Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Falling In Love With Thailand

Hello to everyone, it's been an exciting last few days, so lets jump right in.

Still in Bangkok, this was Christmas morning. We headed downstairs for breakfast at the hotel (which was always quite good) and a few gifts were exchanged. From there, we headed out to the 94 hectare, 100+ building compound that encompasses Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, where the king used to live. This is the most popular tourist attraction in Bangkok, and the reasons are pretty clear: the place is simply amazing. The architecture is wonderful, intricate, and well, very shiny. Haha... It is truly overwhelming, every way you look more buildings like these seem to appear each more impressive than the last.

This is Wat Phra Kaew, the primary attraction of the site, which holds the Emerald Buddha, an object with a long and interesting history. It was originally covered in plaster and it's 'emerald' (it's actually quartz or jade, and just 66cm tall) self was not discovered until an accident, it was stolen by Laotian invaders in the mid 16th century, and was not returned to Thailand for two hundred years, when it was won back in a later war.

Street-food is, in my opinion at least, the best way to eat in Thailand, and in southeast Asia as a whole. For about $1-$1.50 you can buy some wonderful Thai dishes and eat them on plastic chairs while sitting on the street corner watching the world go by. For Christmas dinner we all went out to a restaurant where we had a lovely dinner, and shared our dreams of spending future Christmases in other far off lands.

That evening Nick, Ellen, Chris and I went back out to Khaosan Road where we met up with two friends of theirs from the University of Oregon, and met many other fellow travelers as well. The band here was no surprise, a cover band, but quite good and we all had a good evening and a rather unusual Christmas day.

Do to the time difference between Bangkok and Seattle, I'd set my watch alarm for 5:45am to wake up and video-chat with my family back in Seattle while they were having their Christmas brunch, but I ended up sleeping through my alarm. I got a hold of my aunt and uncle who were hosting the brunch, but I'd missed my grandmother and the rest of my family, and felt pretty bad about that. However I was able to video-chat with the Christmas dinner event on my dads side of the family, and since I'd already seen some of my family in Cambodia I still managed to see most of the family, which was a lot of fun to be able to do half way around the world.

In the early afternoon, we all headed off to a big weekend market via taxi, which in itself was a bit of an adventure. We told the taxi drivers where we wanted to go, and they wouldn't just do it. They refused to use the meter, then offered to take us to some “factory” where the driver said he could get free gas (and would be paid for taking us) and we would get a reduced fare, but we were not in the mood for such shenanigans, and when they still refused to use the meter we all just got out and walked away. This is illegal for meter-taxis to do, but it still happens and is rather annoying. If the driver just did his job, he would have made some money, instead he tried to screw us over and got nothing. We ended up walking to a gas station where we picked up a taxi (squeezing all six of us in a sedan) and got to the market on the meter and without hassle.

The market itself was a very unusual one. It was really fancy, and extremely overpriced. Walking around was amusing, but we didn't buy much. We did however spot this shirt for a store in Seattle, which was pretty bizarre. We got lunch at some food stalls, and moved on.

Beyond the market, we wound up in Queen Sirikit Park, a very nice park that felt nothing like the rest of Bangkok we had seen up to that point. The park was built for the queens 60th birthday in 1992, is 56 acres and 'the biggest and most complete botanical garden in Thailand' containing over 2,000 different species, including over 60 different types of banana. In this park, we saw turtles, fish and a 3 foot long lizard.

At this point, we were heading out of Bangkok, and I had to get the process started on my visa for India. It takes 6-7 working days, and the whole process was rather confusing. Prices were all over the place. According to the Indian Embassy in Thailand website, it was going to cost 6800 baht ($226!), but every travel agent I asked did it for between 4000 and 4500. To confuse things further, our hotel also did visas, but for only 3100 baht, less than half the official price! After our experience in Cambodia, and given the price difference, since I trusted our hotel, I used them. Since I didn't want to wait in Bangkok for another 10 days or so, as Nick and his family were heading south where I also wanted to see, I left my passport with the hotel and will pick it up when I return to the city in mid January to meet with Brendan when he arrives.

That evening, we caught an overnight bus to Phuket, which was a fun and rather interesting experience. The bus is a massive 'two floor' affair, the bottom level having exactly 6 seats. We lucked out and got it to ourselves, so we basically had our own little party room on the bus for what was a 13 hour ride. They brought us drinks and a snack, put on some new movie with Tom Cruise dubbed in Thai (which made it much more amusing than your typical Tom Cruise movie) and we set off. At 11:30pm, we were woken up by the bus blasting Hotel California (Thailand's favorite song I think) which was somehow the signal to wake up and get ready to eat! After more strange musical interludes, the bus stopped off at this massive bus stop, where we were utterly confused, then shuffled into some room where that sat us at big round tables with other Thai's and a built-in lazy susan for a family style meal, before getting back on the bus for the rest of the ride. None of us slept well, and upon arriving in Phuket, we hopped another bus to Krabi, ate at the bus stop then hopped a song-thaew (seats in the back of a pickup truck) to Ao Nang beach.

Ao Nang would be an amazing beach by normal standards, but in Thailand it's just OK, haha. We checked into our hotel, relaxed on the beach a bit and then hopped on a long-tail boat for a little day trip out to the real attraction in the area, Railay Beach.

Right away, we were all impressed by Railay, and after walking around and checking out the area, we headed off on a little scramble up to the top of one of the limestone cliffs. It's a steep, slippery and somewhat treacherous little journey made worse by only cheap flip-flops for footwear, but a lot of fun.

Here is the view from the top, totally worth it, and exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to see and experience here in southern Thailand. Just wonderful.

Also on the same trail, is another leg that heads off to the lagoon. While the trail up to the viewpoint was a bit treacherous, the hike down to the lagoon could be downright dangerous, and precisely the kind of thing that simply wouldn't exist in the 'developed world.' Climbing down sharp rocks, free-hanging from old rotten looking ropes tied to rocks and other such features makes it all the more fun though!

The lagoon was amazing. A beautiful pool of water surrounded by jungle covered cliffs maybe 150 feet straight up in all directions and fantastic limestone stalactites gave plenty to look at while enjoying the water. I chatted up a few other people swimming about travel in India, and we then headed back long before I'd had my fill. I could have stayed there all day.

After laying out on the beach a bit more, watching some rock climbers, and marveling at the area, we caught a long-tail back to our hotel, had dinner, and went back to the hotel. We opted for a relaxing evening, gathering in Chris and my room and watching some TV. (wow, a room with a TV, living in luxury while traveling with momma and poppa Jones!). On TV happened to be the movie Tomb Raider, which while a rather bad movie, had a part filmed at Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins, and it was pretty fun to see that in a movie just days after we had seen the sites in person!

The next day, we headed down to the beach, and after much confusion and hassle (which is somewhat common traveling here in southeast Asia) we managed to rent three kayaks and head out to explore on our own.

Along the way was a rope hanging from a cliff Nick and I had spotted the day earlier, and naturally we had to play. I climbed out of the kayak and using the foot-lock technique I use back home at work tree climbing got up the slippery and worn out rope, (barefoot, giving my ankle a rope burn in the process), then got onto the rock. I tried to get up a bit higher, but it just wasn't happening, so I jumped off into the water, and we went on our way.

Further down the beach is one of the things Railay Beach is famous for: rock climbing. With over 700 bolted routes, including cave ceilings, massive stalactites, sport climbing and 300 meter cliffs, it is a climbers paradise. We hung out for a little while watching people (mostly Europeans) doing some amazing climbing right there on the beach, and having my own little dreams about being that good some day. I expect to come back here after Nick's family take off, and Nick and Ellen begin their volunteer program, but for now I just have to wait.

That afternoon we took a bus to the dock, and boarded a ferry for Ko Phi-Phi Don, an amazing island around 50k off-shore, and a very popular tourist draw. The first few minutes were a bit off-putting however, as upon arrival, they were charging every white person 20 baht as a 'clean up' fee for litter on the island, had some guy dressed in camo to intimidate people, as well as blowing a whistle in your face. Sure the 'fee' isn't much, but I guarantee they are just pocketing that money, and here in southeast Asia, it seems the locals litter like it's their job. After that, it was a serious gauntlet of hucksters, bars, junk shops, tattoo parlors and so on to get to our room. On top of that, it had gotten quite overcast on the boat and started to rain. Not what you have in mind when arriving at a tropical paradise.

Once we climbed the massive number of stairs to our rooms however, our moods were instantly lifted. Again, traveling with the Jones family we are staying at much nicer places than we would usually, and this place was an exceptionally nice room. The very highest hotel on the island from what I can tell, we have not only a very nice room, we have a serious million-dollar-view out the window and from our own private decks over the town, the cliffs and the water! I'm ok with jail-cell size rooms, and shared squat toilets, but a place like this once in a while is pretty hard to argue with! A big thanks to Colin Jean for the hospitality!

Outside of our room, which butts up against the jungle essentially, the monkeys got curious, and started emerging from the trees en-mass. At first they just seemed curious, and there were maybe 5-8 of them, but for some reason they got really riled up, and at one point there were about 15 of them watching us, some hissing, growling and showing their teeth. At one point I climbed up a tree to see how they would react, but it didn't seem to gain me any new friends, haha. Later on, we had dinner on the beach, and watched the sun go down on the cove.

That night, as seasoned travelers here in southeast Asia, it was our job to take Chris out to check out the beach party scene. We got some beers at the little stores for way less than at the bars, and walked down the beach watching fire dancing, listening to music and dancing. It's fun sure, but honestly I'm growing tired of it already, and I've only done it a handful of times. There are so many 20-somethings in places like this that as far as I can tell are just 'drinking-tourists' and go to a foreign country full of amazing history, culture, nature and people, only to hit the beach parties that are the same everywhere. Seriously, if you have been to one of these party scenes, you have just about seen all there is to see. Party, sure, but see the country as well! Let me tell you, I don't see these kinds of people in the historical sites and in the local restaurants... anyway, enough of that. To each his/her own.

This finally gets me caught up to today. This morning, we rented kayaks again, this time adding snorkels, and headed off to a beach down the island to do some snorkeling. It was cloudy again and actually rained a bit as well, but it didn't put a damper on my spirits one bit. As for the marine life, maybe I was spoiled by Alona Beach in the Philippines, but where we went today just didn't compare. There were some nice fish, but the coral life seems to have been destroyed by the dual-200 horsepower speed boats that choose to rev their engines in the shallow cove... a shame. The rock of course was cool, and I did have fun though. We then paddled on to another almost empty beach, where I poked around the sand looking at all the amazing shells, then we headed back to town. In town, I was in an eating mood, and went on the attack. I ate a banana-coconut pancake, quail egg fried won-tons, a vegetable spring roll, fried curry with seafood, then finished off both Chris and Ellens noodle dishes. When food is so cheap, and so good, it's hard not do eat yourself stupid.

Whew, that's it for now. We are staying on the island through new years, tomorrow doing a snorkeling trip on some better sites, and then Jean has some kind of surprise, but of course she won't tell us what it is.

Goodbye for now, everyone, and happy new year! (by the way, I hope your new years resolution is to travel!)