Thursday, April 22, 2010
We arrived at the Ko Samui airport so early for our flight we were able to catch the 7:45 flight rather than 9:15 flight. The airport in Ko Samui is like an outdoor shopping area in Hawaii. The gates, seating, shopping, etc are not enclosed. It was a great sendoff to island life.
Once we arrived in Bangkok we tried to figure out how to get to the hotel. The light rail wasn't operational yet, although everything is in place, bus was to risky, and cabs were almost $40 USD including a 25% discount. Billy thought this was ridiculous so we walked outside hoping for a cheap miracle. A cab driver approached us and said he would do it for $15 USD and we said SOLD!
It was a nice drive into the city since it was our first experience in six weeks on an interstate. Billy splurged and booked two nights at a 3.5 star hotel near the light rail. It was an immaculate hotel with an upscale room, at least compared to some previous digs. Once we dropped off our bags we checked email and did a little research on sights to see in the city. Although our book was good we needed to know what markets to check out, hours of palaces, etc. We also checked with the front desk about the protests and how best to avoid them.
Our first stop was a market to see what new "stuff" Bangkok had that the other cities didn't. The best market was the weekend market but seeing that it was a Tuesday the hotel directed us to MBK. It was ENORMOUS and just one block away from the Red Shirt protests. The shopping center only half a block down was closed entirely due to the protests so we felt fortunate to have a place to escape the heat, noise, and have lunch. The market was more like a shopping mall so it didn't offer us what we were looking for but we still enjoyed the walk inside a Thai shopping center.
After eating lunch we had a snack at Mister Doughnut just so we could experience SushiDo which are doughnuts shaped like sushi. They didn't taste any different but a cool way to present the food.
After MBK we walked to the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American born architect who fell in love with Thailand and relocated six traditional homes to Bangkok to preserve the architecture. The respect for early builders and their craft was evident throughout the property. He also revived the fledgling silk trade in Thailand by taking samples to Europe and selling the fabric to fashion houses in Europe. After Jim's mysterious disappearance in 1967 his home was opened to the public for tours.
That evening we had dinner and walked to Patpong Night Market. Due to the protests the market wasn't talking place but the area was filled with soldiers, trucks, protesters, and people selling X-Rated shows. It was an interesting mix and an adventure to walk through.
After our fun filled day we took the metro back to the hotel and crashed. Our goal for the next day was to start early and go hard all day.
One lesson we learned while talking to the hotel manager is that cab drivers are required by the Tourism Authority to use the meter, rather than quote a price. Problem is that most don't want to use the meter since it is less money and the money is reported to the cab authority. This knowledge would come in handy the next day.
We woke early to the alarm, ate breakfast, and were out the door early to get to the palace when it opened. The palace is outside the boundary of the metro so we tried to take a cab but nobody would use the meter. We got into 3 or 4 cabs and requested the meter be turned on only to have the drivers say no. We settled on a tuk-tuk driver but soon realized we were taking our life into our own hands. The streets of Bangkok are geared towards cars. There are a few motorcycles and tuk-tuks but most people move by taxi or public transportation. The tuk-tuk was weaving in and out of traffic at 40 mph and Billy and I both were nervous the entire trip. In other cities and countries the traffic and people move slower but Bangkok is like NYC, everyone is a hurry to get somewhere.
The Grand Palace was our first stop of the morning. Palace dress requires you wear modest clothing including pants for men and women or skirts and dresses and no sleeveless shirts. Billy wore shorts, knowing he could rent pants, and I wore capri pants. Unfortunately capri pants aren't ankle length so I had to rent a skirt for the day. We also hired a guide to get a bitter knowledge of the surroundings and history and she was a hoot.
Our guide's name was Lek and she was about 6" shorter than me and full of spunk. She kept calling Billy "photo man" and insisted he take or not take certain photos. Lek also kept to a strict schedule of 45 minutes at the Palacea and Emerald Buddha. When we weren't back in the 2 or 3 minutes she gave us she would come find us and make us hurry up. We couldn't help but laugh at her and vice versa. If we were to go back to the palace we would have brought a sun umbrella to shade the harsh Bangkok sun.
We toured the Emerald Buddha, Upper Terrace, and other subsidiary buildings on the grounds. The grounds cover 218,000 square meters with walls on four sides. It is still an active Palace but the current King is 82 years old and in poor health so he son will assume the throne once he dies.
After the palace we walked around the outside wall, had a snack at the market, and headed in the direction of What Pho. What Pho houses a lying Buddha which is 46 meters long. This Wat was also recently restored so the colors of the roof tiles, Buddhas, and walls were so vibrant. Even the gold shined so bright it was hard to take photos. Unfortunately our camera battery went out and we had forgotten the backup so we didn't get as many photos as we would have liked.
We risked another ride on the tuk-tuk and rode past Democracy Monument, another street market, and were dropped off at MBK mall. the MBK mall is at the intersection of two metro lines so it was a great central location to get to the other sights. Billy and I walked among the Red Shirt protesters towards our hotel and lunch.
The protesters were all peaceful and we never felt in danger or uncomfortable unless we were out at night. They had their own city set up in the streets with food, clothing, toilets, water, bedding, etc. They seemed to be in it for the long haul and not afraid to back down.
After a late lunch we returned to the hotel to pack our suitcase and arrange travel to the airport. We wanted to get a better picture of how large Bangkok is so Billy and I headed out to the 84th floor of a building in the heart of the city. The hotel manager recommended it and arranged a taxi to take us there quickly since we didn't have much time left before our flight departed. Unfortunately gridlock was worse than anticipated and after sitting for 45 minutes we paid the driver and took off on foot. We rode the metro and walked the remaining 30 minutes on foot until we reached the tower. The views were incredible and lights went on forever. It would have been an incredible sight during the day.
We spent about 45 minutes at the tower having a drink and saying goodbye to our wonderful journey. Billy and I tried to take a taxi back to the hotel but the few cabs we tried refused the meter and when Billy tried to get his meter number but the cab driver pushed him out in anger. Instead we hoofed it back to the metro and made it in time to take a quick shower and catch our taxi to the airport.
The airport was bustling with tourists heading to Europe since it was the first full day of flights after the ban on flights had lifted. Thankfully check-in was quick since we were San Francisco bound but passport check was horrendous. As usual we choose the worst line and after 15 minutes of not moving I switched lines and we were through within another 20. We ate a quick snack and boarded our plane for Seoul.
Not sure how but my name ended up on a watch list so I was subject to further screenings at the gate of my bag and body. Another lesson learned is that when the ticket says it is boarding by 12:10 it means all people need to be on the flight by 12:10. We were some of the last people to the place since we figured we had time based on the ticket.
Next stop was Seoul, Korea for an eight hour layover and then a 10 hour flight to San Francisco.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Billy chose Chaweng Beach, the most popular. After having stayed on Patong Beach in Phuket we were skeptical about whether we could have an enjoyable experience at the biggest spot. Billy's perception of the most popular beaches was his experience in the states of going to places like Miami or the Keys but in Thailand you don't want the most popular because it ends up being a congested mess. Our beach was 7km long so you see the same thing over and over on the streets, street food doesn't exist, and it wasn't restful. We still made the most of it and would gladly go back to Ko Samui, just to another beach.
Our bus experience from Ao Nang to Ko Samui was quite the experience. Our typical travel included a short mini bus, transfer to a large coach, and then journey in a coach. This route felt like we were fugitives hiding from the law. We were picked up in a small mini bus where we traveled for 30 minutes. Then we got off and stayed at a road side stand for 15 minutes. We were then put on another mini bus for a 2 hour trip. Billy was stuck in the front with the driver and I was in the way back with the luggage because I was small. At around noon we stopped for an hour at another transfer station. There we had lunch of chips and crackers and Billy tried to teach me Texas Hold'um.
After transferring to a third bus we spent another hour and a half driving to the port. At the port we waited for a short 15 minutes before boarding the ferry to Ko Samui. It was another journey of memories and adventures.
Once in Ko Samui we set up our snorkeling trip for the following day and searched for street food. As we learned there isn't much street food unless you walk away from town but the walk would have taken at least 30 minutes from our hotel so we settled on a Lonely Planet suggestion of Ninja Crepes. It had reasonably affordable dishes of about $65 Baht or $2 USD per meal but left much to be desired.
We walked back along the main tourist road and stopped for a beer at Monkey Bar and enjoyed the live DJ and people watched.
We woke up early for our day of snorkeling in search of breakfast. Ko Samui is not a morning city and wakes up at about 10 am. We were able to find a street vendor serving hangover food in front of the 7-11 so we ordered two Pad Thai's to go.
Our snorkeling adventure was a well organized group and well worth the money spent. We took a high speed catamaran to Ko Nangyuan where we were transferred to a smaller boat that took us to Mango Beach on Ko Tao. It wasn't really a beach but a blue cove with water about 20-60 feet deep. We climbed off the boat and into the water for an hour and a half of fun. I was less than excited after having bad experiences in the past but once I was in I tried to relax and enjoy the experience. Unfortunately I had a dud of a mask rental so every couple of minutes it filled with water and I had to flip over like a seal and dump it. We tried everything to get it to stop but nothing seemed to work. I also had to remove my mouth piece so the snorkel would fit snugly, I only hoped nobody would spot me without it.
For lunch we returned to Ko Nangyuan and had two and a half hours to snorkel off the beach in two separate coves and hike to the summit.
After returning to Ko Samui in late afternoon we showered and headed out for dinner. We went to a Lebanese restaurant we found the night before and ate wonderful shawarma sandwiches and falafel. After our dinner we walked back on the beach.
Our last day in Ko Samui we just laid low. We had great plans for the day to go to other beaches, rent wave runners, and take in the beach but two things came in our way. One, Billy was a sucker and got us ropped into a time share presentation for over three hours (we didn't sign up). I think his smile and personality scream gullible because he attracts everyone wanting to sell stuff or make a deal. We ended up not getting out of this until 3pm so touring beaches and renting a wave runner was out of the question. One thing we did get out of the presentation was a recommindation for a great restaurant about 10 minutes away. The second thing that got in our way were cab fees. We wanted to go 10 minutes to the restaurant and they wanted 10 USD. We tried to negotiate and they wouldn't and even the tuk-tuk drivers wouldn't budge. After trying for almost an hour we gave up and had a Thai massage.
This was my favorite of the two since they really stretched my body and she used her weight to help manipulte my muscles. She was a tiny human foam roller. After our massages we stopped for dinner and had a drink and people watched.
What a wonderful adventure it was and we only hope to return some day to enjoy the other parts of the island. One thing that is hard is do you pick whether you should be in town or at a far away resort.
We arrived in Ao Nang after taking the bus from Phuket and settled into our hotel about 5 minutes from the beach. Railay is known for its rock climbing, caves, and amazing and quiet beaches. After checking into the hotel we set off to book our rock climbing trip and bus/boat ticket to Ko Samui. We were only staying two nights which didn't leave much time to waste.
Our first day we walked to the travel agency next door to the hotel to inquire about rock climbing. Fortunately we did because starting the next day and for the following three the climbing companies were closed because of a rock and fire festival. We found out there was a half-day for that afternoon so we quickly paid and were left with 30 minutes to find lunch and return to our hotel for pickup.
One thing Ao Nang didn't have much of was street food, at least during the day. With only 20 minutes left we had to settle on Subway sandwiches. We wanted to avoid fast food but sometimes it comes in handy. We had enough time to get changed and return to the lobby to be picked up in a tuk-tuk. It was a short 15 minute drive to the pier where we were greated by a boat to transfer us to Railay East.
Upon arrival you are dropped off in the ocean in about knee deep water and walk to shore. The tides in in this area change so significantly that piers are hard to build. We were fitted with rock climbing shoes, harness, and chalk bag immediately after arrival and took off to the rocks.
It was a small group made up of beginners like us, advanced climbers traveling through, and those in between. We had one other person in a group which left not much down time so we were on the wall most of the afternoon. It was a great afternoon and I think both of us found a new hobby we enjoy. There were even monkeys climbing next to us. After climbing we shared a nice crepe with our fellow groupie and took the return boat to Ao Nang.
We slept in this morning and just hung out in town. We had wonderful breakfast crepes for $3 and are sold on our new treat. Billy and I had our first Thai massages on the beach and it was wonderful. Thai massage is fully clothed and a bit like doing yoga, chiropractic work, and pilates. After the massages we chartered a boat to an island known for it low tide exploring. There were lots of people exploring the island and collecting coral and shells (we can't remember the name). After our trip there went to Railay West where sunsets are rumored to be orgasmic. There are limestone cliffs on either side and the sun sets right in the middle but we picked a not so great day. There was a large rain cloud overhead and the sun never came out from behind. We stayed for almost an hour and a half but nothing changed. Although the colors were pretty it wasn't as great as we had hoped.
Upon leaving the seas were really rough so we had to land farther down the beach in total darkness and feel our way to the shore. It was a 20 minute walk back to our hotel with a short stop for dinner on the street.
After we arrived at our hotel the rain clouds opened up and we watched the showers from our balcony. It was a beautiful storm with lightening, rain, wind, and plenty of heat.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Monday, April 12, 2010
We landed in Chiang Mai and were greeted by a wonderful female taxi driver. This is the first time we have had a woman. I am not sure if other countries don't allow women or it isn't the type of job they would hold. Her English was wonderful and she gave us a short history on the drive to our hotel and told us what pitfalls to avoid with the New Year celebration. She warned us that our hotel was a hot spot for water throwing and fun and she wasn't wrong. Later in the post you will see what I mean.
We decided to see the Saturday Night Bazaar since we didn't have much time that evening once we checked in. It was a wonderful hodge podge of souvenirs, food, foot massages, and people. The Saturday Bazaar was written to have lots of silver shops but once I took a look I was quite disappointed. I like statement pieces and most of their things were plain and simple. Luang Prabang had much better silver and I was a little bummed for not having bought a few pieces there. We ate a hodge podge of food that night from vendors. Billy and I shared corn-on-the-cob, raisin waffle, pad thai, and ice cream. It wasn't a bad meal for our first night in town.
We did do one thing very American. When walking the bazaar we found we were fighting crowds the whole time. It took us until half-way through to realized that we were walking the way we drive and here in Thailand they drive on the opposite side of the road. We quickly walked with the flow of people, which meant we went back the same row we walked, but learned for the second night how best to move with the people.
Billy and I took a cooking class at Baan Thai cooking school and had a blast. They picked us up at the hotel and we spent from 9:30-3:30 learning about food at the market and preparing six dishes. We made sure we didn't choose the same ones in hopes that we could take something back. One thing I was surprised with was how few spices they use. Most of their flavor comes from ingredients like lemongrass, Thai ginger, and kaffir lime. Each category, such as curry or appetizers, had three options which allowed us to break into smaller groups and get good instruction. Overall it was a fun day with lots of eating, conversation, and hopefully a few lessons learned.
That evening we went to the Sunday Bazaar which we heard from a member of the cooking class was better than the Saturday Bazaar. Both of us were amazed at how many shops there were but felt the stuff they sold was the same, just more of it. Neither of us bought anything but we treated ourselves to a 30 minute leg massage. Mine wasn't that restful since my calves were so tight but it was a great chance to sit and people watch.
Billy and I ate breakfast at the hotel and set out to find a tuk-tuk driver for the morning. We negotiated a half-day with the driver and tried to head to Bo Sang. Our main desire was to see how they make the paper umbrellas and visit their craft village but it turned into a tour of factories where drivers get kick backs for bringing tourists. We played along for a bit until we reached Bo Sang but even that was disappointing. You win some and you loose some!
After our half-day was up we negotiated with our driver to take us to the Chiang Mai Night Safari. We couldn't go at night but our travel book said they were also open during the day. There was nobody there but we arrived an hour and a half before the first bus tour. We had lunch with what they sold which was chips and ice cream. Not that nutritious but we made sure we had nuts and a fruit juice pop, at least we got two food pyramid groups. We spent our last hour of time walking Swan Lake. Around the lake they gave smaller animals like birds, chimps, hippos, etc. After the lake we set off on the Predator and Savanna Safari's. They let some of the animals roam free here so zebras and giraffes were coming up to the bus to eat out of our hands.
Overall a fun afternoon but not something I would do again.
When we got back we saw the water fights were already starting. The New Year (Songkran) is the 13th-15th but on the 12th many water fights begin. Water is only supposed to last one day but the night before is the pre-party. We asked our driver to try and take us the back entrance but he didn't. He dropped us off right in the middle of everything so before we even got to the room we were soaked. We quickly dropped off our bags and bought two big super soakers and joined the fun. We didn't get many photos since we didn't have a waterproof case for the camera but for about 3 hours we sprayed tourists and locals.
The music was blaring and everyone was dancing in the streets. All along the old city of Chiang Mai people were using moat water and city supplied hoses to fill buckets and guns. The Thai New Year is known to be the biggest water fight in the world and Chiang Mai is known as the best place. By 7 pm I was cold and the water fight was over. We changed into dry clothes and walked to the night bazaar.
One good thing we realized is that in Chiang Mai people stop partying at 7pm which still allows you to enjoy the rest of your night dry. The night bazaar was wonderful and had great shopping. We wished we had gone here instead of the Sunday bazaar but oh well. After walking for a couple of hours we had another one hour leg and back massage. This one was more relaxing and put both of us to sleep.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
We boarded another prop plane for the short flight to Luang Prabang. When we arrived in Laos the airport is just a one plane airport and you exit by stairs and walk to the one room immigration, customs, baggage claim, and visa office in one. It was smaller than College Station and about the size of Stockton's airport. Thankfully this time we had our extra passport photos on hand so we were quick to get through Visa application and retrieve our luggage.
Luange Prabang only has about 30,000 residents and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a city of wonderful Lao-French architecture, charm, and many ex-pats. It is similar to Hoi An in Vietnam for its charm and simple life. Walking the streets in the morning there aren't many sounds other than women sweeping, kids getting off to school, and homes being awoken for the day.
The only downside to our trip is that they were burning the rice fields so the sky was constantly hazy and your eyes burned from the smoke.
We left our hotel and headed to the night market about a 15 minute walk down the same street as our hotel. There were lots of local crafts and it was such a pleasant change with no constant nagging by vendors and people were genuinely happy to have your business. We purchased a few items and had dinner at the end of the night market at food alley. We had all could eat on one plate for $1.25. Most of the food choices are vegetarian and quite tasty. Lao doesn't have lots of traditional food since it takes long to prepare but what they do make is stellar. Billy also had pork on a stick for $.75. We followed dinner with shakes and walked back through the market to our hotel.
I woke up to the sound of the drum from the Wat across the street signaling the start of the "saffron circuit". The 500 + monks in town make their way through the streets at 6 am to collect food and offerings from locals. They call it the Saffron Circuit since all of the monks wear orange and yellow. It was a beautiful sight to see and unfortunately Billy missed most of it due to the effects of his Benadryl but with our room on the first floor he caught the backs of the monks passing by. Thankfully we have two more mornings to catch the monks. The city is so silent at this time of day they just pass by without words to the beat of drums and whispered prayers.
We had an okay breakfast along the river but enjoyed the view of the Mekong. We walked to the Wat Mai in order to kill time before the Palace Museum opened. Wat Mai took 70 years to build and used to be the staging ground for royal elephants during the New Year festival.
Next door was the Palace Museum. The palace was impressive with its colored and mirrored walls, artifacts both from Lao history and donations from other countries, and the fact it was used until the 1970's. There is no longer a royal family in Laos but their presence was still felt. Billy got a kick out of the car museum in the back that had a couple of Lincolns, a Citroen, and speed boat from the 1950's.
Across the palace was Mount Phousi. It was written to be a great place to watch the sunset and get views of Luang Prabang but with the smoke it didn't offer many scenic views but it did have Buddha's footprint and about 300 steps.
After the palace museum and strolling Billy was bored so he signed us up for a trip to the waterfalls. On the trip to the falls Billy lost his sunglasses as he was doused with water by a New Year reveler. Once at the waterfall we had two hours to swim in the pools, hike the levels of the falls, and enjoy the views. On our way back from the falls we saw some of the rice fields on fire and held our breath.
Half-way back we also saw two elephants which were used to work the land. The elephants were a treat as much as the kids having fun with them.
That night we had an early dinner since Billy still wasn't feeling well. He was a bit flustered at being sick for the third time on our trip.
On our last full day in Laos we went to Pak Ou Grottoes by an hour boat trip. We met a wonderful woman from Australia who we swapped advice with and chatted during our excursion. Pak Ou Grottos are cave temples where people bring Buddhas to donate and pray. The upper cave was easily explored by flashlight after walking 200 steps from the lower cave and thought to be home of guardian spirits. During Lao New Year hundreds of pilgrims visit the caves.
On the boat trip we stopped by Ban San Hae where they make moon shine whiskey. We had heard it wasn't good and neither of us enjoyed the taste but still gave it a try.
That afternoon when we returned we dropped off laundry, went to the Internet cafe, and had dinner at one of the cheap stalls at the night market. Billy had incredible fish on a stick and I had the all you can eat. We had trip to have dinner at a very good Lao restaurant we hard about that day but all their reservations that night were booked. They were only open for lunch on Monday-Friday and Friday night feasts.
The morning we left for Thailand we visited the last two Wats on our list; Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Sene. Wat Sene was across the street from our hotel so it was a quick in and out. Wat Xieng Thong was where Lao kings were crowned and royal ceremonies were held. It has rich carvings and mosaics of colored mirrored glass similar to the Palace.
Monday, April 5, 2010
The third day we left at 7:30 for the hour long tuk-tuk drive to Banteay Srey. We thought we could beat the heat but upon our arrival at 8:30 we were already covered and sweat. The drive through the countryside was a welcome change and an experience to see how more locals live. We saw lots of homes on stilts, water buffalo, monkeys, children running naked in the streets, and crops.
Banteay Srey is one of the smallest we visited but has the best carvings and color of any other we had seen. It is known as the Women's Temple because of the meaning of the name but even that has changed over the years. It was like visiting one large sculpture. One of the best parts was the exhibit which shows its history from initial discovery, pillaging of statues, and ultimate protection and preservation. We stayed for about an hour and headed back towards Angkor Tom.
Before returning to Angkor Tom we stopped by Banteay Samre. Another great temple and some good photos.
We weren't pleased with our photos from the two days earlier so we wanted a few shots of the exterior with better lighting.
Our final stop of the day was a silk factory about another 30 minutes west of Siem Reap. Since the Khmer killed most of the artists there are groups trying to teach Cambodian craftsmanship to younger generations and provide them with an income source. We saw the process of silk being made, the women weaving and dying the fabric, and bugs mating.
After returning to town we had lunch at an Indian restaurant and shopped at little at the market. As usual we took an afternoon dip in the pool, napped, and went out for an amazing dinner of street food.
This day was filled with not much but relaxation. We book airline tickets from Luang Probang to Chiang Mai, had lunch at a Mexican restaurant, walked the streets a little more and had a few beauty treatments.
While Billy was reading up on Thailand, the part he is responsible for planning, I went for a pedicure. It was less than stellar but still relaxing. After the pedicure we decided to get massages. This was Billy's first massage and he did well. In the United States I am used to a massage to relieve stress but in Cambodia the massage wasn't muscular so it worked well. We opted for scented massages and the women did lots of stroking of the muscles but no working out of kinks.
For dinner we went to Pub Street for the free Aspara dancing at Temple Bar. We followed up the evening with shakes and returned to the hotel exhausted from doing nothing all day.