Untitled 2/22/10

Posted: February 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Itinerary | 12 Comments »

Friends and Fireworks

Nothing too new to report, as we have been living out our Thailand days as beach bums. However, the highlight for us this month has been the visit we received from our friends back home. Since we found out that three of our friends had booked flights to Thailand we had been counting down the days. Aside from family, and a few friends we were able to meet up with along the way, this has been the first time that anyone has taken up the challenge, saved up their vacation time, and left home to come and see us.

Not everything went according to plan. After all, this is Thailand. There are bugs and bats, beggars and ladyboys, and scams and sales pitches abound. The cleanliness of food stalls and other such facilities are not always on par with Western standards. You don’t always get what you pay for (and unfortunately, sometimes you do). The climate is stifling. The mosquitos relentless. In addition, Jeff and I have been in “travel mode” for so long now that we have become accustomed and desensitized to so many of these travel woes and elements of culture shock. Things that would have caused some grief, from bugs in my food and dirty bathrooms to not knowing what tomorrow has in store, are now just a part of life. There are stark contrasts between being tourists on vacation and travelers on a budget. And yet, we were able to find a sort of balance, share our experiences, and best of all spend lots of time together. So for all these reasons and more, we are equally touched, impressed, and grateful that our friends took the leap across the ocean.

Dinner on Koh Phi Phi

Dinner on Koh Phi Phi

We explored the Andaman Coast, spending some time eating and kayaking around Ao Nang, with a side trip to the beautiful Rai Leh Bay in Krabi. We took a ferry to Ko Phi Phi for a few days where we got in some beach time, went rock climbing up limestone karsts, did some snorkeling and swimming around the island, and partook in one night of beach partying with free buckets of alcohol. Good food, good friends, free drinks = best time.

After Peterson and Jenny headed back to Bangkok for their flight home, Eugene, Jeff and I hopped on yet another ferry to check out Koh Lanta. Laid-back hardly begins to describe it. Compared to Koh Phi Phi, Lanta is like a very shy, distant cousin. To liven things up for the Lunar New Year, the guys decided that fireworks were in order. While I was busy contemplating the fascination that males have with fireworks and worrying about burning faces, appendages, and buildings, Jeff returned with a large bag and a huge smile announcing that he had blown the day’s budget on the contents of the bag (which I am sure would not be legal in most states). Suffice it to say, after stuffing ourselves at a $3 all-you-can-eat hot pot buffet, we welcomed the Year of the Tiger with a literal bang.

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Par-tay!

It’s the 31st, maybe about noon. My first attack on the senses are the multitude of cicadas all going off around me, as they do two or three times a day. But this time they seem so loud, it almost pains me. As I look down, there’s fluorescent yellow, green, and red body paint all over my shorts, reminders of the previous night. It’s all a little to bright and loud for me, making my headache worse. I try to make sure the hammock I’m laying in doesn’t sway and increase my nausea, close my eyes and try to remember how this happened.


Haad Rin. This is the beach on Koh Phangan where the legendary Full Moon Party takes place. So every 29 days people come from all parts of the world to the Gulf of Thailand. And every 29 days those people and more come from all over the island and from neighboring islands to descend on Haad Rin. Last night, about 30,000 people made the trip.
We arrived to a brightly lit neighborhood of storefronts and restaurants selling the standard fried chicken and pizza party food and buckets of alcohol. The streets overfilled with people in clown wigs or fluorescent body paint. The energy of the place was contagious as Mari and my excitement kept growing. We were about to join in and buy a bucket when we turned down another street and saw the beach. Masses of people drinking and dancing everywhere. On platforms, on decks and spread over the entirety of the beach. Turns out we hadn’t even entered the party yet, just the on-deck circle so to speak. As soon as we stepped onto the beach, a girl stumbled towards us, grinning goofily. Apparently, she decided she could no longer stand, and enlisted 3 strangers just to my left to aid her in her descent by tackling them as she fell to the sand. It was just before 10 pm. Looks like someone needs to work on her pacing in the future.


We walked the beach checking out the party, drinks in tow. At this point, we both were probably a little excited from the atmosphere, but also a little wary. Every once in awhile we would see a shady looking dude or two walking around probably waiting for an easy pocket to pick. And for 2 non-partiers, we felt a little old. But with each sip and then gulp, anxiousness gave way to excitement as the Full Moon lured us in. We came across a large gathering of people as they circled what looked to be an undulating light. As we edged closer, it turned out that it was not a light, but a fire. A huge rope was continuously doused in petroleum and set on fire, the alternating light coming from the ropes swinging. Turns out this was jump rope for the adrenaline junkies. People would happily go in and jump to the crowd’s delight. It would continue until someone’s rhythm failed and would end with drunk people stopping, dropping and rolling.
We walked down the beach more and saw the party’s bathroom facilities. People waded into the water and peed into nature at low tide. I saw a high stakes game of limbo, as the limbo stick, like the jump rope, was of fire. People would pass under it, lighting their cigarettes on the bar as they went. I was contemplating how low I can safely go when Mari ran up and high-fived me. She had just returned from peeing with the masses in the ocean. The rest of the night turned out to be loads of fun and consisted of more buckets, more fire games, and more stupidity. We eventually rolled into our bungalow about 4am, after I tossed my cookies just outside it. Looks like I need to work on my pacing too.

Posted: February 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

On the “Kohs” From Here On Out

The Gulf of Thailand. Home to over 1,000 tropical islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, and where we intend to remain for the next month or so, as we island hop our way around paradise. If that means getting seasick (which it does), then so be it. For us, our beach bumming began in Koh Tao, which means “turtle island”. No turtle sightings for us, but a good place to hang for a week and slow down the pace. We stayed at a budget resort in Chalok Beach. While the words “budget” and “resort” may not necessarily appear together on a Taboo card, we have found that they work out quite nicely for us. While the accommodations range from basic bungalows to air conditioned villas with every amenity, we are more than happy to fork out the $10-15 per night for a fan room with cold water, while still reaping the benefits of resort life. Peace and quiet. Sea and garden views. Even an infinity swimming pool overlooking the beach!

Making good use of the pool

Making good use of the pool

First Koh Tao activity-snorkeling in Shark Bay, an easy walk from our room. So we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed off. The road leading to the bay had been closed, so we were told that the only way to access it was to swim from another bay farther up the coast. As luck would have it, I had brought along my new dry bag, purchased the previous night after a bit of bargaining. Into the bag went everything we had, clothes, towel, camera, money. We clipped our flip flops on to the outside. Jeff slung the bag over his shoulder and we dove in for the swim. The snorkeling in Shark Bay was disappointing, but the bag did its job. It was my turn to carry the bag on the return trip. For most of the swim, I was having a grand time pretending to re-enact the scene from “The Beach”, as a shorter, Asian version of Francoise, swimming her butt off to reach the legendary island. We found out much later, that had we stayed on the rocks and NOT swum to Shark Bay, we could have snorkeled with about 50 sharks. Bummer. Go figure.

Food in Koh Tao is expensive (in our experience more so than most anywhere else in Thailand). Our friends from home were on vacation, with Koh Tao as one of their stops, and aside from one amazing dinner which they generously treated us to, our pockets definitely took a hit. We resorted to dry packaged ramen again for a couple of meals (which is slightly more classy when enjoyed from the balcony of one’s room). Even the local non-western catering restaurants seemed to be in on it. Oh, would we like rice with our rice dish? Then that will be an extra 20 baht. Puh-lease. Time to head off.

Busy day

Busy day

We are now on Koh Phagnan, the second largest island in the Southern Gulf archipelago, where the full moon parties are the stuff of travel legend. We plan on staying here for at least a week, which will put us right here for the full moon. The problem is, we’re not ravers, nor heavy partiers. I don’t like techno music. I really don’t like large crowds of drunk people (unless I am one of them). Okay, so that’s more than one problem. But, how could we be on Koh Phagnan during the full moon party in high season and NOT attend the festivities? This should be good. Stay tuned.

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Some of Nature’s Top Predators

They’re bodies are sleek, evolved to carry out quick stealth-like attacks in near silence on slacking prey. They kill thousands annually and their appetite for blood is unparalleled. And upon our arrival into Chiang Mai, we chanced upon seeing these top predators in action…unfortunately. Actually, we saw at least 64 of these guys in action, as that’s how many mosquitoes we killed in our room in a day. Turning on the fan caused 5 of them to scramble in all directions. Walking by the bed, 3 fly out from under it, 2 more make their appearance known from on top the blanket. Trying to lock in on one to smash it, meant ignoring others flying by your face in the commotion. They were everywhere, and if we stayed still, they attacked our exposed legs and arms unmercifully.
And let me say, I HATE mosquitoes. HATE them. The shrill buzz of its wings always finds me just as I’m about to nod off. And their bites on me don’t just result in a little red dot and a slight itch. When mosquitoes bite me, it’s like a mosquito clown is blowing balloon animals with my epidermis. My skin reacts into massive red irregular shaped patches with legs and tails shooting off them. I really can’t stress how much I HATE them. This also means then, that I take a real pleasure in killing them. Each clapping of my hands that ends with a little needle-nosed insect falling out of the sky brings me a smile.

The day after the day that became known as the “Massacre of 64,” I went out and bought a mosquito zapper. I’ve been looking forward to this for months, but have held off for not wanting to actually carry it around. It’s a tennis racket shaped instrument that has a small electrical current running through the “face” of the racket. See a mosquito, show it your backhand (remembering to follow through with your body) and zap! Mesquite BBQ mosquito. The prey has become the predator.

The same day I bought the zapper we went to see another of the world’s top predators. This one however is warm, cuddly and a welcome sight (under the right circumstances). We visited a place called Tiger Kingdom and spent about half an hour inside the enclosures with the equivalent of toddler and adult tigers. Mari entered and was in heaven. I was somewhere in the SF Zoo around Christmas time. But my fears subsided and we were able to sit and touch the tigers if they were lying down. When they were up and walking around us, we happily stepped back and observed. Being this close to these animals was a real highlight for us.
And it was a highlight that almost didn’t happen. We originally planned to volunteer in Kanchaniburi, Thailand for a month working with tigers at a place called Tiger Temple. We were both really amped to work with animals that had been illegally poached and couldn’t be returned to the wild. However, our research into the program brought up some concerns about the animal’s treatment (even in a country where animal conservation has a different meaning from our own) and we had decided we couldn’t support it.

And Tiger Kingdom isn’t perfect either. Assuming “perfect” is only the wild in protected areas, free from illegal logging, human interaction and hunting, this is far from perfect. The tigers are in enclosures and are fed chicken daily. They interact with humans daily, from birth. They will never be returned to the wild. But, that’s not the goal of the kingdom either. It’s a breeding program, keeping a species from extinction from a world that is far from perfect. And in a country without government commitment around conservation, this agency has naturally turned to tourism dollars to fill a void. And they do seem to treat the animals well, especially by South East Asian standards. They are cared for by handlers who have known them since birth. They look healthy and happy. And even if we’ll continue to hope for an ideal world, and hope that one day there will be large scale sanctuaries set up for these majestic animals, in the present we’ll happily settle for a step in its direction.

Posted: January 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Travel-versary

01/07/10
Today marks our 365th day of travel. And what better way to mark our one-year “travel-versary” than by a full day on the road?  The morning began in much the same way as it did a year ago, with us packing our backpacks and walking out the door. This time we boarded a bus bound for Sukhothai. I secured a window seat, and settled in for the 7+ hour ride which would give me plenty of time to reflect.

I looked out the window as the bus pulled out of the station. It was hard to believe that last year at this time, I was staring out a tiny window…but crying my eyes out and simultaneously acting as an immediate buzz-kill for Jeff, who prior to my sniffling was totally amped. In case you’re interested, he does a re-enactment of this scene (badly). Maybe he’ll show you if you ask. As embarrassing as it is to recall now, this episode serves as a marker of how far I’ve come.

There are small differences and larger ones. As for the little changes, if there was some debate, it is now official. I can go an entire year without make-up (gasp) or heels (big gasp) and wearing only the clothes I can carry. There are a few more freckles on my face and the rest of me about twelve shades darker, however temporary. I can kill a cockroach and eat a grasshopper. The cravings for Western comforts, while greatly appreciated, have slowly become less necessary. Plus, I can pee anywhere, including off a tree or in the nastiest of nasty public toilets. Woohoo! But that’s all small stuff.

The best part of travel--making new friends

The best part of travel--making new friends

As for bigger differences….well, I think that remains to be seen. It’s easy to be affected and feel like a different person when you’re out of your comfort zone and being challenged everyday. But the other side of this experience is whether or not we have grown enough to make changes in our daily lives once we’re back home, where it will be all too easy to slip back into old habits. We’ll see how it goes. I hope this trip will continue to affect us always, and that we will go about our daily lives differently as a reflection of it. It is hard to say how or what form these changes will take, since we are still out here on the road. I can be a little extreme, a little bit “all or nothing” and as Jeff usually reminds me, it will be about balancing the changes we want to make, with the reality of our lives once we get back. As the months have somehow dwindled to weeks, the usual challenges of negotiating a fair price or securing lodging will give way to negotiating salaries or securing a parking space, but the long term challenge will be finding a balance between our “travel selves” and our actual selves. Or maybe they are now one and the same. It’s been a recurring dilemma, particularly for me. Good thing we still have several weeks to figure it out.

Posted: January 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Fear Factor, Here I Come…!

I lost a bet and this was the consequence.  Pick any insect of my choice and gobble it down.  Hmmm…would it be the small goo-filled meal worms or the hard shelled Twinkie-sized beetles?  I went for the grasshoppers.  Are they this big everywhere??

The pick of the crunchy bunch

The pick of the crunchy bunch

Close up

The losers (there was no way)

"Maybe I'll just try a leg first..."  Very crispy.

“Maybe I’ll just try a leg to start…”  Very crispy.

Look at the size of this sucker

One leg down, and look at the size of this sucker

Crispy on the outside, crunchy on the inside, tastes a little like fish

Crispy on the outside, crunchy on the inside, tastes a little like fish

Do I have to eat the head too??  I think I'm done.

Do I have to eat the head too?? I think I'm done.

Ta-Daaa!

Posted: January 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Time for Thailand

Our travels have finally brought us to our final destination country. Thailand. We plan to stay as long as we can (read: until our visas run out), “why?” you ask? Well, because it’s Thailand. Although truthfully, we could have easily stayed longer in the vast majority of countries on our itinerary.

We crossed from Cambodia to Thailand at the Poipet/Aranya-Prathet land crossing. Just across an invisible line, lay our newest host country and while crossing was procedurally seamless, the difference couldn’t have been more obvious. Upon walking across the border to find a Bangkok-bound bus, the first things we noticed were a couple of shiny casinos at border’s edge, and outdoor bars and ATMs galore. We’re not in Cambodia anymore, Toto. Welcome to Thailand!

First meal in Thailand

First meal in Thailand

We arrived into Central Bangkok that evening and were welcomed by the sight of bright signs and neon, traffic lights and jams, street food vendors, and well-heeled ladies (and lady boys!) passing by the taxi window. Instead of playing our usual game of “find-a-guesthouse”, we were extremely fortunate to stay at the condo of a friend of mine. It was awesome and we almost didn’t want to leave. The views alone could have kept us entertained for a few days. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, when you’re on the road, there is nothing like than getting to stay in someone’s home and appreciating the creature comforts. We’ve been lucky enough to be hosted a handful of times throughout our journey, and for us, the opportunity always seems to come at the right time. Thank you again. All of you.

After prying ourselves away from Bangkok, we made it to Nakhon-Ratchasima (aka Khorat) to see some pre-Angkorian ruins (guess we didn’t get enough at Angkor??), and where we also celebrated the New Year in local style. An outdoor festival with tons of great food (heavenly) and live music (less heavenly) and other surprises (such as an actual snow-filled dome and holiday displays). We enjoyed the atmosphere and took it all in.

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

A couple of nights ago in Surin, while waiting for our meals at an outdoor street table, Jeff grabbed my arm, staring over my shoulder. My first thought was that there must be a cockroach on the back of my chair, but luckily for both of us, it turned out that Jeff was merely staring at a baby elephant walking around with a couple of handlers. For a few cents, we got a bag containing several sticks of sugar cane (or something resembling sugar cane) to feed to him. The little guy was a bit impatient (referring to the elephant), trying to get the sticks out of the bag on his own, but it was a great bout of evening entertainment. Plus, how often do you get to feed a baby elephant during dinner? I have a feeling Thailand will be full of surprises.

Posted: January 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Angkor What?

In Europe you can blur cathedrals until they lose any distinction. In Egypt you’ll forget whether the pictures were from Edfu or Komombo. And in Kenya it’s almost silly how quickly you can take for granted a family of 50+ baboons crossing your path.

And in Asia, it’s the temples/pagodas/wats that you burn out on.

I hope none of this sounds like complaining, or that I’m taking our experiences for granted. I’m not. It’s just human nature, isn’t it? To adjust, to process and adapt, and eventually to move on. So a year of ruins and 5 months of wats have taken their toll on us. Hmmm, 5 tiered pyramid, it’s cool, it’s no 7 tiered pyramid, but it’s cool.–This Buddha statue has his eyes crossed.-There’s more ruins but they are all the way on the west end of the complex? Do they look that different? No, I’m aiiight, you go ahead.
So without realizing it, in my mind Angkor Wat had a near impossible task if it intended to impress me. I dared it to astound me. “Wow” me Angkor, if you can.

Wow.

Seeing Angkor turned out to be like seeing the Sistine chapel. You walk through a limitless museum with paintings and murals by Rapheal, Bernini, Rodin on every wall and ceiling. And you do this for hours all while following signs directing you to the Sistine Chapel. And your mind can’t possibly appreciate or process everything you’re seeing so you start to glaze over. You want to just get there, see it to say you saw it, and go take a nap. But then you get there, and everything you saw before simply fades. You and the hundred other people staring straight up are silent because however great you thought it was going to be…this beats it. And you need the silence so that all your energies can be directed to the sense of sight. If you could breathe it in, if you could taste the Sistine Chapel, you would. Well seeing Angkor was like that.

It overwhelmed on the macro scale as well as in the minute details, shaking any feelings of burn out from me. Spread out over 1000 sq. kilometers there were nearly 1000 temples built over a 400 year period. We walked, biked, took motos and tuks-tuks to them over a 7 day period. And throughout the exploration, the temples remained able to show us each one’s unique nature whether it was climbing through the ruins in Beng Melea, photographing the overgrown trees of Ta Prohm, looking into the stone faces of the Bayon, or walking the endless walls of bas reliefs. And though they are now ruins, slivers of their past glory, the temples fulfilled their intended purpose for me just as a chapel had done for me years ago; my visit ended not with my feeling burnt out or desensitized but rather renewed and a little in awe.

Posted: December 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Cambodia Eats

Again, as with so many elements of this trip, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the cuisine of Cambodia. I thought about it. No signature dish or flavor came to mind. Time to test the waters!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. As you know, we tend to frequent the street stalls and local street vendors, where menus are unheard of and the food is (almost) always more than worth the cents spent. In other words, street food has been good to us. So we expected more of the same in Cambodia. Maybe we’re not hitting up the right stalls. Nothing’s been horrible, but there’s nothing to write home about either. Lots of instant noodles with various toppings, rice porridge, and bland soups, and the ever present fried rice or noodles. However, we have slowly discovered that some of the restaurant prices are only slightly higher than the streets’. Once this discovery was made, we’ve taken to hunting down cheap restaurants with good food and have had some great success. Where Khmer street food may have fallen a bit flat on our palates, Khmer restaurant food has been outstanding.

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

The best curry to date (albeit a Thai style curry), has been had in Sihanoukville. Best fruit salad? Phnom Penh. A garlic pepper chicken that was so good, we went back and ordered it for lunch the next day. A couple nights Jeff even treated himself to barbecued barracuda (with salad and baked potato) for $3….which he thoroughly enjoyed, even if he didn’t enjoy my sneaky fork tactics. And if anybody is wondering about the “happy pizzas”…ours was a better than average pizza, but we have decided that a more appropriate title would be “relax-y pizza”, since shortly after polishing it off, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation discussing how relaxed we were feeling. This, thankfully back at our guest house, not in the restaurant!

Neither of us has encountered the highly anticipated tarantula, scorpion, or other such fried nasty on a stick, and other than for a photo op, I’m not really looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, I’ll be happily digging into what may be my next new favorite Khmer dish.

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Note: Shortly after writing this blog, we have had great luck with street food again in Siem Reap.

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »