Wanna bring Paddle Boards to Thailand? Choose your Airline wisely…
A Norwegian friend of mine recommended I pay a visit to Thailand. She lived in Phuket, Thailand for several years and from her stories it sounded like one of those must do places on the planet to visit and also paddle. Inexpensive, endless pristine beaches, bays, islands along with world class nightlife, culture and delicious food. All the ingredients for a an amazing trip but traveling across the globe with large paddle boards is never easy and after doing the research it came to my attention China Eastern Airlines was the only airline capable of bringing sups this large. I booked with them opting to pay the $145 per board fee as stated on the travel website and guarantee my boards get to the final stop. But nothing in life is guaranteed as I would soon discover.
After lugging the boards singlehandedly to the China Eastern counter I was met with looks of astonishment and bewilderment from the counter staff and after some scribbling of pen to paper by the ticket agent I was handed a note with the grand total of $1700 USD to bring them on. After 3 hours of back and forth arguing with supervisors and supervisors supervisors they eventually came down to $500 for two 10’10 & 11’10 sup boards in bags with paddles. It was a far cry from the initial $1700 they wanted and I couldn’t complain. Luckily I arrived at the airport nearly 5 hours beforehand otherwise the hours of negotiations would have caused me to miss my flight. With paddle boards finally loaded on the flight it was time to sit back for the 25 hour haul across the Pacific. Moral of the story is be wary of what airline websites say and always call the airline to confirm you can get your boards on and what the fee is and then still be wary.
Touchdown in Phuket Thailand and the Lady Boy Gauntlet
Traveling alone with two large paddle boards I was a little nervous on how to get them out of the airport. Luck would have it Phuket airport has metal welded dollys seemingly custom made for carrying large paddle boards so getting them out of the airport was an easy one man job. After loading the metal donkey cart it was just a short stroll to the taxi area. I wrangled up a big mini bus for the hours ride to my hotel on Kata beach one of the surfing beaches recommended by my friend on the west coast of Phuket. With the flight landing around 130am in the morning it wasn’t until 330am I finally reached the hotel. After unloading the sups and luggage in the room I made a quick walk to the 7/11 next door to get some water before turning in for the night. As I started my walk I noticed thirty or so scantily clad what looked like females all whistling and winking at me on every corner and crevice of the intersection. As I walked further and ignored the distant advances several made an approach right at me on their motor scooters offering a ride and blowing kisses amongst other gestures. I was flattered but had been warned prior that Thailand is famous for “Lady Boys”. The term is exactly what you think, Boys dressed up like women. And you have to give them credit as many of them make very attractive ladys. As the drunken tourists all head home after a few too many at the bars they stumble into a spider web of “lady boys” and for some unlucky cross eyed few not realizing they are boys. As I sat and drank my water watching the whole scene unfold I noticed the lady boy spider web catch a couple flys much to my amazement. It was quite a spectacle to witness. I slugged the rest of my water and made a mad dash back to the hotel bobbing and weaving through the lady boy gauntlet. Definitely an interesting first experience in Thailand.
Paddling the Beaches of Phuket & Nai Harn with the 2014 Gliders
I brought along some of the new unreleased 2014 models of the Isle Glider Paddle Boards which turned out to be an excellent choice for for the trip. Expect to see these for sale some time early summer 2014. They work amazing in small waves under 3ft giving you the ability to cruise and catch just about anything but are wide and long enough for those long distance paddles beyond the surf where the extra volume comes in handy or I need to strap a dry bag on the board that holds my camera gear. I also mounted the sups with the Ecorox waterproof speaker and was pumping jams the whole time. I was incredibly impressed with this little Bluetooth waterproof boom box and its easy suction mounted attachment mechanism.
After finally getting the boards unpacked and prepped I made the 100 yard walk across the street to Kata Beach. Kata is located on the southwest coast of Phuket Island and open to more swell than most of the other beaches. I really didn’t think I would be getting any waves at all in Thailand being its so protected by the island of Sumatra to the southwest and Andaman chain to the northwest. I was pleasantly surprised to find 2-3 ft. glassy peelers perfect for paddling without a paddler in sight. The beach was covered in hundreds of Russian tourists wading in the glassy water so navigating the swimmers was always a chore when riding the small waves. The beach is located in a large bay with a small uninhabited island covered in palms out the back. With great little waves, the sun beaming down in the mid-eighties, and water feeling about the same it was a welcome sight after so many hours of flying. After a few hours of riding waves I made the mile or so paddle out to the deserted island just offshore and then to the surrounding bays. The bays are covered in these huge round granite rock formations along the shoreline protruding out of the palms. With so many people at the beach and in the water it was hard to believe not one person was on a paddle board as conditions don’t really get much better for paddling.
After sucking down a few coconuts it was time to head to the southern tip of the island called Nai Harn beach with rumors of it too having fun surf. With the small groundswell running and its ability to pick up swell greater than Kata I jumped in a taxi and headed south for the afternoon session. The Taxis are little tiny open air mini cars with a roof. Luck would have it the paddle boards just barley fit hanging out the back about 4 feet and drew quite the attention of other cars and people on the street. Nai Harn like Kata is also a small bay with outside islands with a small river running out into the lineup. Just adjacent to the beach are massive golden Buddhist temples and all kinds of street vendors selling delicious food. Thailand is famous for its barbeque and it did not disappoint. Succulent chicken, fish, beef, vegetable skewers with fresh homemade spicy sauce right off the barbie for just a few bucks. After taking in the sites and scarfing down as many skewers as would fit in the stomach it was time to catch some fun waves a Nai Harn. It too was offering up small beach break peaks even punchy enough for a short board. I couldn’t believe my eyes in what I thought would be a completely flat and swell deprived area of coast could have so much fun surf. After catching little waves till my arms could paddle no more and soaking up the amazing sunset it was time to head back to the hotel and rest up for the evening.
A Full Moon Rising and Loy Krathong Festival
After a quick nap from paddling all day in the hot tropical sun it was time to step out and check out the local town. Coincidentally my arrival had been just in time to catch the Loy Krathong festival that happens only once a year during the full moon. As I walked outside my hotel around 10pm in the evening I noticed the sky littered with hundreds if not thousands of glowing lights floating up to the heavens. As I approached the water I noticed the lights not only in the sky but also floating across the water. The lights in the sky are large white paper lanterns with burning flames at the base and the lights floating on the ocean are garden bouquets with lit candles and incense. The idea is you purchase these from the masses of venders lining the street and beach , light them and send them off into the sky or ocean. If they float or blow away from you it’s said you will have good fortune in the coming year. If they don’t well then your luck in the coming year may have run out. Fortunately the winds this season are offshore so they carry all the lanterns and “krathongs” or floating bouquets out to sea and good fortune is had by all under the light of the rising full moon. It’s quite a spectacle to see the sky and ocean littered with these things and it’s been said fisherman have spotted the krathongs candles still burning out to sea hundreds of miles offshore. After watching my lanterns and krathongs drift away it was time to turn down and await my friend’s arrival the following day. Earlier that afternoon I had met another surfer from Australia who mentioned better waves up north and the promise of another swell arriving in a couple days. He told me of the amazing beauty and wave potential up north and I opted to take his word for it and explore something new. It was several hours drive and already having to pick up my friend at the airport in that direction I decided to make the journey.
Jesse Arrives & the Journey North towards Khoa Lak
After traveling alone for the last 4 days it was great to have a friend show up eager to paddle. Lucky for him I had an extra paddle board for his arrival and after a red eye pickup at Phuket airport we made our way north along the west coast to Khoa Lak area near the border of Myanmar. We checked into to a 4 star resort for less than a hundred dollars a night US and awoke in palatial accommodations to the arrival of a new swell and gorgeous day. We packed up our paddle boards and gear and made our way to one of the nearby point breaks our Aussie friend had told us about. With deep aqua water and palmed lined beaches we made the several mile paddle out to the point and were greeted with small 100 yard long peeling lefts over a reef. A true paddle boarders paradise and with no one in sight surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches and scenery I have ever witnessed in my life. Khoa lak is surrounded by 2 national parks and has endless beaches, reefs and headlands for paddling and if the swell is large enough even surfing and you have the ocean all to yourself. Khoa Lak does get its fair share of tourists looking to escape the madness of Phuket and there are many resorts but no one is really there to surf or paddle. The beaches are lines with one amazing resort after another and I couldn’t help but notice that every resort and structure seemed in pristine condition as if it had just been built. After asking around I heard Khoa Lak had been hardest hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the bays and beaches we had been paddling took the full force of a nearly 30-40ft high wave wiping the coastal areas of Khoa Lak literally off the map and killing thousands of people in the area. Thailand has a royal family and the Thai Prince was out jet skiing with his friends that day just offshore and had a large 75ft military escort police boat watching over him. When the Tsunami hit the Prince was lost along with his friends and the police boat was sent hurdling over 2km inland up a hill. The boat was left were it lied after the Tsunami retreated and now stands as a memorial park in remembrance of the Tsunami victims and loss of the prince. We visited the site and to see this massive boat and stand under it looking towards the coast nearly 2km away down a hill you get an idea of the incredible power of the tsunami wave that day. It’s hard to fathom and makes you respect the forces of nature and also the will of the Thai people to rebuild such a beautiful place and persevere in the face of one of the largest natural disasters in our lifetime. After several days exploring the coast on our paddle boards we discovered point after point of small peeling waves and didn’t want to leave as the swell stuck around but with a birthday approaching from my newly arrived friend we thought it best to head back to Phuket to explore the tiger park and see what the fuss was all about for this crazy nightlife everyone had been talking about.
Playing with Tigers in one of the World’s Only Tiger Parks
After seeing a few billboards along the highway of tourists rolling around with full size tigers we just couldn’t resist checking it out. Could you really just hang out with a tiger and not get bit? Even a tame tiger still has bite but for a little less than $50 USD you could jump in a cage with a full size tiger, pet its back and snap a few photos for the Facebook. I wasn’t all that excited but figured what are the odds of getting bit and for the pic of a lifetime why not, right? After forking over the cash we waltzed into the cage with one of the fiercest predators in the world. Its funny the tiger park staff greet you with “Come on in! Its Dinner Time” as you walk into the enclosed cage with several full grown tigers and only a few trainers with wooden clubs. The first thing you notice is the tigers really pay no attention to any of the humans in the cages and are really just concerned with the other tigers in the vicinity or opposing cages. Constantly sneering, hissing and growling at each other. You are instructed to not square off with them, look them in the eye or pet their heads and you better believe I listened. Grabbing them by the tail was actually considered ok. Every once in a while the tigers would their focus away from the other tigers and look very annoyed by your presence and start to growl and make eye contact with you and the trainer would immediately step in and subdue them forcing the tigers head away in the other direction. The tigers all look extremely healthy and well taken care off and there are some rumors flying around they may be slightly sedated and this is why there has never been a reported attack. They seemed awfully feisty to me and definitely not sedated but you never know as you would think it’s practically impossible for humans to get this close and personal with large tigers on a daily basis and not get bit. Unfortunately upon searching the web the first recorded tiger attack happened just a month before we arrived when a tiger in a playful manner lunged back at a 19 year old tourist female and took ahold of her leg. The trainers pulled the tiger off and it left the girl with a maimed leg and one horrifying memory. They say he was just being playful but if you play with full grown tigers sooner or later I guess someone is going to get bit. We managed to make it out alive and with the birthday evening fast approaching we decided to check out the nightlife of the infamous Bangla road of Patong beach Phuket.
The Raucous Nightlife of Patong Beach Bangla Road
Patong beach located in Phuket is grand central station for rage in southern Thailand. The beach has a busy street aligned with every kind of bar, disco, nightclub, go-go bar and just about anything you can imagine all stacked on top of one another with lasers, lady boys, lights, wires, head pounding base, street vendors and thousands of tourists and locals looking for a night of debauchery and or people watching. Being it was my mate’s birthday we decided to go big and boy oh boy was it crazy out there in funky Phuket town.
One of the most popular bars on the strip is the world famous Tiger Bar. It’s a 3 story football field size bar with gigantic growling tiger statues all over jumping out at you from every direction. The first floor is what they call a Go Go Bar and is about 25 individual square bars in rows across one giant open air bar. Each individual bar has around 8 LED glowing stripper poles each with a dancer around its perimeter so multiply that by 25 bars and that’s a whole lotta girls dancing on a whole lotta poles. Each bar is themed with a different name and vibe and attire for the dancers and it’s a quite a sight to witness. Everyone and anyone starts the night out there sucking down drinks and taking in the sites of hundreds of dancers shaking and moving to the thumping bass. After a few too many at the Tiger bar we made our way down the line to an electronic disco called Seduction. The place was wall to wall packed with Dj’s spinning the best in electronic and dance music and just coincidentally Will I Am happened to be in town for the evening gracing the decks for a mix and dropping one of his new songs. The clubs really are just getting started around 3am and the party goes and goes until the last man, woman or lady boy standing folds. The birthday night turned hazy around 4am and no doubt Bangla Road of Patong beach was everything it was cracked up to be and more for the dusty rage warrior.
So long Thailand
Unfortunately after the big night out and only a day left a rain settled in over Phuket Island and never let up. Our plan was to visit by speedboat one of the world famous islands just offshore to do some paddling but it was not too be under the gloomy, windy and rainy conditions. We opted for one last paddle at Nai Harn beach to wash away the hangover before the long haul home. It was sad to leave so much unexplored but we vowed to be back and enjoy everything this amazing country had to offer. We had only just scratched the surface of its beaches and beauty. “Kob Khun Krap” (Thank You) Thailand – We already miss you and will be back soon!
About the Author - Marc Miller is the founding partner of Isle Surf & SUP an online retailer of paddle boards & surfboards. He has been involved in board manufacturing, product development and website management for Isle since its inception in 2004. He also writes the Isle Surf & SUP Blog. An avid surfer and paddler for the past 2 decades when hes not in the office he can be found on foreign shores searching for waves and fun.