Thailand: Koh Tao

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

Jon’s second complete journal entry in less than a week!

This morning the minibus came and picked us up from our hotel and brought us to the high-speed ferry that took us to Ko Tao.  The boat is a catamaran that can seat about 150 but this morning there were only about 25 people headed to Ko Tao.  The ride was pretty much uneventful except for the fact that it did absolutely pour for awhile but by the time we got to the island it had stopped.

We headed to Ban’s Dive Center, one of the two biggest dive shops on the island.  It seems that there are only about 750 residents on Ko Tao and 28 dive shops, which means that prices are pretty good compared to what we are used to.  Rooms are free at the dive shop if you are taking a course so once we arrived we had to decide what courses to sign up for.  We had been thinking about getting our Dive Master certification in Australia but it would be much cheaper in Thailand…what to do?  Do we go for our Dive Master in Thailand or pay more and get it in Australia?

Either way we need to get our Rescue Diver and Medic certifications so we signed up for these two for the time being, which should keep us busy for the next 4 days and somewhere in those 4 days we should decide whether we want to go for 4 Dive Master too.  The consensus is that Dive Master should take about weeks but can be done in 2-3 if time is really an issue…great, another consideration for us to take into account!  Well, like I said, we have a few more days to figure this one out. 

Once we got our diving sorted out we headed to our room.  About now I should point out that we are staying at a dive school, not a dive resort.  This is important to remember as the rooms are rather spartan (to say the least) but at least we have a/c.  Heidi checked out the bathroom and noticed that not only do we not have any toilet paper but the toilet seat is completely split in two.  Quick, what do you do?  Now is also a good time to point out the rather large and heavy roll of duct tape that we have been carrying around for four and a half months, ‘just-in-case’.  In a repair job that would satisfy any man, we wrapped a bit of duct tape around the two splits and voila our toilet seat was fixed.  Throw in some toilet paper we liberated from one of the recent hotels we have stayed at, and the bathroom is in working order again.  No hot water, but hey, this is a dive school not a dive resort!  Actually Heidi made the observation that Ban’s sort of reminds her of her college dorm from her first year at UVA, except, as I pointed out, that UVA wasn’t on a tropical island and her dorm wasn’t right on the beach.

Since our first class isn’t until tomorrow we laid around and read our books for a while and then I went for a run.

Jon runs around Ko Tao (special appearance by Jon:  run #16)

After running around Chiang Mai three times I’ve been looking forward to a change of scenery on my runs.  Something tropical, maybe some beach views and lots of coconut trees.  That’s exactly what I got.  I headed out of the hotel and turned left, passing lots of other little bungalows and a few dive shops (there are about 20 dive shops on the island).  Eventually the road just ended at the top of this really steep hill so I gladly turned around and went back downhill.  Nothing terribly exciting on the trip, except for all of the coconut trees if that qualifies for excitement.  I did notice a Hogs Breath Saloon though, which is a bar on one of our other favorite islands, Key West…maybe we’ll have to just check it out and see if they are related!

After the run we napped for a bit and by the time we woke up we decided it was just about too late for dinner, so we just skipped dinner and read for a bit more then headed back to sleep.  It’s a rough life, isn’t it?

Thailand: Ko Samui

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

Shoeless Connals

We didn’t wear shoes today.

None.

Not at all.

We had a late breakfast and then settled into some hammocks in the treeline on the beach.  And that’s all we did all day.  We swung in our respective hammocks and read our books and listened to the surf.

Around lunchtime, we walked down the beach to a place called Cleopatra’s for lunch, and then we went back to the hammocks.  I napped for a while until 4:00, when the raindrops began to fall.  It was just a quick rain shower, but enough to send us back to our bungalow, where we sat on the porch and read until the rain stopped.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, and Jon ordered a delicious shrimp fried rice served in half a pineapple with cashews.  YUM.

About the most productive thing we did today was to make arrangements for our ferry ride to Ko Tao tomorrow.  This was especially productive because it involved me walking – barefoot of course – to the guest house desk and say, “We want to go to Ko Tao tomorrow…. Yes the 8:00 boat is fine…. They’ll pick us up?  Great…. Thank you.”  And then I walked back to the hammock.

It’s a rough life, but someone has to support the tourism industry.

Thailand: Chiang Mai to Ko Samui

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

We woke up early because we needed to leave for the airport at 10:15, and we needed to get to the bookstore and get some take-away lunch because we had a long travel day ahead of us.  So we headed out at 9:00 to see if we could get sandwiches from Jerusalem Falafel – CLOSED!  Then we went to Gecko Used Book Store (where we were the other night) – CLOSED!  It seems as if nothing in this town opens up before 11:00 except the Internet Cafe.  So that’s where we ended up until 9:45.  Gecko Books opened up about then, so we went and sold some books and bought some other books.  The man who owns the store (an American from Langley AFB) told us that we didn’t need to get to the airport quite as early as we thought we had, so we piddled around for a little while longer in the book store and then went back to the hotel to leave.

We caught a Tuk-Tuk (rickshaw) to the airport for 50 Baht ($1.10), went through the x-ray machines and got in line to check in.  After about 10 minutes in this VERRRRYYYYYY slow-moving line, Jon looked up to see that our 12:00 flight to Bangkok had been pushed back to 2:00.  It was then 11:00.  After another 45 minutes we finally got to the front of the line and checked in.  Because of the flight delay, they had already rescheduled our connecting flight to Ko Samui, and gave us vouchers for lunch at the restaurant upstairs in the little airport.  So we were quite happy.

Ko Samui

In the end, our 2:00 flight didn’t leave until 2:20, and our 5:10 flight from Bangkok didn’t leave until 5:30.  So we got to Ko Samui at 6:45-ish which was disappointing because we wanted to see it in the daylight.  Ko Samui is an  island off the east coast of Thailand that’s definitely touristy but also a borderline paradise.  Let me put it in perspective: the airport terminal had no walls.  It was a number of thatched-roof huts with people working at wooden counters.  I was immediately charmed.

Jon and I had scoped out the places listed in Lonely Planet and had found a few low-budget bungalows to stay out.  But the “airport” had a hotel desk with a few photo albums of various hotels and bungalows, and we decided just to reserve through them because we didn’t want to get out to a place and find out it was full or unaffordable.  Then we’d be left without a taxi driver in the dark.  So we flipped through the albums, found a cheap but clean place, and we hopped in a mini van and were off.

New La Paz Villa

The New La Paz Villa is a cute little collection of bungalows on a beach called Hat Mae Nam.  The rooms are clean, although the sheets are pretty old and so are the curtains.  Our bungalow isn’t right on the beach (that was 300 Baht more), but who really cares when it’s only an extra 20 seconds of walking?  We settled in and then made our way to the beach-side restaurant for dinner.  We couldn’t see the beach because it was so dark, but we could definitely hear the waves!  We ordered dinner and beers and felt ourselves relaxing even more.

After dinner, we sat and enjoyed the fresh air and the sound of the waves.  There were maybe 6 other people in the restaurant, and it had mostly cleared out by the time we were done with dinner.  We ended up sitting and chatting with another couple for a while – Eugene and Jammy from Ireland – who were just beginning their year-long trip.  It was a lot of fun talking to them, and I practically drooled over their Sony digital camera, despite my resolution to boycott proprietary technologies.  Seeing their photos of Chiang Mai made me miss my Canon desperately!  We hung out with Eugene and Jammy until about 10:30, when we all decided it had been a long day and was time to turn in.

Thailand: Chiang Mai

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

Today we took a Thai cooking class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (http://www.thaicookeryschool.com) and it was AMAZING!!  This school has been written up quite a bit for being one of the best ‘bangs for your buck’ sort of thing, and it’s exactly the type of culture Jon and I were looking for when we signed up the other day.

We got there at 10:00 for tea and coffee and to wait for the rest of the class to show up.  There were 9 of us all together – all westerners but that’s obviously who these classes cater to.  The name of our class is “Intro to Thai Cooking” which is the first in a series of 5 classes but we’re only taking this one.  Yui and Timmy, our two instructors, are very witty and charismatic Thai women who definitely know their stuff.  Yui kicked off the class with a lecture about various spices and Thai veggies, what they’re for, how to cut them, and how to store them.  It was definitely informative, and she made more than one crack about the benefits of spices on the digestive system.  Jon, of course, found this topic very amusing.

Tom Yam Goong

At 11:30, we were shown how to make our first dish: Tom Yam Goong – or Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup.  We had to peel the prawns, cut the various vegetables, and cook everything up, but all in all it was a cinch!  Of course, cooking is very easy to do when someone else does the shopping and cleaning, but it was still fun.  It was SO GOOD, and very spicy.  

Tord Man Plaai

After the soup, we learned to make Tord Man Plaai – Thai Style Fish Cakes.  These are fresh-water fish cakes made with scallions, cilantro, red curry paste, and some other stuff.  Our jobs were to chop everything up, mix it together, form the little cakes, and take them to the wok where one of the “assistants” helped us by frying them.  I wasn’t too crazy about them, although the dip that we made with cucumbers, vinegar, and peanuts was awesome.

Gaeng Kheo Wan Gai

Then we learned how to make Gaeny Kheo Wan Gai, which is Green Curry with Chicken – a Thai specialty.  This has Thai eggplant, coconut milk, spices, and red peppers and is OH SO GOOD.  It didn’t take long at all (again, someone else had already shopped and set out the ingredients for us) and we were really anxious to it because it was almost 1:00 and we were hungry.  But they told us to save it for lunch and we settled into our next quick recipe:

Pad Thai

If you haven’t tried Pad Thai, then you really haven’t ever had Thai food.  This is a staple Thai dish much like “fried rice” is to Chinese food.  Pad Thai is fried noodles with bean sprouts, tofu, and peanuts.  We were shocked at how easy it was to make.  We learned it in no time and went back to our stations to whip up our own dishes.  So quick and easy!  Why don’t we make this more often?

Then we all got to sit down and enjoy our Pad Thai and Green Curry with Chicken.  Jon and I shared a table with a girl from Canada who is here in Thailand taking massage courses.  Pretty darn cool.

Thai Chicken Salad

When lunch was over, we went back to the work stations to learn to make Thai Chicken Salad.  Unfortunately, none of us were hungry enough to eat it so the food kind of went to waste.  Regardless, it was pretty good with scallions, cilantro, red pepper and chicken.  And it was quick and easy to make.

Tab Tim Grob

Lastly, we learned to make Tab Tim Grob, which are water chestnuts in coconut milk and syrup.  We’re not big fans of water chestnuts, but there was something about this desert in the heat of the afternoon that was absolutely delicious!

We were done with the class at 4:00, and were given cookbooks which detailed everything we learned today.  This is great because we’re going to forget it all in a matter of weeks.  But what a great way to spend a day!  I swear I won’t have to eat ever again.

Jon Goes for (yet) another run around Old Chiang Mai (special appearance by Jon:  run #15)

I know it might seem boring to do the same run three out of four days, so I decided to mix it up a bit.  First I decided that instead of just running around the perimeter of the old city, I would instead run a figure-8 through the city thus increasing the distance of the run substantially.  Also, since there are supposed to be 121 Wats in the old city itself, I decided to determine how many I could actually see along my run.  I think what made me want to count the Wats was when I realized after passing my third 7-11 (yes, they have 7-11s in Thailand, practically everywhere) that I had only passed three Wats.  The final count evened up a bit for the Wats, which is good since the oldest Wat was built in 1296 and the oldest 7-11 was built in about 1996.  Oh yeah, the final count was (25) Wats and (6) 7-11s.  Sort of like a miserable losing score for a Redskins game!

Of course, I was wrong when I said we wouldn’t have to eat again.  When dinner time rolled around we were just as hungry despite our eating fest this afternoon.  But we didn’t want to spend a lot of money at a restaurant because the cooking course wasn’t cheap.  So we went out to one of the night markets where there are little food stalls and we got two orders of Pad Thai for 10 Baht each – about $.50 total for the two of us.  Now that’s what I call a bargain!

Great day.  Great culture.  Great way to learn how to give our friends food poisoning in exotic ways!

Thailand: Chiang Mai

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

We did practically nothing today.  The days of sightseeing and traveling and stuff has caught up with us, and all we wanted to do today was sit around and read our books.  There was a little bit of activity, but mostly it was a relaxing day in our room.  Jon went for a run in the morning, so here’s what he has to say about that:

Jon Goes for another run around Old Chiang Mai (special appearance by Jon:  run #14)

My last run around the old city was so nice, I decided to try it again.  I noticed that once I got outside it was a bit misty out, which I figured would keep the heat away for a bit.  Wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t been running for three minutes when it starts to rain harder and harder.  It didn’t actually pour, but it was a constant rain.  At least it wasn’t as hot as it could have been.  Just as I finish my run the rain completely stopped and it became a sunny day.  I swear the weather here is just like Florida!

We went for lunch at Jerusalem Falafel, which was just as good and as inexpensive as it was yesterday.  We walked around the furniture market for a few minutes, admiring the lovely teak furniture but then we went back to the hotel for more relaxation.

For dinner, we went to the night market, where we walked around looking at the stalls and bought a few t-shirts to get us through the next months.  We had dinner at a little place in the back of the market with outdoor tables.  I don’t know if it had a name, but there were a lot of locals there so it must be good – and it was.

Random Ruminations

To make up for our lack of culture today, here are few random ruminations:

  • Ice Cream Vehicles: Throughout our travels, we have seen a number of strange ice cream vehicles – similar to the ice cream trucks of our childhoods – but not.  On the Red Sea, we saw an ice cream boat, which pulled up to our scuba boat selling ice cream for an absurd amount of money.  In Vietnam, we saw Ice Cream Bike which played silly XMas music and road all over town.  We saw an Ice Cream Bi-ped in China, which was a guy walking around selling ice cream.  We’ve also seen an Ice Cream Dolly – a guy selling ice cream which he wheeled around on a dolly.  And today we saw an Ice Cream Sidecar, which was a guy on a motorcycle selling ice cream out of the side car.  These are all interesting to us, although I can’t rationally explain why.  But we find it all very amusing and it’s turned into a sort of game.
  • Geckos: Asia has geckos.  Everywhere.  They don’t bother me at all, in fact I welcome them because they eat bugs.  I just find it noteworthy that they’re everywhere.  It’s not uncommon to look up and see little Geckos on the roofs of restaurants, the walls of Internet Cafes, and especially in our bathrooms (they like humidity).  But what’s funny is that some little animal was making quite a loud chirping noise in our bathroom last night.  I can’t figure that these little geckos really make that much noise, but whatever it was eventually left and continued on it merry way.

Thailand: Chiang Mai

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

Special guest appearance by Jon:

Being the wonderful husband that I am, have decided to give Heidi a day off from journal-writing.  I can’t even remember the last time I wrote an entire entry–I’m so lazy!

Our taxi driver from yesterday, Sanong, also does sightseeing tours around the outer areas of Chiang Mai, and the price was right (600 Baht, or about $13), so we met him this morning at 8:30 and hit the road.  First stop:  the elephant camp.

The Elephant Camp

On the surface, an elephant camp sounds innocent enough, right?  We should have known better when we saw the “No Refund” sign at the ticket booth, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  The woman at the ticket booth offered us tickets for a one hour elephant ride and an elephant show; Heidi and I both thought the elephant ride would be interesting but balked at the price:  $25 for an hour on an elephant!  We opted for the elephant show only and handed her the 200 Baht ($4.50) and walked where she directed us.

It turns out she hadn’t really been thinking where she was sending us and we ended up getting onto the back of one of the elephants before she realized that she hadn’t paid attention to the fact that we only bought tix to the elephant show.  We got off of the elephant, which we were already deciding we wouldn’t ride even if it were free because of the way the handlers treat the animals, and laughed to ourselves that at least we sat on the back of an elephant!

Even though we had bought tickets to the elephant show, it seems that they weren’t going to give us an exclusive show so we had to wait for other people to show up at the elephant camp.  45 minutes later the show started.  In the meantime we sat and watched the elephants as they were chained to trees on what looked to be rather short leashes and watched the handlers beat them with sticks to get the elephants to go where they wanted, and decided that we were pretty glad we hadn’t gone for an elephant ride.  

The show itself was rather unremarkable.  One elephant dragged a couple of logs across the ground while two others stacked them on top of each other.  This was followed by the elephants sitting on their butts and waving their front legs in the air then some cheesy 70s music was played and the elephants immediately started dancing to the music.  They also played the harmonicas.  Next came some reggae and the elephants continued to dance and for the grand finale one of the elephants kicked a soccer ball into the goal that was about 10 meters away.

In the end we were pretty ashamed at ourselves for paying money to see the show as it only encourages the people to continue their poor treatment of the animals but we took some comfort in the fact that it was only a small amount to pay to gain insight into why we wouldn’t want to go to any similar animal parks.  We told our driver that we would be skipping the Monkey School and the Snake Farm which were next on his list of places for us to see.

Bamboo Rafting

We had heard great things from Grant about the bamboo rafting in Thailand so when the driver offered to take us to someplace where we could do this we happily agreed.  We drove about 30 minutes and ended up at a large bamboo hut that was right next to a little river.  This looked like a relaxing way to spend some time so we enquired as to the price.  The bamboo rafting was the same price as the elephant ride and was for only 40 minutes; we had balked at the elephant ride price so the rafting price seemed ludicrous to us.  Remember, we had paid roughly the same amount for both of us to go whitewater rafting for a whole day in Nepal with Mark and Laura!  (See August 27)  $25 to ride on a bamboo raft for 40 minutes…all I could think of was the quote from the great showman P.T. Barnum, “A fool and his money are soon parted.”  At least Barnum gave the people their money’s worth!

Chiang Mai Floating Restaurant

By now it was noon and we were starving so we asked Sanong to take us somewhere to eat.  We ended up at a nice place that was on a large pond (or was it a small lake?) and Heidi and I sat down and ordered drinks and lunch.  The place was almost completely empty so we were a little surprised when Sanong sat down with us.  I guess we figured that he had taken us to a nice romantic place so we could have some quality time…JUST THE THREE OF US.  Sanong’s English wasn’t the best so we pretty much sat there, the three of us, trying to ask about Sanong’s grandchildren, and eventually Heidi and I ended up doing some planning for the remainder of our trip in Thailand.  Of course when the bill came it was just expected that I would pay for Sanong’s lunch too.

Heidi and I decided when we got back to the car that we really missed our driver in India, Vinod.  Not only was he a great driver, but he also politely refused to eat with us – even when we invited him!

Viewing the various handicrafts available in Northern Thailand

After lunch Sanong took us to a little place where they make (and of course sell) lacquerware.  It’s an interesting process that basically consists of using either teak or bamboo as the base for the object (plate, picture frame, box, whatever) and coating it with lacquer (which comes from the Lacquer Tree, of course!) about 10 or 15 times.  It takes about 2 months for the entire process to be completed and then they either paint the objects with very ornate decorations or they decorate them with goose and chicken egg shells.  It really does come out quite nice, but we couldn’t talk ourselves into carrying something around with us for at least another month so instead we got some nice pictures of the whole process.

Next stop was at a little place that sold handicrafts and stuff in the front of the store and fine silk rugs in the back half of the store.  We bought a couple of Christmas tree ornaments that are made of paper maché then lacquered and painted very neatly.  We looked at the rugs for about 15 minutes, but mostly just to appreciate the rug that we already have waiting for us back home!  The rugs here were at least two or three times the cost of the rug we bought in India.

Next came this huge jewelry store that proclaimed on the sign out front:  World’s Largest Jewelry Store.  I doubt that, but it was quite impressive.  About 1/3 of the place was an open area where we could watch the jewelers melt the raw materials (silver and gold) then mold the metal into rings and eventually mount some valuable jewel onto the ring.  We also got to watch the artisans manufacture the little jade statues of Buddha that we have seen for sale since we got to Nepal two months ago.  Of course the remaining 2/3 of the store was a well laid-out showroom with all of their jewelry available for sale.  We looked around for a bit and decided that if we came back to Thailand we would have to stop here again.

We headed next to a large silk showroom.  The tour started out with a nice explanation of where the silk comes from (silkworms, of course) and how they make the silk thread and eventually how they weave it into the fabric.  Of course the next thing to see was the showroom with all of the beautiful silk things for sale.  Again, another place to come back to in the future when we are next in Thailand.  We bought some silk for Heidi’s mom to use in the quilt that she is making for us, and I dragged Heidi out before she could start trying anything on!

Next stop on our shopping odyssey was a trip to see how they make those little paper umbrellas.  Like the ones you would find in some tropical drink, only bigger.  We got to watch the entire process from the manufacturing of the handmade paper to the cutting of the bamboo that gets used for the supports on the umbrella to the lacquering and finally to the hand-painting.  It was all very interesting but again we couldn’t rationalize carrying anything that we could have bought as it would have probably just broken, so we got some more nice pictures!

The last stop was a new store that the driver didn’t know much about.  Of course, if he doesn’t know anything about it, why, you ask, would he take us there?  It seems that the drivers get a commission from the store owners for everyone they bring to the stores, regardless of whether we buy anything.  So we headed in knowing that this was the last stop for the day.  They really had some nice things, one of which was a quilt made in India that was made from old silk Saris.  It was really nice but we have been collecting fabric along the trip so Heidi’s mom can make a quilt for us so we made a mental note of how nice it was and eventually headed to the car for the trip back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel

Once back at the hotel, we laid around for a bit and rested, reading our books until it was time for dinner.  I have been longing for middle eastern food since leaving Egypt so we went to a great place nearby called Jerusalem Falafel.  It was great.

We came back to the room and I decided to catch up on my journal reading and made it up to two days ago then fell asleep with the laptop on my chest!

Thailand: Chiang Mai

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

We woke up around 7:00AM and let the steward put away the upper berths and collapse the lower berths into seats.  The train arrived in Chiang Mai at 8:30.

We caught a taxi to the hotel we’d chosen – the Roong Ruang.  It’s a motel-like hotel in a quiet little courtyard.  Our room is clean and a bit small, but it has A/C and a fridge and costs $10/night.  We rested in the hotel for a few hours and tried to nap but really couldn’t sleep much.

So we decided to head out to walk around and to get an early lunch.  On the way to the restaurant we’d chosen, we passed an STA Travel and stopped in.  Last night on the train, Jon and I came to the conclusion that we were tired of sight-seeing and just wanted to sit on a beach for a few weeks.  So we’re going to bag our plans to go to Sukhothai, Kanchanaburi, Three Pagodas Pass, and The Bridge Over the River Quai.  Instead, we’re going to head straight to Koh Samui and onto Koh Tao.  Koh Tao is a small island that’s entirely devoted to scuba diving – just what we want right now.  The problem is that – to get there – we have to take two trains over two days, a variety of buses, and two ferries.  Or, we can fly into Ko Samui and take one ferry to Koh Tao.  Despite our financial situation, we decided to opt for the flights and will subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next few weeks.

Wat Chiang Man

So we set out to get a little culture today.  We walked into the “Old City” to see the Wat Chiang Man.  It was about a 15 minute walk, but it was nice to see the town. The wat is the oldest in the city, and was founded by King Mengrai in 1296.  It has massive teak columns inside the temple and had lovely paintings on the walls.  In another building in the complex were two important Buddha statues.  One (Phra Sila) was a marble bas-relief Buddha about 20cm high.  Legend says that it came from Sri Lanka or India 2500 years ago, but experts say that no Buddha images existed over 2000 years ago so this is unlikely.  The other Buddha image (Phra Satang Man) is a crystal seated Buddha which is 1800 years old.

After our “culture fix”, we went to the Internet to do some research on Koh Tao and went back to the hotel.  I took a nap and Jon went out for a run.  (I’m lazy, what can I say?  I also don’t have any running shoes which gives me a convenient excuse not to exercise.)

Jon Goes for a Run around Old Chiang Mai (special appearance by Jon:  run #13)

After running for three days in a row, I ended up taking a couple of days off.  Today I took a look at the map of the old city that is included in Lonely Planet.  The map makes it look like there is still a wall around the old part of Chiang Mai and I figured I’d go for a run around the perimeter.  After passing through the archway the wall mysteriously vanished, reappearing only around the corners of where the old wall had been.  I figure the bricks were probably stolen over the years and used to build new buildings as they were built, similar to what we saw in Egypt, India, Tibet, and China.  Well, the old city also had a moat around it and this was still in place, so I ran around the perimeter of the moat.  As nice as the gym at the Renaissance was, It was good to get outside and run again.

For dinner, we headed out to a little place called Aroon’s which had great Thai food for incredibly cheap prices.  We ate for about $4.00 total, which of course includes dessert! 

Thailand: Bangkok

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

We had a very, very hard night’s sleep last night.  The electricity kept turning off in our room (and 3 other rooms on our floor), which would turn off the air conditioner and the room would become stiflingly hot.  This happened at least 4 times, and each time we would call the front desk and they would switch a fuse to fix it.  But by 4:00AM we were so tired of it happening that we asked them to move us to another room.  They moved us to the third floor and – once the A/C kicked in – we finally got back to sleep.

THEN we got a wake-up call at 6:00AM.  I can’t remember the last time I heard Jon get that angry.  He practically bit the guy’s head off over the phone.  And I don’t blame him!

At 9:30 this next morning, we went back to our room and got dressed and headed down to breakfast.  There, they forgot our order and we had to wait a 1/2 hour for our eggs to arrive.  So we asked for a refill on our tea – for which they charged us!  Enough of this.  I’m ready to leave this place and get out of Bangkok.  It’s not a bad town, but I’m no longer in the mood for a big city and I want to get out into the country again.

Wat Phra Kaew and The Grand Palace

We caught the Skytrain to the waterfront and took a water taxi to Tha Tien where the Grand Palace is.  Because it didn’t open until 1:00, we stopped and had a drink and a bite to eat at a little place on the waterfront.  Then we began to walk the few blocks to the entrance of the palace.  We didn’t really know where the entrance was, and we stopped at one entrance with a guard to see if we could get in, but he waved us away.  A tout approached us and told us that – because it was Sunday – there was a special ceremony until 3:30 and we couldn’t get in.  He then tried to tell us somewhere else we could go and of course he would take us there.  So Jon looked at me and said, “Well, let’s go get a picture of the front gate anyway.”  which I knew to mean “This guy’s full of $#()*@^ so let’s ditch him fast”.  So we continued walking and rounded the corner where we saw a few more entrances.  On our way to the main one, we were stopped by a well-dressed man who told us we couldn’t get in because of the way were were dressed.  We knew that entrance to the palace required conservative attire, so we’d brought some of my sarongs to cover up our legs.  But this man said my shoes didn’t have backs and sarongs weren’t allowed.  Then he asked us where we were from and we knew immediately where this conversation was headed.  So Jon used the “Well let’s get a picture anyway” line and I promptly followed him.

Inside the palace gates, sure enough, they wouldn’t let us through with our current attire.  Now, Jon was in shorts, a t-shirt, and Tevas and I was wearing my new embroidered sleeveless dress with black slip-on shoes (I was dressed quite nicely, actually).  But they didn’t like any of what I was wearing and they wouldn’t let us get in with sarongs.  So we had to go to the “borrowed clothes” line to get some more “appropriate” attire.

Jon had to put on some long pants that were too short for him, and which he said reminded him of the pants he used to wear as part of his Catholic school uniform.  His t-shirt and Tevas passed the “appropriate” inspection.  I, however, had to put on a purple plaid short-sleeved shirt and had to change my pretty slip-ons in for some heinous black plastic shoes.  Not that I’m vain, but I would like to understand how this ridiculous attire was more “appropriate” than what I had worn into the palace.  There were people in jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes who – I think – looked much more casual.  Well, annoying or not, this is what they considered respectful so I was going to wear it.  We walked in and bought our tickets.

Royal Thai Decorations

The first thing we came to was the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavilion which was air-conditioned so we went in.  Inside were some beautiful displays of crowns, necklaces, broaches, swords, and medals worn by the royal family.  It was a lovely exhibit.  We also saw the different “attires” for the Emerald Buddha which is part of the Wat here in the Palace.  The Buddha has 3 different seasonal outfits – cold season, warm season, and rainy season.  These outfits are changed 3 times a year in a very traditional ceremony overseen by the King.  The rainy season outfit was not in the display because it was currently on the Buddha.

Wat Phra Kaew

We walked into the Palace grounds and stopped right where we were.  It was unbelievable.  Everywhere we looked was gold, colorful mosaics, gorgeous tiled roofs, mirrors, chedis, and statues.  It was incredibly beautiful, and I couldn’t get over the colors.

Our first stop was the Wat Phra Kaew – home of the Emerald Buddha.  The temple was an enormous structure built solely to house an image only 75 cm high.  We took off our shoes and walked inside and sat on the carpeted floor.  The place was packed with tourists and Buddhists alike.  The Emerald Buddha was sitting in a glass case on a massive golden shrine about 2 stories high, surrounded by statues, candles, and flowers.  The Buddha was so far away that we could barely see what it looked like.  It was almost lost in the incredible ornamentation of the Wat itself.

The Emerald Buddha is also called Phra Kaew Morakot, and is probably made of jade or jasper quartz.  Legend says that it was discovered in the 15th-century, when it was covered in plaster and placed in a Chiang Rai Wat.  The abbot who discovered it noticed that the plaster on the nose had flaked off, revealing green stone underneath.  The abbot initially thought that the green stone was emerald and that’s how the legend of the Emerald Buddha began.  Since that time, the statue has seen its way through numerous monarchies, wars, and countries – at one time it was kept in Laos by a Laos king.

Also around the wat was a copy of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Jon and I have talked long and hard about going to Siem Riep in Cambodia while we’re “in the neighborhood” but we just can’t afford the trip or the visas right now.  So we got a few pictures of the model just to feel like we’ve been there.

We walked around the parts of the palace to which we were allowed access, but we only had a few hours to see as much as we could.

Bangkok Train Station (Hua Lam Phong)

We left at 3:00 and caught a water taxi back to hotel.  There, we had a quick bite to eat, took showers and finished packing.  Our overnight train was scheduled to leave at 7:40, but the story about traffic in Bangkok is that it can take an hour to get anywhere via the roads.  So we caught a taxi at 6:00 to head to the train station.

We got there 15 minutes later.

And, of course, the train station wasn’t air conditioned and we were hot.  There were little A/Cs in the food court, and we made our way to one of the tables in the A/C air flow.  We sat there for an hour and a half, with a trip to Diary Queen for Blizzards to cool us off.  At 7:20, we got our stuff and went onto the train.

Our seats were in 2nd class sleepers, and much of the train was sold out so our seats were upper berth and the seats right next to the door to the car.  This means that we’re in the main bathroom-traffic zone.  But the car was air-conditioned and clean, and the people around us was very nice.

The seats folded out into the lower berths, and the upper berths folded down from the walls.  The lower berth had the window and much more room, which explains why they cost $2 more and were all sold out.  But the upper berths were still nice compared to how we traveled in China.

Around 8:00, one of the train stewards came through the car to set up the berths.  So we settled into our upper berths – Jon on one side of the aisle and I on the other – and pulled our respective curtains closed and tried to go to sleep.  Unfortunately, the florescent lights were never turned off and the curtains didn’t really do the job of shutting out the light.  But at least we’re saving the cost of a hotel!

Thailand: Bangkok

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Thailand

This morning we had a much deserved sleep-in.  We are getting tired of the constant go-go-go required as part of sight-seeing.  It’s also very expensive.  Today, though, there would be very little sight-seeing as we had a few errands to run.

Administrative Stuff

Breakfast was included in the price of the hotel.  We had coffee, tea, toast and eggs.  Then we logged into the internet to see if there was any correspondence about the Bali tickets.  Dad, the angel that he is, not only faxed our note but also followed up with a phone call to Helen to talk about it.  Hopefully, all will turn out for the best.  We did a bunch of other email administrivia on line, some of it lease-related, some of it personal, but all of it long overdue.  So it was nice to get these little items out of the way and crossed off the “To Do” list.  By this time it was time for lunch so we grabbed a quick bite to eat in Mah Boon Krong.

Miss Duang and the Train Tickets

Before we left Beijing, Grant had e-mailed a contact in Bangkok to get us train tickets to Chiang Mai.  We rang Miss Duang to see if she had the tickets ready, and she did.  So we followed Grant’s directions on how to get there.  We took the Skytrain to the end of the line right on the river.  Here, Grant said to take the free water shuttle to the Oriental Hotel, and from there catch a “yellow flag” water taxi to Banglampu.

Unfortunately, the yellow flag water taxis only run during morning and evening rush hour.  There were orange and red flag water taxis, but we weren’t sure if they stopped at Banglampu or if we should even take them.  We saw one big ferry-boat pull up, and we got on.  However, this was the cross-river ferry instead of the up-river taxi service.  So we got off and found the free shuttle to the Oriental Hotel.  When we were on the shuttle, I looked behind us and saw an orange-and-red water taxi pull up to our dock and everyone waiting there got on.  Obviously, this is the taxi we wanted.  We got off at the Oriental Hotel (which is a REALLY swanky hotel, by the way) but just missed the north-bound water taxi.  So we sat and waited for the next one which arrived 15 minutes later.

The water taxi service in Bangkok is alleged to be the fasted mode of travel around the city.  It can apparently take an entire hour to get from one part of the city to the other via taxi cab.  Also water taxis give a lovely view of the town and the sights to see.  It’s an interesting operation.  The boats are long and narrow, and seem to have no maximum for the number of people they can take.  Each taxi has a driver who drives, a conductor who collects money, and a “directioner” who stands on the back of the boat to signal how close the driver is to the pier.  Each time the taxi pulls up to a taxi stop/pier, it has to maneuver backwards, forwards, and sideways so passengers can get off and others can get on.  The “directioner” has certain whistle signals for backwards/forwards/idle/time-to-go, and all signals are whistled efficiently enough so no time is wasted in the docking process.

After a 1/2 hour boat ride, we arrived at Banglampu pier, where we followed Grant’s directions to Miss Duang.  We picked up our train tickets and discussed where we should go to do some sight-seeing from Banglumpu.  We wanted to go to Wat Phra Kaew, but it was 3:00 and Miss Duang said the Wat closed at 4:00.  So we decided instead to see the Wat Po.  We headed back out to the pier to catch a water taxi going south to Tha Tien.  By this time, we were pros at the water taxi scene and could easily tell the difference between the cross-river ferries and the north and south-bound water taxis.  (How in the world could it ever have confused us?)

Wat Po

A Wat is a Buddhist temple-monastery, and there are many of them in and around Bangkok.  For our short visit to the city, we wanted to visit the main ones.  The Wat Po is the oldest and large wat in Bangkok, and has the largest reclining Buddha and largest collection of Budda images in Thailand.  But what was most striking when we walked into the Wat were the chedis, which are large stupas (monuments) erected to house Buddha relics.  The best way to describe a chedi is to imagine a steeple but picture the sides of it rounded and concave (turning inwards).  The chedis were covered in gorgeous tile and porcelain designs, and were about 2-3 stories high.  The colors and designs were amazing, and this was a theme throughout the entire wat complex.  I miss my camera.

We went inside the temple which houses the famous reclining Buddha.  We had to take off our shoes and I had to cover my shoulders out of respect.  The statue is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, and is modeled out of plaster with a gold leaf overlay.  On the feet of the Buddha is a huge design of inlaid mother-of-pearl displaying 108 different characteristics of Buddha.  (108 is some sort of auspicious number for Buddhists).  The temple was undergoing restoration, so most of our views of the Buddha were obstructed by scaffolding, and we couldn’t see the ceiling or much of the walls, which was unfortunate because they were covered in beautiful artistry.  But watching the restoration process was actually very interesting.  There were at least 20 artisans at work on the walls while we were there.  They each had pencil-thin paintbrushes and were painstakingly re-painting every picture on the columns and walls.  The restoration was so precise that every outline had to be re-traced and re-painted.  It was pretty amazing.

We also wandered into the central bot, which is the central sanctuary in the wat used for official business for the monks.  The bot was surrounded by galleries featuring 394 gilded Buddhas.  Inside the bot was a temple which had a lovely Buddha statue and some stunning artwork on the walls.  Because we were inside another temple, we removed our shoes and sat down in the carpeted area which was crowded with tourists and Buddhists praying.  Some of the monks had taken their seats for the evening prayers.  It was so peaceful, and we’d had such a long day, so Jon and I just sat there enjoying the peace and quiet.  As it neared 5:00, which is when the front gate to the wat closed, most of the people in the temple left but Jon and I were content to stay for a while.  By this time, more of the monks had shown up to take their places and – at 5:00 on the nose – began their prayers.  Jon and I were the only other people in the temple and we just sat and listened.  It was great.

At 5:30, we decided to quietly leave and head back to the hotel.  We walked out to the Tha Thien pier and caught a water taxi south to the Skytrain.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner at a little Thai restaurant down the street from our hotel called the Pisces Bar and Restaurant.  The tables were all outside and we sat and enjoyed the warm weather and the sunset.

Here’s a random comparison: no one honks their car horns in Bangkok.  It’s the complete opposite of Vietnam!

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Bangkok, Thailand

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Thailand, Vietnam

The feeling of dread was indescribable.  I really, REALLY didn’t want to leave the Renaissance – where everyone is in uniform and smiles at you and just wants to do whatever you want them to do.  Our room has bathrobes and cushy slippers.  The maid turns down the bed every night.  I really don’t care if I never see another country – I just want to stay here!!

We had breakfast in the Club Lounge (why do we have to leave?) where we turned in our “Customer Satisfaction Survey” with glowing marks.  Yesterday, there was a French couple who came up to the lounge for beers and were very unhappy that their beers were less than freezing cold.  One of the staff members offered to bring them some ice and they were positively mortified and scowled.  I thought, “These two need to stay in some backpacker hotels for a while to gain some perspective.”  This place is heaven.  Do I REALLY have to go?!?!?

Yes.

Our flight from Ho Chi Minh left at 11:30, so at 9:00 we caught a taxi to the airport and checked into the flight.  The plane was about 1/2 full so Jon and I had a row to ourselves for a flight that was about an hour long.

We got to Bangkok, waited for our bags, and caught a taxi to our hotel.

Reno Hotel

The Reno Hotel is in downtown Bangkok just near the Bangkok Skytrain, the Ma Boon Krong (MBK), and Siam Center.  The latter two which are MASSIVE malls.  There’s a Hard Rock Cafe nearby in addition to every fast food joint on the planet.

The hotel itself is very cute and clean.  It has that retro-art-deco-Miami look to it, despite the fact that there’s no beach nearby.  There IS a pool, however, and the rooms are sparse but clean.  And the air conditioning works like a champ which Jon loves.  It’s not the Renaissance, but it’ll do.

Quest for STA Travel

We are desperately trying to cancel our tickets to Bali.  We’re scheduled to go Nov 3-16, but Indonesia is hardly the paradise we want to be.  Actually, even if the US weren’t attacking Afghanistan right now I still think that we would try to get our of the trip.  Bali’s expensive, and we hear that the beaches in Thailand are just as nice but 20 times cheaper.  And we have a 30-day Visa here in Thailand so why not?

Anyway, neither China nor Vietnam had an STA Travel office which is who we booked the tickets through.  But Bangkok does have one.  So we took the Skytrain to the other side of town and walked a few blocks to STA Travel on the 14th floor of the Wall Street Building.  It took us 30 minutes to get there for what was a 90 second conversation.  They took one look at our tickets and said, “We can’t do it.  Your travel agent in New York has to do it.”  Great.  We pleaded with them to help us, and they suggested that we go directly to Garuda instead.  So they gave us directions and we were off.

Quest for Garuda Airlines

To get to Garuda Airlines, we had to leave the Wall Street Building, walk to Rami IV Road, play frogger to cross the street, and catch the #4 bus to Lumpini Towers.  Luckily, the bus was right there so we hopped right on and paid the conductor for two tickets.  Traffic was atrocious and the bus wasn’t air-conditioned so we were hot.  We were also the only non-locals on the bus but we don’t mind that by now.

After about 1/2 hour we finally got to the towers and took an elevator to the 27th floor.  We told the receptionist that we wanted to cancel our tickets so she took them and looked at them.  She said, “You want to cancel both tickets?  Both ways?  For both people?”  Yes, Yes, and Yes.  So she typed a few things, looked at her computer screen and said, “OK.  Your tickets have been cancelled!”

Wow.  That was easy.

But then I asked the big question, “So was our credit card credited?”.  And she looked at me blankly.  We prompted a little bit more and she told us that she had no idea what would happen with the money, that we had to discuss that with our travel agent.  So there’s the catch.

In the end, we had her re-instate the tickets and we would have to find a way to get in touch with Helen in New York to help us out.

Quest for a New Digital Camera

After the mess with the Bali tickets, we walked to a place which Grant told us had cheap electronics.  We REALLY miss the digital camera and would like to replace it with another one, so we wanted to see what we could find.  The walk was a bit long – about 30 minutes – but it was a pretty nice evening and we felt like seeing some of the city.  We finally arrived at Pantip Plaza, which is a monstrous convention-hall type of building with store after store of computer goods.  It’s not as nice as a mall, but not quite a warehouse either.  We started on floor one and walked around looking for cameras.  No luck.

So we tried the same thing on Floor 2, but this time split up and met at the “Up” escalators.  Still no luck.  The shops that did sell digital cameras sold only Sony, and we are boycotting their proprietary “memory stick” technology.  (Really – didn’t Sony learn ANYTHING from the Betamax ordeal in the 1980s?).  Anyway, we found the same things on floors 3 and 4: very few cameras, and if there were any then they were Sony with the memory stick.

After an hour and a half, we finally found a Canon for sale on Floor 5 in a store with 10 little dogs running around.  No, I’m not kidding.  But the Canon was MUCH more expensive then what we had paid for it so we had to say no.  Drained and tired, we left Pantip Plaza and caught a Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel.

Tuk-Tuk

A tuk-tuk is a small 3-wheel contraption much like the auto-rickshaws in India and Nepal but with more legroom.  The benefit of the tuk-tuk is that it can weave in and out of traffic better than taxis.  The bummer is that this doesn’t do a lot of good when traffic is at a dead standstill.  Which it was.

So we sat in the tuk-tuk breathing the fresh Bangkok air, which is full of vitamins and minerals, among other horrific things.  By the way, if anyone wants to debate Bush’s position on the Kyoto Agreement with me – bring it on.

When we finally got closer to our hotel, we paid the driver and hopped out to frogger across the street.  At the hotel, we ditched some stuff, grabbed my glasses and went to get a bite to eat.  Then we walked around Siam Center looking at all the upscale stores that we can’t shop at anymore because of The Budget.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

This movie theater puts Lincoln Square Cinemas to shame!  The movie theater has everything imaginable inside it!  In fact, it’s sort of a mall in and of itself.  We didn’t really didn’t need to get there as early as we did, seeing that we had reserved seats, but we wanted to check the place out.

The movie was scheduled to start at 8:00, but the theater was less than 1/2 full.  Since it was a Friday night, we assumed that it would be sold out.  We were right, but there was something everyone else knew that we didn’t: the first 1/2 hour is advertisements and the Thailand National Anthem (which we had to stand up for, incidentally).  This is the second time we’ve been burned on the late-movie-start thing (See July 10) and we’re not going to fall for it again.  Especially if we have reserved seats!!

Well, the movie was great but I’m a bit biased.  I love Colin Firth and am convinced that he IS Mr. Darcy, whether this is Helen Fielding’s Mr. Darcy or Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy.  Jon was less than impressed with the flick but was probably happier than he would have been if we’d seen “Cats and Dogs”.

After the movie, we went back to the Reno Hotel.  Here, we wrote up a fax for Helen at STA Travel, asking her to please cancel our Bali tickets.  Unfortunately, the fax lines at the hotel are down so they couldn’t send it.  Then we tried to fax it at one of the other hotels around the area.  Still nothing.  Something about the area and fax lines, I guess.

In the end, we ended up sending my Dad an email with text for him to send to Helen.  Knowing Dad, he’ll take care of it right away.