Laos

Laos


Days 68-69 (March 8-9): Slow Boat on Mekong River

In the morning, we had a breakfast of toast overlooking the Mekong.  We went through immigration at the border then headed to the pier to get on our slow boat to Luang Prabang,which left around 11:45am.  Its called the slow boat because it takes 2 days to reach Luang Prabang from the border.  The fast boat takes one day, but is more expensive, more uncomfortable, and more dangerous. Apparently, more than a few fast boats crash on the Mekong every year.  The slow boats hold maybe 60 people in tight quarters and looks like this:

Slow Boat

Slow Boat

There wasnt much room on the boat, so all we could do was play cards.  We played some more of the games from Bodega like Asshole. Jos also taught us a Dutch game called Toopin (sp?).  In toopin, only one person loses every game.  The way we played it, the person who loses earns a forfeit — in other words, he has to do something embarrassing and stupid. Mo, another Dutch guy Benji and Jos had met the day before, lost the first game and had to stand up and act like a chicken every time someone said his name.  In the cramped quarters of the slow boat, Mo’s chicken antics drew quite a bit of attention, but it was a good way to pass the time.  After that first game, we only made the loser do a few chickens, but they would always be at a bar or somewhere embarrassing.  We also had a whole range of singing punishments wherein the loser would serenade someone chosen by the winners.

When we werent playing cards, I tried to sleep or read more Words of Radiance. We got to Pakbeng, the little riverside town where we spent the night, around 530pm. When we disembarked, Jos, Benjy, Steve, Mo and I walked up the hill to find a guest house/hotel.  On the walk up, we met Werner, who had been on our slow boat as well and somehow was  also front Ghent, where Benjy’s is from. We found a cheap hotel and ate dinner there as the sun set over the Mekong.

The next day we got back onto the slow boat at 9am.  Another day of card games, chickens, beautiful river views, napping, and Words of Radiance. We arrived in Luang Prabang in the afternoon.  Mo, Steve, Jos, Benjy, Werner and I walked around looking for a hostel.  Central Backpackers was full so we stayed at Spicylaos. Spicylaos turned out to be the worst hostel I’ve stayed at so far in Southeast Asia. The mattresses were rock hard and tiny such that they didnt even fill up the wooden bunk beds. There was no glass or covering over the windows so insects could fly on in and eat us up.  And everything was generally pretty dirty.  Fortunately we would only have to spend one night there.

For dinner we walked down to the Night Market and had a vegetarian buffet.  There we met Jesse, an American from Seattle who had rented a motorbike in Hanoi and done a motorbike trek around northern Vietnam.  After dinner, we all headed to Utopia, a huge bamboo bar overlooking the Mekong river where all the travelers hang out until the bars close at 11pm.  When the bars close, everyone from Utopia headed over to a bowling alley via tuk tuk.  The bowling alley is the only place open after 11pm.  As such, all the Western travelers gather there every night around 1130pm and stay there bowling and hanging out until it closes at 2am or so.  The Utopia-bowling alley combination is a staple of Luang Prabang night life for backpackers.

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Days 70-72 (March 10-12): Luang Prabang

For lunch the next day we bought sandwiches at the street food market stalls. There were about 10-15 stalls lined up serving the exact same menus. I had a chicken bacon sandwich on a baguette with mayo for $1.  After lunch, we took a tuk tuk with some British people to the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls.  The waterfalls were amazing. After Kuang Si, I won’t ever look at another waterfall the same way.  Kuang Si is now the measuring stick for all future waterfalls.

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There were 5 or 6 different levels of waterfalls – each beautiful. You could swim in the water on most levels and you could even jump off a few of the levels into the level below.  The final waterfall was the biggest and there was a path up alongside it on either side. A local tour guide told us it was better to go up the right…and he was clearly messing with us because the right side was steep, slippery and had no good views. It was a strenuous 25 minute climb.  At the top, you could walk across the stream and up to a railing overlooking the waterfall. On the way to the railing, I slipped on a patch of mossy rock and fell backwards head over heels into the stream. I was fully submerged for a second…and so was my bag with my phone and money. I scrambled out immediately to check if my phone was all right. Fortunately it had been wrapped in my towel and survived. I have absolutely no idea what i would have done without my phone and all the travel apps, notes, info, and pics on it.  As it stands, no permanent damages. I just looked like an idiot in front of a handful of people.

Back in town I got another baguette sandwich Laos style with tofu, shredded pork and sweet Laos chili sauce. Walking back to the hostel (we switched to the much nicer Central Backpackers), one of the street vendors had a dead squirrel laid out on her mat with the rest of her wares. I’m not sure why it was there. Was it for the pelt? dinner? Unclear.

The next morning, I got another delicious Laos style baguette sandwich. Jos, steve, Benjy and I walked around town. The old city of Luang Prabang is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.  The old city peninsula has 2 main streets and waterfront areas lined with French/Laos cafes and Buddhist temples. We had croissants and coffee at one such cafe. We watched the sunset from one such temple – the Wat Tham Phou Si – which sat atop a hill right above the Night Market in the center of town.  We ran up the 300-plus stairs in 5 minutes so we could catch the tail end of the sunset. But by the time we got up to the top people were already coming down because the sun had dipped down behind the hills surrounding the town.  Oh well, the views of Luang Prabang were still nice.

On the way down I suddenly had to use the restroom very very urgently.  I went down the stairs increasingly quickly then rushed through the crowded Night Market looking for a bathroom.  I found one in a hotel only to discover my nemesis – the squat toilet.  For those who didnt read my previous blog entries, squat toilets are everywhere in Southeast Asia.  They are essentially toilets built into the ground that you have to squat down to use. Asian people have perfected the Asian squat (Shout out to my homie Kevin Chang who first clued me in on the Asian squat.  Every man, women and child in Southeast Asia can do the Asian squat whereby you bend your knees/legs so that your butt is resting on your heels inches above the grounds.) and so have no problem with this system, but us Westerners arent nearly as flexible so its harder to hang our asses over a hole in the ground.  Despite my inflexibility and balance issues, I survived another encounter with the squat toilet. Afterwards, instead of going to Utopia with the guys, I stayed in and finished Words of Radiance.

On my final day in Luang Prabang, I did one of the 4 geocaches located in and around the town.  I keep forgetting to look for geocaches while abroad, but its a great way to find cool spots while traveling.  This particular cache was hidden halfway up a wall in a hole covered by a potted plant.  I’m sure I looked suspicious to the hordes of young monks walking up and down the street.

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For lunch I had a sampling of Laos foods at a restaurant perched above the Nam Khan river. The best dishes were the sweet buffalo sausage and the buffalo jerky.  After lunch, I blogged and went over pictures at an Internet cafe.  I had a midafternoon snack at Utopia while reading a new book. Walking back to the hostel I passed a schoolyard that reminded me of elementary school – jump rope, kids singing/dancing, everyone yelling.

For dinner we had a spicy pork soup at a stall in the Night Market.  It was easily my favorite meal in Laos and comparable to some of the better ramens Ive had.  Afterwards I bought some pants in the market and we started walking to Utopia.  Less than 15 seconds after putting on my new pants a tiny dog ran at me barking and bit my pant leg. Literally 15 seconds. Unreal.  But there didnt appear to be any damage.

At Utopia I talked to some girls who had just did the Everest Base Camp hike in Nepal. I really want to do a trek in Nepal, but it doesnt seem like I’ll have time this time around. Hopefully I can do another trip in the future where I hit Japan, Korea, China, Nepal and India all at once.

Overall, Luang Prabang was a nice, quient small town with a laid back vibe. There was a cool mix of temples, French cafes/bistros, local Asian markets, Buddhist monks, riverside waterfront bars and restaurants, and beautiful scenery.

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Days 73-78 (March 12-18): Vang Vieng and Vientiane

The next day, Jos, Werner, Steve, Benjy and I (Mo flew to Hanoi) took a minibus south to the backpacker town of Vang Vieng.  Vang Vieng is most famous for the tubing down the river that goes through town. There used to be 40-50 bars located right along the river. You could rent a tube for the day and go down the river from bar to bar all afternoon.  However, in the last few years, a few people died jumping or ziplining into the river and all but 4 of the bars are now closed. But, Vang Vieng is still a fun backpackers town with beautiful green limestones karsts and hills surrounding the small two-street riverside town.

We got rooms for $4 a person at Central Backpackers and then Steve and I went in search of good and pool.  We found both, but neither was very good.  The town seemed empty, probably because all the tourists were tubing at the time.  I napped the afternoon away and then we had dinner at a restaurant across the street that was staffed by a waitress from Michigan who had been living in VV for 4 months.

The following day we resolved to go tubing. To be honest, that was the main reason we were visiting VV.  Really the only reason.  We rented tubes in town and took a tuk tuk to the river.  We met a bunch of people at the first stop then tubed down to the first bar.  At the first stop there was a basketball hoop! The first one I’d seen in ages.  There was a basketball too…which we used to play soccer. But eventually I was able to shoot around on the hoop a bit.  We had a fun game of pickup soccer, 5 v 5, but it didnt last too long because the sand pitch was ridiculously hot.  Next we played some Kings Cup with mostly british people before getting our tubes and heading to the net stop. I tried to jump onto my tube and fell right through the middle, soaking myself unintentionally for the second day in a row.  But the 10 minute tube ride to Bar #2 was pleasant.  Everyone linked up tubes and made the trip together. At the second bar there was a stage for dancing, another basketball hoop (which was being soaked in water by a sprinkler, and a volleyball court. After some dancing and shooting bball, I moved on to the volleyball court where everyone was impressed by my ability to actually hit the ball over the net consistently and serve overhand.  I’m guessing they dont play too much beach volleyball in the UK and wherever everyone else was from in Europe.  Eventually we took another long tube ride to the next bar, during which Steve lost his waterproof case holding his wallet, but which I found down the river.  At the final bar, Werner and I played ping pong and then we all played some more volleyball.  We went back to the hostel at 5pm and had some early dinner with Kylie from Florida.  I took a nap and woke up to a lightning storm over the mountains. I went downstairs, bought some pringles and headed back up to the 5th story balcony to watch the lightning and read my book. By the way, the balcony on our floor had awesome view of VV.

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In the morning I had a delicious baguette fried chicken sandwich with the local Sriracha-like hot sauce.  Then we went to the Blue Lagoon, the only other place to visit near VV.  The Blue Lagoon turned out to be just as fun as tubing. There were rope swings, places to jump into the water from a tree, a volleyball court, and a huge cave complex just a short hike away.

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After jumping into the water a bit, we headed to the caves with an crazy English guy Miles we had met tubing.  Near the cave entrance there was a cool Buddha shrine.  A little past the Buddha though, it got really dark such that headlamps were necessary. Fortunately you could by headlamps at the start of the hike to the cave. We ended up wandering around the caves for an hour or so, but didn’t really see any end. Back down at the lagoon almost everyone else had left except us, but we stayed for a bit longer to play some volleyball with locals.

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For dinner we went to the Irish pub to watch some premiership soccer.  They were playing some great music (No Diggity and Kanye etc.) so we stuck around for a bit and played in a pool tournament where each entrant had 3 lives and if you failed to pot a ball you lost a life.  Each person had one shot a round.

After pool, we walked the streets and bumped into Caroline, the Belgian from Pai. She had missed her flight to Belgium and decided to stick around Southeast Asia for a few more months.  Steve had recently done the same after Koh Tao.

Our last day in VV was pretty mellow. No tubing or lagooning. We just had good food, played pool, and watch soccer.  By the way, one weird aspect of VV is that every restaurant/cafe has a TV and every TV is playing Friends reruns. No idea why, but apparently its been the case there for years.  Our hostel also played Southpark and Big Bang Theory along with a bunch of 80’s American movies and Team America World Police.

Me and Steve had dinner at this French restaurant ranked No. 1 in VV on trip advisor.  I had beef Bourginnon and mashed potatos… It was the best meal I had since Bangkok.  Tripadvisor was spot on as usual. They best meals I’ve had traveling seem to all be TripAdvisor recommendations. We went back to the irish pub for more soccer and pool.

We left VV by minibus in the morning for Vientiane.  They bus was so backed we had to sit in the aisles. Shockingly, sitting in the aisles for 4 hours was not as luxuriously comfortable as one would expect, but we made it to Vientiane in one piece.

Vientiane doesnt really have anything good to recommend it. I spent one night there and left on a flight to Hanoii the next day.  In that one night, I was laying in bed reading when I bed bug crawled up my arm. I immediately recognized what it was from my bed bug experiences in Chicago. I packed up my bags and went downstairs to get a refund and move to another hostel, but they refused to give me my money and tried to make me switch rooms.  I didnt want to have anything to do with them so I just left and took the hit. it was only 5 or 6 dollars anyways.

That was really what I thought would be my last day with Steve, Benjy, Jos and Werner. I had been traveling with Steve for a month an the other guys for a few weeks. We had been having a ton of fun together.  Its always more fun to travel with a few good guys than alone. Unfortunately, I had decided to part ways and head to Hanoi because they wanted to do a 4 day motorbike trek through central Laos and I just didnt have the time. I was rushing to get through Southeast Asia so I could get to Nepal for a trek and the Middle East before heading to Brazil for the World Cup in June. So, with a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the guys and got on a plane to Hanoi.  (Dont worry, the story has a happy ending. I met back up with the guys in Vietnam and we are now doing a 3 week motorbike trek south to Ho Chi Minh City!)

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Thailand: Chiang Mai and Pai

Days 60-61 (February 28- March 1):  Chiang Mai

The night train arrived in Chiang Mai around 1pm.  We walked into the Old City and had lunch at Bamboo Cafe, then headed next door to the Chiang Mai saloon to shoot some pool. After wandering around a bit, I headed back to the hostel for a nap. In the evening, we headed to the highly touted Night Bazaar.  I actually wasn’t too impressed. It was certainly larger than any night market I had been to, but wasn’t essentially different than others I had seen in Thailand and Indonesia.  I tried a dragonfruit smooth and will never have dragonfruit again. Also, durian fruit smells awful.  (That should be it for the hate part of this blog, because I found the rest of Northern Thailand enjoyable.)  We got a stein of beer at a German beer garden and then sat around talking for a while before heading back to the hostel.

The next day for lunch we headed back to the CM Saloon for pool and some Western food. In Indonesia and the Thai islands, all I ate was rice, noodles, and regional dishes. In Bangkok, I got a taste for Western food again and couldnt go back to Thai food just yet.  So, for lunch I had some surprisingly good chicken wings. We weren’t too thrilled with our hostel because there was no other young travelers there, so we went and checked out some hostels in the Old City. Up til that point, I didnt understand why people liked Chiang Mai so much. But in the process of searching for a new hostel, we walked down some really cool alleys and side streets with nice cozy cafes and cool street art.

Eventually we made our way to Wat Phra Sing, the most famous temple in Chiang Mai.  By this point, I was already unimpressed with temples and I hadn’t even seen many. Borobudur sort of spoiled me.  It was pretty cool to see all the young monks in orange walking around, going about their monkly duties.  There were more monks walking around Chiang Mai than anywhere else I had been.

For dinner, we continued the recent pattern of eating Western food at Loco Elvis. It actually turned out to be a pretty cool place because there was a 2 person, 2 guitar duo playing covers of some fun songs. They did the Beatles, Heart of Gold, Hotel California, and a bunch of others, but they gave it their own twist, which I usually hate, but mostly worked in this case.

Later, we went to the Irish pub to watch Arsenal v. Stoke. If you ever want to watch live soccer on tv while traveling, always look for the local Irish pub. There seems to be one almost every place I’ve been to in Asia.

Days 62-63 (March 2-3):  Chiang Mai

We decided to do an eco trek the next day, meaning that we would do trek up to a village in the hills populated by one of the tribes surrounding Chiang Mai. In the truck ride up to the spot where we started the trek, we met a bunch of fun people (who we would see on and off for the next month traveling through Southeast Asia): English Jack, Germans Max, Bjon and Christ, Dutch Laura, and Keon from Trinidad and NYC.

For our first stop on the trip we went to a pretty lame orchid/butterfly farm for 20 minutes. I have no idea why this was included as part of the package. Then we stopped at a market to get supplies for our night with the hill tribe.  Eventually, we made it to the trailhead.  The first part of trek was actually an elephant ride.

An elephant ride may sound a bit cheesy/touristy, but it actually turned out to be pretty fun. It lasted about 30 minutes and there amazing view. The ride was a bit bumpy though. They gave us about 25 bananas to feed the elephant.  As it was walking, the elephant who reach its trunk up and over its head, back to me and Chris, who where sitting on a platform resting on the juncture of it’s head and neck.  Our elephant went through those bananas like the were nothing. Truck up, insert banana, trunk down, eat, trunk back up almost immediately, repeat 25 more times until bananas gone 2 minutes later. We were a little worried that the elephant would get made when we ran out of bananas, and it did seem to try a little harder to brush us into trees after the bananas were gone, but mostly it was all right.

Next came the not so fun part of the trek. 2 hours uphill to the hilltribe village where we would spend the night.  Fortunately there was a decent dirt road for most of the trip. Unfortunately, it barely leveled out at all for the entire trek.  It just kept going up at varying levels of steep-quad-killing-ness. Chris had an external speaker, so we got to enjoy some music along the way. But our guide, a young Thai guy kept messing with us.  Claiming that we had 4 hours left or 5 minutes left, or that we would be going downhill soon.  None of these things were true at any point.  So we had no idea how much longer we had to go, and the path just kept going up.  There were beautiful views of the hills, but I was mostly too tired to enjoy them or even get my camera out to take pictures.

Eventually we made it to the top to the village, where I and the others promptly plopped down our straw mattresses lying on the ground in our bamboo hut.  Our rest was almost immediately interrupted by an outrageously cute little 4-year old Thai girl who skipped into our hut and started grabbing at us and jumping on us, trying to get us to play with her.

We played a bit of tag, and then Laura got her to sit down to watch dancing videos on her Iphone (Laura is a dance teacher back in Holland).

We watched the sunset from the top of the hill with the only other small group of oustiders staying in the tiny village.  After the sun went down, we had a curry dinner prepared by the locals, then played card games (King’s Cup, Dutch Attack Game, Asshole) for the rest of the night and just hung out.

At one point, the younger village children came to do a song for us that somehow had parts of Alouette incorporated.  Our guide showed us some puzzles with sticks similar to the ones the guy from the Gili Islands had showed me.

We slept under mosquito nets and weren’t bothered by bugs as much as I thought we would be up in the hills.

We were woken up at 5:30am the next morning by the light filtering in through the huge cracks in our bamboo huts and what sounded like 50 roosters. After breakfast, Laura, Steve and I headed down out of the hills. The rest of our group were doing another day of trekking.

I talked for a while with Laura, who had just finished her degree in Latino studies and had spent time living in Puerto Rico and Buenos Aires, and wanted to get a job in Barcelona.

We stopped at a nice waterfall and were able to get in the frigid water for a bit before continuing the trek down.  We got down to the river and then walked along the water to the white water rafting station where we had lunch and played card games with some Germans (we saw those Germans again in Pai).  Steve, Laura, I and 2 Canadians got a raft together with our teenage Thai guide. We had paddles and were given normal instructions like “Forward” and “Back”, but we also had “Jump to Right Side” and “Bounce” when we needed to shift the boat when it got stuck (which was quite a bit since the water was very low).  The frequent jumping across the raft and bouncing was really fun and we were all giggling within 5 minutes of the 45 minute trip. We were clearly terrible at paddling, and our guide had to do most of the steering himself by bracing his feet under the bench in front of him and leaning 80% out of the raft into the water to steer and push with his paddle. We ended up moving down the river backwards amost every 2 minutes.  It was great fun.  We enjoyed the scenery, laughed a lot, and got soaked.  After the white water rafting, we floated the final 15 minutes of the trip on a bamboo raft to the final station, where we picked up a truck back to Chiang Mai. Everyone on the truck fell asleep on the 2 hour ride back.

In Chiang Mai, we moved to a new hostel and then had dinner with Laura before calling it an early night.  Overall, the trek was one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. I met some really fun people, got away from the crowds a bit and enjoyed some beautiful scenery.

Days 64-67 (March 4-7):  Pai

Steve and I took a 3 hour minibus north to Pai, a small (essentially 2 main streets) town.  In the minibus, we met Benjamin, a 27 year old Belgian social worker (who I have been travelling with ever since).  When we arrived, Benjamin (“Benjy”), Steve and I got a room at the Blue House.  While we were unpacking, we talked to two German girls sitting on the porch next door to us who had already been travelling for a year, but were soon heading back to Germany.  We ended up having lunch with them at a French place.  After a short walk around Pai, I headed back to the room to nap and read for a while. In the evening, while Steve went for a massage, Benjy invited one of people he had met in Bangkok over to our place to hang out.  She came over 15 minutes later … and brought 10 other people. We were all crammed into our tiny guest house room making introductions and chatting. Benjy’s friend was a fellow Belgian, Caroline, a photographer.  The others were, Lorenzo and his girlfriend from Birmingham, Dutch Astrid, and Grant, who was actually from Irvine (!).  After hanging around a bit, we headed out to the bars.  At the first place, there was a huge firepit, with 5 or 6 people ringed around it.  We sat down with them, and found out that they were mostly Americans teaching around the Bangkok area.  I spent an hour talking mostly to them about their experiences in Thailand before heading out with the crew to a bar across the bridge called Don’t Cry bar. All the other bars had closed early and Don’t Cry was the only one still open. Thus, it was packed.  They had a firepit as well and fire dancers.

Pai was my favorite place in Thailand after Koh Tao. One of the reasons was because you inevitbly run into all the people from the night before at breakfast the next morning because its such a small place. Really laid-back vibe too.

I had lunch with Benjy, then spent the afternoon walking around, reading, and napping.  For dinner, Steve and I went to a burger place (still keeping it Western) where we heard there would be a pub quiz later. So we gathered our crew and headed out to dominate.  We picked up two Irish girls to join our team as well.  Not that it was in doubt, but our team “Life of Pai” crushed the competition by a sizeable margin.  Afterwards we went out to the bars again and saw all of the same people, including some fun Fins (Finnish guy who did Monty Python impersonation of Ministry of Silly Walks). We had a late night street burrito from a young Thai lady who looked like Shakira and got back to the guest house late.

The next day started with another late breakfast. After saying goobye to Benjy and Jos (a Dutch guy Benjy had met the day before and who we would travel with for the next month) Steve and I were supposed to catch an afternoon minibus back to Chiang Mai because we had booked a 3 day slow boat trip to Luang Prabang, Laos, starting from Chiang Mai. However, the minibus company overbooked the minibus and there was only room for one more person.  After 30 minutes of scrambling, we werent able to find another bus that would arrive in Chiang Mai in time, but we were able to push back our Luang Prabang slow boat trip to the following day.

We checked back in to Blue House and saw Caroline and Grant hanging out front. We went with them across the river to the circus school where they taught slack line walking, fire juggling, etc.  The place was actually a hostel too and had great views of the surrounding countryside.  Later, Steve and I played some pool in town (we played a lot of pool in Thailand).  We met back up with Jos and Benjy at night, and had dinner at the street food carts on the main street. It was the best street food I’ve had in Southeast Asia.  I had some Indian curry, naan, dosa, and a paprika potato twist thing.  The other guys had sushi and satay. All of it was great and most importantly it didnt make us sick like a lot of street food would.  Back at Blue House, we met some more new people and played some card/drinking games before hitting the bars. Again, we hung out with all the fun people we had met in Pai and a great time was had by all.

Our last morning in Pai, we just had some breakfast and caught the minibus to Pai. We only had a few hours before we got picked up for the Luang Prabang slow boat, so we had some Indian food and charged our phones in the hostel.  I was really getting into Words of Radiance, which had just been released a few days earlier.  We didn’t arrive at the Laos border until 2 am, i.e., 3 hours late, which is basically on time for Thailand. We even crossed path with Jos and Benjy at a gas station. They were on the same slow boat as us to Laos.

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Thailand: Bangkok

(I just returned to Hanoi via overnight train from Sapa in Northern Vietnam. It’s 6am and I can’t check in to my hostel for another 3 hours. So be prepared for more spelling/grammar errors than usual.)

Days 55-56 (February 23-24):  Bangkok

After a lazy brunch, Steve and I took a taxi to the pier and boarded a ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, where we caught a bus to the train station for an overnight train to Bangkok. Our ferry was over an hour late and our train left over 2 hours late and arrived in Bangkok 3 hours late.  Thats about par for the course in the Thai public transportation system.

Once in Bangkok, we took the subway to our hostel, Bodega.  Bodega turned out to be one of favorite hostels of the trip so far. Its located just a few minutes off Sukhumvit (one of the biggest boulevards in Bangkok) down a quiet little alley.  Its run by three young brothes from Wisconsin who opened it up on a whim just last year at the end of a round-the-world trip instead of going home again.  They are really fun/cool guys who had a lot of useful advice of things to do around Southeast Asia.

After dropping our bags off in our dorm, Steve and I took the Skytrain to MBK mall, which is the budget-friendly alternative to the classier Siam Paragon mall. One entire floor of MBK was dedicated to knockoff electronics. I bought some cheap Iphone earplugs as a backup to my quickly deteriorating pair. Steve spent 30 minutes trying to find a decent pair of Beat by Dre headphones, but in the end didn’t trust (and rightfully so) the quality of the knockoffs offered, even if they were 1/8 the price of the real thing.

After lunch at a wildly mediocre food court Indian buffet, we walked across the street to the above-mentioned Siam Paragon mall.  Everything at Paragon was white marble, smooth jazz, and upper-tier clothing/watches/cars(!?).  More importantly, however, the food and restaurants on the ground floor were amazing. I’m not talking about nice fancy restaurants. They had those for sure. I’m talking about Garretts popcorn, a Nando’s (well, a knockoff at least with nearly the same menu and logo), Krispy Kreme, a highly rated ramen place, KBBQ, and cafes with free Wifi. Ahhhh yeah. The good stuff. After a month of island living and travel, it felt good to get to an air-conditioned Western-style mall with delicious food.  Unfortunately, we had just ate, but I knew I’d we’d be back soon to try the Nando’s knockoff as Steve and I had already had a long talk about our love for Nando’s and the criminal dearth of Nando’s restaurants outside of England.

Outside the malls, the street was packed with the neatly arrayed tents of the Thai citizens protesting corruption in Bangkok.  Just the week before a grenade had gone off killing 3 civilians and 1 police officer in Bangkok.  So I was a little worried about being in Bangkok. I expected emotionally charged demonstrations and picketing in the streets like in the US. Well, that didnt really happen when I was there. The protests had a kind of festival atmosphere. People were just chilling in their tents all day trying to escape the heat. There were stages located all around the city where bands would play and speakers who give speeches. But I never saw anything approaching the fervor/anger that seems to characterize many protests in the USA. I still find it hard to believe that somone actually threw a grenade at any point. Weird.

Back at the hostel, we had a few beers at the bar downstairs and met some of the other hostelers. There was vegetarian Steve from Australia, Dutch Paul with the card games, Tanya from Atlanta, quiet Andrew from Scotland (who had Scottish pounds that he could not exchange for Baht), Waverley from Denver who said dude and other California-isms a lot, and Brian, one of the three owners of the hostel.   8 or 9 of us sat around the hostel bar playing card games and drinking games (one of which required people to sing the first couple phrases of “Rule Brittania” every few minutes) all night. This was actually how I would spend most of my nights in Bangkok. The people at the hostel, including the three brothers who owned it, were so cool and fun I didn’t really feel the need to go anywhere else.  The Dutch guy knew a bunch of fun card games, including the Great Dalmuti (“the goal of the game is to win”) and Asshol, which is very similar to 13/Big 2.  As an added bonus, the three brothers/owners turned out to be fans of the Wheel of Time and the Dark Tower. So I got to talk to them about that for a while, which I dont often have a chance to do and which I love.

Day 57 (February 25):  Bangkok

After hanging with people over breakfast at the hostel, calling Fedex about the delivery of my replacement ATM card, and dropping off laundry, Steve and I set off to test out the knock-off Nando’s at Siam Paragon.  Vedict: meh. The piri piri sauce was both clumpier and more watery than the sauce at Nando’s and there were no seasoned fries. But the chicken itself was still pretty good.  So, same same but different. (I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but “same same but different” is a hugely popular catchphrase in Thailand. Thai vendors, touts, and restaurant workers use it all the time to indicate that what they are offering is just as good assomething else, but a little bit different. So “This tour goes to almost all the same dive spots around the island as that other tour” would be shortened to “same same but different.” Travellers have picked up the phrase and use it all the time. In Thailand, I must have heard “same same but different” once a day. Since Thailand, I hear it about once every 3 days from tourists who have been to Thailand. It’s on t-shirts everywhere too.)

After another stop at MBK mall, we walked down to the canal and got on a water taxi to Bobbae outdoor market, which is said to have the cheapest clothing of any market in Bangkok. The entire time we were there (30+ minutes), we saw no other Westerners, which doesn’t happen to many places in Southeast Asia. After the market, we walked down the canal on a narrow walkway that served as a backyard/garden for many of the homes lining the canal.  We were stepping over plants, ducking under trees, and avoiding the occasional motorbike.  We didn’t make it to the palace before it close, so we took a longtail boat down Chao Phrang river to see some of the older parts of the city. The canals off the main river were lined with tiny one story homes on stilts bove the water. Some were falling apart and others looked quite nice.  We were too late for the water market, but an old lady in a small canoe/sampan still motored up next to our boat to sell us snacks and drinks.

When we finished with the boat, we took a long tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel. From there, we walked to Ra-men Bankara, which Google informed me was the best ramen place in Bangkok. And I can see how Google would come to that conclusion.  Bankara was awesome, maybe the best ramen I’ve ever had.  Right up there with the New York Ippudo.  The broth and pork were top-notch.  After dinner, we returned to the hostel for more card/drinking games with the same crew as the night before.

Days 58-59 (February 26-27):  Bangkok

In the morning, I picked up my replacement ATM card from Nara Square and had a waffle next door. Next, I went to the train station to buy a ticket for the night train to Chiang Mai for the following day.  Then, Steve and I walked to the palace around 2pm.  At the front gate, we were told that the palace was closed for the day. Later we would find out that this was a common scam in Bangkok: “Sorry, the ______ is closed today. Go do _________ instead. I’ll give you a deal.” So, instead of the palace, the guy at the gate told us to go to the river and take a longtail boat around for an hour.  He told us it would only cost 1200 (~$35) Baht at the pier he pointed us too, whereas it would cost 3000 Baht at the tourist pier, or so he claimed.  The thing is, we had done the river tour the day before and heard this exact same story from 2 other Thai people already.  The day before, a lady on the street, who was walking to her car, saw Steve and I looking at a map and asked us where we were from. When Steve told her he was from England, she claimed that her husband was from London.  Then, she recommended we go to a pier and take a longtail boat around at sunset: “Dont go to _____ pier because it will cost you 3000 Baht. Go to _______ pier and it will only cost 1400 Baht.”  So we went to the pier she recommended, and just near it a guy with a Tourist Police badge on said “Go to _________ pier (the one she recommended) and you will only pay 1000 Baht. The other pier will cost 3000 Baht.”  So, believing the random lady from the street who didnt appear to be a tout and believing the Tourist Police guy, we thought 1200-1400 Baht was the normal price. When we got to the pier that day, they asked for 1400 Baht and we bargained it down to 1000 Baht each, feeling pretty good about ourselves. Well, the next day, when we heard the same pitch for the third time from a third random person, we realized it was a huge scam.  What really fooled us was that a seemingly random lady walking to her car would go out of her way to set up this scam with no direct benefit to herself.  Did she lie about her husband being from England just to seem more believable? I dont know what to believe. Maybe she honestly thought it cost that much for the canal tour, or maybe she was just as ignorant as us. But it is pretty suspicious we heard nearly the exact same pitch 3 times from 3 different people.  Anyways, we went back to the same pier again, to try to do a similar canal tour with stops at some of the temples. This time, realizing that it was a scam to pay 1000+ Baht, we bargained down to 500 Baht, which was still probably too much.  We took a slightly different route this time and stopped at some nice wats (temples) including Wat Arun, where our hired longtail boat abandoned us while we were looking at the temple. However, it only cost us 10 Baht to get back to the right side of the river. I still have no idea how much we were scammed and how much it really shouldve cost. Such is life as a tourist in Bangkok. It was still a nice boat ride.

For dinner, Steve and I went to this tiny hole-in-the-wall burger place called Chef Bar, which was ranked as the #3 restaurant in Bangkok out of over 7000 restaurants.  The place was run by an Aussie guy and had only 3 tables.  I got an Wagyu burger, which turned out to be one of the best burgers I’ve had in a few years. As you can tell, I really loved the food in Bangkok, but none of it was Thai.

(Crazy Bangkok traffic)

Back at the hostel, Steve, Dutch Paul, American Tanya and English Sammy played the Great Dalmuti, Sporcle, and the impossible quiz for most of the night. We eventually got others to join in, including one of the three brothers Daniel, who had some good recommendations for Philipines and Burma.

The next morning, Steve, Sammy and I just chilled at Siam Paragon for most of the day.  I bought some books (Way of Kings and Guards Guards), we went bowling, andd then we chilled at Coffee Bean until Tanya and a few of her friends met up with us. We all went to the ramen place in the mall.  On the way back to the hostel, I got in a good talk with Tanya’s American friend about ultimate frisbee and how frats/sororities aren’t really a thing outside of the USA. I also talked with Tanya’s English friend about Man U’s fall from grace this season. Back at the hostel, we had a short game of King’s cup and then Steve, a young English guy from the hostel (whose name I can’t remember but who we saw in each of the next 4 cities), and I headed to the train station for the night train to Chiang Mai.

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Thailand, Week 2: Southern Islands

Day 49 (February 16):  Koh Samui

Despite a late night at the Full Moon party, I actually woke earlier than usual the next morning. So early in fact, that people were still returning from the Full Moon party.  One such character was Tyler, a UCLA grad from the LA area. He was in Koh Samui with an eclectic mix of guys from all over the world who were studying at a university together in Beijing. While waiting for the others to wake up, Tyler and I talked about LA, California, travel, creativity, UCLA, working full time vs being in school, etc.  Eventually, he went to sleep and I talked to a Spanish guy from Zaragosa and a guy from Montreal who had just spent a month doing Muay Thai training on Phuket.

Eventually, I wandered over to a travel office only to discover that all the ferries to Koh Tao were sold out for that day, so I had to settle for a ticket to for the following morning. No big deal, I went back to the hostel and booked another night and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of the day since it was only 9am at that point and I couldnt go back to sleep.  I spent a good portion of the day trying to catch up on blogging.  This blogging stuff takes a lot of time to do and I’m not even spell-checking or revising anything — just writing what pops into my head as I look at my notes and pictures.

As the sun was going down, Tyler, me and his friends from Beijing took a cab south to Rock Bar, a cool bamboo bar styled like a big treehouse and perched a few meters above some big beach boulders.  We caught the tail end of the sunset and then chatted/relaxed for a bit. Eventually, Yamina, Dane, and a bunch of the others from the hostel joined us.   I had a good long talk with Quentin, a 31-year-old Aussie former I-banker got sick of banking and quit his job to travel a bit and go back to school in Beijing.  Once again, as is common when I meet someone else who is a bit older than the gap year kids and has had some working experience, we talked about office life and what makes it bearable or unbearable — e.g., bosses, co-workers, subordinates, late nights, long hours.  It was a really relaxed night, which was really nice after the Full Moon party the night before.

Days 50-51 (February 17-18):  Koh Tao

I took an 8am ferry to Koh Tao, where I planned to get my PADI open water certification.  Upon arriving, I took a taxi to Sairee Beach to look for a dive company.  Based on reviews online, I decided to go with Simple Life.  I signed up for an open water class with my instructor, an English guy by the name of Richard, and then walked along the beach to my beachside bungalow to take a nap before my classroom work started later that afternoon.  When I showed up at Simple Life, it looked like I would be the only student in the class with Richard. But just as the first instructional video was starting, an English guy named, Steve, showed up for the class.  After a few videos, Steve and I went to dinner down the street at a bar on the beach.  The bar was pretty crowded with people sitting on bean bag chairs watching the beautiful sunset.

At dinner, I got to know Steve a little better. He is a 29-year-old from York who had just finished working in Gabon as an electrical engineer aboard an oil rig.  He was traveling for 3 weeks in Thailand before heading back to Gabon for work.  As we ate dinner, the sun went all the way down, and a fire spinner-dancer came out on the beach and put on a show.  I headed back to my bunaglow not too long after that because my stomach was a bit upset.

The next morning, we watched instructional videos for an additional 3 hours and then took a short lunch break.  After lunch, Rich showed Steve and I how to assemble our scuba equipment. Next, Rich walked us out into the water just off the beach so that we could practice some basic scuba skills.  He had us take of ours masks underwater and breathe calmly for a minute, simulate an out of air scenario, and some other mask and equipment skills.

Later, after another sunset at the Wind Resort Bar, we walked the streets around Sairee Beach and had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant.  We then meet Rich for some beers on the beach.  Rich and Steve bonded over an obscure English sport called Field Gun, where a group of 18 people are required to assemble a 12lb artillery field gun and transport it across an obstacle course in the fastest time possible.  Steve had been part of Field Gun crew while in the British Navy and Rich had done it as part of training for rugby.  Later, we all played pool and cuthroat.  After Rich went home, Steve and I walked along the beach to Lotus Bar, where a big crowd was hanging out, listening to late 90s/early 2000s music (most notably that Shaggy song that I hadn’t heard in years) and watching a series of fire shows on the beach.

Days 52-53 (February 19-20):  Koh Tao

Steve and I took the multiple choice final exam at 10 am.  Afterwards, we had lunch and I tried to update my blog.  In the afternoon, we had our first dives off the Simple Life boat.  For the first dive, we just practice fin skills and buoyancy control.  During this practice, I actually had a lot of trouble controlling my bouyancy.  Rich added a weight to my belt, but then I sank too easily. Then, after inflating my vest too much, I unintentionally started ascending.  I tried to deflate my fest, but I kept ascending until I surfaced, which was only 6 or 7 meters from the ocean floor.  Rich followed me up to the surface and explained that the reason I couldn’t stop my ascent was because I had accidentally held the pump that allows you to deflate the vest at an angle so the air couldnt escape the vest.  He also told me that I could control my buoyancy better if I held my breath just a little bit so that I could descend.  With this advice, my second dive of the day, at Japanese Garden, went much more smoothly.  Well, I was able to control my buoyancy better anyways. But my mask kept filling with water and I had to clear it every 45 seconds or so.  I couldnt tell what was wrong with it and assumed my moustache was preventing a good seal.  As a result, I couldn’t enjoy the underwater scenery too much.  Though just as Rich was telling us to ascend and end the dive, I spotted a huggggeee hawks-bill turtle gliding gracefully along the edge of the reef.  When we got to the surface, Rich informed us that was the biggest turtle he had ever seen in more than 500 dives in and around Koh Tao. And that was just our second dive! The other 12 or so divers (mostly dive masters in training) were super jealous. One said something to the effect of “I’ve been diving here for over a month and never seen anything like that and these guys see a huge turtle on their first day?!”  Pretty sweet. Rich also let me know the reason my mask was flooding so often was that I had it perched too high up on my forehead such that the bottom of the mask was jammed up against my nose and not fully sealing when I sought to blow the water out.  For dinner, Steve and I had red curry with peanut at Su Chili, which was by far my favorite meal in Thailand up to that time.

The next morning, we had the final two dives to get our open water PADI certification.  These two dives were wayyy better than the dives the previous day because we were more confident in our skills and able to enjoy the stunning underwater scenery.  For the first dive we went to the White Rock site.  White Rock is a huge underwater rock pillar, covered with coral that rises from the ocean floor to just below the water surface.  We circled upwards from about 18 meters down, enjoying the huge schools of fish and vibrant coral.  This is dive where I realized that I loved scuba diving already. I had got a taste of it at the Great Barrier reef, but now I was fully hooked.

We practiced a safety stop at the end of that first dive.  During the safety stop, a huge school of bright yellow fish, numbering in the hundreds, darted in from nowhere and surrounded us, moving and changing direction rapidly and in perfect unison.  Mesmerizing.  For the second dive, we went to Hin Pee Wee, where a ship wreck was located.  Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t great so we couldn’t see the wreck. However, there was still some pretty good coral and fish in the area.

After the second dive, we hung out on the boat, talking to the other divers and instructors.  We heard variations of the same basic story more than a few times: “I came to Koh Tao to get my open water certification, fell in love with the island, and now I’m getting my Dive Master certification/Advanced Certification/etc.”  The diving community seemed pretty close-knit.  All the instructors and dive master trainees hung out together after dives at the bar next to the dive shop every day.  They all seemed to be a cool, mellow group of people that were passionate about diving.  I wonder if all divers are like that.  I will probably find out soon, as I intend to keep diving as much as possible on this trip. In fact, I’ve specifically rearranged my trip plans so that I will be able to do some dives in Borneo, the Philippines, and hopefully the Red Sea.

Back at the Simple Life dive shop, Rich gave us our dive logs and helped us fill them out.  Both Steve and I had loved the open water course so we decided to sign up for the advanced open water course, which included 5 more dives and a few more skills.  Most of the cool dive sites I had been reading about the past few days required at least an advanced open water certification.

For dinner, Steve and I briefly met Dane and Yamina from Koh Samu at Brothers.  Then Steve and I headed back to Victor’s Bar on the beach to play pool and meet Steven’s Austrian friend from Koh Phangan.  Steve and I also played teams against a Simple Life instructor covered in bandages from a scooter accident the day before and a Damian, a 24-year-old French dive master trainee who had recently sold his medical/fitness equipment supply business and decided to travel the world for 5 years (he planned to become a dive master and then take sailing lessons in Gibraltar so that he could sail and dive around the world — color me jealous).

Days 53-54 (February 21-22):  Koh Tao

The next afternoon, Steve and I went to Mango Bay to practice our underwater navigation.  We had to swim straight out for 20 meters using a compass attached to our wrists and then swim straight back. Next we had to swim in a square using our compass and then return to where we started.  Its not too hard. You just hold your compass (which is attached to your wrist like a watch) straight ahead of you with the degress/direction locked in place and then swim straight ahead making sure to keep that setting in place. If you need to turn or change direction, you adjust the setting on your compass accordingly. For example, you could set off swimming at 360 degrees. If you wanted to make a right turn, you would adjust the settings on your compass to line up with 270 and then swim in that direction.  For distance, you make sure to keep track of the number of kicks you take to have a rough idea of how far you’ve gone in any given direction.  Finally, for the last part of the navigation dive, Rich took us out away from the boat and told us to keep track of headings and underwater natural markers so that we could find our way back.  This is much harder than in sounds, but Steve and I eventually figured it out and made our way back.

For our second dive, we went to buoyancy world to practice our buoyancy control. Buoyancy world was comprised of a series of fun underwater obstacles for us to navigate — e.g., an concrete octopus whose arms we could swim under and over and between, and cubes and rings we could swim through.  To be able to do this, we had to be able to control our buoyancy so that we didn’t rise up and hit the top of the objects we were passing under or sink down and hit the ground.  We made it through the obstacles with only a little bit of trouble.

After a 1 hour break, Steve and I went back out onto the boat with Rich for a night dive.  We took the boat just off shore, and waited for the sun to reach the horizon.  When the sun had almost set, we jumped in with flashlights and began the dive. We watched as the sun’s last rays slowly faded, leaving the water pitch black but for the scant light afforded by our dive “torches” (as the English call them).  My torch didn’t work so well, so I had to stay close to Rich and Steve. It was really eerie to be swimming around with such low visibility.  I was constantly moving my head left and right to make sure something wasn’t sneaking up on me.  Overall, I really enjoyed the dive. It was a cool experience. We even spotted 3 blue-spotted rays, which only really come out at night.

Back on land, Steve and I had another delicious meal at Su Chili.  I also ran into Alex, my roommate from Phuket. Running into people you had met in other cities became a frequent occurrence in Thailand and later the rest of Southeast Asia.

At 7am the next morning, we had our final two advanced open water dives: a deep dive and a wreck dive.  The first dive was the deep dive (we went down about 28 meters), which took place at Green Rock.  Green Rock was easily my favorite dive on Koh Tao.  It had the most varied and colorful fish and coral of any dive I did.  There were also 2 or 3 really fun swim-throughs (a swim-through is a basically an underwater tunnel through the coral/rock that you can swim through from one side to the other for a handful of seconds or meters).  At times, I just floated in place, marvelling at my surroundings and all the underwater life and movement.

For the second dive, we explored the wreck of the HTMS Sattakut, a 48 meter former US Navy World War II ship. The visibility wasn’t great, but we got to swim down 26 meters right to the hull and along the deck. We got to swim through a small room (the steerage?), peer in through some portholes, and swim under and around the huge guns on its deck.  This is the kind of stuff I always imagined scuba dives did; the stuff you see in James Bond movies.  The fish life around the sunken ship was pretty good too.

In the afternoon, Steve and I wanted to get rent scooters but couldn’t find anyone who would rent one to us unless we gave them our passports to hold on to. We had heard and read that Koh Tao had the biggest scooter scam in all of Southeast Asia.  You can’t rent a scooter there unless you give the rental place your passport.  The way the scam works is that when you return the scooter, the person renting it to you will claim that you scratched or damaged the scooter in some way (which will of course be complete bullshit) and demand you bay some exorbitant amount to compensate him for the alleged damage.  When you call them out on their bullshit and say that there is no such damage or that the damage was pre-existing (even if you have photos to support your claim), the person renting out the scooter will refuse to give you back your passport unless you pay the amount he demands.  So, essentially its extortion.  The Tripadvisor forums, Lonely Planet and the interwebs are filled with stories like this.  Our dive instructors also warned us not give our passport to anyone renting out a scooter.  To support these warnings, the previous day we walked by a girl who was in a heated argument with a scooter rental guy over the rental guy’s claims that there was a scratch on the scooter.  Now, most of these scooter places probably arent shady since a lot of people seem to rent scooters without a problem, but we didnt want to risk it at that point on our final day and couldn’t find anyone who knew of a reliable place to rent one. Oh well.

Instead of scooters, Steve and I took a longtail boat out to Nang Yuan island, which, as usual was beautiful.

I read on the beach for an hour or so before heading back to Sairee Beach.  We met up with Rich and all the divers at Victor’s Bar as usual for after dinner drinks.  I met an archeologist from Chicago who had somehow convinced her university to pay for an 8 month trip around the world. Some people have all the luck.  After wandering the beach for half an hour or so, I said goodbye to all the divers, as it was my last night on Koh Tao. Hopefully I can make it back one day soon, maybe for Thai New Year in April when apparently there is a huge island-wide water-fight all day. Fingers crossed.

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Thailand, Week 1: Southern Islands

Days 41-42 (February 8-9): Phuket and Koh Phi Phi

I flew from Singapore to Phuket in the afternoon.  (By the way, Singapore has one of the nicest airports I’ve been to.  They had lounge seats you could lay down and sleep on).  From the airport, it took a few hours to get down to Patong, the commercialized built-up backpacker/tourist center of Phuket.  It took a few hours only because the shuttle from the airport stopped 5 minutes after picking us up at a nearby office where they tried to sell us rooms for 30 minutes.  This was my first experience with inefficient and annoying travel scams/sales pitches in Thailand.

When I arrived in Paton, I walked around for another 30 minutes with my bags trying to find the hostel I had booked.  One of the biggest problems I’ve found with booking hostels online is that the directions are often really really unclear or downright wrong.  Such was the case in Patong. When I eventually found the place, however, the hostel turned out to be pretty nice.  My 3 roommates were a English guy named Alex, a Canadian named James, and a Hungarian/German named Daniel.  We all grabbed some pad thai at an outdoor night market next to the hostel.  We chatted with two girls sitting next to us from New York while eating our food.  Turns out they were redditors and it further turns out that James designed the logo for r/askreddit.  After dinner, I rested in the room a bit and then headed downstairs to watch the Arsenal v. Liverpool match.  I only watched the first 20 minutes because Liverpool jumped out to a 4-0 lead.

Next, we headed out to Bangla street, the nightlife center of Patong.  We had a few beers at a number of bars and then went to a pricey dance club for a few hours where they played EDM and electronic music.  It was actually a pretty fun club.  Not a bad way to spend my first night in Thailand.

The following morning, I took a minibus to the ferry station, where I left for Koh Phi Phi. The night before, I had been looking online for places to stay on Koh Phi Phi and couldn’t really find anything cheap available, so I panicked and booked a room for $36 (which, by the way, is by far the most I’ve spent on any room anywhere in Southeast Asia since).  Fortunately, the room had A/C and its own bathroom.  Unfortunately, it was a relatively long uphill walk from the harbor.  On the way to the hostel I saw rooms available for less than half the price I paid for my room.  Lesson learned: never book a room online ahead of time in Southeast Asia because you can usually find a cheaper (often nicer) place just by walking around the day of.  The reason for this seems to be that many budget accommodations don’t advertise online and many of the hostel that do advertise online at places like Hostelworld.com and Agoda keep an extra bed or two open for walk-ins.

Anyways, I set up shop in my room and enjoyed the A/C while re-reading Wise Man’s Fear. A little later I walked back down to the central bars/restaurant area and grabbed some Pad Thai at Garlic 1992.

Day 43 (February 10): Koh Phi Phi

In the morning, I took a half-day boat tour around some of the small islands surrounding Ko Phi Phi. The highlight of the tour was Maya Beach, where parts of the movie “The Beach” (starring Leonardo Dicaprio) were filmed.  The beach itself wasn’t the good part though. In fact, Maya Beach itself was a huge disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong, the beautiful white sand was softer/finer/powdery-er than almost any beach I’ve ever visited and the the water was a beautiful clear teal.  Buttttt (and this probably shouldn’t surprise me or anyone), there was a shit-ton of tourists.  A metric shit-ton. (I’m slowly converting to the metric system during my travels).

If you could un-zoom this picture, you would see that the entire 500 meter shoreline of the cove is packed hull to hull with about 50-60 identical tourist boats.  The view was further ruined by the hundreds of tourists that came in on those 50-60 boats milling around the beach. It was lame, especially because I could tell that the view and beach would have been wildly and cinematically beautiful without all the boats and people hanging around. What a shame.

Anyways, back to the cool part of the trip.  The cool part of this stop was that our boat didn’t stop on the shore like all the boats pictured above. Instead, we anchored at a back entrance to Maya Beach on the other side of the tiny island.  To get to Maya Beach, we had to jump into the water, swim about 25 meters to a short rope ladder where we could climb up onto the rocks.  The water where the boat was anchored was even more beautiful than Maya Beach. The water was a perfect cool temperature for swimming.  There was even a big smooth underwater rock halfway to the rope ladder where you could stand up out of the water.

Unlike Maya Beach, there were hardly any people on this end of the island other than us. Afterwards, we headed back to Koh Phi Phi for lunch.  I got a great spot on the prow where I could dangle my legs off the deck and enjoy unobstructed views of the islands we passed.

After a yellow curry soup for lunch, I hiked up to the famous island viewpoint.  The view of Koh Phi Phi from Viewpoints 1 and 2 may be my favorite views in all of Thailand.

In the evening, I met up with Alex (my roommate from Patong) at Banana Bar, a rooftop bamboo bar where they had four projectors playing “The Beach.”  I had never seen the movie before, so I hunkered down to watch while I ate dinner.  We ended up staying for the whole film.  Afterwards, I met some of Alex’s hostel-mates and we all headed to Reggae bar for drinks.  On the way to the bar, I had my first experience with “buckets” – i.e., small plastic pails (like the ones kids use at the beach to make sandcastles) that can be filled with a combination of liquor, soda, and energy drink.  Words of caution: Thai Sangsom whiskey is awful and Red Bull in Thailand is twice as powerful as the US version. (Mike Martinez would probably die after 2 Thai Red Bulls). Buckets in hand, we sat down front row to watch some of the amateur fights that were going on in the full size boxing ring.  By “amateur,” I mean they were offering free buckets to any person that would get into the ring and fight.  So there was a whole slew of people lining up to fight.  Most of them had no idea what they were doing.  Needless to say, it was extremely entertaining. After a bucket or two, Felix, a Quebec guy from the hostel, got into the ring.  He got pummeled a bit by another guy who clearly had some boxing experience, but no serious harm was done.   At one point, some actual Muay Thai professionals put on an exhibition fight.  Overall, it was a really fun night and not at all what I had expected from Koh Phi Phi before I landed.

Days 44-45 (February 11-12): Koh Lanta

Moving on from Koh Phi Phi, I took a ferry to Koh Lanta, a slower quieter island a few hours South.  As I walked off the ferry, I met Renan, a Brazilian guy living in India, and we set off to find a hostel.  We ended up staying in the cheapest place I stayed in on the island.  A fan room — i.e., no A/C — for 200 Baht ($6) a night.  Unfortunately, the electricity in the buliding was off until 4pm as part of a scheduled black-out.  So, we decided to wait it out in a nearby restaurant. I was trying to sample each of the different Thai curries while in Thailand, so I had some green curry.  I still hadn’t tried the Massaman, Penang, or Red curries. (Back home I always get green curry or Pad Thai if I have Thai food, which doesnt happen often.)

I had a nap when the electricity came back on, then wandered the streets as it got dark.  For dinner, they set up a bunch of street food booths on the main street.  I had a potato twist (essentially a big french fried potato spiraled around a skewer) with paprika, and a nutella and banana crepe.  Afterwards, Renan and I wandered around searching for a Wifi connection to plan our respective travels and accommodation.

Renan left early the next morning, and I set out to take a scooter around the island. I tried to, anyway.  I went downstairs to rent a scooter from the hostel.  Apparently its standard in practice for the person/company renting you a scooter in Thailand to hold on to you passport while you ride the rented scooter around.  I was definitely not cool with giving up my passport, but I had heard thats what other people had done without experiencing any problems.  So, I paid up and handed over my passport.  She gave me the key to the scooter. Now, I have ridden a scooter before…once…8 years ago…in Greece.  I didn’t remember it being very difficult.  So I sat down, put the kickstand up, inserted the key into the ignition, turned it, tried to rev the engine and … nothing happened.  The lady renting me the scooter frowned at me and asked me if I knew what I was doing.  Not a good sign.  I told her that I hadnt ridden a scooter for 8 years and asked if she could show me what to do to refresh my memory.  Instead, she said that she wouldn’t rent me the scooter. Shit.  So, she gave me back my money and passport and sent me on my way.  Not really wanting to look like an idiot again and thinking that all scooter rentals would behave similarly when they realized I didnt know what I was doing, I decided to take a tuk-tuk to the nearest beach, Klong Dao.  From there, I walked the beach to Long Beach.  I had lunch at a hotel on the beach before catching a tuk-tuk back a few hours later.

I watched the sunset from the beach nearest my hostel and then had Massaman Curry at a waterfront restaurant.

Day 46 (February 13):  Koh Samui

 After Koh Lanta, I took a ferry to Krabi beach.  On the ferry, I talked to a couple who were graduate students in Austria. We discussed the university systems of Europe and the US, determining that US university tuition is absolutely absurd.  No argument here.  We also compared a few cultural things like tipping and when/where it was appropriate to tip.  These kind of conversations regarding cultural/social differences between countries take place literally every day among travelers.  I feel like I’ve learned more about European countries like Belgium, Sweden, England, Germany, and Holland from fellow travelers than from any book, TV show, move, or travel to those places in my previous life.  You learn about schooling, history, language, idiom, stereotypes, sports, politics, how people view America, how other people view travel, etc.  I love it.

So, Krabi is supposed to be pretty cool.  Places like Ao Nang, Railey Beach, and Ton Sai look beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen. But I was eager to get to the islands on the other side of the peninsula, so I took a bus directly from the ferry station in Krabi to the ferry station on the other side of the peninsula, Surat Thani.  On the bus, I talked to a Canadian firefighter from Winipeg and his buddy who was doing a whirlwind tour of Thailand over 2 weeks.  I also, sat next to two girls from California making their way through Thailand.  By the way, I had already met more Americans in 4 days in Thailand than I had met in 6 weeks in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia.  From Surat Thani, I caught the ferry to Koh Samui.  On my second ferry of the day, I sat next to an English former professional cricket fast-bowler whose career was ended by an Achilles injury (R.I.P. Kobe).  Another guy I met, Denver from New Zealand, turned out to be staying at the same hostel as me on Koh Samui.  After landing on Koh Samui, I took one final minibus to Chewang Beach, where my hostel was.  I met Denver at the front desk, and we both got into the same 10 person dorm room.  We had curry for dinner down the street and then hung out in the room after a long day of travel. We met a guy in our room from Seattle who had already done 3 round the world trips and was only 30 years old.  He gave us some great recommendations for things to do and places to stay around Thailand.

Days 47 -48 (February 14-15):  Koh Samui and Koh Phangan

In the morning, I woke up early and took advantage of the Wifi while laying on the hallway couch.  Later, Denver and I had some spring rolls for breakfast, and then headed to the pier to book a fast boat ride for the big Full Moon party on Koh Phangan the following day. In the afternoon, I went to an internet cafe and responded to some long emails I had been putting off for a while.  Denver and I walked to the beach in the afternoon and chilled on some lounge chairs while talking about our theories on Game of Thrones and comparing the books to the TV show.

In the evening, we had dinner at the hostel where we met some of the other people staying at the hostel.At the hostel, there was a small little kitchen were a smiling older Thai lady cooked food for the people staying at the hostel.  There were a few seats outside where the people from the hostel hung out.  While hanging out front waiting for food, Denver and I met a Turkish girl who was teaching English in Chengdu, China.  She was a hardcore roughing it traveler who had been to some amazing places in China that were off the beaten path.  We also met a fun Aussie guy, Dean, a French girl from Paris, Yamina, an an American photographer, Parker, living in Montana/Brooklyn who was planning a road trip from Montana to South America for photography and funded by Kickstarter. We spent most of the night chilling out front of the hostel.

The next morning, I went outside and talked to Rosie and Dean for a bit on the front steps of the hostel. Eventually Denver and Parker joined us.  After lunch, I went to get a haircut while the others headed to the beach near our hostel.  I couldn’t find the other at the beach, but I went in the water and laid out on a beach chair for an hour or so.

Most of the hostel emptied out around 5pm to catch the ferry to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party. Denver, Parker and I got a minibus to the pier for and then caught a 20 minute fast boat to Koh Phangan around 9pm.  The party doesn’t really get started until 11pm so we went to a bar for a beer for a bit.  As we sat at the bar, hoardes of people went streaming by to the beach.  When it got close to 11pm, we headed down to the beach as well.

For those of you who don’t know, the Full Moon party is a once a month party that takes place on the night of the full moon on the tiny island of Koh Phangan.  Apparently, as many as 40,000 people show up every month for the party.  The party takes places on a mile-long beach and almost the entire beach is packed with people covered in neon body paint. There are as many as 12-15 stages and bars blasting a variety of music (mostly electronic).  The music goes all night and most people don’t leave until sunrise. Buckets (as described above) abound.  A good time is had by all.

Parker, being a photographer, had brought a camera and was running around taking as many pictures as possible.  He was running around so fast that Denver and I actually lost him after about 20 minutes, which was not as hard to do as it might seem since  some areas of the beach were packed from the street all the way to the water (which was only about 30-40 meters from the street at most).  I actually got separated from Denver for about 10 minutes, before we miraculously bumped into each other amongst a throng of people watching people jump through a ring of fire and jump rope with a burning rope.  Eventually, we also ran into Yamina and Dean, and a few of their friends (English Alice and Alice).  We hung out with Yamina, Dean, and the Alices for the next few hours, dancing out on the beach.  I lasted until about 4am, before I called it quits and headed back to the fast boat pier.  Fortunately, I had paid a little extra for a VIP fast boat ticket, so I didnt have to wait in the huge lines for the ferry and non-VIP fast boats back to Koh Samui. The next morning, I found out that some people had waited in line for a ferry back to Koh Samui for over 2 hours. Yikes. I ended up getting back to the hostel on Koh Samui at around 5 am. Fun, but probably never again.

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Singapore

Singapore

Days 40 (February 7): Singapore

Because I had only one day in Singapore, I set out by foot to explore the city early.  I started in Little India, where my hostel was, and continued down Arab St., which was filled with Middle Eastern vendors selling clothes, carpets, and furniture. Next I walked to the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which turned out to be the nicest mall I’ve ever seen.  The Marina Bay Sands Hotel and casino was attached to the mall, and atop the hotel was a ship…yes, an entire huge ship.  Check it out (I haven’t uploaded my pictures yet, but here is a pic from google images):

Pretty crazy.  Inside the mall, the shopping floor were terraced, and the entire side of the building and ceiling facing the bay was made of glass so that shoppers had a view of the sky and water (more pics from google images):

 

In addition to spectacular views and architecture, the mall had some big name restaurants like Cut, Mozza, and DB Bistro.  I wandered around the mall for at least 2 hours, but the final 30 minutes of that was spent trying to find an exit heading in the direction I wanted to go.  It felt like I was in a casino.

After I finally escaped, I walked down the street behind the mall to huge public gardens. I bought a ticket for the cloud forest conservatory, a glass dome greenhouse type structure that contained a waterfall, plants that are usually only found in the mountains of South America, and a multistoried walking path through the dome.

Next I set out to find Singapore’s version of L’entrecote, a French steak frites restaurant my parents first introduced me to in Paris 8 years ago.  The Paris version is the original and might be my favorite steak restaurant in the world. There is only one item on the menu: steak filet in a dijon sauce with french fries.  Simple, but delicious.  Various cities, including New York and Singapore, have versions of the original, but none of them quite live up to the original.  A few years back, my dad actually found a recipe for the dijon sauce and now every Christmas Eve my family eats a L’Entrecote style steak frites dinner.

Anyway, it was a long walk to the restaurant. I walked through the South bank portion of the river where there were a bunch of restaurants and bars right on the riverbank. Apparently, that is where a lot of expats hang out.  After passing through Chinatown, I made it to the restaurants, ordered and eagerly awaited the meal.  When the steak and fries arrived, everything looked great. But…it wasn’t the same. The sauce wasn’t very good and the meat itself was sort of terrible and undercooked. At least the fries were good.  Oh well.  I guess I’ll just have to make it back to Paris sometime in the near future to remind myself how great the original is.

After lunch, I caught a cab to Orchard Street to check out some of the big malls Singapore was famous for. (Sidenote: its very hard to flag down a taxi on the street in Singapore. Apparently its illegal for the drivers to stop anywhere other than designated taxi zones so you have to wander about until you find a taxi zone. I like NYC’s way better.) Orchard Street reminded me a little of Manhattan’s Broadway street and 5th Avenue (near 30 Rock) combined, except bigger.  The long street was lined on both sides with huge 7 story malls one after another as far I could see.  You could walk from mall to mall through air conditioned overpasses.  It was actually pretty nice.  I wandered around for a few hours and grabbed some dumplings and pork buns at Ngee An mall.  I also visited the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen in my life: Books Kinokuniya.  At first I thought that the back walls were mirrors giving the illusion of depth.  Nope. The store was just massive.  I couldn’t see the end of the bookshelves because it was obscured by the curvature of the Earth.  The store was at least 2 or 3 times the size of the biggest Barnes and Noble I’ve seen in the US.  I picked up a copy of Way of Kings to reread before the upcoming release of the sequel, Words of Radiance.  Near the front of the store I also snagged a copy of Otaku USA because it had a cover story about Attack on Titan (shout out to my homegirl Victoria).  After the malls, I walked around a bit more and then headed back to the hostel to take it easy for the night before flying out to Thailand the following day.

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Indonesia

Indonesia: Yogyakarta

Days 35-36 (February 3-4): Bali and Yogyakarata, Java

Nate, Axel and I got up at 7am to watch the Superbowl at a local Western sports bar.  Since the game became a blowout pretty quickly, we headed back to the hostel to sleep midway through the 3rd quarter.  After a few hours of naptime, Axel and I dragged ourselves out of bed and walked down to Seminyak Beach for some lunch. I had beef rendang as my final meal in Bali, just as it was my first.  Afterwards, I just read a book from the hostel book exchange (“Wise Man’s Fear”!) for the remainder of the afternoon.  It felt good to have a nice solid book in my hands after weeks of reading on my Iphone.  Since it was our last night traveling together, Nate, Axel, Lina and I had a nice big Indian meal. It actually might have been the best meal I had in Indonesia.  We said our goodbyes that night because I had to catch a taxi at 630 am the next morning.  I hope I’m able to keep in touch with them.  I’d love to visit Axel and Lina in Sweden some time.  They were the type of genuinely warm, friendly, fun people that seem to be in short supply in my day to day life back in the world, but who I meet quite frequently on the road.  Nate reminded me a lot of my UCLA roommate Mark. Good, solid, laid-back guy.  Hopefully I can see him and Dan in Hong Kong in a few months.  They were the first group of people I traveled with for an extended period of time on my trip, but probably won’t be the last.  I hope to find traveling companions as cool/fun/happy/warm as them in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Tuesday morning I flew to Yogyakarta (referred to as “Jogja” by locals) in central Java. I arrived at my hostel (Venezia Gardens) around lunch time and met an American Eliot and a Englishman, Sampson.  The three walked down the street to grab food from an Indonesian cafeteria for less than $1.50 US dollars. Food was even cheaper in Jogja than Bali.  Afterwards, I headed up to my room to sleep.  The only room that had been available online was a relatively expensive ($30/night) suite with a queen bed, tv, and nice shower.  It was nice to have a quite room to myself after staying in hostel dorms or shared suites for the last month.  So, I laid down to rest until dinner. A few hours later, I was woken by the muezzins’ calls to prayer. In Gili T, there had been one mosque nearby and one muezzin’s call.  At my hostel in Jogja, I could hear upwards of 10-15 voices coming from every direction chanting in Arabic in that eerie wailing/ululating fashion I had first heard in Gili T.  At the same time, the sky was pouring rain and thunder was roaring every few minutes.  So, there I was, laying back in my queen sized bed on the second floor of the hostel, the fading afternoon light filtering in through a gap in the blood-red ceiling-to-floor curtains, listening to this strange combination of Islamic  chants, thunder, and torrential rain.  As I lay there, it really hit me for that I was somewhere completely alien or different for the first time on my trip.  Australia and New Zealand were English-speaking Western cultures.  Bali and Gili T were built up tourist centers catering to Western travelers such that any genuine Indonesian culture was difficult to find. My first afternoon on Java, I could tell Jogja was different, and I welcomed the experience. Still tired from traveling, I grabbed some food from a convenience store, booked some sight-seeing for the following morning, and retired to my room for the night.

Days 37 (February 5): Yogyakarata, Java

Tuesday morning, I caught a 4am shuttle from my hostel to visit the Buddhist temple Borobudur.  A few websites I had read compared Borobudur favorably to the temple complexes at Siem Reap in Cambodia and the Bagan region of Burma.  The pictures I had seen were stunning.  We arrived at a hill overlooking the temple around 5:45am.  However, the morning mist made it all but impossible to see the temple.  Nevertheless, the sunrise was nice.  Next the shuttle took us to the temple itself just as it was opening at 6am, before the rush of tourists had arrived.  The temple was just as spectacular as the pictures made it seem.  I walked around the lower levels by myself for a few minutes and didnt see any other tourists. Every portion of the lower levels was covered in detailed relief sculptures and carvings.

The upper levels contain a series of stupas (round dome-y things) with one huge stupa at the peak.  

While I was walking around the top portion of the temple, two teenagers approached me and asked me if they could talk with me for a bit.  I agreed and we started walking around. Their names were Imam and Janiyah. There were high school students from East Java visiting Borobudur on a field trip.  Specifically, they were part of an English language class and were looking to practice their English with a foreigner.  Imam was enthusiastic and outgoing; eager to practice his English, which was actually quite good. Janiyah was a bit shy, a bit more hesitant with her English, but still quick to chime in to explain some part of Indonesian culture. Overall, they were hilarious and informative in equal parts. At one point Imam put me on the spot, pointing at Janiyah and asking me(while smiling), right in front of Janiyah “Beautiful or ugly?” Janiyah gasped/smiled and slapped him on the shoulder.  (Teenagers are the same everywhere)  Of course I responded “beautiful” as Imam nodded his head in agreement.  I asked them if they were a couple, and both said no, but Imam said that maybe one day, if he went to university, then they could get married.  It was adorable.  They had a bunch of questions for me about the US, but I had questions for them as well. I wanted to know what they knew about the US and California, and what they were known for.  Their first response was “pizza and hamburgers”… well, they’re not wrong.  But, I was somewhat shocked how little they knew about the US.  I guess its typical American arrogance that I assumed everyone in the world cared and knew about America and its customs/culture. Nope. They didn’t know anything about Los Angeles or California.  When I told them that Los Angeles was where Hollywood was, they frowned and asked if I meant Bollywood.  They had never heard of Hollywood. I tried to explain that it was where big movies where made, like the Hobbit and Lord of Rings ( yes I know Lord of Rings wasnt shot in California, but I was using it as an example).  Frowns again. They had no idea what the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were. When I asked them what American movies they knew about and liked, Imam said “Fast and Furious.”  He was a big fan.  Overall, talking to them for 45 minutes at Borobudur was my favorite experience in Indonesia.

After Borobudur, the shuttle drove us to a Hindu temple complex a few hours away called Prambanan.  Like Borobudur, Prambanan was a UNESCO world heritage cite.

The temples were amazing as well, but it was the middle of the afternoon and the sun was beating down so I only walked around for about an hour before seeking shade and water.  While I was sitting on a bench in the shade, an elderly woman and her friend approached me with a camera. Thinking they wanted me to take their picture, I stood up and moved to take the camera.  But the lady shook her head and pointed at me and then herself.  What she actually wanted was to take a picture with me.  So she stood next to me and had her friend take a picture of us.  Then she did the same for her friend. All without speaking a word of English. This is how you know you’re not in a big tourist area for Westerners: when locals want to take pictures with you because you are white or Western.  To be fair though, it may have been because I had a ridiculous unkempt beard at the time.  Who knows.

When I got back to Jogja, I had a nice dinner of ayam goreng down the street at Via Via Cafe.  Afterwards, since I had been up since 330am, I went to bed early.

Days 39 (February 6): Yogyakarata, Java

Thursday morning, before my flight to Singapore, I got up early and went for a walk to the Sultan’s palace in Jogja.  Well, thats what I aimed to do. What happened is that, I started walking, looking for a taxi to take me there, when various locals saw that I was wandering and came over to talk to me.  They were all very friendly and asked me where I was trying to go and what I wanted to do.  When I responded that I was just going to walk along, maybe to the Sultan’s palace, they recommended I check out a local art school gallery.  One guy pointed me in the right direction and set me on my way.  As I was wandering down the alleys looking for the gallery, another local stopped me and asked if I needed directions.  He told me that he was walking in the same direction home and would walk me all the way to the shop.  We walked together a few minutes and he asked me about the United States and President Obama.  Several Indonesians brought up Obama and asked if I knew that he had lived in Indonesia when he was younger.  Eventually I made it to the gallery, where I was greeted by a Javan who spoke fluent English.  He showed me around the gallery and explained that all the batik art, silk art, and painting were produced at the gallery.  He showed me some pieces and let me walk around.  The power went out while I was looking at some batik.  I ended up offering to by a small batik abstract piece, but I didnt have enough money.  So, the gallery owner’s friend gave me a ride on his motorbike to the ATM.  Afterwards the motorbike driver offered to take me around to see some sights in Jogja. I happily accepted. He took me to a artisan shop where they created paper puppets for the traditional Indonesian shadow puppet shows.  Then he took me to the palace, which was meh.  The palace was the only place in Jogja where I saw other tourists.  Afterwards, the motorbike driver and I had lunch at a nearby restaurant that served gudeg, a dish of mashed jackfruit, chicken, rice, and a sweet curry sauce that Jogja is famous for.  Just as it had been every day in Jogja, it was sunny until noon, and then it began to rain.  Fortunately, I had seen everything I set out to see that day and headed the airport early to wait for my flight to Singapore.

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