Saturday, January 30, 2010

What doing nothing looks like

Pai is so chilled and laid back that all I wanted to do today was, well, nothing. I found a Muslim bakery for breakfast that had coffee and pastries that looked awfully good to me. I'm not much of a breakfast eater, so eggs, pancakes, bacon, and toast have worn out their welcome, and traditional Thai breakfasts of soup/noodles/rice/curry or some combination of them I can only do so often. Anyway, breakfast was followed by wandering around, taking random pictures, and stopping every so often for tea or coffee and reading for awhile.



















I ran into Rhian, Gabby, and Marina at lunchtime, so we went to a really good falafel place. Lunch was followed by more reading. When we got tired of that, we moved from the cute little outside terrace we'd found to a restaurant that had an upstairs balcony and played cards and drank fruit shakes. After an internet break, I will go searching for more cute things to take pictures of and I'll meet up with the girls for dinner and probably more card playing.



















The next couple of days will probably be action packed, hence today's laziness. Tomorrow we will rent bikes and ride out to a waterfall that we've heard about. There's also a Yunnanese village that I'd like to check out, particularly because Christina told me about this really great food stand. Since Rhian and Marina are as much about food as I am, I probably won't have any difficulty convincing them to go, too. :-) On Monday I'd like to see an emblem of Thailand up close and personal (how's that for vague?) and sometime between Monday and Wednesday I'd like to take another yoga class and get another massage. I'm undecided on doing another cooking class, but that's a possibility, too. When I leave Pai, I will have a very long journey ahead of me - a 4 hour bus back to Chiang Mai, followed by a 12 hour bus to Udon Thani, followed by another bus (only about an hour this time) to Nong Khai - so I want to both get in some cool activities and lots of relaxing time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Getting to know Pai

Thursday night Christina and I did indeed manage to have a meal without pork. When I got back from the internet cafe, I found Christina talking to man named Andreas and he joined us for the evening. (Aside: Christina asked where he was from and then said that she wanted to guess. She guessed either Germany or the Netherlands and Andreas laughed and said that he was born in Germany, but was now living in the Netherlands. :-) I never woulda figured that out.) The three of us walked to the nearby night market for dinner and then found a bar to chill out in while we played cards. One funny story: Andreas asked how the breakfast was at our guesthouse and Christina said it was good. I commented that all she'd had was toast, how could she judge just based on that? Then she went into her reasoning - three pieces of toast instead of just two, butter that was not too cold and perfect for spreading, and all the jam she could eat, not just a little portion of it. Well! She told me, didn't she? I don't know, it's probably not funny to read it, but the two of us were cracking up and poor Andreas was just looking on like, "huh?" It was an early-ish night because Christina had a 7am bus to Chiang Mai.

Friday morning Andreas and I had breakfast before I got my own bus to Pai. He'd been asking me a bunch of questions about India because he's thinking of taking his kids there, so we exchanged information, I told him to check out my India blog posts, and I gave him my email address in case he had any questions. I don't think he'll email me because he says his written English isn't very good, but hopefully my experiences and writings in India will be useful to him. My bus to Pai left at 10:30am and took about 3 1/2 hours. The road is just as windy and curvy as the road from Chiang Mai to MHS, but this time it was daylight, so I actually got to see it! The countryside really is beautiful and it was a nice trip.

I arrived in Pai at about 2pm and immediately set out to find lodging. I'd heard from Christina that there was a reggae festival happening this weekend to coincide with the full moon. I was worried that this might mean it would be difficult to find a place to stay within my price range, so I walked away from the center of town, thinking rooms would get cheaper the farther away they were. This didn't exactly turn out to be true - the first place had a room for 400B, but the fifth place had a room for 1000B (WAY out of my budget). After about an hour, I was back near the center of town at a place called 1095 (1095 is the highway with all the curves) with a room for 300B. I was hot and sweaty with all that walking with my pack on, so I changed my clothes and went out in search of something interesting.

I walked a few blocks and was approached by two British girls, Marina and Rhian, who had just arrived. They were loaded down with bags and asked me if I had any recommendations for cheap accommodations. Since I had no agenda or plan and since I totally felt their pain after having just walked an hour myself to find a place, I told them that I'd show them a place I went to first that was right in town. It had been too expensive for me, but they were two people so it would be cheaper for them. Now that the introductions were out of the way, lol, the three of us decided to explore a bit and we spent the rest of the day together. We were joined later by Gabby from Switzerland, a girl that Marina and Rhian had met in Chiang Mai. (Another aside: Randomly running into people that you've met in other places seems to be the norm these days. Remember my two run-ins in India? Well, yesterday I was absolutely sure that I saw Wolfgang, a guy I met at a CS party in Istanbul. He was riding off on a bike, so I didn't get to stop him to see for sure, but I will be on the lookout for him today!) The four of us seemed to do a lot of eating and walking last night, apparently a favorite activity for us all. We had noodles and rice and omelets for dinner, banana and chocolate roti for snack #1, and black sticky rice with black sesame for snack #2, plus there were a couple of beers and sodas in there, too.

Gabby leaves tonight - to go to. . .Laos? Chiang Mai? I can't remember - but Marina, Rhian, and I will all be here for the next few days, so I imagine we'll catch up with each other again. Today the plan is to take it easy and take a lot of pictures. Pai is very photogenic!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day trip

Yesterday I arranged for a day trip to a Karenni village. Karenni is the more appropriate name for long-neck village, and it's one of the primary reasons why I came to Mae Hong Son. The Karenni village was just one stop on the day trip, though, so I had quite the day today.


When I signed up yesterday, I was told that at least two people needed to sign up or the price would be higher (1500B vs 900B), unless I wanted to go by motorbike instead of car and then the price would be the same. By happenstance, I met Christina from Italy at breakfast this morning and she had also signed up for the same day trip. We left just after 9am and our first stop was the Karenni village. We took pictures of the women wearing the heavy brass coils around their necks, but we were both trying really hard not to make the women seem like they were creatures in a zoo. We talked to them and asked about their families. We asked how long it took to make the scarves they were selling and we found out that those coils weigh 5-6kgs. I picked up one of the coil wraps sitting on the table and it was heavy! I can't imagine how they get used to wearing that around their necks.

After the Karenni village we went to a place called Tham Pla, or Fish Cave. A type of carp live in the waters that go through the cave and they can grow to one meter long. I don't know if this is normal for this type of fish or not, but I suspect their bigness is at least partially due to the large amounts of fruits and vegetables fed to them by visitors (fruits and vegetables sold by the park for 20B, of course). Fish Cave wasn't particularly exciting, but is was in a very nice, quiet, and green park, so it was pleasant enough.

Next on the agenda was a tiny little town called Mae Aw, about 40km north of MHS and
right on the border of Thailand and Burma. (ToadMama, you can add this to the Shannon Tracker if you'd like. I meant to take the SPOT and totally forgot.) Mae Aw is a Chinese settlement and doesn't get so many visitors, but Christina and I both thought it was adorable. There's this beautiful, bucolic lake and we both felt that we could spend a couple days there. This was also our lunch spot, a lunch which was difficult to order because the villagers speak Thai and Chinese, our driver only spoke a little English, and we only speak a few words of Thai. I managed to order a pork dish and Christina, who was trying to avoid pork because she had it twice yesterday, ordered a soup. She says the soup was good, but it was a "super pork" dish (which had us laughing our heads off) - it had pork bits and pieces as well as slabs of pork fat rolled into little bundles. I'm pretty sure she won't be ordering anything pork related for dinner tonight. :-)

On the way back from Mae Aw we stopped in an area that I'm not sure the name of, but it's popular with Thai campers from the looks of things. Tents were set up everywhere, including in the midst of this little forest next to a man-made lake. Back into the car for us and we stopped in another little village that I don't know the name of, but this one had all kinds of stalls by the side of the road selling souvenirs. After Christina made her purchases, I noticed a coffee sign and immediately perked up - iced coffee was just what I needed! The owner of the coffee shop motioned for us to go out into the back garden and what we found was perhaps one of the highlights of my day. It was two groves of bamboo, but not just any ol' bamboo. These bamboo stalks were the thickest and tallest bamboo I'd ever seen. Really very cool.

You might think that by now our day must be nearly over, but you'd be wrong. Next up was a stop at Pha Sua Waterfall. I knew before I even saw it that it would be a bit of a letdown after the Seven Steps Waterfall in Kanchanaburi (and it was), but it was pretty enough, I suppose. We went to the Pha Bong Hot Springs next where they have various mud spa treatments. Neither of us were much interested in that, but we did want to have a foot soak in one of the tubs. There was a bit of confusion because a woman handed us towels and told us we owed 20B each for the (what we thought was free) soak; it turns out, she was selling us use of the towels to dry our feet and once we figured that out, I let her know (in Thai) that "I don't want" (hey, my Thai's not so good, it was the best I could do!).


After a long day of lots of sightseeing, we finally headed back to MHS. Christina and I walked to the bus station to get tickets for our departure tomorrow (she's going to Chiang Rai via Chiang Mai and I'm going to Pai). She and I will meet up for a pork-less dinner in a little bit and maybe I can convince her to play a round or two of cards.

* * *
My connection in MHS is decent enough for emailing and blog posting, but is horrible for picture uploading. I have about 87 MHS pictures so far and I hope to be caught up and all uploaded in the very near future.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Overnight bus trips. . .

. . .do absolutely nothing for your neck and back. I speak from firsthand experience.

My last day in Chiang Mai was fairly uneventful. On Monday night, Zach and I went out for a beer and a few rounds of cards and were glad that we were safely undercover when a huge thunderstorm hit. I can't remember the last time I'd seen it rain that hard, but it was probably when I was still in the States. The timing of the storm was pretty perfect, actually. I'd just complained to Zach that it was more humid that night compared to previous nights and within minutes the storm came through and cooled everything down.

I slept in on Tuesday morning and when I woke up it was still gray and overcast. I had a late, leisurely breakfast with a new book and then got some internet time in. I tried to get a massage (for the second time) at the Chiang Mai women's prison and (for the second time) they were booked. (Massage training is part of the prison's rehabilitation program. Women get training and any money they earn while they are incarcerated goes into an account for them which they then receive once they are released. The program is supposed to allow them to more successfully reenter society. It seemed like my money would be going to a good cause, but unfortunately I guess it just wasn't meant to happen for me there.) I could've gone to any number of other massage places in town, but by that time it was getting late and there was a YOGA CLASS that I didn't want to miss. I figured I'd have plenty more chances to get a massage, but this may be my one and only shot at yoga; after the fiasco that was trying to find a drop-in class in India, I didn't want to risk missing this one. It was a good move - the class was really good and the instructor was a hottie. :-)

After yoga I chilled out for a bit before heading to the bus station for my 9pm bus to Mae Hong Son (MHS). It was an air-con bus - usually not my first choice because the temp on the bus ranges from freezing to my-fingertips-are-turning-blue - and I got lucky and didn't have a seatmate for the entire eight hour trip. This means I got to spread out a little, but it still wasn't exactly the most comfortable journey ever. The biggest reason for this is that the road from Chiang Mai to MHS is very curvy, consisting of 700+ (mostly) sharp curves. In fact, I know two motorcyclists who would have an absolute blast driving this road! So the curves would be fun on a bike, but when your neck is jammed suddenly into an uncomfortable angle, well, like I said, it's no good for you at all.

My bus was actually on time, a phenomenon that always seems to happen when I'd prefer it to be late. You see, I arrived in MHS at 5am this morning. 5am is early anywhere, but in a small town of 6,000 or so, nothing was open for hours. I wandered around and eventually found a place where I could get coffee and an early breakfast. Initially I was going to have the rice soup with pork and egg, but the soup looked kind of gelatinous, so I asked for banana pancakes instead. Too bad for me as they don't offer pancakes anymore. Back to the soup, then, which turned out to be pretty good, but I didn't eat the egg. I think an egg was cracked and dropped raw into the steaming soup which cooked it a bit, I'm sure, but I didn't feel like it was cooked enough and I didn't want to risk it. More wandering around and it was finally late enough to check in to a guesthouse. I'm at Friend House where for 200B I get a huge bed, a fan, and a shared, hot water bathroom.

I'll spend today checking out all the area wats and then tomorrow. . .well, I know what I'll be doing, but I'm going to keep you in suspense. :-) And if you're Dad or ToadMama, don't ruin the surprise since you already know!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stuffed

I've just finished a Thai cooking course with Zach and it was amazing! It was one that I found on my own, without the help of Lonely Planet, thankyouverymuch. I chose it partially because it's right around the corner from my guesthouse, partially because it's cheaper than the others (750 baht = $22.73), and partially because it wasn't in LP.

We were picked up from the guesthouse and taken to the Thai Orchid Cookery School. The day started out with coffee and choosing our dishes. In each of four categories (soup, appetizer, curry, and stir-fry), we got to pick one of three. I chose creamy tom yam soup, spring rolls, pork panang, and pad thai. For each course we did the prep work first, chopping ingredients and such at our individual workstations outside. Then we moved into the house where A, our instructor, would first show us the steps involved. She had a totally professional set-up and even had a mirror above her so that we could see everything she was doing. Afterwards, we'd move back outside so that we could cook the dish ourselves. Then came the eating! We had the first two dishes as breakfast and then we took a break to go to a local market to see what the ingredients look like in their raw form.

(A doing her thing)

A showed us herbs, vegetables, rice, fruits, sauces, noodles - basically everything we had used or would be using throughout the day. One particularly, well, let's say interesting, item was the century egg, aka

thousand years egg, aka horse pee egg. Yup, you read that correctly. These are preserved eggs and one myth states that they are made by soaking them in horse urine for 100 days. We cracked one open to see what it looks like and it certainly smells a bit like pee! Probably not something I'd willingly try. A was also very patient in answering all of our questions about various fruits and vegetables that we're not familiar with, so that was nice.

(Concentrating on cooking)

After the market, it was back to the school to prepare the final two dishes. Since Zach is vegetarian, A prepared each dish for us without using meat or meat products (oyster sauce and fish sauce), so that we could each taste both dishes. She also gave us ideas for substitutions for when certain ingredients aren't available or for when we just wanted to change up a dish for variety's sake. Rather than eat dishes three and four individually as we'd done for the earlier dishes, we ate the last two dishes together. Actually, I should say we feasted on the last two dishes. A's assistant had also prepared rice, so we had that in addition to what we'd cooked.

(The feast laid out before us)

As if all of this wasn't awesome enough, when we'd finally finished eating as much as we could possible stuff into our faces, A gave us a tote bag with a bound recipe book inside which included all of the recipes, not just the ones we'd made. It was such a great way to spend the day. Zach and I couldn't stop gushing about how much fun we were having and how interesting and educational it'd been. Let's do it again tomorrow!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Heaven?

I'm really loving Chiang Mai so far. I'm staying at the VS Guesthouse which is right on a main street and in the thick of things. From this location, it's super easy to find bikes for rent, used books, cheap internet access, thai massage, and tons of places to eat and drink - including fresh coffee, actually in abundance in Chiang Mai. Besides that, my room is cheap and has a fan, tv, and HOT water (it's been a few stays since I could say that!). I think I might be in heaven. :-)

Today Zach and I had breakfast and then I found an ATM while he got a shave. We rented a motorbike and headed off to Wat Phra Singh to start our wat tour of the city. Wats are always pretty impressive, especially the more famous or well known ones - the reason they are famous or well known is usually because they have an interesting Buddha image or images. I particularly liked Wat Chiang Man. It's the oldest temple in the city and was built at the time of the founding of the city in 1296. This wat had huge murals wrapping around the inside of the temple that told the story of the life of Buddha. I wouldn't have known this, but Zach actually knows quite a bit about Buddhism, so he walked me around and described the story that each mural was telling. He also showed me the process of merit making - candles and incense are burned and flowers are laid on the altar as you meditate on good deeds, thoughts, and actions for this life and the next life. So it was an educational day for me, but I also got to see lots of cool things, too.

All the walking was making us hot and sweaty and we were both in the mood for massages, so we went back to the guesthouse to shower and freshen up. This massage was even cheaper than the one I had in Bangkok, only about $4.50/hour. Guess what I'll be doing, oh, I don't know, two or three dozen more times before I leave Chiang Mai, lol? Massages were followed by some great, cheap food and some internet time. Tonight we'll go to the Saturday Walking Street, a kind of evening market, on the motorbike.

* * * * *

I'll be slowly getting caught up on picture uploading over the next day or so. Please bear with me; I know I just wrote a whole post about how much I love Chiang Mai and there's no pictures to go along with it, but there should be soon enough.

Friday, January 22, 2010

10 hours later. . .

. . .and I'm in Chiang Mai. That was officially the longest bus trip I've ever taken. The countryside is very scenic and pretty, but I'm awfully glad to be off the bus. Now I'm off to find food and a guesthouse, definitely in that order because I'm STARVING.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Backpackers unite

I arrived in Ayuthaya yesterday around 2:30pm. I dumped my bag in my room, got something to eat, checked email, and then did a whole lot of nothing for a couple of hours. I decided to grab a beer at the Streetlamp Restaurant and Bar (in the same building as my guesthouse) and ended up meeting Mark from the UK and Jorgen from Holland. Later we met Zach from Texas and the four of us hung out for the rest of the night. We were chatting and talking about our travels and our lives back home as we listened to live music. At one point, Jorgen got up and took over for the musician, so we got to hear him play and sing, too. After Mark and Jorgen called it a night, Zach and I played pool with some Thais before we also called it a night.

This morning the four of us met for breakfast. Mark and Jorgen were off to Kanchanaburi and Zach and I had just come from there, so we were giving them advice (and telling them how much they were going to love it!). It was my first opportunity to give other travelers info on a place (rather than being the one on the receiving end), so that was cool; I was glad that I was able to help them. Zach and I said goodbye to Mark and Jorgen and then we rented bikes so we could more easily see all of the different wats in Ayuthaya. Ayuthaya is a former capital of Thailand, so there are lots of them, but most are in ruins from when the Burmese conquered the city in 1767. Three wats in and we decided to take a break from wats for a bit and ride over to the Portuguese settlement. (Ayuthaya is basically an island and the Portuguese settlement is off the island.) That was the plan, but we never did find what we were looking for. It wasn't a wasted trip, though, because we got to see some gorgeous countryside. Also, we stopped for lunch at a place where no one spoke English, managed to order (Zach even using the phrase that he'd memorized - I'm a vegetarian), and I had the best bowl of noodles and chicken soup that I've had so far in Thailand.

Zach and I parted ways when we got back on the island, but just for a couple of hours. We're both checking email, showering, and taking naps before we meet up for dinner later. And there's been a minor change of plans - my first for awhile, so I figured it was time. :-) Rather than go to Lopburi, I'm going to go to Chiang Mai. The plan had always been to go to Chiang Mai, I'll just be going sooner than planned. I'll even have a travel partner for a couple of days because it's the same direction that Zach is heading. (I mentioned the "backpacker's trail" to ToadMama yesterday - so called because a lot of backpackers go to the same places - and this is a prime example of it in action.)

Also, in case you're wondering, I haven't uploaded pics in awhile. I still have the rest of Kanchanaburi plus all of Ayuthaya to upload. I've had free internet at my guesthouse, but the connection speed is ridiculously slow, so I haven't even bothered to try. Chiang Mai is a university town, though, so connections should be better and I'll be able to get all caught up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tigers

A peaceful morning on the river Kwai with french toast and coffee. Then off to the bus station to catch a bus to the Tiger Temple. The monks who live at this temple care for the land and the animals which, obviously, includes tigers. The tigers are the big draw because visitors to the temple can get up close and personal with the big cats and are even allowed to pet them. There's some controversy and rumors surrounding the Tiger Temple; some people believe that the tigers are so docile because they are drugged or even mistreated. It's a 500 baht admission fee to the temple, so I wanted to do a little extra research before I decided whether to go or not. By coincidence, I met a guy at the internet cafe the other day who had volunteered at the temple for five months and worked directly with the tigers. He allayed all my fears and said that the tigers are somewhat tame (but still wild animals) because they are brought up and conditioned around people all their lives. Also, visiting time with the tigers is in the middle of the afternoon, during the hottest part of the day when they'd normaly be sleeping, and after they've eaten and been exercised. (And who isn't tired and sleepy in that same situation?) I was glad to hear this explanation because I'd really wanted to see the tigers.

The temple is located 45 minutes away from Kanchanaburi and then it drops you off about 2km from the entrance. A Swiss couple, Matthew and Yesica, and a German guy, Peter, and I were all headed to the temple at the same time. Luckily for us, a truck pulled up next to us and offered us rides. Remember what I said about it being the hottest part of the day? Same goes for people, so we were happy for the ride. After we paid our fee and signed the waiver - saying that if we did something stupid to provoke a tiger and ended up getting eaten that the temple wasn't to be held responsible - it was all about the tigers. We got to walk with the tigers down to the canyon and then have our picture taken with a handful of different tigers as we pet them. As you can see, they were very sleepy, but it was still super cool being so close to them and being able to pet them.


There were other animals, too, namely water buffalo, deer, peacocks, ponies, cows, and the most colorful, patchwork-looking roosters I've ever seen. Check out these other pics, particularly to see one of me looking awfully wary of the cow that's getting closer and closer to me while I'm crouching next to her. (If the pics aren't uploaded when you read this, they will be soon.)

A few hours later, we'd had our fill of tigers and sun, so headed back to the main road to catch the bus back in to town. We got lucky again and had another ride offered to us. At the main road, we weren't seeing buses drive by, so someone jokingly decided that we should hitch a ride. What do you know, a driver stopped, we offered him 100 baht to take us to Kanchanaburi, and we climbed in. A half hour later we got to our stop and the driver refused to take the money. Pretty nice, huh? At this point it was about 4:30pm and none of us had eaten since breakfast, so four very hungry people headed towards food. I had a very tasty, very cheap, very spicy minced pork dish that probably would have gone great with beer, but I was so tired after the day that I figured it would knock me right out. About the time we finished eating, the sun was about to set, so we headed to the garden on the river to enjoy the day's last rays. A peaceful ending to a day that started out just as peacefully. Except it's not quite over yet. After a shower and some freshening up (can anyone say "get rid of the tiger smell?" lol), I'm gonna meet these same folks out at a reggae bar and enjoy every last second of my last night in Kanchanaburi. I've really liked it here, but if I don't leave now, I may never see any other part of Thailand before my visa expires!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Waterfalls

The good news is that I made it to Erawan National Park today and it was beautiful. The bad news is that the SPOT update I sent from there didn't go out. I don't know what the problem is, but it's looking like those updates are going to be pretty sporadic.

Erawan National Park is known for the Seven Steps Waterfalls, but rather than "steps," it's more like tiers. You walk up a path, around a corner or two, sometimes down some actual steps, and then you're at the next tier. On tiers one and two you are likely to see monkeys swinging through the trees or, more likely, trying to steal something from an unattended bag. That's what this guy was trying to do, but at least the park rangers give you fair warning. :-)


(Beware a monkey steal your belonging.)

I only made it to tier five before I had to turn back; I was worried that I'd miss the last bus back to Kanchanaburi and considering the park is 140km away, that wouldn't have been good! Besides, I wanted to make sure that I actually got to swim on a couple of tiers instead of just rushing through them to get to the top.

I don't think I mentioned here before that you can get fish massages in Bangkok. Essentially you stick your feet in a tub of water and lots of little fishes nibble at the dead skin on your toes. I'd thought about trying it and then just never got around to it. Why do I mention it now? Well, because I got my fish massage after all! I first got into the water on tier five and after I noticed how COLD the water was, the next thing I noticed were the fish. It's quite a shocker when you're standing there and then all of a sudden you feel a little. . .something on your toes and you look down and you realize the fish are nibbling on you. It's been described as ticklish little kisses, but to me it just felt very weird and I let out a giggling little scream every time. Luckily, it seems only the little fish do the nibbling because some of the others are so big it looks like they'd eat an entire toe!

Tier four was fun, too, because it had two big rock slides. Here's me coming out of the pool after going down one of them. Be sure to check out the rest of the waterfall pics by clicking over there on the right.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

History in Kanchanaburi

After a breakfast of pineapple pancakes and coffee, I rented a bike for 50 baht/day and rode 5km outside of town to see the Chung Kai War Cemetery and Wat Tham Khao Pun. Chung Kai was the site of a prisoner camp and 1700 British, Australian, Dutch, and French soldiers are buried there. The temple is a series of nine caves, one of which was supposedly used by the Japanese to torture WWII POWs.

On my way back into town, I stopped at the JEATH war museum. JEATH is an acronym for Japanese, Australia/America, Thailand, and Holland, the countries that were involved in the construction of a nearby railway (itself referred to as the "death railway" and it has it's own history). I lunched at a place where I didn't really know what I was ordering and no one spoke English. Turns out it was just pork and noodle soup, so it worked out for me!

After all of the sad history that I exposed myself to today, on the plus side there was a lot of great scenery to be photographed during the trip.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

SPOT?

For those of you on my SPOT email list, did you get the OK message that went out earlier today? Although I've tried to send messages a couple of times since I got the unit back, this is the first one that seems to have gone through without any difficulties.

If you did get it, then you'll see that I made it to Kanchanaburi. :-) In yet another example of how Thailand is different from India, I expected the bus to take three hours, but it ended up only taking just over two hours; a bus that's supposed to take three hours in India, for sure would've taken four and a half to five hours instead. So, I'm here! I've only been here for a couple of hours now and it's dark so I haven't seen much, but it seems very cute and quaint here. More later when there's more to share. . .

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lesson of the day

If you don't know how hot that pepper in your noodle dish is going to be, it's probably best to try a little taste of it before you pop the whole thing in your mouth.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A little of this, a little of that

After the relative laziness of yesterday, I knew I needed to do a bit more today. I headed to Wat Po, another major temple in Bangkok. I actually liked Wat Po better that Wat Phra Kaew because it's less crowded and it has some pretty cool things: the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and the largest reclining Buddha. Plus it's also where massage, acupuncture, and acupressure were first taught in the country.

The reclining Buddha is seriously crazy big. He is 46m long and 15m high. Here's a shot of his head:

And here's a shot of his feet:

There's a whole lot more pics, so be sure to check them out.

After that I went to the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School. Massages are available at the temple grounds, but I'd heard that going to the school itself was better. I'd never had a Thai massage before and it's quite an experience. It's more about pressure points than the rolling/kneading kind of movement that I'm used to. And the masseuse manipulates your body, too, so that she's actually on the table with you and using all of her body - feet, hands, legs, elbows, arms - during the massage, so that's different. It was quite a nice massage and for $11/hour, it can't be beat!

Next I headed to Jim Thompson's House. Who's he, you ask? Well, I hadn't heard of him either, but he was an American entrepreneur and art collector who came to Thailand after World War II and he fell in love with it. His house was pretty amazing, but it's hard to show what it looked like since it encompassed a few buildings and a garden. So instead, here's a shot of the Spirit House. According to Thai folklore, the spirit house guards against evil spirits and it should go in the northeast corner of a property so that the shadow of the house never falls on it.

Finally, I wrapped up my day with a bit of window shopping. Sam had told me that the second most upper floor of the MBK Center was filled with Thai handicrafts and I wanted to check them out. He certainly wasn't kidding! The MBK Center has seven stories and the one level that I walked took more than an hour to see; the place is huge! I didn't buy anything except coffee and a piece of cake, but it was fun seeing everything that was for sale.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tame and wild

Sawatdee ka! That's hello in Thai to all of you English speakers out there. Bangkok continues to be a crazy juxtaposition. For instance, last night my host and I went out for dinner and a drink. I let him handle the food ordering and just said that I'd try anything he ordered. I'll have to ask Sam what exactly we ate again because the only thing I remember the name of is tom yam soup (spicy and sour, made with chillies, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and juice, and seafood) and the coconut ice dessert. One dish I think was called a seafood paste; it had a variety of seafood in a thick, curry and basil, well, paste. :-) The other dish was a pork and noodle soup with perhaps the most unusual texture ever. The noodles and broth kind of gave it a viscous, slimy feel that wasn't particularly pleasant for me. The taste was good, but I was having a hard time getting past the texture.

The food, although strange and different for me, wasn't the wild part that I'm referring to. After dinner but before the drink, Sam and I walked around Patpong, Bangkok's famous red-light district. It's a small area, consisting only of two side streets, but it's jam packed at night. For the sake of my more gentle readers out there, I won't go into the specifics (email me if you want the deets!), but you can be sure it's not something I've ever seen before. Let me be clear, though. Yes, it's a red-light district, but it's also a night market where all kinds of things are sold (and no, I didn't actually go into any of the go-go bars).

So then the drink. Sam took me to the Banyan Tree Hotel where the Moon Bar is located on the 59th floor. The drinks are ridiculously expensive here (though not as expensive as the not-blogged-about $35 drink I had at Neos in Dubai), but the view is pretty great.

Today, by comparison, has definitely been tame. Because of some late afternoon coffee consumption, I couldn't sleep last night and didn't go to bed until almost 4am which meant that I slept in until nearly 11am. Tonight Sam invited some friends over and I'll be cooking dinner for five, so I needed to go to the supermarket. I even looked the part of a market goer :-):

The "wildest" thing I did today was order (and eat) something that I didn't know what it was. I still don't know what it was, even after eating it! It was a noodle soup that I got from a food stall and I think the ingredient I was unsure of might've been chicken livers, but I just don't know. Pretty tame, though, because the food is very different from anywhere else I've been so far and I'm kind of just easing into it.

With today's post, anyone who's told me recently that I haven't posted enough pics of myself, should be sufficiently satisfied for the time being. :-D

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

India: a recap

The other night, my last night in India, as I was on my final overnight train trip, I started to think about my time in India and what it was like and what I experienced. I think India is one of those places that people tend to either love or hate. Saben and Lin, two other RTW travelers whose blog I've come across recently, did a good job of describing what it's like to spend any amount of time in India. Of course, they spent about two months longer there than I did, so my experience was quite different from theirs.

India is dirty and chaotic and a million conflicting things all at once. And while I don't think I could ever live there, I really enjoyed my time in India and I'm really glad I went.

Since this is a recap, I think bullets are in order:
- I visited 13 cities in 7 states.
- I learned how to eat with my right hand and. . .
- . . .use the left hand for "dirty" tasks like taking off shoes and using the bathroom.
- Speaking of which, I'm very comfortable with squat toilets now - for #1 and #2 - even when no toilet paper is available. (Too much info? lol)
- The only time I refused to eat at a place, whether food stall or restaurant, was when a roach crawled across the table in front of me. That's my cue to leave, thankyouverymuch.
- India's countryside is absolutely beautiful and the fact that I was able to see as much of it as I did is because. . .
- . . .train travel is truly a wonderful thing. It's a great, inexpensive way to get around such a large country.
- My most peaceful moment was seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise.
- My most hectic moment was arriving at the airport in Mumbai (maybe just because it was my very first exposure to India?).
- I've always been clumsy, but I don't think I've mentioned before that I seem to be getting bruised and scratched way more than normal since I started traveling. My worst injury so far? I took a hard fall in Varanasi and had the ugliest bruise and road rash for about two weeks. Sorry, no pictures were taken to prove it. :-)
- The bumpiest roads are in Kanyakumari. I thought it might've been the bus I was on, but a look behind us as we drove showed that it was, in fact, not the bus's fault.
- My feet were dirtiest in: it's a tie between Varanasi and Delhi. In those cities, I for sure washed my feet before I even thought about getting into bed.
- Cleanest city: Bangalore (large), Varkala (small)
- With ugliness all around, I loved how the women were still able to add beauty to their lives (and mine). They are very decorative - bangles, earrings, bindi, bracelets, flower garlands in their hair, nose rings, anklet charms - even the smallest children (and babies) would wear bangles.
- You know you've been in India a long time when you cringe at paying Rs 110 for coffee - chai is normally Rs 5 and coffee not more than Rs 40 - and then realize that's still less than $3 and less than what you'd pay for coffee at Starbucks in the US.
- Not everyone wants to sell you something! I was reminded of this three times in one day when three different people called me out for not talking to them. "Why do you travel if not to meet local people?" they asked. They had a point and it's something I need to remember as I continue my travels.
- India gave me a greater appreciation for. . .everything really. My life, my family, my good fortune, my friends, all of it. You don't really appreciate what you have until someone less fortunate than you offers you what little they have and that happened to me on more than one occasion.

So I guess that's a wrap on India. I feel like I could probably say a lot more about it, but, well, I need to get my head out of India and into Thailand!

Bangkok first impressions

Bangkok is so incredibly different from all of India it's not even funny. It's so, so clean, and not just in comparison to India; it's cleaner than most US cities I've been to also. It's very metropolitan and you can tell by the way people dress and act. Fashionistas abound, even at 7:30 in the morning. Shopping could pretty much take up all of your time in Bangkok if that was your thing. (I wish it was my thing, but since I'm living out of a backpack right now, space is of the essence. Shopping will have to wait til next time.) Traffic - vehicle traffic, people traffic, train traffic - is what you'd expect in a city of almost eight million, but it somehow seems more organized than I've ever witnessed before.

Having said all that, Bangkok is still a historical city. So while one minute you might be looking at this:

The next minute you're looking at this:


It's a crazy juxtaposition and it really does have me pinching myself (as ToadMama suggested), asking if I'm really in Bangkok.

Today I got up and out of the house early and, after taking care of a couple of errands/Skype calls, I headed to Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace (pictured above). That ate up a good chunk of time and I wasn't quite sure what I felt like doing after that, so I headed north towards the neighborhood of Banglamphu, specifically the backpackers' mecca - Khao San Road. Here you can find more food, drink, internet cafes, and stuff for sale (including naughty t-shirts) than you can shake a stick at. And remember when just a moment ago I said that space is of an essence and I can't buy stuff blah blah blah? Yeah, well, I bought myself a a roomy, $3 shoulder bag to use as a day pack. The one I've been using is a great size and perfect in every way. . .except on those days when I want to carry a travel guide with me, then it's just too packed and weighed down.

Anyhoo, after a couple hours of wandering Khao San and people watching, I headed back to the house. Tonight Sam and I will go out for dinner (traditional Thai food which is good since I had a burger for lunch today - what can I say, I've missed eating beef!) and then to a place called Moon Bar which is supposed to have fabulous night time views of Bangkok.

Btw, today's jaunts involved two train rides, two boat rides, and LOTS of walking. Guess who didn't get lost? Me! (At one point I didn't really know where I was, but then again, I didn't know where I wanted to head either, so that doesn't count.) Huh, I guess maybe after 15 weeks of being on the road I'm finally learning something. :-)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Easing out of India

Officially, I haven't been in India for two days now. Unofficially, my head is still there a little bit. I've been taking it easy in Bangkok and not really doing a whole lot. I arrived at my host Sam's house yesterday around 9:30am or so. We chatted for a bit and I checked email while he went to the gym. When he got back, we went out for lunch and then he dropped me off at a spa for a foot massage and pedicure so he could get a few hours of work in.

After an hour of some much needed foot pampering, I went back to the house for a nap (also much needed since I'd only gotten about two hours of sleep the night before on the plane). A friend of Sam's and a fellow CSer, Ganesh, and his girlfriend Kate invited us over for a traditional Thai dinner. When Sam and I arrived, it smelled delicious and the food was set out and ready to be eaten. Although I didn't think I was hungry, the smells got my appetite going pretty quickly. :-) There was rice, mushroom soup, fish balls, a spicy chicken dish, vegetables in a brown sauce, dried shrimp, and my first truly weird food in a long time - gaeng tai pla. Gaeng tai pla is a kind of paste made from the innards of a fish mixed with salt and other spices and fermented. As far as I could tell, it's just served alongside other foods and isn't a main dish. Kate, who is Thai, hates the stuff and would violently turn her head away when Ganesh jokingly thrust the stuff in front of her face, so I was a bit nervous about trying it. The verdict? Not bad, actually. Oddly enough, it didn't taste particularly fishy and the weirdest thing about it was the texture more than anything else.

A few hours of eating and merry-making later, I was exhausted, so Sam and I headed back to his house and I promptly fell asleep. I didn't really have a plan for today, so I just started wandering, still trying to get used to the idea that I'M IN BANGKOK! Tomorrow I think I'll get up early, head to a market, and then check out Old Bangkok and maybe a temple or two.

By the way, my Thai visa is good until 8 Feb, so I'll be here until then. From there I'll move on to Laos, Vietnam, China (did I mention yet that that was added to my itinerary?), and Cambodia before coming back to Thailand for a couple of weeks of beach time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sri Lanka!

Hey, so the airport in Sri Lanka has free internet access. I figured since I had a three hour layover, I'd pop into your lives and let you know that I'm here. In Sri Lanka! I have nothing more to add, really, except that Sri Lankan Airlines is pretty nice. They handed out a snack that consisted of a hummus sandwich, some sort of onion pastry thing, a piece of cake, apple juice, and coffee or tea - for a flight that was only an hour and a half. Also, each seat has it's own tv so that's nice, too. That's it! I'll be back later from Thailand.

Final days in India

Yesterday, Friday, I left Kanyakumari at 5:15pm for a 13 hour train ride to Chennai. I was slightly worried because even though I booked the ticket in advance, I wasn't able to get an AC ticket and I thought it might be a hot and uncomfortable overnight trip. As it turns out, the temperature of the car was just fine (maybe even a little chilly with the fans on and the windows open); it was the bugs that had me skeeved out a bit. I've seen mice on trains before and that was no big deal. I've seen bugs, too, actually, but there seemed to be a lot more roaches than normal. Ok, but, whatever. I'm not going to focus on it because I slept fine and even if bugs were crawling all over me in the night, I'm not aware of it. :-) There was a family sitting across from me and they were all very sweet. The 11 year old boy was translating because the rest of his family didn't speak a lot of English. He also taught me how to play a game that I'm not sure the point of, but somehow we were all playing it. Mom offered me food that they'd brought from home. The two year old girl could NOT stop playing peek-a-boo wherein she would seriously shriek with laughter every time. And Dad didn't say much, but he was keeping an eye on things and he smiled a lot and was friendly enough. They got off a few stops before I did and they all stood outside the train, waving and saying goodbye. Like I said, sweet family.

I'm in Chennai now, but it's just a stopover on my way to Bangkok. The 13 hour train ended up taking 14 1/2 hours (so, pretty on time, actually!) and I headed to the airport with Amiri. His flight back home to Dubai was leaving at 12:45pm and mine doesn't leave until 9:15pm. So why was I at the airport so early? Well, I'd made plans to meet up with a CSer for a bit today since I had lots of hours to spare. She'd told me that there wasn't a whole lot to see or do, but we decided we'd at least have lunch together. So, I had plans in Chennai, but I didn't want to be bogged down with my pack so I checked it at left luggage and I'll pick it up right before I have to check in at the airport.

CSer Lata told me which subway stop to get off at from the airport and she picked me up from there. We went to a big temple, one of the only "sights" to see, and then went to her favorite restaurant for lunch. She even drove me to a couple of bookstores because I was looking for a Thailand guidebook. And now, I'm at an internet cafe, whiling away time until I have to head back to the airport. I have a three hour layover in Sri Lanka (Dad, looks like I'm going there anyway!) and I'll arrive in BKK at 6:40am. In case you're keeping track, Thailand is one and a half hours ahead of India which will put me 12 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time.

Btw, check back later and this post will have pictures to go along with it. And one of them will be of me wearing my salwar-kameez! (I've worn it before today, just didn't have the chance to photograph it til now.) **Now updated with pics!**

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zoo and beach

Yesterday I went to the Trivandrum Zoological Gardens. It was a pretty nice zoo - there were wide, meandering paths and the animals were (mostly) in large, natural habitat types of enclosures. The weather was cooler than the day before, so walking through the zoo and gardens was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.


The plan afterwards had been to go to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple (yeah, say that ten times fast!), but I discovered that it is closed to non-Hindus and I'd really only be able to see the entrance tower. Since what I really wanted to see - the 10,000+ sacred stones that were transported from Nepal by elephant - was in the inner sanctum, I decided against going. The rest of the day was spent playing cards, reading, listening to music, general lazing about.

This morning after a big, hearty breakfast of chicken sausages, herbed potatoes, steamed bananas, a chocolate muffin, and coffee, it was time for a mini road trip. We headed about a half hour away to Kovalam for some beach time. I'd read about a particular beach in Kovalam called Lighthouse Beach, but for some reason I wasn't expecting to actually see a lighthouse.


It was a great day at the beach. I got a little too much sun the other day, so today I insisted on an umbrella - much better AND cooler! The water was warmer than it had been in Varkala and it seemed that there were fewer tourists on the beach. After awhile, we left the towels and umbrella on the beach and headed to a nearby restaurant for lunch and then walked the boardwalk so Amiri could do some shopping.

Then, on to the lighthouse! I've never been in a lighthouse before and I've certainly never walked the stairs to the top of one before, so I was excited to find that I could do just that. It took 260 steps to get to the top, but the breeze and the view were amazing.


Tonight we'll be going out for traditional Keralan food as it's our last night in Trivandrum. Tomorrow there's a two hour bus ride to Kanyakumari where there's not much at all to see (or do), but it's the convergence of three waters (the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Mannar, and Indian Ocean) and it's the tippy bottom of India.

* * * * *

It took more than a month of traveling through India, but I've finally found an illustration of how to use a squat toilet. Well, ok, I hadn't actually been looking for it, but I did find it:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Varkala, oh how I miss you

Varkala. Yeah, did you know I was there? And, uh, left there already? I left Cochin on 2 Jan via a 4 1/2 hour train ride that could have been absolute hell (very crowded and no seats), but which turned out to be pretty fun. After the first stop, two guys who had been standing in the doorway of the train got off, so Amiri and I secured their spots. Maybe it doesn't sound ideal to you, but trust me - these are the best seats in the house. It's not crowded so you have a little bit of space, plus you get the breeze of the moving train, always a plus on hot days. Funniest moment of the train ride was when someone was kind of leaning on me - okay, they were full out leaning on me, no "kind of" about it - and I pushed my elbow out to try to get him to back off. Amiri saw what was happening and started to tell off the guy in Arabic. The combination of the two had the guy moving and I commented to Amiri about not speaking English. He said speaking Arabic makes him sound more aggressive. Eh, whatever, it worked. :-)

I was aiming for beach and yoga time in Varkala. Any guesses as to how that turned out? Varkala is a laid-back, low-key, cliff-side beach town. It's cute and quaint and I dug it immediately. After the long train ride and what seemed like a long walk to the restaurant (I was starving - a 2 minute walk would have felt like forever!), we found a restaurant that had multiple levels so pretty much every table had views of the sea. The food was crap and the service was worse, but the view and the ambiance made me very happy indeed. I can't really explain what it was that I liked so much about Varkala. But let me try. :-) The shops were interesting and had items that I hadn't seen anywhere else before. There were no touts or beggars. It was perfectly cool if you brought cards or a game to the restaurant of your choice and ended up spending hours there, chilling out, after you'd already finished your meal. The one negative is that rickshaw drivers would quote outrageous prices and then just drive off if you didn't agree to it, no negotiating at all. But it wasn't a big deal because another, more reasonable, driver would come along soon enough.

The second day consisted of temples in the morning and a backwater canoe cruise in the afternoon. The temples were kind of interesting, but didn't take that long to see. The cruise was pretty neat, even if we did have a lame-o guide (he wasn't really as "knowledgeable" as described and
for some reason in the middle of the trip he started talking about suicide statistics in India. WTF??). In the canoe was me, Amiri, a British guy, and two German girls, plus the boatman and the guide. We saw how coconuts are harvested and the fibers are used to make coir; different plants and spices were pointed out to us; we were told how and how long it takes to construct a canoe; and we found out about the population of Munroe Island (the area where we were) and what they do for work. We also saw ducks, cormorants, birds that looked like bald eagles, snakes, fish, a rabbit, cows, dogs, and the most elusive of all (for me) - when it came to picture taking time - was the kingfisher bird. Every time I went to snap the shot, the dang thing flew away. Amiri has much better timing (and a much better camera, too!), though, and got a couple of shots, so I may just steal his as my own! As always, see here for the latest picture upload.

Today was our last day in Varkala and we spent it on the beach and checking out the cliff-side shops. If I was currently traveling by myself, I'd have stayed for a week, at least. Because guess what I didn't do while I was there? If you guessed yoga. . .ding ding ding! Gold star for you! I don't know what the deal is, exactly, but Varkala may have been my last chance for yoga in India.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

My New Year's Eve turned out to be not like any other I've ever celebrated. Not that NYE is usually a wild and crazy party or anything. Normally I hang out with a few close friends, make dinner or order pizza, drink a few bottles of champagne, watch a movie, and turn the channel just in time to see the ball drop. It may not be exciting for some people, but for me it's perfect.

I spent yesterday exploring Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. The hotel is in Ernakulam and you have to take a ferry to get to these areas (the whole area of which makes of Cochin). The ferry process is a bit wonky, so we ended up waiting a lot more than I'd have liked. One ferry goes to Fort Cochin and another goes to Mattancherry. Ideally, you'd queue up (there's a ladies line which is always shorter than the gents line), buy your ticket and get on the appropriate ferry. In reality, tickets are only sold for 10 minutes prior to the ferry departure and only until they're sold out. This means that you might spend a half hour standing in line only to get to the front and find out that no more tickets are available and you have to wait until they go on sale again. Eventually we did make it there and it's very cute.

(A lazy day in Fort Cochin)

Perhaps the biggest draw at Fort Cochin are the Chinese fishing nets.
It's a very old way of fishing and it takes four men to operate the nets. Along the waterside there are an assortment of vendors selling all kinds of things - clothing, jewelry, bags, coconut monkeys, musical instruments, magic tricks, peanuts, fish, ice cream, you name it. I wasn't so interested, but it was Amiri's first time in India and first chance to do any shopping, so he stopped at quite a few stalls. We wandered around for awhile before deciding to rent a scooter and check out the rest of the island. Amiri wanted to go to the spice market in Mattancherry, but "spice market" turned out to be a lot of stores calling themselves spice market and selling spices, rather than an actual spice market like the one I saw in Istanbul.

After wandering around for quite a few hours, we caught the ferry back. The plan had been to take showers and naps to rest up for a bit, and then we were gonna go out to celebrate the New Year. What ended up happening was that my body decided a nap was way more important than partying. I woke up briefly at 11:46pm and promptly went right back to sleep. Amiri said there were fireworks and people shouting down the New Year countdown, but I was completely oblivious to all of it. Sometime around 2am (I think), I woke up long enough to order room service and then it was back to sleep for me. It makes sense, really. I'd only had about seven hours of sleep total in the two previous nights. But it ended up meaning that it was the first time that I can remember not making it to midnight on NYE.

Today the plan is to go to the beach, but my stomach is feeling a little iffy, so I'm sticking around the hotel for a bit longer to see if it works itself out. Fingers crossed that it does!