Myanmar

 Myanmar  Comments Off on Myanmar
Jun 032014
 

Myanmar is pretty new to tourism.  They just opened their borders to outsiders recently and there aren’t nearly enough hotel rooms for all of the tourists that want to come.  Luckily we weren’t coming during the high season so there were plenty of rooms available, but the prices were still double what we’d found anywhere else in Asia.  Our hotel was brand spanking new, just completed in January, and had the most amazing service we’d had on our trip.  They ran out to our taxi to meet us and grabbed our bags from the trunk to carry them up to our room, turned on all our outlets and quickly turned to leave without even requesting a tip.

Our first morning, we we got up early, loaded our water guns and started walking.  Along the street there was a local market with an assortment of animal parts, random veggies and the occasional pile of fried food.  We generally tried to avoid food that had been just sitting out for unknown amounts of time, but it was early in the day and we were feeling brave.  We were just walking up to buy some deep fried mystery on a stick when a pigeon swooped in and landed right on top of the pile of food!  The stall owner hardly looked up and made no attempt to shoo the bird until he noticed the expressions on our faces. Then he sort of half-heartedly swung his hand toward the bird from his seat about 3 feet away.  The pigeon took no notice of him and continued to hang out on the food pile.  We weren’t really that hungry anyway.

We soon passed our first water station of the day.  The water stations are temporary structures for the water festival set up all around the city with dozens of hoses hooked up to a constant water supply throughout the festival. Colin ran up to one of the locals and asked if he could man one of the hoses for a bit.  Just like in Chiang Mai, pickup trucks, filled mostly with young locals, would spend the day driving from station to station getting hosed down at each one.  The trucks also had the big 55 gallon barrels in the back for the passengers to toss water at pedestrians along the way.

 

Colin Joins the water station

Colin Joins the water station

 

We made our way through the city, taking a brief break from the chaos by getting up onto a pedestrian bridge above the streets. From there we could still pump our super soakers onto the cheering locals passing by below without them pelting us back.  Their reactions seemed to say that no one had really thought of doing this before, but later we had folks throwing water onto us out of second and third story windows, so the idea wasn’t entirely novel.  Our squirt guns were pretty unique here though.  While they were everywhere in Chiang Mai, we didn’t see a single other squirt gun here.  On the last day of the festival, we gave both of ours away, so the country now has at least two! 🙂  After a nice respite in Sula Pagoda, we braved the streets again for a concert under farm-style sprinklers.  We listened to a few songs before reaching our limit on crowds and on being drenched.  We decided to get out of the main downtown area and head north to see some of the sites.

Unfortunately, getting out of downtown, did not mean escaping the water festival.  While waiting for our delayed train (which ended up being an hour and a half wait), local children seemed to be able to sense the moment our clothes started to dry and would come by with large water bottles of ice cold water to dump on us.  Once we finally got on the train, we sighed with relief only to find that people would be standing along the route and tossing water in through the windows as we passed by.  Off the train, most cab drivers didn’t want to pick us up since we were wet, but eventually someone took pity on us. We hopped in along with 2 other travelers who had their full packs on and were trying to get to the airport somewhat dry. We rode the last bit of the way to the town’s huge reclining Buddha statue.  Luckily, there is no water thrown inside the temples, so after wringing our clothes out, we went in and wandered around for quite a while. We had a great chat with a local man about the state of the country.  He recommended a couple of books on Myanmar, but said we’d have to get them elsewhere since they were banned inside the country.

 

Large Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha at Chauk That Gyi Pagoda

 

Buddha's feet engraved with over 100 auspicious symbols

Buddha’s feet engraved with over 100 auspicious symbols

 

From the reclining Buddha we decided to walk to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, apparently the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar.  The giant pagoda itself was quite impressive but some of the other items on the grounds were a bit odd.  From the shrine containing replica’s of the Buddha’s teeth to the multitude of what we came to refer to as “Vegas Buddha’s” with flashing neon halos, it had the feel of a strange mix between a sacred sanctuary and a Buddhist theme park.  We stayed through sunset before making our way back home.

 

Main Structure at Shwedagon Pagoda with "Vegas Buddhas" at Base

Main Structure at Shwedagon Pagoda with “Vegas Buddhas” at Base

 

Monk walking on one level of Shwedagon Pagoda for scale!

Monk walking on one level of Shwedagon Pagoda for scale!

 

Woman worships before several Buddha statues with flashing LED halos.

Woman worships before several Buddha statues with flashing LED halos.

 

At this point, we were running on nothing but the fried egg and toast from breakfast and a bag of chips we picked up after passing on the pigeon’s food.  Unfortunately, no restaurants or even grocery stores were open. The whole city (and maybe the whole country) shuts down for the new year.  Finally at 9:30pm, we were able to find one place in town serving food, but knowing we had several more days of the festival, we were starting to take stock of the snacks Rachel had brought along.

The next morning we had to catch a taxi to the airport around 4AM and despite it being 3 hours before breakfast officially started, the hotel staff still got up to make us a hot meal.  We flew to the northern city of Mandalay on Golden Myanmar Airlines, one of the few airlines operating in the country that isn’t run by the government.  In addition to being half the price of the government run airlines, they also provided a shuttle bus to drive passengers the 45 minutes from the airport to downtown Mandalay.  The shuttle dropped us off just a couple blocks from our hotel, but we couldn’t even make it those last 2 blocks without someone spraying us with a hose and wishing us a happy new year.

We quickly learned that even more of Mandalay was shut down for the water festival than Yangon.  We couldn’t find a taxi, a restaurant or even a grocery store.  We hate to admit it, but most of our daytime hours in Mandalay were spent in our hotel room hiding from the festival that was quickly getting old. (Or maybe it’s just us that are getting old!)  We had heard that after 6:30PM there was a reprieve from the water,  so we got a recommendation on a restaurant that opened late and walked over.  It turns out that not all the locals had heard about the party ending at 6:30, and we still got pretty wet on our way over but the food was great, the array of complementary side dishes were continuously refilled, and every table came with a tub of caramel flavored antacids to help you through the rest of your evening.

 

American portions at restaurant in Mandalay!

American portions at restaurant in Mandalay!

 

 After dinner we tried to keep to the side streets where we’d be able to go a little farther between soakings and got to see the moon rise over the palace moat.  We then went out to see “The Mustache Brothers,” a show known for decades for its cutting edge, anti-government humor, which is a rare find in one of the world’s most insular dictatorships.   It seems only one of the brothers are left since one died from lead poisoning after years in a work camp. Apparently, this is not an uncommon way to die there.  He was jailed for years after a joke about the government that would barely raise eyebrows in the US.  The remaining brother has been allowed to continue doing his show as long as it is only performed for tourists.  The show is a mix of traditional dance and song and really weak anti-government jokes.  After the show, at around 10:30PM we found a few more people who missed the memo about when the water festival ended for the day before heading home to bed.

 

Demon dancer at Moustache Brothers show

Demon dancer at Moustache Brothers show

Our next stop was Nyaungshwe a small town just north of Inle Lake.  Inle is a beautiful shallow lake with mountains rising up on each side.  The local fishermen have a unique style of paddling. While standing on one foot on the bow of the boat, they paddle with the other foot, leaving their hands free for their equally unique style of fishing.  They lower a large conical basket to the bottom of the lake then poke the ground with a spear to scare the fish into the side of the basket where they then loosen a net for the fish to get tangled in.  Other fishermen set up net “walls” then smack their paddles into the water to scare the fish into the nets.

 

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Fisherman on Inle Lake

We took a boat tour around the lake and saw locals making cheroots, a local type of cigar.  They roll a tight tube of corn husk and newspaper and use that as a form to roll the cheroot wrapper.  Then they stuff it with a mix of tobacco, fruit, spices and other flavorings.  They fold over one end and cut off the other leaving a plug of newspaper and husk to act as a filter.  We also saw blacksmiths hammering out sturdy looking knives, machetes and other tools.  There were a couple temples on the lake, a market, a pottery shop, etc. 

At this point we we’re pretty much done wandering around pagodas; they all started to blend together in our minds.  However, Indein Village definitely stood out.  It held a complex of countless pagodas that were reminiscent of Angkor Wat in their various states of dilapidation.  Unlike Angkor Wat, this place was not at all overrun with tourists. Even the other boat tours didn’t seem to be coming this way.  Even though we paid extra to go this far off the main section of the lake, our guide tried several times to talk us out of going, but we were glad that we’d remained firm on wanting to check it out.

We had considered asking our tour guide to skip the lotus weaving workshop since we’d seen weaving just about everywhere we’d, been but we’re glad we didn’t.  What we thought would be  the same old weaving we’d seen throughout Asia (it’s all amazing, but you can only see it so many times), turned out to be something much more unique! First, they take the stem of a lotus flower, break it and pull it apart.  As they pull, there are minuscule strands of stem that are then laid out on a rock, twisted together and fed through a spinning wheel to make a very fine thread.  This is then woven into a rough fabric that sells for 7 times the price of silk due to the labor intensity.

 

Old man shows how to get thread from lotus stems.

Old man shows how to get thread from lotus stems.

After 5 days of water festival we were just commenting to each other about how nice it was to be dry for one whole day when we heard the thunder in the distance.  Shortly after we were getting dumped on so we pulled aside for lunch.  We wrapped up the boat tour and headed back to town.  After a great Indian dinner with a local musician as our host serenading us into the night, we requested $6/hour in-room massages back at the hotel.  We were taken off-guard when there came a knock on the door from 2 teenage boys barely over 5 feet tall in leather motorcycle jackets and mohawks who greeted us with, “Massage?”  Uh….yes??  The massage itself was unimpressive, but the image of a 100 pound kid breaking a sweat trying to lift Colin’s tree trunk legs up over his head for a stretch has given us far more than $6 worth of laughs.

Before leaving Myanmar, we returned for one more day back in Yangon.  With the water festival finally behind us, we were able to see what it’s like the other 360 days of the year and were glad to have a more balanced view of the place.  

Myanmar is still under military rule.  There are supposedly elections coming up in 2015, but most locals seemed skeptical that the military would allow substantial change.  Tourists can still only visit a fraction of the country.  Much of the rest is experiencing various forms of unrest.  Many locals are still wary of speaking openly, even to tourists, but most do seem to think their country is finally heading in the right direction.  We hope they’re right.  

Chiang Mai

 Thailand  Comments Off on Chiang Mai
May 042014
 

Our first night in Chiang Mai, we had a hotel reservation through Agoda as usual, but we’d been hearing travelers all along our journey tell us that they’d found better deals by walking through the backpacker districts and checking out hotels in person.  Since we were spending more time in Chiang Mai than anywhere else we figured we’d give it a shot.  We both agree that the time and energy spent wandering around looking for lodging rather than enjoying the sites isn’t worth it.  However, we did find a really nice place with a comfy bed, a fridge that allowed us to get groceries and a closet that Rachel was especially excited about.  She immediately unpacked our clothes, hung them up and put the bags out of site.  

The reason we were spending so much time in Chiang Mai is that we’d booked a week long massage class with TMC Massage school, which was founded by one of the one of the teachers who helped to develop modern Thai massage (Thanks Erin, Abe, Sheila, Mary, Willi, Derek and Eli!).  For the next 5 days straight, we got up early to catch the school bus (really more like a large covered pick-up).  Class was 8 hours a day and was really well organized to maximize our time.  One instructor would first demonstrate and talk through several points. Then a second instructor would do a faster re-cap before we took turns practicing on each other while the instructors came around to fine tune what we were doing.  

It was a really small class, so we got lots of individualized instruction.  The last day, we had our test of giving each other the full body massage while instructors checked over our techniques.  We both passed with flying colors. Most of the corrections we were getting seemed really minor – slight shifts in body position, but it was amazing how much those little tweaks improved the final result.  We can really appreciate the skill so much more now with just the small taste that we received.  

Graduation day at the massage school.

Graduation day at the massage school.

Graduating class goofing off on the last day.

Graduating class goofing off on the last day.

The intense week at class was exhausting, but extremely satisfying.  The teachers were all really patient, clear and exceptionally attentive and observant.  We really can’t say enough good things about it.  And the textbook we received with class will undoubtedly be useful for years to come.  Later, on our last day in Chiang Mai, we got massages at another massage school closer to our hotel.  We mentioned to the woman there that we’d taken a class with TMC and even though she was an instructor at that school, she said several times that TMC was better and that we’d definitely made the right choice. We agree!  As we’ve continued to travel, even when we don’t have time or a place for the 2 hour full body massage, we’ve been able to take advantage of a lot of the techniques to help each other out after long and uncomfortable bus rides and the like.

It turns out 8 hours of massage class takes a lot out of you, so we didn’t have a whole lot of energy for evening activities, but we made the most of our time nonetheless.  One evening, when we probably would have just gone to bed early, Mer and Dave got us out by suggesting we share a taxi up to Doi Suthep – a temple up on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai that is popular at sunset.  They say the temple “contains the spirit of Chiang Mai.” The location seemed like a clear choice to us with the amazing view, but the story of how it was chosen is a bit more involved.  Evidently, a white elephant carrying a Buddha relic walked up the hill until it reached that spot and promptly fell over dead providing the sign of where the temple should be built.  

We got up there just as the monks were starting to circle the main pagoda and enter into chants, so while looking around we had the harmonic sound of a hundred or so monks and some other worshipers chanting in unison.  By the time we left, it had cooled down nicely and we took turns hanging off the back of the jeep and letting the wind blow through our hair as we road back down the hill.  

Sunset at Chedi Luang

Sunset at Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai has a night market every day of the week that was the largest we’ve seen on the entire trip and on Sundays, two main streets running over half way across the old city are closed to traffic for an additional night market.  Locals and tourists come out of the woodwork to pack the streets shoulder to shoulder to check it out. It was the only time we had help crossing the street in the city.  Usually, you just have to step out into traffic and trust that folks will swerve around you, but with pedestrians in such masses, they assign a traffic cop to occasionally stop traffic and allow huge swaths of them in and out of the market.  We preferred the daily market which in addition to over a mile of street vendors, also opened into a large courtyard area of more rows of booths and several restaurants – many of which had live music.  We lucked out a lot during this trip on the music front and Chiang Mai was certainly no different. We found a really great blues band and a few good cover bands while here.

Crowds at the Sunday night market

Crowds at the Sunday night market

Chiang Mai’s old city (still surrounded by a moat!) is very easy to get around on foot.  We did quite a bit of wandering around while we were there and found tons of impressive wats (temples/monasteries).  One of them, Wat Chedi Luang, was made of brick and when it was first built, it was the tallest structure in the kingdom.  However, the top 30 meters were destroyed by an earthquake in the 1500s.  While walking around temple grounds, we often saw monks chopping bamboo into pieces that they then shaved down into thin, flexible strips to form countless wicker stupas.  This was in preparation for the new year when worshippers brought sand back to the temple symbolizing the sand they’d taken away on their feet throughout the year.  The sand is then poured into several stupas around the grounds.  We also got to take in a beauty contest centered around New Years, but since the music isn’t really our style, we only held out for 2 1/2 contestants before moving on.

Monks making wicker from bamboo

Monks making wicker from bamboo

Wicker stupa filled with sand

Wicker stupa filled with sand

Of course, the most well-known and most vivacious part of the nearly week-long New Years celebration in Thailand is Songkran – or the water festival.  We were told that the tradition started out very mild – young people would pour a small amount of lightly scented water into the palms of their elders as a cleansing of the past years transgressions.  What it has become is a country-wide full on water fight!  Nearly every street vendor adds squirt guns to their list of goods for sale.  Actually, squirt guns sounds so tame – these were super-soakers.  Remember those?  We were pumped for the big water-fight and as we left the hotel the first day of Songkran, we were immediately hit by a bucket of water each.  We responded by smiling at our assailant and buying a couple water guns from him.  He filled them up for us and we immediately turned them on him.

The next couple hours were spent walking down the street exchanging friendly fire with everyone around.  There were also more trucks than we realized the city owned driving around the moat with a dozen people piled in the back of each one along with a 55 gallon drum of water to toss on people as they passed by.  The folks in the trucks were equally doused by the super soakers that lined their entire route.  We absolutely loved it….until we found one of the groups that was gathered at a street corner around a bucket of water that turned out to be nothing but recently melted ice blocks.  Now that’s just cold! 😉

Songkran

Songkran

It was pretty crazy, but really nice that once we were feeling we’d had our fill, we could walk a few blocks away from the main road along the moat and it quieted way down.  There would still be the occasional passerby on their way to the moat or children outside their houses or businesses with garden hoses, but you could see it coming and brace yourself.  Eventually, we found our way back to the hotel were we washed off all the filthy moat water.  We were a little concerned about Rachel’s puncture wound (refer to the Laos post) getting all that scuzzy water in it, so we cleaned it up, put more antibiotic cream on it and bandaged it up again.  

It turns out that several countries in the region celebrate their New Year at the same time and also incorporate a water festival.  The next day, we packed up our water guns to take the celebration to Myanmar!

Mae Hong Son Loop – Thailand

 Thailand  Comments Off on Mae Hong Son Loop – Thailand
May 022014
 

After traveling according to bus and train and plane schedules, we were excited to arrive in Northern Thailand where we rented a car for our road trip around the Mae Hong Song loop (Thanks Brad and Xiao Ling!).  This 4 day loop out of Chiang Mai and up toward the border with Myanmar (Burma) takes you winding through the mountains far away from major cities for a look into rural life.  Rachel, of course, took care of packing a variety of snacks for the drive and Colin took care of the actual driving.

We’ve seen t-shirts and magnets and such referring to the Mae Hong Son loop that brag about how many turns it has.  We weren’t about to keep count, but will just say this – the steering wheel is never kept straight.  The moment you get out of one turn, you’re entering the next!  It’s not a drive for the faint of heart or stomach, and they do offer buses that make the loop, but we are really glad we went on our own.  We’re also really glad we opted for the car and not the motorcycle.  It rained on the trip with and the wind blew around lots of flying twigs and leaves.  It even knocked over a large tree that closed the road for a while and took down 12 cement power line poles!  We saw a young couple take a tight wet turn a little too fast and their bike came right out from under them!  We pulled over quickly to help out, and were amazed to see them both stand up with nothing more than scrapes and racing heartbeats.  Yikes!

Of course, the best part of having our own wheels is being able to pull over whenever we want – like when we saw several mopeds and trucks parked in the middle of nowhere.  We pulled over to find several small bamboo huts built in the middle of the river where families had set up to have picnics and play in the water.  We also pulled off into a wildlife preserve for lunch where we had a nice long chat with a ranger who said he was excited because he doesn’t have many opportunities to practice his English out there.  We talked about everything from marriage (he says it’s too late for him now because he’s over 30!) to the current politics in Thailand.  Much of it was unclear, but we smiled and nodded and just appreciated the chance to connect with someone out here in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world.  At one point, he asked if we had maps where we lived and requested that if it wasn’t too much trouble, we send him a map of the world.  He says he’s met people from Germany and France and America and would like to see where these places are.  Before getting back on the road, we had a quick workout with his homemade weight set.

Pumping Cement

Pumping Cement

Along the way we saw pickup trucks stacked 6 feet or more above the bed with nothing but garlic.  We later passed the farm and saw dozens of people loading countless bundles of tightly packed garlic onto trucks.  We also stopped at a temple that had a 10ft tall wicker Buddha.  All along the way we saw low level forest fires burning.  This is apparently fire season where fields are burned clean for the next planting and whether intentionally or accidentally, all of the forests burn as well.  On the plus side, since it burns every year, the fires are never big enough to kill off the larger trees, but it didn’t seem to leave much underbrush for wildlife.

We kept passing signs for waterfalls, caves and hot springs along the way but none of them gave any indication (that we could understand anyway) of how far off the main road they were.  We finally decided that we’d stop at the next hot spring we saw a sign for and got lucky that it was just barely off the main road.  Of course it’s way too hot to actually enjoy a soak, but we figured it would be worth the experience regardless.  What we found was a cute little resort with private cabins, a large hot pond, a communal foot bath and swimming pool … all completely abandoned.  The front gate was open so we went in and walked around a bit, but it was a little creepy.  We couldn’t tell if the place was closed for the season or if it had been closed for years. The pool was completely empty and the drain for the foot bath was plugged so it was developing a nasty film on top.  The pond looked like something out of Yellowstone – pale blue water with sulfur bubbles coming up all around and layers rotting leaves that looked like small, orange islands.

Abandoned Hot Springs

Abandoned Hot Springs

Farther up the road, we saw a sign for “Fish Cave” and knew we had to see what that was about.  This was also right off the main road so we parked and walked in.  There were a number of stands selling sliced fruit and leaves for the fish so we picked up a bag of what looked like Creeping Charlie and walked on.  As we approached the cave, we walked across a bridge and looked down into the river inhabited by some of the fattest fish we’d ever seen.  They watched the bridge intently, and as we walked across it, they followed waiting for food to drop. 

The cave itself was more of an indent in the wall than a cave and had a statue of someone meditating in a tiger skin robe.  There were a few places where you could look down into a crack and see where the river seemed to be flowing directly out of the mountain.  Looking down, the fish were packed so tightly that you could barely see any water between them.  When we tossed down a handful of leaves, they thrashed and leapt over each other like they hadn’t eaten in a week, though they were clearly well fed.  We spent the next half hour or so happily tossing food to frantic fishies before starting the walk back to the car. 

We’d saved a little food for the fish under the last bridge and while tossing it in, a bug landed on Rachel’s head.  She swatted at it and, in doing so, sent her glasses flying into the river below.  Luckily, the water wasn’t very deep, so Colin went down to the banks to get them.  Unluckily, the mud at the bottom was deep, so he ended up getting wetter than expected in the process.  In the end though, Rachel got her glasses back, Colin got a refreshing dip, and the other visitors got a good chuckle.

Hungry, Hungry Fishes!

Hungry, Hungry Fishes!

Since the “cave” aspect of fish cave was a bit disappointing, we were excited to see a sign that pointed to the “Longest cave in Asia.”  This stop was definitely not a roadside attraction as we drove several miles down into the valley, through a number of villages, and past one military checkpoint and on and on.  After a while we started to get nervous. We were getting low on gas and were definitely getting farther away from the nearest gas station.  The roads were very narrow and steep and at times we weren’t sure if our little car would be able to make it back even with a full tank!

We finally found a place we could pull over and decided we would walk over the next rise and if we still didn’t see the cave we’d turn around and try to find the nearest filling station.  Luckily as we walked around the next corner we saw a small building with several men lounging around.  They waved and pointed to the window where cave admission prices were listed.  Due to the distance and price we decided to skip the longest cave and instead chose Crystal Cave.  After paying admission, the guide said there would be an additional fee to rent a moped to get to the cave entrance.  Being the hardened travelers we are we told them we’d just walk.  We should have reconsidered this immediately when all of the guides, except ours, burst into laughter. One of them said, “Maybe you walk and the guide takes a moped!”  It was a very hot day and we could smell smoke from the burning forests and heard thunder in the distance.  As we walked farther and farther down the steep switchbacks, images of Batad back in Philippines came to mind. We realized, once again, that we needed to reconsider our budgetary constraints.

We finally got to the cave entrance and were already exhausted.  As the guide handed us our headlamps Rachel asked if there were bats “No,” he said.  “Spiders?”  “Yes,” he said with a grin, “but only very big ones”.  We’ve been in caves before but there was something special about this kind of pure undeveloped cave with no paths, no lights and no sign that anybody had been there before us.  We saw sparkling stalagmites and hollow columns that rang when you knocked on them.  There were massive stalactites that had fallen from the ceiling, making us think twice when walking under others. And yes, there were a couple of very big spiders.

By the time we got out the thunderstorm was fully underway.  Our guide must have been very confident in our ability to find our way home, since he hurried up the hill ahead of us and disappeared.  We trudged up the rest of the way appreciating the cool rain on our heads.  As we rounded the last turn, we took a deep breath and put on our biggest smiles to try to give the impression that this hike was no problem at all for us, but we were very happy to get back into the car to sit down.  Thankfully, we did manage to get to a gas station in time but we were running on fumes.

We arrived in Pai, one of the most popular towns in northern Thailand, especially with hippies and “trustafarians.”  There are a number of reggae bars (though these are common all over SE Asia) and a ton of drunk Aussie kids (which are also sadly common all over SE Asia).  We found a beautiful place just outside of town with private cabins and a small pond where we met up with our friends Mer and Dave who had traveled by riverboat from Luang Prabang into Thailand. 

Our Quaint Cabins in Pai

Our Quaint Cabins in Pai

We did a quick tour of town and grabbed some street food before heading back to the cabins to play Bananagrams in the garden until all hours of the night.  We had tried to pick up a few beers for the night, but found that since an election was coming up you couldn’t buy alcohol for 3 days.  We got a bit of a chuckle imagining the faces of all the Aussie kids when they found that out.  We’d also found an article that explained that due to the political unrest in Thailand this year, this was their third attempt at holding elections and one of those dates coincided with Australia Day.  No doubt there were a lot of disappointed Aussies that day too!

The next day the 4 of us hopped in the car to drive to Tham Lod Cave, a huge cave with a river running through it where guides will take you through on a bamboo raft. The guides used long poles to push us along stopping from time to time for us to hop out to explore sections of the cave by oil lamp.  We again bought some fish food on our way in.  The fish here were just as well fed as the last ones and just as excited when we tossed them food – splashing us in the boat with their frantic thrashing.  Also, while there weren’t any bats in Crystal Cave, this one more than made up for it with huge clouds of them at the entrance!

Tham Lod Caves

Tham Lod Caves

After a long trip through the cave and a hike around the park we drove to a nearby town and had a late lunch by the riverside before heading back to Pai.  On the way back we saw a sign pointing out the highest point in the province so we decided to drive up for sunset.  Colin quickly regretted this decision because the drive was treacherous, but he played it cool to avoid spreading panic.  Our little car was doing everything it could to maintain forward momentum up the steep winding road.  Colin was concerned that if he stopped he wouldn’t be able to get moving again.  The road was frighteningly narrow and covered in leaves.  We made it to the top alive where there was an amazing view and a fenced in broadcast tower with 3 guard dogs inside.  We didn’t see a bowl down for them so we pulled out a yogurt container, filled it with water and slipped it under the fence.  They were clearly thirsty and grateful.  They were also happy to get a little lovin’ through the fence.  We found ways of amusing ourselves while we watched the sun set and made our way back to the cabins for our last night on the loop.  The drive home to Chiang Mai was peaceful, and along the way we stopped at Coffee in Love (Thanks Sara & Rochelle) for a drink with a beautiful view.

Coffee in Love

Coffee in Love

 

 

Laos

 Laos  Comments Off on Laos
Apr 262014
 

We entered Laos in the southern capital town of Vientiane.  Our hotel was very close to the night market, so we wandered around that a bit the first night. We weren’t far from a Scandinavian bakery and several massage places either, and took full advantage of both.   Khmu massage was very similar to Thai in terms of all the stretching and the use of feet and knees to massage us, but it was more abrupt and less relaxing.  (At this point, we’re feeling good about deciding to take the Thai massage class!)  

We took a one-day tour of Vientiane which led us through the Laos version of the Arc de Triumph and several temples – including one where we were lucky enough to arrive when they were in the process of making more statues of Buddha and Phra Mae Thorani (the earth diety) for the grounds.  While at the temple, five Chinese women waited patiently for Rachel to look up from a kitten she was playing with before finally saying, “Excuse me, ma’am” and pointing at a camera ready to take their picture.  She quickly hopped out of the shot only to be called back in.  “No, no, you sit,” they said pointing back to the floor beside them and back at the camera.  It turned out that they were waiting to take a picture with her not without her!  We’ve had lots of folks ask to take pictures of or with us along the way, but they don’t usually stop mid-worship for it.

The next day, we decided to rent a motorbike and drive out to Buddha Park – a large park filled with over 200 Hindu and Buddhist sculptures including a 390 foot reclining Buddha, a big statue of Rahu depicting a story we’d heard back at Angor Wat where a demon whose head is immortal (long story – ask us later) tries to eat the sun and moon, and a strange spherical building with a cement tree on top and lots of hidden chambers inside with graphic sculptures of heaven and Earth and hell.  

 

390 foot reclining Buddha

390 foot reclining Buddha

 

Rahu eating the moon

Rahu eating the moon

 

The entrance to the structure is through the demon's mouth.

The entrance to the structure is through the demon’s mouth!

Before leaving Vientienne, we went out for some traditional Lao food and ordered what we assumed was frog legs. The English translation was listed as “frog shins.”  Instead we found that the ‘h’ should have been a ‘k’ and we were actually about to sit down to a plate of deep fried frog skins.  There isn’t much to them really.  They taste like crispy chips with a hint of fishiness.  We used them to scoop up the papaya salad and got two enthusiastic thumbs up from an old local man at the next table.

Next, we made our way by bus through nauseating winding roads, 13 hours without a bathroom break to Luang Prabang. We were on another sleeper bus, but with less sleeping this time.  We were on the top bunk and every time we slid around another hairpin curve, Colin, whose legs were already sticking out into the aisle, thought he was going to fly right off the bed.  Rachel got a little bit of sleep early on until learning that motion sickness pills do wear off eventually.  It was nerve-racking, but well worth the drive.

Luang Prabang is a cute little town in central Laos with a pretty low-key vibe.  It seems that about half of the town’s population are monks living at any of the plethora of monasteries around town.  We met a few of them at a place called Big Brother Mouse – a Lao-owned and run non-profit whose stated purpose is to address Laos’ illiteracy problem and turn Laos into “a country that loves to read.”   They do this in part by hosting writing workshops to teach locals how to write stories and publish books.  In the past 8 years, they’ve published over 300 books!  (Interesting note: Each book has to be first submitted to the Ministry of Culture for approval before being published to make sure it doesn’t insult those in charge.)  They also deliver books to schools all over the country.  For some of the schools, these are the first books they’ve ever had!  Can you imagine a school without books?!

Story of a boy with a prosthetic leg after losing his to a landmine

Story of a boy with a prosthetic leg after losing his to a landmine

Big Brother Mouse also has a space for locals to meet up with tourists twice a day to practice their English skills.  We spent a couple hours here chatting with some of the young men about everything from homonyms and synonyms to how to address the country’s litter problem to how many children they wanted. (Many said they wanted 2 children unless they were both daughters and then they would keep trying until they had a son.)  We also got to discuss the difference in dowry practices between the different tribes represented that evening.  In one tribe the groom had to pay the wife’s family 1 million kip ($125) and some farm animals. Another tribe’s standard was 2 million, but if you didn’t have that you could work for the family for a few years to work it off.

Luang Prabang is also where we signed up to take a highly recommended cooking class with Tamarind cooking school. (Thanks Caryn & Josh!)  Rudy, an expat from Holland, who had lived in the US for several years (including both NY and Pittsburgh),  welcomed us and got us signed up for the class.  However, the class itself was taught out in the country by a local man who was a good teacher and a bit of a comedian. His favorite joke was to refer to his “Laos-y English”.  When we looked at the list of what we’d be making, we thought we were seeing an example of his “Laosy English” when it listed chicken stuffed lemongrass.  We figured he’d gotten it backwards because how in the world could you stuff lemongrass with chicken?  Well, now we know!

Chicken-stuffed lemongrass and fish steamed in banana leaves

Chicken-stuffed lemongrass & fish steamed in banana leaves

We met a lovely couple in the cooking class, Dave and Mer, who decided to join us the next day for our hill tribe tour where we got to visit several tribal villages and see how some of them live.  Our guide told us the government has been attempting to move some tribes together so they can provide services like education and health care more easily.  Those who refuse to leave their traditional land, are provided clean drinking water and help developing ways to support themselves without hunting endangered species or slashing and burning swaths of forest.  Rachel spent some time playing with a group of local children that were alone in the one village while the parents were working in the fields.  It turns out “monkey see monkey do” is not restricted by language barriers.

Children at the hill tribe village

Children at the hill tribe village

We also got to meet a shaman (one of the last in the area) who told us a bit about the process of diagnosing and treating various ailments.  They traditionally start with a sacrifice and prayer and if that doesn’t work they’ll use herbs they find in the forest.  It’s often weeks before anyone would consider going to a hospital and by then it’s often too late.  The government is changing the laws to speed up the process to hopefully get people to a doctor sooner.  We had also hoped to stop by a blacksmithing village, but there had been a death in the community, so we were told no one would be working for 3 days.  We did, however, get to visit a small village making silk and paper. 

Handmade paper out to dry

Handmade paper out to dry

After the market and some street food that night, the 4 of us went bowling.  We got there around 9 and had the place entirely to ourselves.  Luang Prabang has a curfew of 11:30pm and the bowling alley is just outside of town so when everyone has to leave the bars in town they head out to bowl.  We headed back home before the crowds arrived and we got back to our guesthouse at 11:35. The gate out front was padlocked and there was nobody to let us in.  We decided to put our climbing experience to use and scaled the gate.  Unfortunately, Rachel got a substantial puncture wound in her leg from one of the gates metal spires in the process.  We quickly cleaned it up and had our first opportunity to use the bandaids and bacitracin we brought from home.

Bowling with new friends Mer and Dave

Bowling with new friends Dave and Mer

Colin at the guesthouse gate

Colin at the guesthouse gate

Our final morning in Luang Prabang, we got up early to witness the alms giving ceremony.  Every morning at sunrise, the monks from each monastery in town line up and walk silently through the streets with their alms bowls.  Locals have prepared rice and bring fruit and other food to put in the bowls.  Others are seated with their hands in prayer, and as the monks pass, some will take food from their bowls to share with them.  We sat across the street and enjoyed the peaceful motion of line after line of monks in saffron robes passing by for a while before the crowds of other tourists arrived – many of whom did not respect the tradition and instead were running up and nearly jostling monks out of line to get ultra close-up shots with their giant telephoto lenses while others turned to take selfies with the monks in the background.  The town is currently looking for ways to maintain the integrity of the ceremony, but the tradition is at risk due to the actions of disrespectful tourists.

Monks collecting alms

Monks collecting alms

 

Kampot

 Cambodia  Comments Off on Kampot
Apr 192014
 

From Phnom Penh, we took a karaoke bus down to southern Cambodia to the coastal town of Kampot.  The karaoke was a screen at the front and a man swapping out discs of Cambodian pop songs with corny 70’s style music videos.  It was humorous at first, but by the end of the ride, we were wishing we’d kept our ear plugs accessible!  Once we got to town, we put on our packs and walked past the huge durian and other tropical fruits statue and over to our hotel.  

Giant Durian in Kampot

Giant Durian in Kampot

Kampot is a relaxed town and we enjoyed a slightly cool breeze during dinner in the evening and got a couple of Khmer massages that first night.  (The verdict is that Thai massage is better than Khmer massage.)  The next morning, we got up early for a tour of the area.  As we got out into the countryside, every house we passed had little kids running up to the road or waving from their porches hollering, “Hello! Hello!” with huge grins on the faces.  We visited salt fields where they were harvesting basket after basket of large salt crystals from evaporated sea water pumped into the fields from 5km away, a small fishing village that also grew peanuts, a cave where some locals shared their green mango with us, and best of all, a pepper plantation.  Yes, pepper as in peppercorn.  Kampot recently gained GI status for their pepper and they’re very proud of it.  At the plantation, we saw how all 4 kinds of pepper they produce – white, red, black and green – are from the same plant. They explained when each was picked and how it was processed and let us taste each one – even the fresh green pepper right off the vine!  We also had a little pepper vodka – literally just vodka with a bunch of fresh peppercorn soaking at the bottom.  

Salt Fields

Salt Fields

Pepper vines

Pepper vines

After a seafood lunch on the water, we were supposed to end the day with a visit to Rabbit Island, but as we approached, we were informed that the government had closed the island for the day.  No one was quite sure why.  Our guide felt so bad about us not getting out to the island, that he called back to the main office and they quickly agreed to give us a free sunset tour on the river to compensate us.  We’re not sure what Rabbit Island had to offer, but we feel pretty confident that the sunset tour was better.  We took a large boat upstream until we could see only trees and mountains all around.  Then the ship dropped anchor and shut off the motor so we could enjoy peacefully watching the sun set into the mountains.  The captain then took off his shirt, climbed to the upper deck and did an impressive back flip and twist into the water!  Several passengers followed suit and soon there were about 10 of us swimming around or tubing out in the warm water.   

Captain Jumps Ship

Captain Jumps Ship

Eventually we had to head back to town.  We stopped for some ice cream from a man wheeling a cart through the city and ringing a bell before making our way back to the hotel.  Before our afternoon bus back to Phnom Penh, we enjoyed a relaxing brunch at Epic Arts – a restaurant that employs some of Kampot’s Deaf population as well as some other folks with disabilities. They hosts weekly sign language classes for those wishing to pick up Cambodian Sign Language and also have several art and drama classes for youth.  

Our flight out of the county wasn’t until the next day, so we were able to snag about 24 hours back in Phnom Penh to hit a few things we’d missed on our first go around. We walked around Wat Phnom and the central market, tried fried ants and Rachel even got up the courage to try one bite of the fertilized duck egg our hosts offered us.  She was careful to get a small bite that avoided bones and feathers. Yuck! We couldn’t find the place that served fried tarantula and decided that was okay.  

Phnom Penh

 Cambodia  Comments Off on Phnom Penh
Apr 152014
 

We arrived in Phnom Penh after our first ride on a “hotel bus” – a bus with beds instead of seats so you can lie down flat and if you’re under 5’ 3” even stretch out.  Compared to the vans and busses we had been taking, this was luxury!  We were both able to get some sleep on the 9 hour overnight ride and when we got off the bus, we had a tuk tuk waiting to take us to the hotel and on a tour for the day. (The driver we had in Siem Reap called a friend in Phnom Penh to meet us.)

After dropping off our bags and having a light breakfast at the hotel, our driver handed us hospital masks for the long, dusty, bumpy road out to the killing fields.  The place offered an audio tour that did well to capture the gravity of the history here.  As you walked around, everyone else around you was wearing headphones and solemn faces.  They had facts and numbers mixed in with personal stories from people on both sides of the Khmer Rouge.  There are several mass graves that have been found and excavated, but as we walked on the paths, we could look down and see new bones and scraps of cloth coming up through the sand.  We heard that this is a constant thing, and that every so often, someone comes through to collect new bones and personal effects that are uncovered to either bury them or to add them to those on display for people coming to learn about the violent history of the area.  One building held a glass case several stories high filled with the bones excavated from the mass graves.

Memorial Tower

Memorial Tower

Victims' skulls in Memorial Tower

Victims’ skulls in Memorial Tower

After quite some time at the killing fields, we had a moment to regain our composure as we traveled to another difficult place to visit – S21.  This is one of the prisons that was used by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. It had been a school until the Khmer Rouge came to power and eliminated all education in the country.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, had studied in France where he became a communist extremist.  Upon his return to Cambodia, he was determined to establish, “the most advanced and purist form of communism in the world” – a peasant farming society.  He believed that people living in cities were corrupt and those that weren’t killed were put to work as farmers.  In order to scare people into fleeing to the countryside where they were forced to work, often to death, he announced that the U.S. was about to bomb the cities. The threat was believable since the US was already carpet bombing Eastern Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War. They completely emptied every city in Cambodia in only 3 days.

We learned a lot from the guide we’d hired to take us through S-21.  We saw the prison cells (some still stained with blood), the torture devices, pictures of the thousands who passed through here, and heard many personal stories.  When we were leaving, we had the honor of meeting two of the seven known survivors of the prison.  One of them was spared because he was the only person who could fix the typewriter that was needed to type the false confessions of the prisoners.

Once we’d visited these two places, it was difficult not to notice how off-balance the population is.  There are very few elderly people and nearly everyone was our age our younger.  Of the 7 million people in the country, estimates say anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 were killed or died from famine. (Pol Pot ordered the country to triple rice production, not so they could eat it, but so he could sell it to China in exchange for more weapons.)

Monkey hitches a ride

Monkey hitches a ride

After such an emotionally heavy day we needed something to lighten our spirits, so the following day we signed up for a tour of the Phnom Tamao wildlife preserve which takes wild animals that have been rescued from being kept illegally as pets, workers or performance animals and rehabilitates them for re-release when possible.  We found an outfit called Betelnut Tours that gave all day guided tours and couldn’t have been more fortunate in our choice.

Aram, the Betelnut guide was spectacular.  He had been working with the preserve for so long he knew the stories of all of the animals.  He introduced us to each of the otters by name and made sure we fed each equally.  He pointed out which gibbons liked to be scratched and which you shouldn’t turn your back on at risk of having the hat stolen off your head.  We got to meet a gibbon, who, while carrying her baby, came to the side of the cage for a scratch. When Rachel scratched her on the back, she reached out and moved Rachel’s hand to her head.  She apparently prefers head scratches to back scratches. 

Rachel makes a new friend

Rachel makes a new friend

We also got to feed and massage Lucky the elephant who loves it when you hold his trunk and blow in the end.  Colin even got his hand licked – a very odd experience.  We also got to toss a coconut to Chook – the elephant that was given a prosthetic foot after his was caught in a snare.  At lunchtime, Betelnut provided a delicious meal with an assortment of Cambodian currys cooked by Aram’s wife, Vathana.

Colin and Lucky

Colin and Lucky

The wildlife preserve was clearly one of the highlights of our trip to this point.  Aram must have liked us as much as we liked him because after a brief chat on the phone with his wife they invited us, and the other couple on the tour, back to their house for dinner.  Dinner was a traditional Cambodian hotpot, where plates of meat, fish and veggies are laid out on the table (actually we ate on the floor) and a pot of broth bubbles in the middle.  Each of us could then cook whatever we liked and drink the broth as we went.

After dinner, we learned a bit more about Cambodian culture from as they showed us their wedding pictures. For example, a traditional Cambodian wedding takes 3-5 days and involves at least 10 costume changes for the wedding party.  (Our favorite picture was the one where they’d been photoshopped onto a bed and the stock bedroom photo the photographer used had a large stuffed pink panther on the shelf in the background.  Aram and Vathana hadn’t noticed until we pointed it out.)  Also, their wedding planning was a bit rushed because just a few months after he proposed, Aram was going to turn 29 and before his next birthday Vathana would turn 29.  Apparently 9 is such an unlucky number that if they had married at 29 many people wouldn’t have come to the wedding. 

As it was such short notice, Aram’s mom couldn’t get time off from work to attend and each couple needs to have a married couple to represent as their parents, so his father, who could come, wasn’t allowed to be in the wedding party.  Instead, they had one of his wife’s aunts and uncles sit in as the married “parents” for Aram.  During the ceremony, they had to feed and put make-up on the parent figures to represent the commitment to care for them in old age.  It was all really interesting and we felt like we were hanging out with old friends.  At the end of the night they helped us flag down a taxi and we said our goodbyes.

We were flying out in the afternoon of our last day which gave us just enough time to get to a restaurant we’d missed for the last couple days, Sugar n’ Spice.  This is a restaurant that helps to get women out of the sex trade by training them in various trades including restaurant work, but also a variety of traditional handicrafts that were then sold in the store downstairs.  Apparently 98% of the women they train are able to stay out of the sex trade and move on to better lives.  Not only was this a good cause but it was an amazing meal.  Possibly the new best meal we’ve had on our trip!

Siem Reap, Cambodia

 Cambodia  Comments Off on Siem Reap, Cambodia
Apr 072014
 

At our hotel in Railay we had to pay for internet separately.  We rushed to buy our tickets to Cambodia before running out of minutes and running out to climb.  We found that the cheapest place to fly into Cambodia was Phnom Penh, the capitol, but it had an overnight layover in Singapore.  As we’ve already learned, if you’re going to be stuck overnight in an airport Singapore’s the place to be.  When we came back from climbing we bought boat tickets to Krabi  airport for the following afternoon. 

Remarkably the boat/van ride got us to the airport in exactly the amount of time promised, which never happens.  Oddly, the ticket counter in the airport was empty and when we found the airline’s office they told us they didn’t have any more flights out that day.  When we pulled up our email we realized that in our hurry the day before we’d purchased a boat to Krabi but a flight out of Phuket!  Oops!

We couldn’t get to Phuket in time for the flight, so we found a flight to Bangkok’s domestic airport, a bus from there to Bangkok’s international airport, then a flight the following morning to Siem Reap.  In the end it probably worked out better this way logistically (aside from spending the night in the Bangkok airport and the wasted airline tickets).

We picked up a taxi to our home stay (Thanks Krista & crew!) which was a small bungalow at a family’s home.  We had hoped to rent their bicycles for the following day but another couple staying there already had them reserved.  Luckily, Thomas and Channa knew a local tuk tuk driver that offered a good price for a full day of touring the temples surrounding Angkor Wat.  They also informed us that if we bought our temple ticket a day in advance we could get the sunset tour that night followed by sunrise and the whole next day.

We enjoyed a relaxing sunset out at the temples followed by a tasty dinner with the family – Thomas, Channa, their 3 kids, 2 other guests and a couple of dogs that curled up underfoot.  Channa even invited Rachel into the kitchen to see some of the secrets to her spring rolls including shredded coconut and a tamarind peanut sauce. 

The next morning we got up at 5am to head out and start our day.  We went to Angkor Wat for sunrise – where the crowds seem to go to try to get the postcard shot of the sun reflecting in the pool out front.  However, since we were not interested in waiting amongst the crowd, our guide suggested we continue in through Angkor Wat instead.  Having a good guide made a huge difference. (Thanks Hayley and Todd!)  We were able to walk through all of Angkor Wat with only the occasional other visitor. It was so peaceful.  After hearing a couple of stories about the building and the carvings, we made our way to the back of the building where we watched the sunrise over the back wall with only a couple other visitors and a few monks.  

Tourists gathered at Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Tourists gathered at Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Monks at sunrise

Monks at sunrise

We continued the day seeing several main temples including our favorite – Ta Prohm.  The temple gained attention in the movie Tomb Raider, it didn’t need the star power of being used in a mainstream movie to draw in a crowd.  While many of the temples have undergone a great deal of restoration, Ta Prohm has largely been left the way it was found.  It was really something else to see how the jungle moved in to take over the temple!

Tree roots growing over a wall at Ta Prohm

Tree roots growing over a wall at Ta Prohm

We could have happily spent another day or two in Siem Reap, but were instead on to more exploring in Phnom Penh. 

Railay Beach, Thailand

 Thailand  Comments Off on Railay Beach, Thailand
Apr 042014
 

We took the speedboat to Railay Beach, which takes about 2 hours.  When you get there you have to transfer mid-water onto a smaller longboat which can get you close enough to shore that you can hop off and wade to the beach.  There didn’t appear to be any dry way of getting to land so it’s a good thing we were both wearing sandals and shorts.  

Railay is technically a peninsula but for all practical purposes it’s an island.  With beautiful beaches on 3 sides and steep cliffs to the North, the only way to get there is by boat.  Electricity is run from the “mainland” through some of the sketchiest wires you’ve ever seen, some even wrapped together and electrical taped at eye level in the middle of the forest while others lay flat on the ground where you knew they’d be siting in a puddle at the first rain.  Ice is brought by the boatload for fresh fish and cold drinks.  

Railay is one of the most beautiful places either of us have ever been.  The beaches are fine white sand and looking out into the ocean past the traditional longboats you see limestone karsts rising up out of the water in the distance.  Climbing those limestone karsts is one of the reasons we came here.  

Looking down on the beach

Looking down on the beach

There are no cars here and only a few motorized vehicles at all since the area is so small.  We walked to the East side of the peninsula and up the hill to our hotel in about 20 minutes.  On the way there, we ran into a traveler we’d seen earlier on our trip who informed us that they were filming a challenge for The Amazing Race just up the bend.  The contestants were given a choice to climb up (a cliff) or drill down (into enough coconuts to fill a bucket with coconut water).  We rushed to our hotel to drop off our bags then went to find the filming.  We just missed the actual filming, but saw the piles of coconuts along the beach.  

That evening, we explored some small caves, found stunning shells and corals along the beach and got to see some rock climbers way up on the cliff faces.  We had met some people climbing with a local outfit who were happy with their guide, so we set out to find that company and signed up to go climbing the following day.  This was Rachel’s first time climbing outdoors and it had been a few years for Colin but the guide promised routes for all levels of experience and he was absolutely right.  We each climbed several routes and each of us felt plenty challenged.  Rachel climbed higher than she’d ever climbed indoors.  Colin even got to do some lead climbing.  We completed our day scratched, bruised and exhausted but extremely satisfied.  

Rachel's fearless climb

Rachel’s fearless climb

The next day was set aside for what Colin was most looking forward to: Deep Water Free Solo climbing.  This involves taking a longboat out to just the right karsts, then kayak or swim to a rope ladder hanging from the cliff.  From there you climb up or traverse across as high as you’re comfortable with and either jump or fall into the water.  There are few places in the world you can do this due to the unique features required and this part of Thailand is one of the most famous or it.  

We signed up for a full day DWS trip which takes you out to one cliff in the morning, then supplies lunch, followed by an afternoon at another cliff.  The first cliff had something for everyone.  Good easy traverses across the bottom so you never had to get too high but also some upper routes so you could really get up there along with stalactites and little caves you could squeeze into.  It was a really fun experience.  

After lunch we rode out to the second wall.  This one was a bit higher to start but also the tide had started going out so it was way up there.  The rope ladder by itself brought you up higher than most of the climbers were willing to go and from there the only route was straight up another 15-20 feet.  Only a handful of us climbed this one and there was nobody who didn’t hesitate for a while to decide whether it really seemed like a good idea.  We had talked one of the guides into giving a demonstration so he went up… barefoot.  He climbed like a monkey on routes Colin would have been uncomfortable on with a rope then hung one handed off a huge stalactite before dropping into the ocean.  Colin climbed and jumped several times while Rachel got some great pictures from the boat.  

Colin leaping from the cliff

Colin leaping from the cliff

That night we were ready for some massage.  We got a recommendation on a place and ordered up 2 hours.  Two hour is the tradition after all.   This was some very intense massage and Colin had to cry uncle a couple of times.  The power went out a few times and there’s nothing more peaceful than a pitch black massage.  After that we got dinner and drinks while watching a local Muay Thai kickboxing match followed by some fire spinners.

Oh yeah, and in Railay we also had our first experience with a new kind of monkey.  Spectacle monkeys are a bit more timid than the macaques so they wouldn’t climb on you, but they sure did put on a show swinging through the trees!

You wouldn't believe it but their babies are orange!

You wouldn’t believe it but their babies are orange!

Mar 272014
 

There are a number of islands off the West coast of southern Thailand.  All have access to countless incredible dive sites.  Koh Phi Phi is the most well known and popular with the young party crowd while Koh Lanta is a little more off the beaten track so more popular with families and old fogies like us.

We bought bus tickets from Krabi to Koh Lanta. It was billed as a 2 hour drive, which of course means it’s a 3-4 hour drive in reality.  We were booked on the 11AM “bus” (turns out it was another over packed minivan) but that one was full so we couldn’t get on.  So was the next one…and the next.  At 12:30 we were finally able to get in a  van which didn’t drop us on Koh Lanta until after 4:30.  Along the way there are 2 ferries and while we rode the ferry the driver hopped into the back and gave the hard sell on a hotel he recommended i.e. he got a kickback from.  Luckily we had already booked and paid in advance so he gave up on us fairly quickly.  He was however pretty insistent that a room with 1 double bed and 1 single bed was perfect for the 4 Aussie guys traveling together.

We stayed at The Heart Inn (Aww) which was right in the middle of Saladan, the town on the north end of the Island and blocks from a number of dive schools.  We knew we wanted to dive while we were here, so we’d found 2 places that were recommended. Only 1 was still open when we got there, and we each signed up for the “Discovery Dive” the following morning.

We then wandered down to the end of a road and saw some locals walking down a wooded trail and decided to see where it lead.  Soon we found ourselves in a small local village where kids were running around laughing, playing tag, and enjoying covering their faces in baby powder. We also saw a group of young guys playing a sport we’d never seen.  They had a volleyball net up and a small (maybe 6” in diameter) woven wicker ball.  Similar to volleyball in the volley process, only you weren’t allowed to use your hands – only feet and heads.  They were really good and we watched for quite a while hoping they might ask Colin to join in.  No such luck, but maybe we’ll buy one of the balls and bring it to the next Ernst gathering.

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As the sun set, dozens of food stalls opened up in the middle of the street selling fresh fruit smoothies, fried spring rolls, and enormous “kabobs” which seemed more like shwarma and were so good we each had one at some point pretty much every day on the island.  Rachel was also thrilled to find corn on the cob and spiraled potatoes on a stick. “It’s like we’re at the MN State Fair!” she exclaimed.

The next morning we woke up early and walked to the dock.  They served us breakfast on the boat as we cruised the 2 hours to the dive site.  We were taken to Koh Ha, a group of 5 islands in a protected marine reserve that was too far off for any of the dive schools from neighboring Koh Phi Phi to get to, so it was more secluded. We were in for a treat!  As we neared the islands, Doa, the guide assigned to us, talked us through a little training on diving, hand signals and what to do in case of emergency.  The boat anchored and we got suited up.

As some of you may be aware, I (Rachel) am not at all comfortable in the water, so it was a big leap for me to try out scuba.  I was getting pretty nervous on the boat, but was also really excited.  After a few deep breaths, I was determined to get in the water.  It was all good until the guide had me put my face in the water.  The view was amazing and I saw divers way down below me, but then suddenly, I experienced a full blown panic attack.  I was hyperventilating and crying, “I don’t want to dive. I don’t want to dive!” which with the regulator in probably sounded much more dramatic. (“I don’t want to die!”) Doa helped me calm down and after a few minutes I tried again.  This time, I was able to at least look down longer and see some cool fish, coral and bright white starfish, but I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to want to go down.  Instead, I swam back to the boat and let Colin and Doa continue down without me while I enjoyed the view of the area from above water. Not a bad sight!

 

One of the 5 (Ha) Islands (Koh) of Koh Ha

One of the 5 (Ha) Islands (Koh) of Koh Ha

Colin here: I continued on with the guide to see an impressive array of fish, including parrotfish, clownfish, barracuda, and a big spiky blue dome that I learned later is actually a starfish that eats coral.  Diving is an amazing experience.  It feels like you’re flying over the reef and right through large schools of fish.  You can even hover over corals virtually motionless and watch fish munching on the coral or cleaning parasites off of other fish.  One monster shrimp even popped out to check me out for a bit.  I only brought the camera down for one dive, but did get some cool shots.  Still, none of the pictures even begin to show what it’s like down there.

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I had a snack and, as soon as I was allowed, dove back in for more.  Doa said that I was picking the skills up very quickly and recommended going for the full PADI Open Water Certification over the next 3 days.  We had been starting to feel a little rushed for time on our trip, but Doa said he thought I took to it naturally enough that I’d be able to complete it in only 2 more days, rather than 3.

We were sold.  Rachel would get a couple days to rest and explore the island on her own and I would get certified.  When we got back we rented a moped to explore more of the island.  Rachel got to try out driving a moped, which she’d never done before, so she could drive around the next couple days on her own.

That night I read through the PADI manual and the next morning whizzed through the pool instruction. The next day, we went back out to a different section of Koh Ha for the remainder of my certification.  We got through the first dive and all of the tests rather quickly, so the second dive was pure exploration.  We dove down to 18 meters (about 55 feet) and cruised the side of a massive cliff face seeing a giant clam the size of my torso, several lion fish and even a highly elusive frog fish hiding inside a coral.

Colin swims with the fishes.

Colin swims with the fishes.

While Colin dove, Rachel had some time to relax and explore the island.  She went down to Time For Lime cooking school and restaurant whose earnings fund the Lanta Animal Rescue which helps care for sick and injured animals on the island.  The cooking classes were all booked up, but they  are always in need of people to play with the animals and walk the dogs on the beach!  We also met up with our new German friends for some drinks and relaxing in a massive treehouse down by the water.  So far Koh Lanta is our favorite place yet.

Krabi

 Thailand  Comments Off on Krabi
Mar 222014
 

We left Georgetown and the island of Penang on a crammed minivan that we assumed was taking us across to the mainland where we would catch our bus.  It turns out, this crammed minivan WAS our bus.  The next 11 hours cuddled up with strangers – unable to put our feet down naturally since the luggage was tucked in under our feet had us ready to start looking for our first Thai massage.  When we arrived in Krabi – they asked each of us where we were staying.  For a couple of folks, the driver knew where they were headed and would take them there. Others were very close and could just get out there.  Us?  Well, the driver didn’t know where our hotel was, so we were told to just hop out there and ask at the tour agency.  Luckily, the tour agent had a small map of town that gave a general sense of where we were headed.  

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We first stopped for dinner with Marlena and Cedric (our German friends we’ve been traveling with) at a great little Italian restaurant and then made our way to the hotel.  The locals told us we would want to take a cab since it was “too far to walk” and “very far out” before adding “you have to walk maybe 15 minutes.”  Ha!  They’re apparently used to a very different breed of tourist.  We made our way there just fine and even got to see the night market on the way.  Walking also allowed us to check out the town and their eccentric traffic lights along the way.  Each intersection has a different theme but this was one of our favorites.  


The next morning, we met up with Marlena and Cedric for a trip to the Tiger Cave Temple just out of town.  The temple on the ground was small and had a few monks offering blessings and a gift shop with trinkets for sale.  Also, despite it being Tiger Cave Temple there was a random whale skull by the entrance marked with a sign that said, “Whale – Beware Monk Stealing Thing.”  We assume this was a mistranslation and they meant to warn us about the monkeys, but we kept an eye on the monks just in case.  

Someone did scratch the "ey" onto the sign to clarify.

Someone did scratch the “ey” onto the sign to clarify.

From this point, it was a mere 1,272 steps up to the primary feature; a huge golden statue of Buddha atop the mountain.  We made our way up, wishing that we’d started out earlier in the day when the sun was lower or perhaps even when our knees were a few years younger, but continued in good spirits – emboldened by the people passing us on their way back down who promised it was well worth the hike.  The moment we reached the top, the stairs to get there were forgotten.  The view was incredible!  And the statue of Buddha, seemingly being held up by dozens of carved demons, was indeed huge.  

Buddha with a view.

Buddha with a view.

When we arrived back at the bottom, we met families of the nicest macaque monkeys we’ve seen on our trip.  People would hand them grapes which they would gently take from their hand and eat.  Some even preferred to peel their grapes and leave the skins behind.  They must have been quite well fed to be that picky.  We also saw a woman set down the cap to her water bottle and fill it with water which the monkeys drank from.  At Batu caves the monkeys would have simply stolen the bottle, chewed through it and drank the water at the top of a tree.  

After that we went for a well earned massage.  It turns out that a “traditional” Thai massage takes 2 hours, and for $10, who are we to mess with tradition?  Thai massage is clothed (they provide loose fitting shorts), includes a lot of intense stretching and focuses primarily on the legs and low back.  

After that we went to dinner at Mr Krabi (thank you Chad and Becky!) which was delicious.  The portions were large, the service was great and the food was yummy.  The mojitos weren’t bad either. 

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At this point we were feeling fat and happy and were ready for bed, but on our way home we passed a number of other massage studios and decided that our backs and necks had been somewhat neglected in the earlier massage and it wouldn’t be right to deprive them.  So, off we went for another hour of massage on our upper body.  I’ll tell you, traveling is tough!