Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Island Hopping

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

We left Kota Kinabalu bracing ourselves for a long day in transit. First was our Air Asia flight in the early morning from KK to Kuala Lumpur, an airport we had been through once already and will see one more time before the trip is over. It’s not a terrible airport to have a layover in. The food selection isn’t the best in the budget terminal, though, so we spent our two hours at The Coffee Bean enjoying two things we had missed in Sabah: good coffee and dairy products. When we went to check our bags for our second Air Asia flight, the scale read that they were three kilos overweight. Try as we might to show our luggage tags from KK with the lower weights printed on them and insist that we had not touched the bags since retrieving them from the last flight, they would have none of it. We proceeded to empty anything we could fit into our carryons out of our packs once again, and managed to make the weight limit.

Things went seamlessly once we were back in Thailand–at first. A bus from the airport in Krabi took us straight into town, where a bus to Surat Thani was waiting. They promised to take us to the ferry pier. Instead, however, they dropped us off at a tourism office somewhere in town, telling us that they would sell us tickets to the island of Ko Tao, our final destination. We had been told by our hotel that the only way to get there would be the night ferry, which would arrive the next morning. However, this travel office told us the night ferry was not running that night, but that they could sell us a ticket to Ko Phangan, where we could buy a ticket to Ko Tao. They assured us that, since the full moon party was going on at Ko Phangan, there would be frequent ferries to Ko Tao, and one should leave an hour after we arrived. We were very suspicious, since what we was saying went against what we had been told. We suspected that the night ferry was running, but that he was lying to us because he did not sell night ferry tickets. However, we were nervous about risking it. Plus, he was saying we could get to the island that night, rather than spending the night on an uncomfortable boat. There was another couple there who had already paid and seemed confident. And finally, no one had tried to rip us off in Thailand so far. So we opted to trust the guy.

As you might suspect, this turned out to be a mistake. Everything we paid him for, we got, that is true–a bus came and brought us to the pier, where a ferry took us to Ko Phangan. But when we arrived, we found that there were no ferries to Ko Tao until morning. The latest one was 1:30 pm. Needless to say, we were pretty angry. After we finished spouting expletives, we knew we needed to find somewhere to sleep. We bought ferry tickets for the 8:30 am boat and went to a hotel close to the dock. They assured us, however, that they had no room and neither would anyone else on the island, because of the full moon party. Luckily, as we were walking away contemplating the wisdom of setting up our hammock somewhere and sleeping in it, a lady called to us from next door and offered us a room for only 400 baht (rougly $13). To our surprise, it was a nice room too, albeit with no AC.

Knowing we had better make the best of a bad situation, we decided to go to the full moon party. This is a blowout of mythical proportions, occuring for a few days once a month on the beaches of Ko Phangan, a mecca for the sort of backpackers we have come to dislike on this trip, who consider any night spent sober a night wasted. It was really just like we pictured: a string of bars and booths along a beach packed with crowds of people in bathing suits, covered in glow paint, dancing and drinking. Locals (and sometimes drunk tourists too) spun firey batons and hawkers sold the drink of choice, the “bucket”– a plastic pail filled with your choice of liquor, mixer, and Thai Red Bull (the original). We considered it a cultural experience akin to our time with a tribe in the Amazon–an opportunity to observe and briefly participate in a very foreign custom! We bought ourselves a bucket, pocketing the Red Bull so we could sleep that night, and wove our way through the crowds, screaming to each other over the pounding music, watching the party unfold. When we got back to the hotel, we found ourselves covered in smeared glow paint where we had brushed up against the revelers.

Catching the ferry the next morning was an even more entertaining experience. Shuffling onto it with us were crowds of hung-over, paint-covered backpackers looking, quite frankly, really bad. The ferry company gave everyone a sticker with their final destintion on it, and we joked that this was because everyone passed out as soon as they got on board, and the employees need to know who to wake up where. Others still hadn’t gone to bed and weren’t slowing down, as they drank beer after beer from the ferry snack bar. We watched as one paint-covered individual with his pants falling down stumbled on deck with a half-finished bottle of rum in one hand to light a cigarette with the other. Suddenly we realized why the locals in Surat Thani didn’t have much of a problem ripping off westerners, if this was what they usually saw.

Our arrival in Ko Tao was beautiful and smooth after everything we had been through the night before. We were picked up at the dock and brought to our gorgeous beachfront accomodation. There weren’t any hostels on Ko Tao that we could find, but most of the hotels and beachside bungalows were quite cheap, and we were very happy with ours. It was like paradise. Our resort was situated on a bay in the south part of the island. In the morning the sparkling turquoise water was so shallow you could walk nearly to the edge of the bay and still be knee-deep. In the afternoon the tide would come in, turning the whole thing a deep, lovely blue. We took a walk out into the water as soon as we got there. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and in the pool. Later we rented a kayak and explored the bay some more. It rained in the evening, so we ate dinner at the restaurant there. It was all so peaceful and wonderful.

The next morning, Tommy went scuba diving while I stayed around the resort. He said there were some spectacular fish, better even then in Sipidan, although the coral was not as good. I spent my time walking along the beach and out in the shallow water, and playing around in the pool with a snorkel mask like a six-year-old (and enjoying every minute of it). When Tommy got back we swam for a while and then walked to Freedom Beach a little ways down the coast. When we got back, we got drinks and played chess by the pool. (It was a rough day, I know.) For dinner we met up with an Israeli physician who Tommy had met while diving and his fiancee. We went to one of the many Italian restaurants near the pier, which turned out to be really good, and had a great time talking with them.

On our last day, we booked a snorkel trip. People we met told us we could snorkel right off the pier and Freedom Beach, but we wanted to do it right. We didn’t regret it. The first site was pretty empty except for small fish and dead-looking coral, but it was the place to see black-tipped reef sharks, and we spotted three. The remaining sites were shallow coral reefs that were positively breathtaking. At Sipidan, we had to hold our breath and dive down to get close looks at the fish and coral–here, it was all right in front of our faces. We risked hitting the coral with our fins or scraping our stomachs. The water was crystal clear and the fish were spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it. The trip also took us to Ko Nangyuan, a small island off the northwest coast of Ko Tao. It’s very controlled, with a landing fee and restrictions on plastic bottles and aluminum cans, but it has kept the place looking beautiful. There are two islands connected by a narrow strip of sand, cutting through the most gorgeous blue water you have ever seen. We hiked to the top of one to get a good view. Then we rested in the shade, since we were already sunburnt from snorkeling. We got back around 4:30 and played some more chess by the pool. For dinner we sought out a highly recommended and very cheap local place calld Tukta, with fabulous Thai food. The next morning, we were terribly sad to leave Ko Tao. It had been like three days in paradise. One thing is for sure, we’ll be coming back!

Photos from Crocker Range NP, Sabah

Photos from Mt. Kinabalu NP, Sabah

Photos from Ko Tao

Don’t Bother Us, We’re Sunbathing

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

We’re currently on the island of Koh Tao, in Thailand. Since we changed some of our plans for the last few weeks of the trip, the map doesn’t match right now. However, our listed itinerary should be right. It’s like paradise here, except the internet is quite pricey! So we’ll be back in touch in a few days.

The Land of Smiles

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Arriving in Bangkok from Delhi could not have provided a greater contrast. We were amazed at how stunningly beautiful the Bangkok airport was. Though we wish it hadn’t been the case, we felt as though most people we had interactions with in Delhi were not particularly welcoming. Imagine our excitement when upon landing, we discover that the unofficial slogan of Thailand is “The Land of Smiles.” After a seamless transit through immigration and the baggage check line, we took a taxi to our very fashionable and ultra-modern hostel, Take a Nap. Having not gotten any real sleep in almost 24 hours, we ate breakfast at the hostel and quickly crashed into our beds, whose sheets had been washed to a shade of brilliant white that we had never seen in India. Waking up in the middle of the afternoon, we breathed in a deep breath of centrally air conditioned air with enormous relief. We had made it to Thailand.

One of our favorite restaurants (and one that will cater at our December wedding) is Rama in Baton Rouge. This Thai restaurant, run by an awfully sweet Thai woman, was our first introduction to genuine Thai food. One of the reasons why we were so excited to come to Thailand was to sample the food! In preparation for the trip, I had read that Thai people are fairly meticulous about cleanliness, so we decided to seek out our first Thai meal in the form of some delicious street food. We certainly didn’t have to venture far– dozens of vendors were just down the street from our hostel. We were so excited, and shocked, to see how many vendors had their arms elbow deep in basins, washing used dishes in soapy water! Much of the food we found in Bangkok was like this– served in settings that can better be described as street restaurants than just simply “street food” per se.

We slurped down two huge, hot bowls of soup. Full, but a bit more sweaty after it, we caught a taxi to a Thai inspired Catholic Church for mass. After mass, we video conferenced with our parents and tried to finalize a few more last minute details regarding our upcoming trips to Sabah and Ko Tao. With our sense of time a bit warped from our early night flight and late afternoon nap, we decided to go see the new Indiana Jones at a nearby cinema, since we had not been able to in Delhi.

An interesting twist to our movie viewing experience occurred before the feature film was projected. Everyone in the theater rose and a “music video” of the Thai king doing ordinary, everyday tasks (like he was running for reelection or something) was played to the accompaniment of the national anthem. Afterwards, everyone sat down and the fourth Indiana Jones movie began! While watching the movie, I had the sense that the crew must have had a lot of fun making it; it was a bit sillier than what I was expecting so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped. A bit hungry after the movie, we went on a midnight quest to find pad thai, likely one of our most favorite Thai dishes. Though it is likely Thailand’s most well known culinary export, we couldn’t find a restaurant serving it! Evidently, its status in modern Thailand is a bit like America’s hamburger- a bit too “junk food” to find its way into most restaurants. Fortunately, after catching a taxi to our hostel, we found some street vendors serving some, along with huge bottles of beer. Entirely satiated, we slept deeper that night than we had in quite a while.

Everyone had told us about how fabulous shopping in Bangkok was. So, our first activity of the day was to go checkout Siam Square, home to several shopping malls and countless stalls in a market area. We suspect that some dual pricing takes place there because though there were lots of Thais shopping as well, the prices we were quoted were so similar to the costs at home, we opted not to get anything. Many of the fake Polos and Lacostes that I saw were a bit too obvious, so although they were actually well made, it would have been a little embarrassing to wear such an obviously counterfeit name-brand shirt. Better to just shop at Target.

We had lunch at a noodle shop in the square, but unfortunately, Katie’s was so spicy that it made her feel a bit ill for the rest of the day. Weeks ago, I had also heard that Thailand is a great place to get custom tailored suits at a fraction of their cost. I figured that since I will need to upgrade my wardrobe from t-shirts and flip flops to something more dignified for medical school, I decided that I wanted to get several shirts and pants made. I explored several shops in the Sukhumvit area. Some were too expensive, some were too pushy, but I ended up settling on one that had a beautiful store front, a very pleasant staff, and quite reasonable prices. I decided to sleep on it, but had a good idea that I would be returning the following day. Our final activity of the night was a trip to the Suan Lum Night bazaar where all sorts of fun trinkets and things can be bought.

The next morning, we decided over breakfast to go ahead with the tailor. $25 a shirt and $40 per pants is hard to come by in the States. Here, I had full control over detail and it would fit perfectly- color, texture, collar shape, if I wanted French or barrel cuffs, chest pockets, you name it! It was wonderfully fun getting to pick everything. I decided to have a special suit made for the wedding. Considering I scoured Baton Rouge for a suit for under $250 a few years ago, I considered the $220 suit I got made from Italian Merino Wool to be quite the steal. Fortunately, they will also hold my measurements for the next 10 years, so just in case I can not come back to Bangkok anytime in the next decade, I can request to have fabric swatches sent and then “my tailor” can make it and send it via DHL within the week.

We had also hoped to obtain a wedding dress for Katie as well while we were in Bangkok. Based on a few pictures we had seen, plus a few ideas of our own, we went to go see one particular dressmaker on the opposite side of town that had been particularly well recommended to us by a friend of Mrs. Faust’s that travels abroad, and to Bangkok specifically, quite often. Unfortunately, the amount she wanted for it was almost double the US retail price so we decided that it made better fiscal sense to just wait till we returned home. Not to mention that she’ll actually get to see herself in it at home, whereas in Bangkok we were a bit limited to imagination and sketches. We had heard that “backpacker central” was this pedestrian street in Bangkok called Khao San Road. Our hostel actually wasn’t located there; it is more in the CBD. We nearly laughed when we got there, though. It looks almost like Bourbon street. It was just filled with Americans sitting at bars promoting cheesy happy hour specials or shopping at “trendy” t-shirt shops. We couldn’t tell if it was really cool, or just lame, but we left with the impression that we basically weren’t missing all that much.

We each needed to make some calls to Boston so after a pleasant beer and pad thai dinner, we ducked into an internet cafe for some time. The previous day, we had actually arrived too late to really appreciate the night bazaar– many stalls were closed or closing when we finally got there. So, from Khao San Road we caught a taxi back there. What has been interesting in Bangkok has been how closely integrated the taxis are to what one could consider “traditional” public transportation. Because we often need to transfer from the subway to the monorail to go to those areas that interest us most, it has usually been cheaper to simply take a taxi. We have felt like we’re in a Seinfeld episode- we have had lots of conversations in the back of a taxi! We got dinner at the market, bought a few things, but decided to just think about a few other ones before we bought anything else.

Bangkok doesn’t have too many sights you normally would think of as being “touristy.” It’s mostly a place you come to eat, play, and shop I think. Well, on our fourth day here, we felt as though we had to go see some kind of cultural site so we decided to go see a few temples and the Grand Palace. Thailand has had a king for the last several hundred years. The one now, Rama IX, has mostly a figurehead role, but it is amazing how much the Thai people adore him. His portrait is everywhere. (Interestingly, he is technically an American citizen; he was born in Mount Auburn Hospital in Boston because his father, who was not Rama VIII, was at the time finishing up his final year of medical school at Harvard.) Unfortunately we were not able to see either the Wat Po temple or the palace because we had taken a bit too long that morning and but were nearing their mid-afternoon closing time.

Since, I was scheduled to see the tailor at 5:30, we took off first to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of a restaurant that I had read about in a New York Times travel article. Though we ended up sampling lots of snacks along the way, we weren’t able to find the specific restaurant. The hour was getting late so we returned to the tailor. It was so exciting putting on one of my newly tailored shirts. We checked out how flexibly I could move in it, tucked in a few baggy parts and gave my suit jacket a try. It was nothing more than a vest full of white threads at this stage, but I could tell that it was going to fit beautifully– it was tapered in a very flattering way on my torso, but at the same time, not at all restrictive or uncomfortable. I know now that I’m going to have to stay in shape during med school! After we were done at the tailor, we were fortunate enough to find a nearby internet cafe where we solved our restaurant riddle. The place we ate at was wonderful, as NPR and NYT told us it would be. I can also add that though it was better than Rama’s in Baton Rouge, it wasn’t by much. They really know how to cook! We ordered mee krob, a sweet fried noodle dish, a sauteed eggplant dish, a whole fried fish, and tom yum soup. Full and happy, we decided to spend our third night at the night bazaar one last time where I was able to buy cheaply a few very nice silk ties as well as get a few other things for our future home.

We got up early on our final day to ensure that we could visit the Grand Palace. It’s name certainly didn’t disappoint. Part of the extensive self-tour you can take is visiting the temples that are part of the palace. Never before had we ever seen such elaborate and painstaking work on a building. Millions of small glass tiles, all laid by hand, covered the temples. I was hoping we could visit the king’s mansion, but it wasn’t part of the tour unfortunately. Another part of the palace was closed for a lying-in-state ceremony. Despite the closed parts, we still believe that this was one of the most impressive palaces that we’ve seen on the trip; I’d put it second only to the Hapsburg in Vienna or maybe the sultan’s Haram in Istanbul. On the way to Wat Po, we got some bubble tea and a few snacks to hold us over through lunch. Wat Po was quite impressive; it contains the world’s largest reclining Budda, and gilded in gold at that!

On the way to pick up my shirts and suit, we stopped by Siam Square one last time to make sure that we weren’t forgetting anything that we had intended to buy. Unable to find anything, we just went over to the tailor. It felt great to put on my suit. It fits wonderfully and my name is even embroidered on the inside breast pocket. The shirts all came out well, too. It was a bit risky because it was difficult to predict how a shirt color would look on by only putting fabric up to one’s body, but they all turned out to be great. We had intended to go to bed early that night so that we could get some rest before our 07:00 flight, but between using the internet, eating dinner, and packing, we only managed to get little more than a “nap” before our alarm clock woke us up at 03:30.

I had intended to carefully pack my suit and take it along with me till we got back in July. Well, when checking into our flight for Phnom Penh, we discovered that we were nearly 9 kilograms (almost 20 lbs) over the tiny budget airline weight limit! At the rate they would charge us for oversize luggage over the next few flights, we could just mail the suit home. Fortunately, a post office was open at the airport and we were able to mail it with insurance back home. After repacking our bags a bit more, we returned to the counter only to find we were still 3 kilograms over the 15 kilogram limit! But right when Katie and I began visibly stressing about if we should pay for the surcharge with a credit card or cash, the airline employee, who by now was beginning to blush a bright shade of red, gave us our boarding passes and activated the conveyor belt. We smiled back, thanked her as discreetly as we could and headed off to passport control. Shortly after a delicious light breakfast of gourmet chocolate muffins and coffee, we took off for Cambodia!

Photos from Bangkok