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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.