You Can Now Forget Phuket

This post isn’t made to discredit Phuket or discourage people to visit that amazing piece of land. It’s to give people an insight that Thailand is way prettier than they think.


 

Almost everyone I know has traveled to Thailand. It’s world’s one of most favorite travel destinations (according to many websites & blogs) and backpacker capital (according to me). It has Bangkok as the shopping heaven and Phuket as the beach paradise. That’s all. Only a few people have heard about the hilly Chiang Mai and the vibrant Koh Samui. And no one has never heard about Krabi in Southern Thailand. It’s like Luke in Hemsworth family (read: not famous), that’s shadowed by Chris and Liam’s popularity. But Krabi isn’t as unattractive as Luke. Krabi is like a pretty boy. Prettier than Phuket, but less crowded. Less expensive, less scams, and more tourist-friendly.

It's not Phuket. It's Krabi.

It’s not Phuket. It’s Krabi.

So when I first stepped my feet at Phuket International Airport two years ago, I tried to find a cheap shuttle bus to bring me to the city center, as I’d learned from Lonely Planet. I spoke to several people who I assumed to be in-charge for the bus thingy: they wore a pale blue uniform with a ticket book in their hands. Based on the schedule I checked online the buses run every 20 minutes, so I told them, “One ticket to Chalong, please.” But unlucky me, they didn’t speak English. Then 10 guys (yes, ten) came to the rescue. One of them told me, “No bus. You must get a cab.”

“I saw the schedule, the bus shouldl be here in 5 minutes,” I said.

“No. The bus isn’t here at night,” another guy answered. I looked at my phone, that was still 7.05 pm.

“So how can I get to the town?”

“Cab,” the other one pointed a limo at the parking lot.

“You guys use meter?” I asked.

“No. 700 baht to Chalong,” some other guy said.

What the fuck? That equals to $20, very expensive. “Is there any cheaper cab? I don’t need a limo.”

“No. You have no other choice,” another different man continued.

After 5 minutes and the bus didn’t show up, I had to agree on that pricing because I wasn’t comfortable to be surrounded by 10 aggressive strangers like that. Another weird thing: I shared the cab with another man. He was Russian and not speaking English. So was the driver. So I had no idea, did the taxi ride cost 1,400 baht? 700 from me and 700 from him? Super insane scam!

Everything's cheap and well-organized in Krabi

Unlike in Phuket, everything’s cheap and well-organized in Krabi

It was very different from my experience when I landed in Krabi International Airport. There was a huge signboard showing how I could get my airport shuttle to the town. There was a fixed price, schedule, and where the bus parked. So awesome! And that only costed me 150 baht.

Same thing happened when I took that cruise trip to Phi Phi and James Bond Island from Phuket. It costed me 300 baht for the one-day trip, but they put me on a fully-loaded ferry. I didn’t get any seat there. I sat on a machine box for more than three hours. Once we arrived in the crowded islands, we only stayed there for less than an hour before going back to the mainland. No time for sunbathing, enjoying the beach, or a proper snorkeling.

Discover Thainess!

Discover Thainess!

However, a wonderful experience occurred when I’d like to do my cruise trip in Krabi and its surrounding islands (the best: Railay Beach and Chicken Island). It only costed me 100 baht; I could even come and go whenever I want with my “private” boat. There were only 6-10 people on the boats, totally comfortable, and very flexible schedule.

My boat trip with a new friend I met there

My boat trip with a new friend I met there

By taking that kind of boat, I could spend hours on the island to see the underwater view, playing with the sands and waves, eating and drinking, watching sunset, and reading my book. I only needed to get the ticket from an official booth at the port; and no people that aggressively offered me their boat service. That’s a kind of luxury I can’t afford in Phuket. Another plus: boats to James Bond and Phi Phi Island are also available from Krabi!

No filter needed in Krabi

No filter needed in Krabi

What I like most from Krabi is the size of the town. Unlike Phuket that required me to drive a motorbike or take an expensive cab, I could just walk in Krabi. It was small, and almost everything could be reached by foot. I stayed at Ao Nang Beach, the best area in Krabi: very close to the sea, surrounded by restaurants and bars, but not as loud as Patong in Phuket. I only used tuk-tuk once when I went to Krabi Night Market (20 minutes away from Ao Nang Beach), and the price was reasonable.

Wandering Krabi with no hassle

Wandering Krabi with no hassle

Have I mentioned that I found an awesome hostel in Krabi? The name is Ao Nang Backpacker Hostel, very close to the sea. Great bedroom, friendly staffs, and cheap. Even the cheapest, I guess. I only need to walk a couple of minutes to the port, to the best Thai massage place, and to a lovely seaside bar that provided amazing cocktails for 99 baht only (my fave: piña colada). The bar was owned by a funny Thai gentleman named Tao that can always give an extra shot of booze to the drink.

This is the view from my $6 hostel room

This is the view from my $6 hostel room

So yeah, going to Krabi has opened my eyes. That Thailand is more than just Bangkok and Phuket. That actually there’s another prettier, cheaper, and less-crowded destination. And oh, the sunset view was unquestionable. Clear sky, clouds that looked like cotton candies, and beautiful shades without having to go to an expensive beach club! I will definitely go back to Krabi. And if you haven’t been there, I believe you should!

They look like cotton candies, don't they?

They look like cotton candies, don’t they?

A Dangerous Journey to Touch the Pyramid

Pardon me for being very touristy.

Pardon me for being very touristy.

 

I signed out from Antiquities Museum after a magical three-hour date with those mummies. As I walked toward the main road, I saw some tanks and bunch of soldiers outside the building. It wasn’t a rare view in Cairo. Three years had passed after the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 but some important places still needed intensive protection, especially because one week prior my arrival there was a bombing that killed 6 civilians. I didn’t really care about those military units, until when I noticed the nearby metro station was closed. Their English proficiency couldn’t explain to me what was going on. So maybe another bombing terror, I said to myself.

I was about to see the pyramids and supposed to take a metro to Giza from that station. So I decided to take a cab to another station (5 Egyptian pounds or US$0.5), and transfer to a train there (1 pound). Oh right, it was an on-budget trip, so I had to calculate everything carefully. I stopped a cab owned by a non English-speaking driver. His name was Hassan, around 40. I sat on the front seat, opened my Google Translate, and showed him where I’d wanted to go. He nodded. I didn’t remember how it went, but his poor English managed to offer me a ride straight to Giza instead of the station. He said I only needed to pay 8 pounds for the entire ride, only 2 pounds more expensive than my actual plan. It was suspicious, because Lonely Planet said it would cost me at least 18 pounds from Cairo to Giza. But seeing his smiley face, maybe I had to ignore my doubt. So I nodded.

Hassan was kind. When we crossed a bridge over Nile River, he asked if I wanted to take a pic. I said yes, then we pulled over. I opened the car’s door and handed him my camera. We continued the trip mostly in silence. I was stunned when we arrived in the desert area. I always have a thing with desert, maybe because I had too much Aladdin movies when I was younger. I was busy taking pictures while he made several phone calls with a man in language I didn’t understand. The traffic was great; there was no other car around us. It was a perfect day until I realized there was a strange view in my sight: a man stood in the middle of the road, spread his hands, and tried to stop us. Oh fuck.

By the Nile River, taken by Hassan

By the world’s longest river, taken by Hassan

He was definitely not a hitchhiker. He was skinny, tall, bearded, wore a lousy black jacket And of fuck again, he wasn’t alone. There was another guy. This one was chubbier, shorter, no beard. Both were mid 30. I panicked. “Who are they?” I asked Hassan, but he shook his head.

They approached my cab. The skinny one went to Hassan’s side, and the chubby one was on my window. Skinny spoke something in Arabic to Hassan. He looked and sounded mad, and my driver looked terrified. I asked him what the guy was saying, but he couldn’t really explain. So I collected all my guts and asked him, “What do you want?”

“You go pyramid?” he asked back. The tone wasn’t very friendly.

“Yes, why?”

He replied in Arabic. I asked Hassan again, but his English was too poor to explain. He shouted to me in Arabic. I was scared as hell.

“I’m calling my friend! He’s an Egyptian.” I tried to look firm. And by friend, I meant Nour El-Assal, a young man from CouchSurfing who hosted me during my visit in Cairo.

“Call!” he challenged me. He didn’t believe someone like me had a local friend.

Shit. No answer from Nour. He told me this morning he’d be busy all day. I took a deep breath. Very deep, especially when I realized both Skinny and Chubby were on the back seat of my cab! I was afraid they’d do something harmful to me. I knew I couldn’t ask for help from anyone because there were no other people here. Everything I saw was only desert. Not even camels.

“Where your friend?” the Chubby mocked me.

I asked, “Why are you in my cab?” They answered in Arabic with an offensive tone.

Then I realized something odd. Wait, was is staged? Was it all staged by Hassan, my driver? He gave such a cheap rate to go to Giza, then he made some phone calls along the way. Were these cocksuckers his friends? But he also looked scared. Or maybe he was just pretending? Were they going to rob me?

I called Nour again. Thank God this time he picked up. I told him what was going on and asked him to speak with those assholes.

I handed my phone to Skinny, although I was afraid he’d not return that to me. They spoke for less than a minute, then he gave my phone back. With such a disappointing look in their face, they got off the cab. He yelled one more time before crossing to the other side of the street. We continued the journey. I felt relieved. Nour saved my life.

I called him again to ask what happened, and his answer kinda surprised me, “They know you’re heading to the pyramids, and want you to rent their camel for your trip there.”

What the fuck?

I suddenly recalled an article from USA Today I’d read months before, that Egypt pyramid vendors grew violent. After the revolution, the tourism business dropped. They were desperate to make money; hence they became aggressive to get tourists to give them some business. I didn’t expect I’d experience that. And until now I still have no idea if Hassan was involved on that incident or not. Well, that doesn’t matter now. Most importantly, I finally made my way to the Great Pyramids of Giza, rented a horse to wander from one ancient building to another, and took that very touristy picture. I just have to be more careful next time.


 

This post is aimed to inform my readers that it’s important to know a local when visiting a non English-speaking country, especially if the country is experiencing a hard time or conflict. I always make friends with the locals through CouchSurfing.org, a website for travelers that enables me to find a place to stay for free. Well it’s not only about the free-of-charge thingy, but also about the friendships I build with them.

In Cairo, I found Nour. He confirmed my request to stay just two days prior my arrival date. He’s a very decent guy, polite, and full of knowledge. He lives in an apartment with his lovely mother. These two beautiful creatures let me stay in a big room with large bed and lots of blankets (it was winter in Egypt). Not only that, they cooked me breakfast every morning and provided me with so many useful local insights. Nour brought me to meet his friendly friends, and wrote me some street directions in Arabic alphabet so I can just show it to taxi driver or people in case I get lost. I will also remember when he surprised me with a lemon cheesecake on my birthday night. He definitely made the cold Egypt a little warmer.

Nour & his mom, street direction in Arabic he wrote me, and my birthday cake

Nour & his mom, street direction in Arabic he wrote me, and my birthday cake

How to Act Like a Local in Prague

Nürnberg that afternoon was pretty chilly; I could even feel the 2°C air in my bones. My bus to Prague came late about an hour, so I took a walk to a nearby Christmas market and bought a Nutella waffle to warm up my body. When the bus finally arrived, I picked one of the empty seats. Someone next to me was chewing an M&Ms while resting her head to the foggy window glass. I was too tired to say hi. I didn’t remember anything until when I woke up in Rozvadov, a village in the border of Germany and Czech Republic.

We stopped there for a toilet break at a gas station. That girl started the conversation when we were waiting for the occupied toilet. I told her about my three-week Eurotrip, hitchhiking, CouchSurfing, and my three-day visit to Prague. We had a great chat until when the bus was back on the road. She later asked, “Which part of Prague you plan to visit?”

“Some touristic places I learned from Lonely Planet,” I answered.

“Are you interested to go underground?” she replied.

What came to my mind when hearing “underground” was either metro, pipelines, moles, worms, or rats. Or if I had to be a little bit more positive, it was either underground culture, music, or parties. She could read my confusion.

“As a real Praguer, I won’t let you spend the whole three days visiting those boring places. Well you can do it, but only for one day. You must spend the other two days with me, forget about crowds of tourists in our touristic bubbles. I’ll bring you to reveal what is under the fake touristic façade, introduce you to the real Prague underground. Agree?”

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The mainstream Národní Muzeum, Church of Our Lady before Tÿn, John Lennon Wall, and Charles Bridge

I had to agree because it was actually part of our deal. My mission in Prague was to have a Christmas dinner in a local family’s house, but no one from CouchSurfing approved my request. I previously told her about that, and surprisingly she invited me to her parents’ house for the dinner I had been craving for. I was freakin’ happy! But that invitation came under one condition: I had to go with her to stay away from Prague’s tourist classic, learn local insights from the expert, and act like a real Praguer. Actually it didn’t really sound like a “condition” to me. It was more like a bonus complimenting the Christmas eve’s dinner (click it if you speak Indonesian and want to know about the dinner story).

The morning after the dinner, she brought me to several interesting spots I didn’t know before, such as Cross Club (an industrial and weird-looking underground club with all-metal design), Kavárna Muzeum to eat 14 (yes, fourteen) delicious variations of the legend Czech bread, and Dlouhá street that has a stretch of bars and pubs.

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The hip Cross Club, my most favorite Czech bread at Kavárna Muzeum, and Dlouhá street

The most memorable local insights I learned from our trip are listed below:

  • Beer, beer, beer!!! Czech Republic is famous for its delicious brews of heavenly beer, and they’re proud of it. They have the best beer (according to them), and it’s cheap. Cheaper than water! They have the highest beer consumption in the world: more than 156 liters of beer per capita each year, and that includes old people, newborns, and dogs! But don’t call them drunkards, they prefer “beer expert”.
  • She couldn’t turn me to be a beer expert (naturally I’m not a beer person), but I became more expert in saying some beer-related vocabularies in Czech: hospoda = pub, pivo = beer, dám si pivo = I want beer, ještē jedno = one more beer, panák = shot, and na zdraví = cheers!
  • Not only beer, they’re also mad about beer foam! A restaurant named Lokál believes that a properly poured Pilsner always comes with a verryyy thick layer of foam on the top to keep the flavor of the beer fresh. And guess what, the costumers can even ask for a glass of beer foam! It’s called mlíko (milk in Czech language), because it looks like a glass of milk.
It's not beer, it's not milk. It's mlíko!

It’s not beer, it’s not milk. It’s mlíko!

  • In some modern pubs, the waiters will give you four glass mats. Wave the green one to order one more beer, blue one to get a menu, yellow one for a round for everybody, and red one to pay the bill. What an interesting way to communicate! No more waiting and shouting like crazy.
  • Sad news: it’s forbidden to drink alcohol publicly here (at parks, islands, squares, streets), except in New Year’s Eve.
  • Enough about alcohol; she also gave me some transport insights. First, public transportation is always cheaper than taxi (cabbies are even considered robbers) and often faster. The tickets can be easily purchased from the yellow vending machines and newsstands, cheaper than if you buy from bus drivers. Second, the price is determined by how long you’ll to use it, not by how many transfers you’ll make. 24 Kč (1 euro) for 30 minutes, 32 Kč for 90 minutes, 110 Kč for one day, and 310 Kč for three days. And third, don’t ride historical vehicles or horse carriages, they’re all traps!
My most favorite view in Prague: the tram

My most favorite view in Prague: the tram

  • Most museums are closed on Mondays, many shops are closed on Sundays (except in the downtown). Restaurants open until 9 pm. And when you eat at a restaurant, they have a special tip-giving system. When you receive a bill, use the easy math by rounding the number up and tell the waiter how much he should keep, at least 6 Kč. For example when the bill is 143 Kč you can say, “150 Kč is okay.” But when it’s e.g. 148 Kč you should leave 160 Kč.
  • Please, don’t call them “post-communist country” or even “Eastern-European country”. They prefer “Central Europe” that also includes Slovakia and maaaybe Poland.
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Some local tips can be found on this booklet; grab it free anywhere in Prague!

Those insights were very useful for me, and will always be, especially if I revisit Czech Republic one day. I believe it’s useful for you too, because there’s no better way than enjoying a city like its locals. I’m glad she and I met in the bus that day. Oh, her name’s Andrea by the way. We remain friends until now.