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Archive for April, 2010

Thailand Wrap Up

Thailand is a pretty kick-ass country.  The fact that it is sooooo touristy did rub Kelly and me the wrong way from time to time, but hey…places are touristy for a reason, right?  Overall, we had a great time and of course, hope to make it back one day.

The Landscape

You’ve seen the pictures.  Awesome beaches, jungle, and mountains.

The People
Thais are so friendly!   Although at times, they kill you with kindness while ripping you off.   We did appreciate the fact that women are a bit more respected here; we were never harassed (unlike in Costa Rica and South America) and actually felt quite safe everywhere we went.   You can get by without being able to speak Thai, although the language barrier was definitely more of an issue for us here.

A popular stop on the ‘backpacker trail’, we met tourists from EVERYWHERE, but mainly a lot of young Brits traveling overseas for their first time.   Also, a ton of Canadians…it was great to meet up with the two Jeff’s and hang with them and their fellow countrymen. 

The Costs
Thailand is cheap, but not nearly as cheap as we’d thought it would be.   After breaking our budget in New Zealand and Australia, everyone told us ‘oh, don’t worry…in Thailand, you will get by on $10-$15 a day’. These people obviously did not travel here during high season.

While street food is dirt cheap, accommodation was still pricey in our opinion – $10 per person, per night for a room in a guesthouse.  For the full moon party, we paid $45 a night.   Northern Thailand is a lot cheaper and we paid roughly $5 per person, per night for our accommodation.   Bus transport was reasonably priced, but the buses were pretty ghetto.

The Food
FANTASTIC.   Spicy curries, greasy fried noodles and rice, tangy soups, yummy pad thai, tasty meat skewers, fresh seafood, fruit shakes (our favorite was watermelon)…the list goes on and on and we cannot say enough about how wonderful and cheap the food is Thailand. 

 A lot of U.S. travel health warnings urge travelers to ‘avoid street food’ for sanitary reasons, which is hilarious.   It’s convenient, cheap, and DELICIOUS!!!   After Hong Kong, it is definitely one of our favorite food cultures.

Of course, there are still plenty of McDonald’s if you need your comfort food fix.

The Booze
Beer. Our choice was Chang because it was the cheapest and tasted good, but a lot of people preferred Singha or Tiger.

Buckets. Ugh.  Most people’s bucket of choice is vodka and Redbull, but there is no way Kelly and I could stomach that disgusting mixture.   We went with the plain vodka/soda route which wasn’t much better because the club soda SUCKS here.

Other Random Thoughts
-There are a lot of squat toilets in Thailand.  Western ones exist as well, but instead of pushing a handle to flush, you fill a bucket of water, dump it in the toilet, and repeat this process until the force of the water has pushed everything through the pipes. 

-The Thais don’t use toilet paper; they have a water sprayer next to the toilet that you use to clean yourself, which we actually got quite used to and sort of prefer.  We liked to call it the ‘bum gun’.

-Riding in a tuk-tuk is fun!

-If you come to Thailand and plan on visiting any of the temples, bring a scarf or sarong.  Upon entering a Wat, your shoulders and legs must be covered.  Also, don’t point your feet towards an image of Buddha or he will be pissed. 

-Now, onto Laos!

 
 

 

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While in Chiang Mai, Kelly and I had two of our most memorable experiences of the trip thus far — a visit to Tiger Kingdom and Baan Chang Elephant Park.

Tiger Kingdom, located ten or so miles outside of the city, is a park where visitors pay to interact with tigers; the money collected pays for the park’s upkeep and tigers’ care.   After deciding which age group you would like to see, you are escorted to a holding pen, where two or three people at a time are allowed to enter (with the tiger’s handlers, of course) and you can then sit with, lay with and even PET the tigers.

How is this possible?  A lot of people insist that the tigers MUST be sedated in order for a strange human to get so close to such a deadly animal.   The park staff were quick to assure us that none of the tigers are sedated and that no chains are ever used to restrain them.  We learned that tigers are actually pretty lazy animals.  They sleep about eighteen hours a day and only hunt at dawn and dusk out of necessity.   Visiting hours at the park are between these feeding times and since the tigers are well fed and have no need to hunt, they mainly just lay around all day.   Surprisingly, they are pretty indifferent to the people around them that are scratching their bellies and stroking their coats.

Kelly and I sat with the young 3-5 month tigers and then spent some time with the adults. I’ll admit that it was a little scary to be sitting next to a 300+ pound carnivorous cat, but so cool to be that up close and personal with a FRICKEN TIGER. Everyone should be happy to know that no Siegfried and Roy mauling took place, although the thought did cross my mind.

3-5 Month Olds

 

The big guy...please don't rip our faces off.

Cuddlin'

 Kelly forked over the extra dough to play with the newborns while I snapped photos. The babies were much more playful and it was cute watching them pounce and nip all over Kelly. We left the park that day with huge smiles on our faces, in awe of our time spent with these incredible animals.

You know you want one

Chiang Mai is also a great place to have an ‘elephant experience’, something that I really wanted to do. Most travelers achieve this on a two or three day trek to the hill-tribe villages, in which an hour or so elephant ride through the jungle is included.

Unfortunately, most of the trekking companies have you ride in a wooden ‘chair’ strapped to the elephants back and the trip culminates with a ‘show’ where the elephant paints pictures for its audience. We wanted no part of this scene and really wanted our money to go to an organization that was concerned with the well-being of the elephants and not the exploitation of them.

After doing some research, we settled on a day visit to Baan Chang Elephant Park. Owned and operated by a Thai family, the park is home to twelve elephants (two babies!) and provides a safe and healthy environment for the animals to live long happy lives, without having to perform in shows or act as beasts of burden. The park does not believe in separating babies from their mothers or using chairs for riding. Visitors fees help pay not only for the upkeep of the park and food/care for the elephants, but also goes towards the purchase or rescue of other exploited elephants.

Upon arrival at the park, we immediately changed into our stylish mahout clothes.  A mahout is basically a trainer that is assigned to an elephant for life, thus developing a very close relationship with the animal. We made friends with the elephants by feeding them bushels of bananas and sugar cane. You can place the treat right into their mouth or hold it out for them to scoop in with their trunk.   It was so much fun and Kelly and I even got a kiss from one of them!

Elephant kisses. My face in this picture says it all.

So cute

We were then taught how to get on and off the elephants neck and several mahout commands for riding (bareback, of course)…how to turn left, turn right, stop, go, etc.

Kelly learning her mahout commands

After lunch, we were assigned an elephant and began our two hour ride through the jungle. Kelly and I were thrilled to be riding Mamoo, as she was a mother elephant whose baby walked with us the whole way. The ride itself was a little uncomfortable, but still pretty amazing.

Jungle Ride!

Once out of the jungle, the elephants were led into a large pool (with us still on top), where we were given brushes to bathe our elephants. We spent some time scrubbing Mamoo, getting sprayed with water from her trunk, and laughing at Mamoo’s baby splash and swim all around us. This was definitely our favorite part of the day!

When bath time was over, everyone took showers, said goodbye to the elephants, and were shuttled back to our respective guesthouses. It was a fantastic day and such an amazing experience to be able to spend time with the elephants.  It’s easy to see why people dedicate their lives to making a healthy home for these lovable animals.

Me, Mamoo, and baby

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Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is known as the cultural city of the country and amongst other activities, is a popular destination to undertake a trek to hill-tribe villages.   After all of the island hopping, Kelly and I settled down for a whole week here and really fell in love with the place. Despite the noise, traffic and smoggy air (due to all of the ‘slash and burning’ that goes on to cultivate the mountain slopes), the city has an extremely laid back atmosphere. The ‘Old City’ is surrounded by a moat and a brick wall (crumbling in some areas) that once served as a defense against attackers and is full of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined with cafes and restaurants.

The wall around the city center

Our first day in town, Kelly and I immediately signed up for a Thai cooking course.   There are dozens to choose from, but we settled on Thai Farm Cooking School, a class taught outside of the city on an organic farm.   They picked us up from our guesthouse early the following morning and stopped off at a local outdoor market where we were given the rundown of the key ingredients for Thai cooking and allowed some time to wander amongst the endless food stalls.

Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the farm, including an explanation of the produce that is grown there, before being shown to our cooking stations. In no time we were pounding mortars and pestles to make our own chili paste from scratch…it’s actually quite a workout! Every person chose five dishes to make…Kelly and I decided on green and red chicken curry, tom yam and tom ka soups, pad thai, chicken with basil, chicken with cashew nuts, and sticky rice with mango.

 

Mmmmmm

It was a great day and the food was fantastic…we went home with our bellies full (yes, you eat the food that you make) and doggy-bags in tow, along with a recipe book of all the yummy dishes we had made.   Kelly and I are super excited to cook authentic Thai food for our friends and family when we get back home!

Look what we made!

The next afternoon and evening was dedicated to the Sunday Walking Street Market, a market that blows all the other markets we‘ve seen away. Rachadamnoen Road, one of the main streets in the Old City, is closed off to traffic and the entire street is lined with row after row of vendor booths that sell clothing, jewelry, home décor, paintings, and other local crafts.   Singers, dancers, and other musicians perform in the middle of the road and tucked inside the temple yards are food stalls packed with diners feasting on pork dumplings, fried noodles and rice, meat skewers, and fresh fruit smoothies.   Kelly and I had another fine, cheap street food meal as we tried to navigate the shops that sprawled in every direction, but finally had to give up around 9 p.m.   After four hours, we probably only saw half the market…it is that huge.

Stalls at the Sunday market

The following day, Jeff K. from Canada arrived and the three of us took a taxi up to the Doi Suthep, one of the local Buddhist temples.   The temple was pretty, but unfortunately, was under construction…the big stupa was covered with tarps and scaffolding!

Wat Doi Suthep

 That evening, we all ticked another Thailand ‘must-see’ off of our list and attended a Muy Thai Boxing Fight.   Picturing a boxing match from the States, we thought we would be sitting in a crowded arena with hundreds of other fans, but were surprised when we arrived at a courtyard full of bars and were escorted to a small ring surrounded by benches and tables…much more up close and personal than we expected!

Muy Thai!

There were five rounds of boxing, the first couple between young Thai boys and teenagers, followed by a match between two Thai women boxers (awesome!), and then two international fighters against a local Thai.  These fighters don’t mess around and the sport looks absolutely exhausting.   After our fill of punches and kicks, syrupy-sweet cocktails and shirtless dancing lady-boys, we called it a night.

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Just So You Know

Kelly and I are in Nepal and leaving tomorrow on a 12-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp through the Himalayan mountains.  This means no internet for the next two weeks, which in turn, means no new posts for awhile. 

We have more fun stories to tell though!  We’ll wrap up the rest of our time in Thailand and the couple of weeks we spent in Laos as soon as we get back.

Have a great two weeks!  We know we will…

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Since Kim and I were in the area, we decided to hit up the notorious Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, an island off the east coast of Thailand.   It’s one of those things you just have to see.   Because of the influx of tourists to the area, around this time each month  the price of everything doubles or triples and it can be very hard to find a room.   And even if you do, they require you to stay at least 5-10 nights!   Reluctantly, we booked 5 nights well in advance at Coral Bungalows on the west side of the island.   We weren’t too happy about spending that long on a party island, however, we would be meeting up with the Jeff’s once again and have a few extra days to relax.  We had heard that Coral was known for it’s party hardy atmosphere and huge, all night pool parties — not to mention the billion signs on the drive there advirtising the “Biggest, Craziest Pool Party in the World 700, 500, 200 meters Ahead!!   Kim wasn’t too pumped about this but to our surprise, our room was gigantic with super power A/C, private balcony, and far enough from all the action to turn in early if needed.   It was fantastic! The pool, restaruant and bar were right on the beach and sold everything from gatorade (gotta get in those electrolites) to toilet paper…they made it very easy not to leave this place.   

Beach view from Coral

 
We spent the days leading up to the FMP walking around town, shopping, and hanging with the Jeff’s and our new friends Chelsea, Chris and Katie.  We thought about heading to the beach on the east side for some tanning and swimming, but once we caught a glipmse of it, we quickly changed our minds.   The scenery itself, the cliffs, the color of the water, the blue sky was all wonderful, but the beach itself was pretty gross.  Trash everywhere!!  People don’t just party on the beach the night of a full moon, it happens just about every night here.   The sand is filled with straws (from all the buckets being consumed), wrappers, paper, broken glass…it’s horrible.  And we know that the water is just a big urinal when the sun goes down.  So, needless to say, we didn’t do much actual beach time in Koh Phangan. 
One day while Jeff and I hung by the pool, Kim did a day trip to Ang Thong National Park to visit some of the surrounding islands.  Despite the nausea-inducing boat ride, the scenery was gorgeous:
 
At night, we would meet up with everyone at Coral and then head to the beach.  The nights leading up to the FMP are just as good, if not better than the actual party.  It’s crazy!  The beach is lined with “bucket bars” competing for your business, yelling and dancing, waving various patriotic flags to attract certain tourists, offering gifts with purchase, etc.  Chris and Katie had been living in the area a month, so we stuck with them and got “the hookup” at their favorite place.   This was also during the final days of the Olympic Games and Canada was playing the U.S. in the championship hockey game at 3am.   Since we were with ALL Canadians, and they are FREAKS about hockey, Kim and I had to tag along to represent:)   We didn’t quite make it to the end of the game, but heard we put up a good fight in overtime.  The Canadians were quite happy with the outcome (and quite drunk walking home at 7:30am).

Buckets at Coral with the Jeffs

Bucket bar stalls along the beach

Partaking

 
The night of the Full Moon Party, we all went to an authentic Thai BBQ at this quaint little restaurant, Bull Of the Moon.  Chris and Katie ate there just about every night for the last month.   The owner was quite generous and provided us with a great experience.   Basically, they place this metal bowl with sort of dome in the middle with slits over a pot of burning coals.   He fills the outer area with broth to cook noodles and vegetables and then gave us a plate of raw shrimp, squid, pork, beef and chicken to grill ourselves with chopsticks.   Good fun, but super hot!   We would have enjoyed this activity much more in the winter:) 

Traditional Thai BBQ

 Then it was back to Coral to get painted up for the party.  It’s pretty much against the law to not cover yourself in neon paint for this event.  Plus, it’s just fun to paint stupid stuff all over each other!  We had a great time drinking and dancing the night away.  It was very interesting as well to see all the random people passed out all over the beach, falling off stages and spranging something, carrying their barefoot buddy off the beach with cut up feet, and the list goes on.   I’m sorry, but that shit was out of control! Good times though!

Gettin' painted up!

Chelsea, Kim, Chris, and Jeff getting crazy

Katie and Jeff actin' like fools

The beach looks exactly how you feel at the end of the night

We of course spent the next day recovering and getting ready to head back up north.   We had a short stop back in Bangkok before we took a long bus ride from hell up to Chiang Mai.  I will say though, we had so much fun in the Islands!!   It’s gorgeous here and everyone should see this place.  Southern Thailand, you will be missed.

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