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Monthly Archives: February 2013

While touring Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว, Temple of Emerald Buddha, see earlier post here) in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, we came across a series of murals on the walls of the surrounding cloisters.

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The murals depict the legend of Ramakian or Ramakien, a big part of the Thai mythology.  The Ramakian is a Thai adaptation of a popular Indian tale, Ramayana written by Valmiki in the fifth century B.C. Much of what we say below comes from this very scholarly website maintained by Northern Illinois University.

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Apparently, there were 178 murals painted in the late 1700’s by King Rama I’s men and they have been repainted regularly up to now.

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The Grand Palace appears in many of the murals, including the white perimeter wall.

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Basically, the Ramakian is a story of a demon king, Tosakanth (Ravanna in the Indian version), who abducts Rama’s wife Sita. Rama is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama gathers the support of a monkey army, led by Hanuman,  in order to rescue Sita.

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Thailand was not the only country to which the epic appeared; many countries in Southeast Asia, e.g., Malaysia, Indonesia, adopted the tale. The Thai version appears to be a combination of several versions.

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The demon king Tosakanth does not appear totally bad in the Thai version. His emotions towards Sita are genuine even if they cause him to do bad things.

Paklan the giant (I think).

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The Thais have changed the story to suit their taste. Since they are Buddhists, they have stripped the story of its Hindu religious elements. The closest it comes to having religious significance lies in the fact that Rama is viewed as Buddha in a previous life.

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There are many characters, superheros and monsters. This giant monkey(?) allow others to use its tail as a bridge to cross a river.

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A massive curtain emerges from the mouth of this character to cover or protect the palace.

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Every country has at least one such epic, saga or legend, which permeates its popular culture.  This might be applicable even for the modern US. Many of those who grew up with Star Wars would consider it a story which is shared and enjoyed by many, and the story is told in different media, though I do not see murals of Darth Vader being installed in the White House anytime soon.

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Gold paint is used liberally to highlight certain groups of individuals and many of the buildings. In the darkened gallery, it creates a pleasing effect on the murals.

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On each pillar of the gallery is hung a poem which presumably describe one of the neighboring  murals. Some of the poems are translated into English on this webpage.

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Many puppet shows and dances (especially, Khon) in Thailand and in Southeast Asia are based on episodes from this tale. I found this Khon on youtube – I think it shows the recruitment of the most important monkey, Hanuman.

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A must-do sightseeing spot in Bangkok – the Grand Palace.

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Built in 1782 at the same time Bangkok was made the capital of Siam by King Rama I.

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Although the King does not live here anymore, armed guards patrol the grounds. This garrison is located next to the entrance where people that are inappropriately dressed are stopped and asked to turn around or rent some conservative outfits. See the sign illustrating unacceptable clothing in an earlier post here.

grand palace-2There are several hundreds similar-looking buildings – so I will not do much annotation of the pictures. Much has been written up in Wikipedia here.

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Many of the buildings have skyward pointing spires. When they are lined up in a row, they look somewhat like hi-tech antennae.

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They are all incredibly ornate, all laden with history and religious significance.

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There are many gold statutes here and I cannot help but conclude that they inspired the creation of C3PO of Star Wars – and it is not just the gold body but also some hand gestures as well.

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A close up of the little supporters.

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A mini-replica of Angkor Wat in Cambodia which was for a number of years under Siamese control.

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว)) is the royal chapel inside the palace. Entrance to the chapel’s grounds is separate from the residential complex. It has even more ornate buildings than the residential palace.

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The emerald buddha is 26 inches tall carved from a single piece of jade with a rich history dating back to the 15th century. The King changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter, and rainy seasons, an important ritual performed to usher good fortune to the country during each season.

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While we were in Ko Samui, we went to see a traditional Thai sport – Muay Thai. Sue was not keen but came along reluctantly. The event was held at Chaweng beach which is the main commercial area on the island.
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We were picked up at the hotel and were the first to arrive at the Chaweng stadium, a small venue that also stages concerts and DJ appearances. Seb Fontaine (a DJ who made a few popular remix back in early 2000) was to play there some time later in January.
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We were seated at one of the reserved tables at the front row. I was trying to remember a movie (possibly a James Bond movie from the 70’s – yes, just looked it up, it is “The Man with the Golden Gun”) that depicts Muay Thai as a deadly blood sport. The villain/henchman and our hero would meet at such a venue and either one or both of them would each have a female companion who salivates at the violence. In the background is a raucous crowd shouting and leaning into the ring with a handful of bills.
That night, the crowd was less energetic, smoking was not allowed but sitting along the front row not far from us was a blond young woman who was  snapping pictures with great enthusiasm (outdoing me) while the boyfriend looked on.
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Before the match starts, the fighters walk around the ring and perform a series of solemn ceremonies, such as praying, bowing, etc.
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The sport is extremely popular in Thailand, like football. Gambling is legal and we saw crowds watching it on a giant LED screen in a street of Bangkok, cheering for their fighters when they entered.
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It is a full contact fight – a regulated form of kickboxing. The rules are complicated and allow attacks made with 8 parts of the body (fists, elbows, knees, feet, left and right sides). Head butt is not allowed.
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There were a total of seven matches, the first and the last were matches between junior trainers. They look shockingly young and we could not help but think that they were fighting because of the money.
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Each match has 5 rounds and each round lasting 3 minutes. This was the main fight of the evening.
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This is a video of one of the late rounds when the fighters were visibly tired. Three and a half minutes long of action accompanied by traditional Thai music.
Two Hungarians were in the line up. They were probably trained in mixed martial arts. We think they were visiting a local Muay Thai camp to learn this form of  martial arts. Their friends and  families were sitting behind us and were really supportive, i.e., loud.

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The first Hungarian won by KO.
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Posters advertising the event were all over town. There was going to be another one next week. It was high tourist season after all.
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When this video was shot, I was focusing on the fight. It was the last round and both fighters were cut and bleeding. On playback, I noticed how excited the girlfriend/wife was in the blue corner. See her go at 00:12. In the end, the Thai fighter (gold pants) beat the second Hungarian (black pants) on points.
In another fight, the wife/girlfriend of one of the fighters (red shorts) brought their child to the corner. The mother brought him around to give us high fives – very cute. I will not be surprised if this child will grow up wanting to fight like his father.
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We spent the last week of our Thailand trip on Ko Samui (or Koh Samui).  The choice was between Ko Samui or Phuket.
Hansar resort on Bophut beach (lying on the northern shore of the island) was our home for the week.
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The lobby area (if you can call it that) is open, a library on one side and a reception on the other.
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In the middle is a small atrium-like space dominated by a set of wooden pillars standing on top of a small stone fountain. The hotel was apparently a finalist of the 2012 best beach hotel according to Boutique Hotel Awards. Never heard of this award before.
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Surrounding the atrium is a massive wooden sculpture/structure. Its irregular block pattern (a motif repeated throughout the property) was casting all kinds of shadows and bright spots onto the lobby area.
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An unusual feature of the rooms of the hotel is the size and location of the shower.  The shower is really designed for exhibitionists as there is no privacy whatsoever, glass walls on two sides.
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 There was no door, except a stone ledge on one side where one can sit while showering.
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It cannot be any easier to take a shower.
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One evening a lizard (the kind that loses its tail when threatened) visited our room and hung onto the glass wall of the shower. It was not on our bed as this picture may suggest. If it were on our bed and scaled according to the length of the bed, it would have been 2-3 feet long!  It was actually about 6-8 inches before the tail came off.
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Another notable feature is an alcove/balcony that is designed for lounging – a daybed is built onto the balcony. For the first few days when we were nursing our cold (yes we were both sick for a couple of days), we spent quite a few hours there reading and napping.
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Views from our balcony. In the morning
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At dusk.
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Happy hour.
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A little bit later.

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Nightfall.

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H-bistro is the hotel restaurant – the chef was apparently the ex-personal chef of the king of Jordan.

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We had breakfast there daily. We  tried dinner one evening and it was indeed very good – European and Thai dishes alike.
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The beach in front of the Hansar resort is more suitable for water sports because the water was not the clearest and the beach was steep. The sand was yellow and coarse. After one of our tours of the nearby islands (see later posts), the speedboat dropped us off on the beach right in front of the hotel. We just hopped off at the nose of the boat onto the beach and did not even get our feet wet!
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Before the tourists came, coconut export was the major business of the island. We watched a tree caretaker climbed up these three coconut trees on his hands and feet without any safety equipment, up to the top and down all within five minutes.
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 The pool was nice – it had a couple of “seats” with jacuzzi jets.
Overall, a recommendable resort.

Sue loves spicy food and I like mine spicy as well as sour – we are manifestly fans of Thai food. One of the things we wanted to do in Thailand was to attend a cookery school. So we booked ourselves a full-day cooking course.

The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School claims to be the first such school to open in Chiang Mai in 1993. Although the school’s office where we were registered was in the old city, the cooking school was located almost 20 minutes from the city center. We were taken in a passenger van to a gated compound where the chef/instructor lives and teaches. The first thing we saw was the open kitchen which, from a distance, resembled a stereotypical heroine processing facility in the jungle as depicted in many movies. The infamous Golden Triangle (No.2 opium growing region in the world after Afghanistan) is not far from where we were.cooking-1

The class was taught in an air-conditioned class room with a mirror installed at an angle on the ceiling . It allowed us to see more clearly what the chef was demonstrating. Here, he was showing us how to make Penang curry chicken, starting from scratch.

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Neither one of us had been to Thailand before and never knew the authentic taste of Thai curry. When we were cooking ourselves at home, we did not know how intense should the flavors be – always wondering what is normally done in Thailand. Well, we started learning by making our own curry paste with a mortar and pestle.

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Each of the students had his/her own restaurant-strength, gas-powered wok station.

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Our first dish was Penang curry chicken – here we were frying  the curry paste with basil and kafir lime leaves, the volatile  fragrances in the spices just burst into our faces, it was rather intense causing some of us to sneeze.cooking-7

While we lived in NYC, we went to some good Thai restaurants, e.g., SriPraPhai in Woodside, Queens.

cooking-10But for some of the other Thai restaurants, e.g., Pongsri in the Theatre district, we were sometimes wandering about the authenticity. Did they cut corners on spices or adapt a dish to accommodate American taste buds (making it sweet)?

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The school is owned and run by Sompon Nabnian who taught the second half of the course. Among other main courses, we learned Spicy glass noodle salad and black sticky rice pudding.

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I.T. was displaying some knife skills here. Very finely and evenly chopped chilis.

cooking-11Sue, stir-frying the onions, chilis, and vegetables to make a sauce to go with a piece of deep-fried fish.

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Next to the open kitchen is the dining area where we all sat to eat our own freshly-cooked piping hot dish. Everything was so flavorful, there was no MSG and no salt (except some that might be present in the fish sauce).

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My Penang Curry Chicken tasted good but it was too runny. An attempt to garnish with the chili and coconut milk did not work, evidently. By the end of the day, we ate so much curries, noodle, salad and rice pudding that dinner was not necessary.

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Another school, named Baan Thai was recommended to us by our friend A.W. and it  was also recommended by our hotel concierge. Apparently, attending a cookery school is a popular touristy thing to do in Thailand.

Wikipedia describes zipline as a pulley suspended on a cable, usually made of stainless steel, mounted on an incline. It is designed to enable a user propelled by gravity to travel from the top to the bottom of the inclined cable by holding onto, or attaching to, the freely moving pulley.

We have never done a zipline before, only saw it on the Discovery channel.  So when our taxi driver was offering us a menu of activities, ranging from handicraft workshop (yawn) to visiting the long neck tribe (no thanks), flying through the jungle hanging on a wire was compelling.

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The Zipline Chiangmai site consists of 27 platforms, a total of about 2,200 meters of wires,varying in length from 20 meters to the “truly amazing” 400 meters. The route also included tree abseiling (rappelling) and walks at the canopy level.

CaptureTwo guides gave us a 15-minute tutorial about the equipment and the setup. After we tried it a couple of times on a hammock-sized line between two tree trunks, off we went into the jungle. First we had a short canopy walk over a rickety “sky” bridge, presumably designed to test our nerves or to familiarize us with the elevation.

zipline-2Then action !

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Sue was screaming due to excitement not terror. Towards the end although she is no longer visible, we knew she was stilling zipping due to the “whistling” sound from the cable.

None of us seemed afraid of the heights. We were quite happy jumping off  treetops into the air. Here’s I.T. zipping along calmly down a rather steep section.

Sue zipping through the same section which traverses the Mae Taeng river.

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One of the launch pads where we zipped off. One guide always zipped ahead first while the other guide unhooked us from the guard cable (usually tied around a tree) and hooked us up to the zipline.

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This is me (Chris) going over the 180 m between platform 21-22. As you will see, it was hard to stop myself from spinning while filming the flight and I ended up braking too early. As a result, I was slipping backwards along the wire causing the guide to be rather concerned. But it really was no big deal as I quickly pulled myself back up to the platform. Wished I had a head-mounted camera.

Truth to tell, when the jungle is so thick, one can hardly see the ground. We really did not register our distance from the bottom, except when we were zipping across the road or the river.

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We also rappelled down a couple of trees (with assistance).

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We were so psyched about the zipping part and totally forgot to enjoy the sights from the treetops.

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It was really a lot of fun. Like rollercoaster rides, it finished too soon.

Bangkok was the second stop in our recent trip to Thailand. The Erawan museum is located in Samut Prakan, about an hour by train and taxi  from central Bangkok. We went to see its renowned giant three-headed elephant statute.

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Many of the explanations below came from Wikipedia.

The Elephant of the Universe. This three-headed elephant (Airavata) was the result of the millionaire founder Khun Lek Viriyapant’s ideas and imagination. It was inspired by his wish to preserve his collection of antiques as a contribution to Thai cultural heritage. The founder died in 2000 before the museum was completed.

It is hard to appreciate the scale of this structure without being there.

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The interior of the museum (the pink rounded base under the elephant’s feet), is richly and intricately decorated. Our eyes were constantly zooming in to admire the ornamental details and zooming out to take in the spaces.

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The museum’s three separate floors symbolise the universe and are designed in accordance with the three-tiered cosmology of the Hindu-Thai Buddhist concept.

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The basement level represents the underworld.

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Except the floor, every surface is decorated to the utmost with humanoid and beastly figures as well as abstract patterns.
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Moving up to the next level is the human domain which includes a stained glass ceiling depicting a world map.

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Detailed stucco works were  installed over the sweeping staircases and arches, all decorated with whole as well as fragmented ceramic bowls and spoons.


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An example of the Bencharong ceramics that were used to decorate the stucco figures.

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There were four embossed tin pillars on which are depicted religious tales portraying the four Buddhist principles that sustain the world.

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At the top of the second level looking down at the entrance.

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A narrow spiral staircase passing through the right hind leg of the elephant leads to Tavatimsa Heaven, deep inside the elephant’s belly.

erawan-12The ceiling is painted with motifs, symbols and constellations. While this is not a temple, people came to worship.

erawan-13A very ornate table where people left their offerings (coins) and tried to keep it standing on its edge.

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There are many sculptures scattered around a small pond and around the grounds of the museum. This looks like an upright-standing elephant fighting a big snake (Naga).

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The museum also had an exhibit about the founder’s family which was quite interesting.erawan-16

Another look at the magnificent three-headed elephant.

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On the third leg of our Thailand trip, we went south to the third largest island of Thailand, Ko Samui (or Koh Samui).   Ko or Koh means island in Thai. Ko Samui is located on the “east” coast in the Gulf of Thailand. The better known island in Thailand, Phuket is on the “west” coast in the Anderman sea. While we were staying on Ko Samui, we took two speedboat trips to some of the nearby islands. We went to Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan on the first day, and the Ang Thong marine national park on the second day (see later post).

A van came to pick us up at the hotel and took us to the departure point –  it was just a short stretch of beach front and a pontoon. Our speedboat was equipped with 3 outboard motors producing a total of 750 hp.

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On our way in the Gulf, we passed the island of Ko Pha Ngan – it is famous for its full moon beach party. Notice the beach on the bottom left ?

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Our first stop was Ko Nang Yuan. The journey took about 1 hour 45 minutes from Ko Samui.

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Ko Nang Yuan is a privately owned island and it charges each visitor an entrance fee of about $7 and prohibits anyone from bringing plastic bottle onto the island.

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I think Ko Nang Yuan has the most beautiful beach I have ever set foot on. It is mesmerizing to watch the water.

The beach is essentially one idyllic sand bar connecting two small islands.

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A big clump of rocks (almost a tiny island) in the middle of the sandbar serves as the landing site.

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One side of the sand bars was just below water. Waves lap at your feet from both sides as you walk across it.There were a few bungalows by the beach.

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We suspected that it was mid to low tide at the time when we crossed over.

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A wooden walkway and concrete steps led me (Chris) up to a rock at the top where one can see all two and a half islands.

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It was so hot and humid that within minutes I was soaking wet with sweat. Wisely, Sue did not climb and stayed in the shade.

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The view from the top was worth the sweat and sunstroke.

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Loved it.

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We had lunch at Ao Mae (the main village) on Ko Tao  – about 10 minutes boat ride from Ko Nang Yuan.

Ko tao-12Leaving Ao Mae to snorkeling.

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The focus of the trip was snorkeling as Ko Tao is very well known for the clarity of its water and the coral reef. And I had never seen such a variety of fishes as well as coral and other invertebrate marine life. This is the snorkeling site near Ao Mamuang – nothing to see up here.

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For a while, I was swimming/drifting inside a school of colorful fishes. We could have rented an underwater camera but decided against it since we only had an hour at each location. So there won’t be pictures of fishes here. This place was definitely better than those locales we snorkeled in Cancun and Grand Cayman island. Ko Tao is supposedly one of the best and cheapest places to get scuba diving certification – we might return to try it on another trip.

This is the itinerary of our speedboat tour  – In Sea.