Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Krabi and Ao Nang

From Koh Tao, Kim and I headed across the narrow strip of southern P6080143Thailand to the Andaman coast.  The combination of a 6.5 hour ferry ride and 2.5 hour bus ride meant we arrived just about sunset on the first evening. 

This area’s known for beaches, gorgeous cliffs, impossibly steep mountains, and more tourists than you can count.   It lived up to all of those.  The weather here is hot – really hot.  The weather on the rest of the trip has been great – warm, but not uncomfortable.  This was the sweating-in-the-shade kind of hot. 

P6080053 Overall we were impressed with the landscape of the area.  The steep mountains and sheer cliffs combined with beautiful beaches to make unique and absolutely gorgeous views.  The only problem was that it was a bit too crowded and touristy for our liking.  We made a rough guess  that tourists outnumber locals about 1,000 to 1, and that 1 local is working at a hotel, restaurant, or tourist shop. 

The main reason we came was to do some sea kayaking along the limestone cliffs that make the area famous.  We made it onto P6080067a tour that took us along the huge limestone cliffs with caves reaching back from the water.  We squeezed through a tight canyon with huge palms hanging off of pockets in the cliffs and monkey s following us in the trees.   Our tour came out in a lengthy mangrove swamp where we paddled between the crazy tangle of roots standing above the surface of the water.   The whole thing took a couple hours and was definitely worth coming over to Krabi for. 

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Koh Tao by Kim

 

Hello! It’s Kim, guest blogging.

P6040023On Friday morning, we left Surat Thani  on the Southern end of Thailand’s Gulf coast on a coach bus bound for the port. At  the port, we caught a ferry that took us to Koh Tao via a couple other islands. The ferries were run by a company called Lomprayah; they were packed with people but  nice, fast, and air conditioned in the cabin.

We arrived in Koh Tao late Friday afternoon and much to our delight, our dive operator’s site (Crystal Dive) was right next to the port. We got lucky and got a bungalow for three nights in a nice, brand new unit just a few doors down from the dive shop. As a break from our hectic past two three days, we got dinner at an Italian restaurant and then Thai back, shoulder and neck massages. They were great for only 300 baht, but man were they brutal! Our masseuses cracked both of our necks and I thought my head might snap off.

DSC09390 Saturday morning we grabbed breakfast and signed up for the afternoon dives through Crystal.  This place is by-the-book to the extreme – they scrutinized our dive logs and certification cards and might have required a refresher course for both of us, but fortunately we were just shy of their 6 month cut-off from a last dive to require that. Whew – we’ve spent enough money on this trip!

After a quick lunch, we headed out on the boat which was full of mostly PICT0064 students either completing their open water or a more advanced certification. The dive master for our group of 3 “fun” (aka not participating in any course) divers was Richard, a young guy from England who only just obtained his open water certification last September and has logged over 200 dives since then. Having not dove since August, I felt a bit rushed by the operation as they were really quick about getting us geared up and off the boat. Both dives were great for seeing aquatic life – we saw two turtles! My ears hurt a lot on the second dive though.

For dinner, we went to a place called Safari and were surprised by how dead the town (called Mae Haad) feels at night. Where is everyone on a DSC09373 Saturday night? After heading to nearby Sairee  Beach (the more tourist/party area) for a bucket of a vodka mixer and being the only people in the bar, we reasoned that the diving community must be early to bed and early to rise.

After Sunday’s breakfast, we again signed up for the afternoon’s fun dives and were again grouped with Richard, and two other men – one from Ireland and one from California. I wisely took some cold medicine to help my ears and employed Bryan’s suggestion of continually equalizing my ears on my descent and it helped immensely. Aside from a flooding problem with my mask which caused me to surface momentarily, it was a much better dive for me and I focused on staying horizontal, not using my hands, and enjoying the underwater sights! The second dive was to a drop called Twin Peaks which had some  amazing angelfish, coral and stingrays.

DSC09344We ate dinner at Dirty Nelly’s the island’s obligatory Irish bar (again, it was completely dead) and ran into Andrew, our dive group member from Ireland.

All in all, Koh Tao was a great place to visit and is definitely THE place to go in Thailand if you want to scuba dive. Lonely Planet says it is the number one place in the world for issuing scuba certifications. It’s a shame we don’t have one more day to dive. Perhaps Krabi will offer something…

Monday, February 07, 2011

Chiang Mai

We flew into Chiang Mai, which is in the most mountainous region of the country.  The weather’s a couple degrees cooler than Bangkok, the pace of life is just a little slower, and there’s a great mountain backdrop to the city. 

Cooking Class

When we checked into our hotel, we pretty much just dropped our bags then immediately set off for our Thai cooking class.   The teacher’s DSC09232 husband picked us up in his pickup truck, which we road in the bed of.  We stopped to pick up other people from the Netherlands, Columbia, and the UK.     They wound up being a great group and made the evening alot more fun. 

Our instructor was Vannee, a short, fiesty lady with a great sense of humor.  In between instructions and tips we were treated to good-natured barbs at her husband and comments about what we were doing.  

Once again we were able to choose dishes from a menu.  I made pad Thai noodles, massaman curry, sweet and sour chicken and fried bananas; Kim made fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, green curry, and spicy flat noodles.   This time we ate each course as we prepared it.   The food was awesome and she gave us each a recipe book DSC09234 with complete recipes for everything that was on the menu.  Look for Kim and I to host a Thai/Cambodian food night soon!

By the time we finished cooking and eating it was near 11:00.  We were stuffed and tired, so we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.  

DAY 2: 

Bamboo Rafting

We got picked up at 8am to start a day of adventure in the hills outside of town.  We started off by climbing aboard bamboo rafts that were about 20 P6020021 feet long and 4 feet wide.  They were made of long bamboo poles lashed together and came with a local guy at the front with a long push stick to steer. 

We travelled down a narrow, windy river with beautiful scenery and class 1-2 rapids.  We were riding standing up, with videonothing at all to hold onto, and on bamboo poles that flexed under your feet so you rarely had stable footing.  It was great!   There were four tourists per raft and it was sort of a cross between surfing and being in a conga line.  Shifts of balance and shouts of “wooooo-Ahh-WO!” were nearly constant as the raft navigated the turns and obstacles.  It was a totally unique experience and a lot of fun!

Elephant Ride

The raft ride ended at a little suspension foot bridge.  When we walked up from the bank, a family of Elephants were waiting for us, munching onP6020044 Palm leaves.  There were two adults and a baby, who carefully picked up a hose and brought it to me in his trunk so I could give him a spray.  

Before I had the chance, though, our guide was rounding up the group.  Up from the river bank came 5 or 6 more elephants, and these were already outfitted with seats on top for riders.  To get on them, we had to climb up to the second story of a small building that was there and board from the deck.  Really surreal to be up that high to get on something… 

The ride took about 45 minutes and wound through the forest, crossing a couple of small streams and zig-zagging up and down the hills.  The elephants were allowed to roam off the path a bit, which they frequently P6020025 did to grab some leaves to chew on or just to take a different route.   Ours was pretty docile, as her baby was walking with us.  At one point she even stopped for a couple minutes so he could drink her milk.  

The ride was an awesome experience and I have a whole new respect for how smart and social elephants are. 

Waterfall Trek

Our final adventure of the day was a “jungle waterfall trek” that turned out P6020069 to be a short (1 mile?) walk down an unpaved road through the forest with a nice 30 foot waterfall at the end. 

The falls was beautiful, coming off of domed rock so that the top 3rd was a steadily increasing slope and the bottom was vertical.  I hiked up the side to find that there’s another little waterfall and pool at the top.  The whole thing might be runnable, though there’s a layer of rock running diagonally across right above the vertical part.  If you could keep from having the boat damaged as you cross that, I think it’d be a real fun ride. 

We had the option to swim in the pool, but the air temp was still fairly cool P6020086 and no one felt inspired to try it out.  Afterwards we drove 1+ hours back to town, had dinner, and called it a night.  

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Cambodia has been the biggest surprise of the trip so far!  Siem Reap, which AlleywayI had pretty low expectations for, is fantastic!  The city itself is  pretty modern, with lots of parks and open space, including nice greenway-style landscapes all along the rivers.  Prices are reasonable, US Dollars are the preferred currency, people are very friendly, and the pace of life is generally just slower than in Thailand.  What surprised me most, though, was the very large and vibrant tourist area of town.  

Pub Street:

Around the area called “Pub Street” it’s like a mashup of Bangkok, Cancun, and Paris, if that makes any sense.  It’s got tight, narrow streets and DSC09131alleyways lined with great restaurants and bars  from around the world (local Khmer places, Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants, etc).   The area also a ton of massage places and cooking schools.   With every place having sidewalk and/or balcony seating, it’s a perfect spot to sit, enjoy the beautiful weather, and have a drink.   

When we arrived, Kim and I wandered around a bit, reserved a cooking class for tomorrow, had a snack, then went and got massages.   

The massages were not your typical American style massage.   Instead of using oil and rubbing/kneading the muscles, it was a combination of stretches and pressures that wound up feeling great.  After an hour of that ($6 per person), Kim and I were feeling the best we had so far!

We topped the night off with a meal of Khmer curry and soup at the Kmher House restaurant.  The food was delicious – flavPub Streetorful, sweet, lots of fresh veggies, and just the right amount of spice.  Funny moment, though, when Kim learned to beware of carrots!   Sh e ate what she thought was a mini carrot out of the soup.  Turns out it was an extremely hot pepper.  I discovered this as I watched her face turn bright red, start sweating. and  her eyes start watering like crazy.  Turns out that little “carrot” was in there to add some flavor and spice to the soup, not to actually be eaten. 

On a last Pub Street note, “Fish Foot Massage” is everywhere.  Every block has a big tank with a padded bench around it.  The idea is that the fish DSC09123come and eat the dead skin off your feet, and that it’s supposed to feel good.   To me, it felt a combination of severely ticklish and just plain weird.  I was squirming around like a little kid through most of it.  Kim had no such problems, however, and appeared to enjoy both the “massage” and my anguish thoroughly. 

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Angkor Wat  

The ruins at Angkor Wat are a world heritage site and were what drew us to the area in the first place.  Though there is the Angkor Wat temple itself, there’s also a larger set of other temples scattered throughout the area.  DSC09036

We mistakenly (in hindsight) visited Angkor Wat and only Angkor Wat.  I say mistakenly because it was expensive ($20/day plus a supersized tuk-tuk fee), not that much more impressive than the surrounding ruins, and can be seen from the road without paying for entry.   The surrounding sites are free and offer a similar experience. 

As for Angkor Wat itself, the ruins were built in the 11th and 12th century  out of sandstone.  The upside to the soft rock is that it allowed for the absolutely beautiful relief carvings covering almost every inch of everything.  The downside is that the soft rock doesn’t hold up well over time, so the ruins are in somewhat rough shape.  There are numerous UNESCO restoration projects on various parts of the site to help bring it back to its former glory.

Because of the high admission price, it seems they have a problem with DSC09067people selling second-hand tickets, so now they put your photo right on the ticket.  If you’re caught at the ruins without a ticket, it’s a $100 fine. 

The day was made more expensive courtesy of my inability to do simple math.   As we were walking into the Wat, we were swarmed by the usual peddlers selling everything from water to cowboy hats.   One kid, however, was selling guide books.   There were no guides around, and not much for information posted around the DSC09055site, so this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  The price of the book that was printed by the UPC was $27.98.  I managed to talk the kid down to $4, which had me thinking pretty highly of myself.   After he agreed to the price, he asked if I could pay in Thai Baht, rather than dollars.  This was fine, as I still had a bunch of it.  The problem was that I confused the conversion rate of Baht and handed him a 1,000 baht ($32) note, thinking I was giving him $3.20 and started walking away.  I have a feeling this happens to lots of people and was why the kid asked for Baht.  About ten steps later I realized my mistake, but the kid had wisely vanished.  So, I now have a very expensive guide book if anyone wants to borrow it.  

Cooking Class

The next day, Kim and I rented bikes and went back to town to explore DSC09092more.  We checked out the markets and more around pub street before the beginning of our lesson in local Khmer cooking.  The class was a ton of fun spread out over about 4 hours.   We started by choosing the dishes we wanted to make, then headed over to the local market, where we got a good explanation of what all of the ingredients we would use are and how to pick them out.  After that, we headed back to the restaurant, whose open-air top floor is setup as a mini cooking school.

The class consisted of an instructor, Kim  and I, and a very friendly couple from the Baltic region.  I made chicken Amok (traditional KhmerDSC09150 dish) with a mango salad and Kim made spring rolls and green curry.   We also made sweet sticky rice with Mangos for dessert.   As a garnish, we leaned how to make roses out of tomato peelings!

The class went great and we wound up with more food than 10 people could eat.  It was all delicious, but we wound up giving a bunch of it to the other couple in our group who had a fridge and microwave.   DSC09146

I got to drive a Tuk-Tuk!

After cooking, we found Mr. Happy.   Nope, not kidding.  He’s a tuk-tuk driver that speaks excellent English and has a demeanor to match his name.  He’ll take you pretty much anywhere you want to go from countryside tours and temples to shooting ranges, all with a big grin and plenty of shenanigans along the way.  If you’re in Siem Reap, definitely recommend him! 

We decided to take a countryside tour to see some other wats and check out what the area looked like outside of the city.  It was a great ride and that was how we came to realize that we’d have been better off just exploring other ruins and skipping Angkor Wat itself. 

Along the way, two interesting things happened.   First, we decided to check out the shooting range.   This was definitely a unique adventure, Me Drive where you get to shoot your choice of military weaponry in a cinderblock tunnel.   We figured that we’d never get a chance to try something like this again, so why not?  The guns are all old (Vietnam or Khmer Rouge leftovers) and in less-than perfect condition, but it was pretty cool anyway.  We got to try shooting a 7.62mm K-50 automatic rifle, which is amazing in that it has absolutely no recoil.  Kim and I went through 30 rounds shooting at some old tires in a brick enclosed area and decided that was good enough. 

So, back to the tuk-tuk.    We got about 1/3 of the way back to town, chattering with Mr. Happy all the way, when he looked over his shoulder and said “You want to drive?”  I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.  Sooooo, up to the front I went.  In Cambodia, the tuk-tuks are different from Thailand.   They are basically a normal motor scooter that tows a carriage instead of the one-piece Thai machines.  I was a bit wobbly for the first hundred feet or so, but then got the hang of it and was soon happily zipping along at about 30mph.   All of the locals we passed would instantly crack a

videosmile when they saw me driving with Mr. Happy and Kim riding along in the back. 

Along the way we learned that Mr. Happy has a very interesting back story.  In the mornings he works as an English teacher in a Siem Reap orphanage.  He was an orphan himself when he was young and volunteers as a show of gratitude for those who taught him years ago.  We wanted to visit the orphanage, but it was now getting pretty late.  He offered to take us early in the morning, but we didn’t want to risk being late for our flight out.  We wound up donating a 50kg sack of rice to the orphanage instead, which we went and bought from a local market. 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Bangkok

Bangkok was everything that we were told – frenzied and crowded, but packed with cool things to see, do, and eat.  From the dozens of temples and statues covered in gold to the smells of fish at the markets, there was always something to check out.

BK river sceneOur hotel (th e Erawan House) was located in a sort of “Old Bangkok” with incredibly crowded, narrow streets and people everywhere.  It’s also right next to Khao San Road and near most of the other tourist attractions.  This wound up being a great spot to stay because everything we wanted to see and do was within a short walk/tuk-tuk/water taxi ride. 

Another thing that is everywhere is people peddling stuff.   They kind of take it to a new level here, though, going so far as to wear official-looking uniforms with fake (but very convincing) credentials around their necks or planting “random” people to seem like their giving you helpful advice from a stranger, not a vendor.  As an example, when we tried to tour the Grand Palace, there were uniformed people with credentials around their neck stationed right next to the military guards at the In tuk-tuk view entrance who would tell you that for some reason you can’t go in right now.  The reasons tend to be 1) that you can’t get in with shorts on (which is true, though the palace has pants/skirts to borrow for free once you get in) or 2) that there is some kind of “Buddhist Ceremony” occurring at that moment (there isn’t).  Instead, the official-looking individual will suggest you visit a nearby attraction instead and return later.  They then helpfully find a taxi or tuk-tuk to take you there.  The scam is that the taxi/tuk-tuk will inevitably stop at places you don’t want to go in order to try to get you to buy stuff you don’t want before taking you to the other attraction. At one point, we had 3 people (an “official” at the Grand Palace, a driver, and a “coincidental stranger”) all working together (even though they were all in different locations) to get us to go to a particular travel agency.   They are very good at doing it subtly and it’s surprisingly convincing.   The bottom line that we discovered is to believe printed signs that you see, and absolutely nothing else. 

Bryan Gold Temple But enough about the cons.  The Grand Palace (once we did get in) was definitely something to see.  It was filled with different temples and buildings that have every inch of them covered with gold, statues, and multi-colored tiles.  It really is a sight to see and worth elbowing the “officials” outside out of your way for. 

We also got to see the Reclining Buddha, which is sheer size is amazing.  It’s probably over a hundred feet long and sits alone in its own building.  The statue itself is gold, and the bottom of the Buddha’s feet are black stone inlaid with Mother of Pearl designs.  It’s pretty impressive. 

Kim Spires The river boats are also something to see.  There is the cheap (50 cents) but crowded water taxi service that is a good way to avoid the traffic of Bangkok streets, but there are also the faster long-tailed speedboats that give 1 and 2-hour tours of the city from the river.  These long-tails are about 2 feet wide and 20 or so feet long.  In the back is a large car engine just sitting on top of a mount, completely uncovered.  The engine has a long control tiller in the front for the operator and a 10’ shaft at a shallow angle off the back.  At the end of the shaft, just barely below the surface, is the prop.   When these things are revved up, they make a big rooster tail off the back of the boat.  

Kim Strong The food has been fantastic.  We visited a couple different markets and restaurants and really haven’t had a bad meal yet.  Curry dishes, pad thai, veggie dishes, and even banana french toast have all been great.  One funny thing is that many of the restaurants around our hotel have the same menu.  Not just the same items, the exact same menu.  The only difference is the name on the cover. 

Kim and I also got foot massages on Khao San Road.  Now, Kim does pedicures and stuff as often as most girls do, but I’ve never had anything done to my feet by anyone.  Aside from a quick scrub in the shower, I don’t even really touch my feet, so this was more than a bit strange to me.  I think spent about 2/3 of time twitching and convulsing from being tickled, but the lady doing the massage managed to keep from laughing at me too hard.  When it was over my feet did feel pretty good, but I think in the future I’ll stick to the head-neck-back massages. Long Tail  

Our final “attraction” before heading out to Cambodia was something that I’m pretty sure only civil engineers and their spouses would ever do.  We took a 30-minute taxi ride to check out the subway system and the sky train.  Now, don’t get me wrong, they were both very nice and it was cool to get to see the more modern part of town (including a free, outdoor boy band concert), but I was sort of chuckling to myself the whole while as we explored and photographed Bangkok’s transit system so Kim could give a presentation on it when she gets back to work. 

Me Buddha So, that was pretty much Bangkok.  Crazy, hectic, exciting, and infinitely interesting.  It was a unique and very cool experience.   Now, off to Cambodia!

Me Temple Narrow Alley

Temples Us In Tuk-Tuk