markets, and idyllic beaches, and it can be more of a wild party scene if you land a job near a tourist area (I’ve had more ‘buckets’ of cocktails than I’d care to remember…). Japan has more impressive mountains and hiking  (being made up of volcanic islands), there are hot spring baths and karaoke bars everywhere, and you can go skiing in winter (which I’m 99% sure you can’t do in Thailand!). It also has its share of good nightlife (especially in the big cities), and even has gorgeous beaches and great scuba diving spots down in balmy Okinawa. Basically, Japan and Thailand are both popular tourist destinations for good reason- they both have beautiful scenery, endless temples, fascinating festivals etc. etc. So, unless there’s something you’re absolutely itching to do, like climb Mount Fuji or rave at a full moon party, you’ll find plenty of weird and wonderful ways to keep you occupied in both!

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Beach in Koh Chang vs.  Hike in Nagasaki

Getting down and dirty

Thailand is by no means a third world country, but Japan is miles ahead of it when it comes to things like infrastructure and sanitation, and feels even more developed than the UK in some ways. Japan is probably the cleanest place I’ve ever been, and they have technology for everything, from heated toilet seats to shoe vending machines (probably the name for it!) at the bowling alley. Thailand, on the other hand, can take a little getting used to for a Westerner. Rather than having heated toilets, we had to flush the loo using a bucket in our Thai school, and if you’re doing things on the cheap (which you might as well!), then you’ll find yourself, for example, sitting on plastic chairs at a food stall in street, with stray dogs wandering around you whilst you eat your dinner. There are also more critters around in Thailand- I often found cute baby geckos living in my shoes, I was never without at least 1 mosquito bite (although I am especially attractive to the buggers!), and my town happened to be overrun with mafia-like monkeys.

The things in Thailand that seem so alien at first really don’t take long to feel normal, and to be honest I’m grateful for the experience of living with a tiny bit less luxury, for helping me appreciate how lucky we are at home, and showing me what I can actually live without. So if you want this type of challenge, I’d have to recommend Thailand, but if you want a more easy transition (dealing with a brand new Asian culture can be enough in itself!), then go for Japan. I myself am glad I did both in the order that I have, since I can appreciate the wonders of Japan even more!

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Critter friends in Thailand vs. Super sleek Shibuya 

The language

Both Thai and Japanese are a world away from English, and I can’t profess to be much of an expert at either, but here goes. The Thai language has 1 ‘alphabet’ (or set of characters,) and uses lots of different tones. These can be seriously hard to pick up (“ma” can have a whole host of meanings depending on your tone), but luckily Thais often understand what a farang (foreigner) is getting at without them. They often drop unnecessary words from sentences (as in Japan!), so I wasn’t too paranoid about having bad grammar either. The little Thai I learnt came in very handy and was really appreciated, especially in tourist spots (I was all but given applause just ordering pineapple in Krabi!). To be honest you can get by with very little Thai if you wish, and it’s surprising how many Thais speak some English anyway, even in remote parts of the country.

Japanese seems harder to me. This may just be because I’ve put more effort into learning it, and so have realised what a mountain it is to really learn a language. Thailand’s “alphabet”, once learnt, can get you reading any Thai for good (I’ve been told!). Japan, however, has 3 sets of characters, and I can read the 2 basic ones (very handy for things like Western food menus), but the 3rd set of Chinese characters feels like it may take me an age to tackle (I’m sure Japanese people can’t even read them all!), and I still can’t read that much when I’m out and about. Unlike Thai, Japanese isn’t tonal, so once you’ve learnt words or phrases, it’s pretty easy to catch them and pronounce them, but Japan also seem to have many more ways of saying one thing, depending on different situations or who you’re speaking to. This can make it more daunting when trying to use it yourself, or frustrating when you don’t understand something you thought you knew! Basic English also seems less widespread here, so there are certain things I’ve simply had to drag a Japanese speaker along to help me do, like buying a phone contract, but you manage!

I’ve been frustrated at times by my lack of skill at both languages, but really learning either can take years, and many TEFL teachers get by fine speaking very little, if any. It will of course enhance your experience whatever amount you manage to learn, so you might as well give it a bash, and if you really want to get the hang of it, just get yourself a local boy/girlfriend (seems to work every time!)

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Japanese vs. Thai (Jibberish vs. nonsense??) 

“Konichiwa, Japan!” or “Sawadee Ka, Thailand!”??

The beauty of a TEFL job is you get to spend months in a country that many people only spend a fortnight visiting on holiday, which teaches you so many beautiful/ ridiculous things about a place, and so there could be a billion more ways I could use to compare these two amazing countries (I could write a whole post on types of beer! Actually I might do that…). But in super brief, Thailand and Japan are like riding a Tuk Tuk vs. taking the bullet train. One is a bit more of a slow, bumpy ride, and the other is more sleek and a bit more predictable, but they are both brand new experiences, that can be equally thrilling (you’d be surprised how fast a Tuk tuk can go!), and will take you to places to never expected! Both countries are amazing, so if there’s anything at all drawing you to one or the other, just pick that one and GO! You won’t regret it.

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Tuk tuk or bullet train?

#TRAVEL – THAILAND: KOH WOW!

During my 18 months in Thailand, I naturally explored most of the country, but there were still some stones I’d left unturned—so in December 2015 I decided to take a short vacation to the Thai island Koh Tao and check out somewhere I had not been before.

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Koh Tao is located a short ferry ride north of the famous Koh Pha Ngan and about an 8-hour drive south of the capital, Bangkok. Koh Tao, or ‘The Divers Island’, boasts everything you expect of an island in Thailand: breathtaking beaches, turquoise waters, panoramic viewpoints and picture-postcard nature. My time there was full of fun activities, laughs and great food. Sadly, my journey there wasn’t.

How to get there

Ok, as far as night buses go, this one wasn’t the worst, but it probably was the most poorly planned. Foreigners usually travel to Koh Tao by taking either a night bus or a night train from Bangkok to the ferry port in Chumphon where they then continue to the island by ferry.

Stocked up on water and full on Pad Thai, my friends and I waited for departure just off Khoa San. The bus was one hour late, but the frustration from waiting quickly left us once we saw the huge Captain Jack Sparrow picture along with the Honda and the Ferrari logos painted across the bright green double-decker we were about to spend the night on. It was hilarious and definitely not legal.

The first hour of the journey went smoothly, then BANG – popped tire.

In most places, this would cause an immediate stop—but in Thailand, no. The driver continued the remaining 7-hour journey trying to keep the bus on the road as it swerved between lanes like a drunken old man stumbling home from the pub. I admired his effort just as much as I judged his stupidity.

Finally, we arrived at Chumphon 3 hours early and so the most vexing part of the journey began. It turned out we weren’t actually early, most bus companies drop their passengers off 3 hours before the ferry departs. Being stranded at 4am on a dark pier thriving with mosquitoes isn’t fun. Why do they do this? I’ll never know. But if you’re reading this and making that journey anytime in the future, be warned.

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Things to do

Diving & Snorkeling
Most people reference Koh Tao for its diving. The island has no shortage of dive schools that offer competitive prices for those looking to obtain their PADI. For those not wanting or having the time to complete a diving course, snorkeling is the second best option. There are many great snorkeling spots around the island—the vibrant fish are spectacular and you may even be lucky enough to spot a few sharks (shy ones of course!).

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Viewpoints
The viewpoints in Koh Tao are phenomenal. Some are difficult to climb, but the view at the top is always worth it.  I really enjoyed the view from Freedom Beach viewpoint.

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Koh Nang Yuan
Koh Nang Yuan is a beautiful small island very close to Koh Tao. Like Koh Tao it has great beaches, diving and snorkeling, and additionally boasts hiking and zip-lining.

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The average price of a meal, beer and accommodation on Koh Tao doesn’t vary much from the other Thai islands or the touristy areas in Bangkok.

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If you’re looking for more than just a ‘party’, go to Koh Tao.

-Liam

This Lonely Planet guide to the Thai islands & beaches has everything you need!