Sunday, June 16, 2013

Count down until the Full Moon Party

Ignoring that I'm 36, have the alcohol tolerance to drink two light beers or one glass of wine (thanks to Australia and NZ's astronomically high prices and Indonesia and Thailand's lack of selection), and don't like to be around a lot of people- yes, ignoring all of that- we are going to the Full Moon Party in one week!  Once there, up to 30,000 people will gather on Haad Rin beach in Koh Phangan and party together under the full moon.  It's hard to believe that this happens every month.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Stuck" in Chiang Mai

Nathan had read that applying for our Chinese visa was a bit easier if we did it in Chiang Mai rather than Bangkok- mostly due to the vastly reduced number of applicants.  That worked out nicely- since we were heading north and Chiang Mai was a city that we were looking forward to seeing.  From Ayutthaya, we took the overnight sleeper car arriving around 8 am.  The next day we set off to find the consulate office but it was closed up.  Apparently the hours are only 9-11:30.

We knew that we needed a few things for the visa like passport-sized photos, copies of our passport as well as a copy of our Thailand visa.  The following day, we went with everything we thought we needed, passed through the consulate security and picked up the application.  At that point, it was around 9 and we had just over two hours to complete the application and pull together the remaining items that were needed.  Thankfully, we found a coffee shop just next door to the consulate that had wifi- so we got to work on the remaining items.  We needed hotel reservations (along with the addresses and phone numbers for each location) and confirmation of our flight ticket into China.  I got to work on the reservations and Nate started researching flights that we could book and then cancel with no associated fee (since we really don't know exactly where and when we want to fly in).  We were short on time since the visa office would close soon.  We ran back to the office once we had everything we needed- but by then the office was full of people also racing against the looming deadline.  We took our number and waited- as we watched the time close in on 11:30...  With a few minutes to spare- we were called.  Our efforts were rejected- they need printed copies (which we had assumed but hoped that passing my tablet to the agent with the confirmations would work).  So, we returned on Monday.  This time, with printouts of our reservations.  Our applications were accepted for review!

The processing time is four full days unless you pay to expedite it.  The base cost is already very expensive at $150 so we chose the slower/cheapest option.  Unfortunately, your passport is part of the application process, so we were without them while awaiting approval.  In Thailand- and many other countries- you need your passport in order to make train reservations or to check into hotels- so we were "stuck" in lovely Chiang Mai for a few more days.  I extended our hotel reservation at Montrara Happy House which is a great little place just outside of the old city wall (the Tha Phae Gate- photo above) which is about $20 a night.  

I had really wanted to go further north into the mountains to visit Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle border area and the Mekong River for a couple of days.  Without our passports, that wasn't an option- so we signed up for a full-day tour.  We generally try and avoid tours because they are often an expensive way to do something that we can figure out on our own.  That and you're often shuttled to one tourist trap after the next- but in this case- we needed a tour to get there and for $30, it was a good deal. 

Here's the tour explanation and map. 

We saw that the first stop was at a hot springs so the night before- I set aside my bathing suit and towel.  Nate and I laughed because it's so hot in Thailand- that we couldn't picture lounging in the hot spring when it's 95 outside.  I laugh now that I had pictured the hotspring as a rural, undeveloped hot spring that somehow only our tour guide knew about.  As we pulled into what seemed to be the local county fair- I realized that we had reached the hot springs.  Rows and rows of tour vans crowded the parking lot with probably 80-100 sales stalls circling the lot.  Where was the hot spring? Oh- I guess this is it.  Just deep enough for your foot- swimsuits optional.  

Next we went to the Buddhist temple Wat Rong Khun or the "white temple" just outside of Chiang Rai.  This is a new construction which started in 1996 and is still on-going with an expected completion date of 2070.  It looks like something that should be in a  movie set.  

We were not allowed to take photos within the temple but there is a mural within with scenes of the twin towers burning, Michael Jackson in a Jetsons-like spacecraft, Hello Kitty, Angry Bird and many other contemporary pop-culture icons.  I think the premise being that if we are preoccupied with these modern distractions that we'll be grabbed by the hands from hell and demons that are reaching for us at the temple entrance.

Next- after a long lecture by our tour guide on the Golden's Triangle's opium, heroin and marijuana trade- we arrived at the Mekong River which separates Thailand, Laos and Burma.  We took a boat ride and were shown Opium Island where opium was sold along with the large casinos that stand in both Burma and Laos- attracting Thai people and tourists over the border since the casinos are illegal in Thailand.  I hadn't expected this- I was hoping to see locals fishing and living on the river.  While there was some of this- it was minimal.

One of the casinos.

We only saw a few boats on the Mekong.  We saw two boats like the one below.  These carry about 40 people from China on a two day trip.  Rooms are created within the boat by the sheets that you see hanging.  

Next we stopped on the Laos side- at a tourist market which was some type of special economic zone since we still used Thai baht there.  I was nervous about going because we didn't have our passport but our guide assured us that our photocopies would be fine.  The market's main specialty was whiskey which was immediately offered to us by our guide when we got off the boat.  I was open to it until I saw the ingredients...

Here's our guide showing the options which included: tiger penis, snake, scorpion or ginkgo infused whiskey.

Nate wasn't scared off.  He tried the ginkgo first and said it was very similar to moonshine.  Then he was feeling adventurous and tried the tiger penis whiskey.  I was thankful to capture the tasting in the below photos.  His expression in the second is perfect!

After the whiskey tasting we wandered around and checked out the opium pipes until it was time to get ferried back across the river.

Our next stop was the Thailand-Burma border- where we saw this marker, snapped a few photos of Burma and then hopped back in out crowded shuttle bus.

Looking into Burma.

There were three benches at the border- that all read the same message-

Our final stop was at the "long neck" tribe.  This is actually the Kayan tribe (of the Karen people), originally from Burma but are now refugees living on the border.  They are not permited to work within Thailand but have been allowed to set up a commercial village to sell their crafts.  The brass neck rings are only worn by the women- who start at age five.  As women age, they upgrade to longer coils.  These brass coils are incredibly heavy.  Rather than stretching the neck- the coils are so heavy that they cause the collarbone to collapse under the weight, making th neck look longer. 

Here are some photos walking into the tribal area.

Kayan women selling their crafts.

A young girl- already with quite a long coil.

An older woman with a much longer coil.

Now with our Chinese visa in hand- we are heading back to Bangkok to meet up with some friends!

Mad for Mangos!

We are so lucky to be here during mango season!  I can't say that I was a mango fanatic before arriving to Thailand but that has now changed.  I am convinced that the ones that I had prior to being here- weren't ripe.

It's hard to go anywhere right now without seeing women peeling mangos, huge overflowing baskets of them ready to delight a customer or some sort of mango special outside of a restaurant.  I've been loving the mango smoothies and sticky rice with mango.

Sticky rice with mango is a very popular Thai dessert but I find it too filling to have after a meal- so have been getting as a mid-day treat.  There are 3 parts to this amazing, yet simple dish.  The sticky (or glutinous) rice, sliced mango and a sweet coconut milk sauce.

I found this funny little video about getting mango sticky rice on the street in Bangkok.  Be sure to watch this guy's expression when he takes a bite!  

Want to make this at home?  Here's a link to  Enjoy!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The ancient city of Ayutthaya

Nathan bribing the elephants with corn and tubers.

It's a 2 hour train ride from Bangkok (or 3 with the unexplainable delays).  Ayutthaya is the old capital of Thailand and was the trade center of Asia for centuries due to it's central location between China, India and Malaysia. Much of the city was founded around 1350 but was mostly destroyed in 1767 when it was invaded by the Burmese. At that time, it is thought to have been the largest city in the world with one million inhabitants. The ruins of this important city were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991. Both my father and his father visited in the 60's- and I was eager to see it as well.

The train was an interesting experience- it started off well with Nathan buying two cold beers from a lady-boy and our finding seats strategically located next to the food car.  After struggling to get my increasingly heavier bag in the luggage rack above my head- I settled in and celebrated our adventure by cracking open the beer.  The train lurched to a start and we were off- well, kind of.  I had pictured something entirely different- mainly our being in the open-air (read- no AC) 3rd class car with the windows down as the train raced north filling the car with cool breezes as we enjoyed the views of the country side.  The reality of my mistake quickly set in- the train was moving at a crawl with frequent long/hot stops where the hot air would hang heavy...  At some point- the train came to a station where it rested for over an hour.  At this point, the once near-empty train had filled to capacity and Nathan and I were sharing our bench seats with an increasing number of people.  Our arrival time for Ayutthaya came and went- and we were only a bit outside of Bangkok's outskirts.  All this being said- we paid less than a dollar (20 baht) so maybe the ol' rule stands true everywhere- You get what you pay for.  

Upon arriving at the busy bus station, we fought our way off the train as others were eager to board and find seats.  Hot, hungry and eager to settle in- we caught a tuk tuk into the historic city of Ayutthaya to check into our hostel. Since I have some friends on their way to Thailand who may be interested- we stayed at Ayutthaya Place (YHA) Hostel- the rooms were $15 and clean, had AC, hot water, breakfast and free wifi- score!  Also it's walking distance to many of the city's highlights- albeit a very hot and long walk.

After checking in, the owner told us that he had lined up a river boat for some other guests to see the temples and that we could join if we hurried- the tuk tuk would be there in 10 minutes. After the hot train- we were a bit hesitant since we really just wanted a shower, food and to sit in front of the AC-- but the tour was less than $6 and seemed like a good introduction to the area..And it was!  It lasted several hours and stopped at three different temples that were located on the other side of the river bank and ended the tour at the evening market where we finally got some food.

While many tourists choose to rent a motor scooter or bike- we feel more comfortable on our feet- so grabbed the hotel map and started exploring the island. It was a long, hot day but incredible.  Our highlights were the Ayutthaya Historical Park (my favorite part being the tree trunk growing around the Buddha ruin) and the HUGE reclining Buddha.

We knew that we were wearing down but were curious about the meaning of the elephant drawing on the map.  Just when we had given up- there it was- an elephant park.  It was, of couse, a tourist trap where people pay a small fortune to take an hour long elephant ride around the city.  We weren't interested in taking rides (although it was cool to see elephants navigating city roads).  In fact, I just heard last night that the seats cause damage and pain to the elephants...  I was more interested in meeting an elephant- and then I saw that we could buy a basket of corn and some sort of tuber for 50 baht!  Even better- we could feed the elephants!  Nathan started to fear that I'd spend all of my travel funds but in the end- I bought 5 baskets (around $8) and had so much fun connecting with the elephants!  I loved the way that they grabbed the food by wrapping the end of their trunks around the food and bring it to their mouth.  After Nate put down his camera- he got into the fun too and bought a few baskets.  We went back the next day and one of the younger elephants was out so after a few more baskets- she and I were friends too.  I was able to pet her trunk a few times as well as her wiry-haired head.  Perfect end to a beautiful stay in Ayutthaya.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Adventures in Bangkok

We arrived in Bangkok from Indonesia on the 29th of May and took taxi and then the skytrain to our short-term, fully-furnished apartment!  I found it on it was right on the Udom Suk BTS (Skytrain) line which was perfect for our daily trips into the heart of the city. While being on the 16th floor was a little unnerving- I loved the views from our window as well as from the rooftop pool that overlooked the city. We spent every evening on the roof- cooling down after hot days in Bangkok while watching the distant lightening strike somewhere behind the city.

The apartment was outside of the touristy areas- so there were lots of cheap and tasty local food stalls and markets to enjoy.

Pad Thai and fresh lemon soda water.

It was nice to be at a place long enough that we could make it feel like ours.  I found these beautiful orchids at the local market for less than a dollar for us to enjoy while we were at the apartment. 

On our first full day in the city, we caught the skytrain to Saphan Taskin Station and hopped on the Chao Phraya Tourist River Boat. It has multiple stops along the river and allows you to hop on and off through-out the day for 150 baht ($5).  Between the river boat, the skytrain, tuk tuks and our own four feet-- we were able to cover a lot of ground in our short time there.

Our first stop was the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. I had visited this beautiful temple with my friend Skaidra last July- and then promptly lost my phone with all my pictures on it. I was eager to visit this site again, show Nate AND immediately download my photos as soon as I could. It's a very large and beautiful complex. The reclining Buddha is only a very small portion of the site but the area that gets the most visitors.  In order to see the reclining Buddha, you must remove your shoes before entering and dress conservatively (no tank tops, short shorts or revealing clothing). I generally always carry a light wrap with me both to keep the sun off my shoulders and to cover up if entering a temple. I saw that the temple had some bathrobe type wraps that it let a few people borrow before entering. Oh- and no hats.

After getting lost in the beautiful Wat Pho temple complex- we took a boat across the river for only 3 baht to the Wat Arun temple. I almost think that this is better viewed from the opposite side of the river (which is where I took the below photo)- or maybe it was just hot and the thunder seemed to be growing closer- but we left without giving it enough time. Maybe we'll go back one day?

We were in need of some food and a cold beer sounded pretty good too- so we took the river boat up a few more stops and got off near the famous (to backpackers at least) Khao San Rd. It was a good stop for people watching while we waited out the lightening bolts and declined the fried scorpion salespeople.


We extended our stay in Bangkok for a day because I really wanted to go to the Chatuchak outdoor weekend market (at Mo Chit BTS stop). It's one of the largest in the world and covers over 35 acres and has around 8,000 stalls.  I went with Skaidra when we were in Bangkok and had such a great time- but even having been here once before didn't help me navigate any better.  Nate and I still got horribly lost.  None-the-less, it's a must-do if you're in Bangkok over the weekend. But go early- it gets outrageously crowded by mid-afternoon.  Here's some pictures of the largest paella that I've ever seen- being made right in front of us. 

We also went to the Dusit Zoo (which is a tuk tuk ride away from the Victory Monument BTS Station).  We never got to see this Bengal up close, but she/he was magnificent. 

We will be back in Bangkok again in the coming weeks to meet some friends and to explore more.  It's really nice to know that we will be back- there is so much left to do!