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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Save The Best For Last- Railay Bay

Hey, Allison here. Steve has given me the honor of writing this post. We have been beach hopping the past couple days and ended here at Railay Bay, off the coast of southern Thailand. The island is incredibly beautiful and pretty small. It only takes about 10 minutes to walk across the whole thing. The weather has been less than ideal... it has rained on and off every day. There go my hopes of bringing back a tan. Or probably more realistically a pretty intense sunburn. So maybe the rain has been in my favor. On the plus side, the rainy season brings many less tourists to the islands, which has been very nice. Our days have consisted of alternating spending time outside, walking the beach, sampling Thai cuisine, watching bad movies on one of the 3 English stations, cave exploring, and a little swimming in the ocean. A few nights ago we went to a bar that advertised fire dancing and it turned out to be pretty cool. I don't think there are many locals that live on this islands, more that people come to live here to work. The same guy that was playing guitar and singing John Mayer was the emcee and main performer in the fire show. And we saw other fire people teaching rock climbing and doing carpentry work the next day. Multi-talented fellows.

On to the main event! We leave today to go back to Bangkok via an overnight bus and then fly out to go back home the following day. That meant that yesterday was our last full day here on the beach. We have been wanting to rent sea kayaks and explore the massive rock formations that aren't accessible by beach, but the weather has been less than cooperative. We waited all day for the weather to calm down so we could take them out. When it reached a point when the wind wasn't blow-you-over strong and we thought we stood a chance in the water, we strapped on our life jackets and took the two-seater out. I'll be honest. I thought I was going to die. I am not a strong swimmer. Once we were out for about 15 minutes the wind died down and the waves became significantly smaller, I started to feel more confident. We paddled around for awhile and Steve had the idea to land the kayak on a very small stretch of sand surrounding this giant rock jutting out of the water. The tides are crazy here. The difference between high and low tide is what feels like a football field. We knew from the night before that the beach existed, but at this time you could barely see it. I was hesitant, but Steve insisted so we landed the boat and sat down on the beach to enjoy the view. After about 20 minutes, we decided our kayaks were due back soon and it was about time to head back. As I got up to go back to the boat, he said my name and I turned around to find him on one knee with ring in hand. It all went by so fast. I managed to say yes. It started to rain harder, so we spent a little more time on the island and then headed back to shore. Needless to say, we are both extremely excited :)

I believe Steve is planning on one more post to sum up the trip. We will be back in a couple days and look forward to seeing everyone again!! Much love!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friends and Seclusion- Phuket and Other Beaches

As much fun as Bangkok was, we were pretty excited to make our way down South and enjoy some beach time and island revelry.  Having a friend in Phuket to show us the ropes proved invaluable as we got to see much more than we would have otherwise.  It's funny how we can pick a country like Thailand and end up meeting with two friends to help us manage traveling around.  I feel like I have reached some sort of minor success to enjoy the hospitality of old and new friends, and I am excited to indulge that pride more in the future.  Perhaps when we attend World Cup 2014 in Brazil, we can further test the limits of our connections and mutual friends.

Phuket is Thailand's biggest island and attracts some serious tourism.  It is also the hub for further island exploration throughout the south.   This being said, you would think that transportation around the island would be just as easy as it was for the rest of the country.  We had grown accustomed to cheap taxis, red trucks that pick you up along their path for 60 cents or simply being able to walk places.  None of these things exist in Phuket due to the Taxi Mafia.  At first I thought this was a joke or an exaggeration founded in the ridiculous prices tuk-tuks and taxis charge, but it's actually a real thing.  A 10 minute ride that would cost about $1.50 in Bangkok is about $7-10 depending on your bargaining ability.  Efforts by the island have been made to establish more affordable transportation, but boats are sunk, taxi drivers are killed and city officials are on the mafia's payroll.  Crazy stuff, but I guess when you consider the mass tourism and a pure cash industry it isn't a total surprise.

Now that I have given sufficient background to the transportation situation I can more proudly explain how we beat the mafia's system: renting a motorcycle for $5 a day.  I had never ridden one before and traffic in other countries is always intimidating, but I am so glad we rented one.  It took me a while to feel safe, and even longer to feel safe with Allison as a passenger, but after a couple hours of getting around it was easily done.  I realize this is no major achievement for many of the readers, but I had a lot of fun doing it and highly suggest this method of transport in the future.  There is no way we could have visited the beautiful Rawai Beach, gone up to Big Buddha (seriously, a giant Buddha just up on a hill) and eaten at the different restaurants we did without the bike.  All for $5 a day!

It was great to meet up with Jason, who I taught with in Georgia.  He was a gracious host and was able to share his favorite spots with us since he has been here for about 9 months now.  I would like to elaborate briefly on people like Jason because it is a unique type of person that travels from country to country teaching English.  His roommate Tim is in Thailand for the world class rock climbing, his girlfriend is here because she had never been abroad before and wanted to travel before settling down in the States, some of his friends are musicians and travel the world posing as teachers so they can play their next gig and almost every other ex-pat has their own story.  These are the same type of people that go up to a ski lodge in Colorado and work for almost nothing so they can hit fresh powder every day.  I really value their free spirit and commitment to doing what they want to do.  Of course, there are many complaints a parent or grandparent would make towards such a lifestyle, but the freedom, the people and the passion these people all share justify the life choice.  I am jealous of them, easy as that.

Seeking further separation from tourism and society we went to Ko Phi Phi, an island about 2 hours away from Phuket.  Our Bungalow had a killer ocean view and a private beach to boot.  I was worried it would be too hot without AC, but since it is low season (rainy season) it was very manageable.  We fell asleep both nights to the repetitive lapping of waves just meters from our mosquito net-covered bed.  We arrived yesterday to Railay which is famous for its rock formations.  Expert climbers come from all over the world to conquer the sandstone cliffs, and it makes me wish I had trained all year to try one out myself.  I encourage you to google Railay, Thailand and see a couple pictures yourself, you will be jealous of us if you do.

We splurged a bit to stay at a nice resort with AC, a TV and hot water, but I must admit I appreciate modern amenities.  Life is great and we are sad to see our trip coming to an end.  We will try to spend as much time as possible on the beach over the next few days and take some good pictures to remember it by.  We miss everyone at home and are excited to tell more stories we we get back.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Family Time and Seafood- Back to Bangkok

We apologize for not keeping up with our 1 post every 3 day strategy, but we have been too busy, internet has been too scarce and we have simply been traveling a lot.  We are in good spirits as this is being written, but we had a stressful trip back to Bangkok from Angkor/Siem Reap/Cambodia and our journey from Bangkok to the south (Phuket, which is pronounced Poo-Ket) took about as long as our flight did from Chicago to Bangkok.

Summing up Cambodia and our final day at Angkor:  We watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat and explored the temple before the crowds overran it (pictures look good, coming soon I hope- it is hard to find an SD slot to upload).  Then we saw Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm which are the other two famous temples, the latter being the Tomb Raider one.  They were all incredible as expected, but the mass tourism about it all was overwhelming.  Tons and tons of Asian tourists littered every inch of Ta Prohm, more Nikons were in use at one time than I have ever seen before and little Cambodian children were relentless in their question "Lady, cold drink? Buy something?!"  Feeling a little exasperated, we called it an early afternoon and got some beers on the famous Siem Reap Pub Street.  Also, we had Vietnamese Pho and an Indian meal which were simply to die for.  It was sad to leave Cambodia because we knew we had only seen the most touristed area, but Bangkok loomed once again, and we were excited to finally get some beach time.

Having really found our footing in Bangkok, we found a neat little hostel near the mass transit systems and a giant, impressive mall (seriously, it is nicer than any mall I have seen in the States thus far.  I think we spent a total of around 10 hours there over the three day stay).  The highlight of our stay in Bangkok wasn't our shopping spree or bargain hostel, however, it was our time with Nat and her family (Nat is Torri Gray's friend from a high school exchange program).  We can't thank her or Torri enough for setting all of this up because our Thailand trip wouldn't have been the same without her.

Our first night we went out to the clubs with her and one of her friends.  The live band played popular Thai hits, so we couldn't sing along as many of the other frequenters were keen to do; however, that didn't stop Allison and me from dancing the night away and enjoying the rare American song.  It would be interesting to go to one of the clubs aimed at Westerners, but I definitely enjoyed our true Thai going out experience.  The experience did get us in trouble, though, because we came in late and I was loud -- much to the dismay of the up-to-now kind hostel owner.  We promptly changed hostels the next day to avoid the embarrassment of owning up to our shenanigans.

And now for one of our favorite days of the trip:  Our day with the Aroonmaharat family (Nat, her sister and parents).  A quick explanation of the family is simply a must.  Her dad is full of eccentricity, owning an expensive stingray collection among other items including a dragon fish, tiger pelts, samurai swords and ancient Buddha statues; the mother didn't speak any English, but it's amazing how Thai smiles, home cooking and a mom's arm on your shoulder can make you feel at home; her sister, Mild, was very shy and fun to be around; and Nat was a gracious host and an excellent translator.  We spent half the day admiring her father's collection (though Allison was a bit mortified by the tiger pelts: "This is the mom tiger, this is the son tiger" - insert proud smile and funny middle-aged Thai man), then we got a two-hour massage and then went out of the seafood meal of our lives.  It was a Smörgåsbord of crab, giant shrimp, catfish, mussels, soup, oysters, delectable sauces, fish cakes and a funny glass noodle dessert.  The meal was more than Allison and I ever would have expected from a host family we barely knew. I wish I could put into words how good it was and how grateful we were to share the meal with them.  It was a tough goodbye and we promised that we would stay with their family next time we come to Thailand.  I hope we keep that promise.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Border and Beyond- Cambodia and Angkor

Where to start!?  The border crossing wasn't as flawless as I had hoped.  In fact, I would have to say that we were bested by practiced scam artists.  It is frustrating and embarassing, but I have found some consolation in approaching the event as a learning experience so I will relate it to you. 

Things went awry just as we got to the border.  We were taken to a restaurant where we (a group of about 12 were on our van) were sat down at individual tables apart from each other and given their spiel.  They said that they would need to process a special expedited visa for us because we hadn't already acquired one.  We knew this was a scam because we had read about it, but if we didn't comply they would not take us the rest of the way (2-3 hours past the border to Angkor), which we had already paid for.  We were cornered and so we were forced, along with everyone else on the van, to cough up the extra 15 dollars.  This was the first and least embarassing of the two incidents. 

The second scam pains me to recall, mostly because I am more to blame and it could have been avoided.  Once we crossed the border we were told that we should exchange money to the local currency.  Though the USD is accepted country-wide because it is considered stable and tourism is so significant, we were told local vendors take advantage of it because they don't use the coins, only the dollars; so this would mean that a 50 cent water would cost a whole dollar.  That part made sense at the time, so we went to change money at the place they told us had the best exchange rate (they actually told us there was no fee whatsoever, but that was also a lie having done research on the exchange rate which is currently 4150 Cambodian Riel to 1 dollar, crazy right?).  We were told to hurry because our next leg, a private taxi was booked and waiting for us.  Long story short, we were all cheated out of about $20 from the exchange place.  We were all changing Thai Baht (30 Baht to 1 dollar) to the Cambodian Riel.  In retrospect the math is easy, but as we were being forced through and they wouldn't let us use electronics to calculate, we were shorted about 80,000 Riel , 600 Baht or ~$20each.  Ugh it makes me so mad, and I would have loved to catch them red handed and make a giant fuss, warning the rest of my co-travelers and exposing the Cambodian bastards for what they really were: malicious thieves.  And what tops it off is that they asked for a tip (really told us we better tip them) as we were loaded on to our taxi.  Good grief!  Alright, enough complaining.  I will never exchange money in a hurry again, and I hope that you will always do the obvious thing and count out the money, do the calculation and make sure you receive a receipt for the transaction as any trustworthy place will provide.

A brief blurb on Angkor so far:  These temples are crazy cool.  I really can't do them justice by explaining how intricate and ornate every inch of them is.  I can't convey their imposing massiveness by relaying a comparison of size.  I would only embarass myself if I attempted to describe the eerie, knowing face that is carved into the stone entrances all over the ruins.  Look at our pictures, do a 5 minute search on Angkor ruins and visit the place for yourself.  It's incredible. 

We have spent two days traveling the area and seeing ancient inscriptions above waterfalls, trekking through jungles to see what remains of a long-lost civilization and being humbled by thousand year-old temples.  We saved the best for last, however, and tomorrow we get to see Angkor Wat itself, Ankgor Thom and Ta Phrom (which was the filming location for Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider).  A post about them, the city of Siem Reap, and some local nuances will be up soon. 

Hopefully our cross back into Thailand won't prove as troublesome.  I hope all is well back home!  Check Facebook for new pictures which should be up very soon.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tasting and Feeling- Sukhothai

Sukhothai, the first capital of Thailand, is awesome.  Historical ruins litter the entire city over 3-5 square miles.  They date from the 14th century and they are straight out of a video game/Indiana Jones movie.  Allison and I explored part of the ruins on foot, and then rented a bicycle for a dollar and explored the other regions.  Giant Buddhas, assembly halls surrounded by stone elephants, ornate temples... considering these were the dark ages in Europe, life must have been pretty good in Thailand to have these kind of resources.  I am pretty jealous because we have nothing to compare to these 700 year-old artefacts.  Look forward to a ton of pictures coming soon.

After our two-day stay in Sukhothai we headed back to Bangkok and will head out from here to Cambodia early tomorrow morning.  We had to obtain US dollars for our visa along with 2"x2" photos of ourselves, so that was an adventure.  After we got the business stuff taken care of we thought we could indulge in an "American-style" evening.  We split a large meat pizza at pizza corner, shopped at a mall, grabbed a burger from McDonalds and even got an Oreo McFlurry.  Don't get me wrong, I love Thai food; however, it was nice to refuel our American tanks with a 2,000 calorie meal.

I have had a couple requests to elaborate on food, so I thought now would be a good time to do so:
Thai food is based on four flavors as previously mentioned: Sour, Sweet, Salty and Spicy (or bitter, depending on the translation).  With every single meal you will receive condiments to help balance these flavors.  For example, fish sauce for salty, sugar for sweet, pepper flakes and pepper juice for spicy and a lime for sour.  Loving flavor and sauce, I tend to over-season everything, but I love it that way.  Every meal comes with noodles or rice, but it isn't exactly that simple.  Just as Italians fancy their thousands of noodles, so do the Thais take pride in their rice and noodle and even rice noodle selections.  I can't say that I can really tell the difference between expensive Jasmine rice and the cheaper run-of-the-mill rice, but apparently it is there.  Most Thais don't cook for themselves often, so there are little restaurants -- more like street food -- on every corner in Thailand.  This dependency also makes a high competition market, so it's super cheap. Allison and I have had entire, multi-course meals with drinks for less than 4 dollars.  It's great.  While there are tons of dishes, I really miss the variety of food that we have in America.  We eat Italian, BBQ, mexican, burgers, asian and fast food all in the course of a week.  I haven't seen a culture yet with such a broad diet, but I guess I have only been to four countries besides the US.

Cambodia looms and we have a long day tomorrow.  Border crossings tend to be where most horror stories take place, but I think we have taken the proper precautions and are well-prepared.  Often, the borders are crooked because once you arrive there, you really have to pay whatever they ask because you have no other options.  It seems like luck plays the biggest factor, but I guess we will see.  Hopefully my next report is a positive one, I have a good feeling it will be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Figuring Things Out- Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has been a blast. It has been so nice to take it easy, do tons of shopping and sample all sorts of food. Plus, it is cool to figure things out on our own. We have done a lot of relaxing, but that isn't to say we have been completely lazy either. We explored old town Chiang Mai, shopped for hours along Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets, spent a day with elephants, ate "authentic" mexican food, took a cooking course, planned out our next leg in Cambodia and enjoyed Thai massages. It is easy to highlight the major things we have done, but as many of you world-travelers know, it is the small things that make up a country and its culture. I feel like we are really starting to appreciate these intricacies, and I am excited to become more aware as time progresses.
We have grown up as Thai tourists here in Chiang Mai. We would walk the streets and converse with local people about our trip, exciting events, their lives and then take advice on what we should do next. Allison I would just smile and look at eachother and think how nice everyone is. While I absolutely believe that the hospitality of this country is phenomenal, we were a little naive. A couple overtly nice locals pointed us in the direction of what we thought was the Tourist Authority of Thailand (known as TAT), the most trusted, recognized and accountable agency of tourism in Thailand. Not to say that all others are bad, but if you want the most fair prices, no gimmicks and only honest opinions, you have to go with them. We were pointed in the direction of T&T (also TAT on their signs) which took advantage of us as we booked our Cambodian get away. All in all, I think we were cheated out of $50, but it could have been worse. I could go into more boring detail, but it doesn't matter. Live and learn, right? I am still a little bitter about it, but now I know I shouldn't be so trusting and believe everyone is my friend, even though I love that disposition.
Even with that small misfire, so many things have been too amazing to really be down about. I honestly feel like I can cook half a dozen Thai dishes. I easily consider elephants my favorite animal, and I consider Mekwon, my elephant, a close friend. Shopping was great, our fellow travelers have been wonderful to talk to... life is good in Thailand. I think that this trip was considered audacious by some, but, compared to what youths from Canada, Australia and especially the UK it really isn't that exciting. Three European girls that we cooked with today are in the middle of a 1-year world-wide holiday, taking apopular "Gap Year." I wish that this was more common in the States, and I hope that our generation can propel the idea forward more and more.
Some funny things about Thai culture that I thought I should share: the people here are all skinny; woman obsess about fashion and looking good in public, no matter the occasion (no sweatpants/casual look here); no matter the service, you always pay after it is obtained (pay after you finish your coffee, fast food, internet use, etc.); shoes must be taken off when entering many businesses, eatings areas and especially temples; so many people know English (tourism is a MAJOR part of their GDP, so it makes sense, but it's still surprising); the food isn't terribly spicy- I haven't found anything here that is as spicy as Pearl Cafe in St.Louis; before taking money/tips, the provider will put their hands together in a praying motion and bow while saying thank you; you don't tip at restaurants at all; you can stay in an air-conditioned, wireless internet-having, cable TV flaunting guest house for $5 a night and you can get dinner for less than a dollar.

We are headed to visit the historical ruins and the second capital of Thailand, Sukhothai tomorrow. Then we have a night in Bangkok followed by the Cambodian border crossing, four nights in Siem Reap and a visit to the majestic Angkor Wat (please look it up if you haven't heard of it before, it looks incredible). We are ahead of our original schedule, so we might have time for something we hadn't anticipated. Stay tuned for more. I hope all is well back home.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Finding Our Footing- Bangkok

We are on our third day in Thailand, but it feels like we have been here for at least a week. A 22 hour plane ride, 12 hour time difference and noisy hostels definitely do work on one's Circadian rhythm. That being said, we could not be having more fun. We survived our first two days in Bangkok and, thanks to a mutual friend, got to see way more than we expected to. As I have been telling Allison, this is a lucky trip and I think the best is yet to come. Our first hotel picked us up at the airport which was great. I slept like a baby on the plane, Allison did not, haha. I got up early to explore and take in the smells, people and craziness that is Bangkok. We got breakfast and headed towards Khao San road which is the main backpacker area near Old Town Bangkok. Bangkok is MASSIVE. Seriously, I think it sprawls out more than Chicago which makes it more intimidating that I can express via blog. We met up with a mutual friend, Nat, who is a law student in Bangkok. She has been such a blessing and possibly the only reason we are still alive. She showed us around a major shopping area, MBK, which is a 7-floor mall touting every ware imaginable. She took us to a restaurant where we enjoyed Spicy Papaya salad, Waterfall Beef, Spicier Papaya Salad (gross actually), soup and none other than fried chicken (not KFC, though KFC is probably the most popular fast food restaurant in Thailand). We came back early, took a 6-hour nap, woke up to watch a Euro Cup match and went back to sleep. I got up really early and explored by myself and found delicious Pad Thai from a street vendor for $1. As if Nat hadn't helped enough she offered to show us around again. We went to a different part of Bangkok (God, the traffic is insanely awful, I would never want to live here) for noodles. Let me tell you, these noodles are something else. For 35 cents (10 Baht) you get a small bowl of noodles, so I think the three of us went through around 13 bowls. They were of all different flavors including one with a cinnamon flavor sauce, a pink bowl, a pad-thai like soupy noodle, and tiny baby noodles with beef. Thai cuisine focuses on four flavors: Spicy, salty, sweet and sour. You add condiments by preference to pretty much every dish to enhance/balance the flavor. I always tend to go too far spicy, however, whereas the Thais tend to add sugar to nearly every dish and even a bit of vinegar. After the noodles we got this drink that was made from grass apparently. It was basically sweet dark water with black, jelly-like wormy things. It wasn't as gross as it sounds, but I am still a bit traumatized by sucking these worms up through a big straw. We then went to a Wat (Wat Pho specifically), which is what they call their temples. There was this massive, and I mean enormous - at least 100m in length - reclining Buddha which we saw (picture coming soon). Allison participated in a fortune telling ritual with Nat and her friend and received a favorable fortune (some aren't so nice). We had to hustle back because our bus to Chiang Mai (12 hour trip north of Bangkok) was leaving soon. Nat came back to help us plan our time up north and was sincerely jealous that we were going to Chiang Mai (and for good reason, we love it!). The 12 hour bus ride was pretty grueling, but, per usual, I slept pretty well while Allison had water dripping on her from the Air Conditioning unit right above us incurring a sort of Thai water torture for hours on end. Chiang Mai has been splendid. It isn't so hectic, polluted or intimidating. Prices on everything from wares to food to accommodations are significantly reduced. Best of all, it just feels so much smaller and the traffic is negligible. The major mode of transportation are these red pick up trucks in which you just hop in after confirming that they can take you (and often multiple other people, usually Thais) to your desired location, although it might be after a couple other stops. We haven't been accosted by scam artists as we were constantly on Khao San road, and we haven't felt lost at all -- We feel like one could actually live here happily. We explored the old town area, stopped in at a couple of coffee shops to enjoy the AC and cheap Iced Mochas. We then went shopping for souvenirs on the Saturday walking street (along with half the city), and we plan on going out to visit the live music/bar scene here soon. All is well! It is nice to have so much of the trip yet to come, but also to feel a little established and adjusted. A little sleep deprived, sweaty and mosquito bitten we may be, but nothing can get us down when the best food you have ever eaten is a dollar a dish, every local you meet is kind and willing to help and days with elephants, cooking courses and beaches are yet to come. More soon!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

We are about to set sail! Thailand, Bangkok, Angkor Wat, mysterious temples, tombs and caves await us. Updates, funny stories, tales of great food and more await the reader. Look forward to our first official post about life in Bangkok before the week is over.