Category Archives: Asia

Myanmar, Part II: Mandalay, Inle Lake

Mandalay

From Bagan we took a slow boat to Mandalay.  It was supposed to take 8 hours, and ended up being closer to 14 (in fairness they did tell us it would take 11 hours when we got on, which almost made us reconsider, but we decided to go for it).  Turns out in the dry season the boat takes longer because it has to navigate around sandbars in the shallow river.  We ended up getting stuck on several sandbars, and in some spots had to wait for another boat to pass before being able to squeeze through the navigable path in the river.  Once we got caught up next to a cargo ship that seemed to be anchored in the navigable path of the river for the night.  But after wiggling back and forth and getting into a very slow motion collision with the cargo ship, we were free!  We saw both sunrise and sunset from the boat.  At first I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through the ride without going crazy — I quickly figured out that the A/C on the boat was so weak as to be basically non-existent, while the temps were in the (thankfully, low) 100’s at this point.  But it’s amazing how beer and books can pass the day!

 

Sunrise
Sunrise

Mandalay

Hunting for shade
Hunting for shade
Sunset - still on the boat
Sunset – still on the boat

Once we found our hotel in Mandalay we ventured out to find dinner.  We ended up at a street food stall serving noodle soup.  We were the only white folks around.  As seems typical in Myanmar, the kids run the show — our 12-year-old waitress smartly showed us a bowl with the four noodle options, had us point to what we wanted and asked us if we wanted “water” (broth) with it.  We all opted for water.  Although we saw others eating hot pots and stir-fry noodles, they just brought us what seemed to be their main attraction – a really good spicy noodle soup with pork.  Of course this was fine with us, it was good and there is no need to complicate things.  When the army of child waitresses sat down at the table next to us and stared at us while we ate, we realized we were a spectacle, which was both funny and new.  In fact, we were stared at more in Mandalay than anywhere else.  Apparently not as many tourists include Mandalay in their circuit and venture out for street food. 

Mandalay is much rougher than Yangon.  We must have missed the shiny new part built with Chinese money that we had heard about, because the Mandalay we saw was grungy.  The roads were closer to dirt than anything, and the tepid refrigeration made the heat feel almost unbearable.  But the city has its charms.  When we hiked up Mandalay hill we were like celebrities – everyone wanted us to take photos with them and their kids, even the monks!  We toured around to some of the artisans in Mandalay and to the old cities surrounding Mandalay (each of which was the capital of Myanmar at some point).  We saw how gold leaf was made, which the Buddhists use to guild certain Buddhas as a form of tribute.  Of course after Ilene purchased some gold leaf, the only guild-able Buddha we visited didn’t allow ladies to get near it.  So the gold leaf went unused.  Myanmar is the only place (so far) I’ve seen this gender discrimination in the temples. 

Pounding the gold leaf - the process takes about 6 hours (yikes!)
Pounding the gold leaf – the process takes about 6 hours (yikes!)
Piecing together the gold leaf squares
Piecing together the gold leaf squares
Woman are not allowed to touch the gold leaf Buddha, but you can't stop them from praying to him!
Woman are not allowed to touch the gold leaf Buddha, but you can’t stop them from praying to him!
Fun barricades
Fun barricades
So many frescos
So many frescos

Mandalay

The long necks weaving a scarf
The long necks weaving a scarf
Weaving with a hand-operated loom
Weaving with a hand-operated loom
Working the pattern on the hand-woven fabric
Working the pattern on the hand-woven fabric
So many Buddhas, overlooking the city
So many Buddhas, overlooking the city
Mirrored tile is everywhere
Mirrored tile is everywhere
It's the ice cream man!
It’s the ice cream man!
Our horse cart awaits...we had the sweetest old driver in Inwa (he even turned over the seat cushions when we were out looking around, to keep them from getting too hot in the sun)
Our horse cart awaits…we had the sweetest old driver in Inwa (he even turned over the seat cushions when we were out looking around, to keep them from getting too hot in the sun)
The old monastery in Inwa
The old monastery in Inwa
The clever sales man who followed our horse cart on his bike, acted as our tour guide, and then sold us postcards (in the ancient town of Inwa)
The clever sales man who followed our horse cart on his bike, acted as our tour guide, and then sold us postcards (in the ancient town of Inwa)
Another wat
Another wat
And another bell
And another bell

 

The teak bridge (didn't feel super sturdy)
The teak bridge (didn’t feel super sturdy)
Venturing out onto the teak bridge
Venturing out onto the teak bridge
It's an ogre fight!  The puppet show on our hotel rooftop.
It’s an ogre fight! The puppet show on our hotel rooftop.
At least the steps up Mandalay Hill are covered!
At least the steps up Mandalay Hill are covered!

Mandalay Mandalay

The many steps up Mandalay Hill
The many steps up Mandalay Hill
A photo with the monks, at their request.
A photo with the monks, at their request.
And the they found Steve at the top of the hill for another photo op.
And the they found Steve at the top of the hill for another photo op
One of the many kitty friends Steve made
One of the many kitty friends Steve made
The view from Mandalay Hill
The view from Mandalay Hill
Walking to the palace...it makes a decent hat.
Walking to the palace…it makes a decent hat.
The palace
The palace

We also visited a monastery to see the monks do their morning procession for breakfast.  Apparently it’s the tourist-approved monastery, as there were many tourists there to see this.  We actually felt a bit bad about making the monks into a spectacle.  But the young monk Steve be-friended didn’t seem to mind the tourists.    

The girls
The girls
The baby monks lining up for breakfast
The baby monks lining up for breakfast
The tourists making a spectacle of the monks, and themselves
The tourists making a spectacle of the monks, and themselves
brooms!
brooms!
Pretty tree at the Monastery
Pretty tree at the Monastery

Inle Lake

We took the train from Mandalay to Inle Lake, which required an overnight stop in a little town called Thazi.  The train from Mandalay to Thazi was just shy of 3 hours, and since we got the tickets day-of, we ended up in “Ordinary Class.”  It was a lively ride with lots of vendors coming through.  And not having A/C wasn’t a huge deal for such a short ride.  The ride was dusty though, and we all emerged covered in a layer of dirt from riding with the windows down. 

The train to Thazi
The train to Thazi
Thank goodness for these fans!
Thank goodness for these fans!
There are more horse carts than cars in this town...guess we'll take one to our guesthouse!
There are more horse carts than cars in this town…guess we’ll take one to our guesthouse!
The Thazi train station
The Thazi train station

Thazi is super small and that was the only time we had a bit of trouble getting food.  We wandered into a random place (Ilene and I being the only women in there) and tried to point to what we wanted.  We ended up eating – some fried rice with egg and some flat bread – but it was the simplest meal we had in Myanmar.  We stayed overnight in a cute guesthouse, very simple, with only fans against the heat.  It was all fine until I locked myself out of my room at 11:00 p.m. — and with the heat I was basically in my undies, which isn’t a great thing to wander around in in this super conservative country — and I couldn’t find the owners anywhere.  Apparently I can’t be trusted to go down the hall for the toilet!  Thankfully the box of keys to the unoccupied rooms was unlocked, so I crashed in another room until morning.  I didn’t sleep well though, as I was worried about missing the early train if the owner wasn’t up at 6:00.  But in Myanmar the locals get up early (I often heard locals playing their morning music before sunrise) and it all worked out. 

Unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit off.  I had some coke and crackers in the time we spent waiting for our train (it was an hour late), but this didn’t accomplish anything apart from earning me a new doggie friend on the platform.  When the train arrived, we were shuttled on, only to be told we had to move at the last minute because the porter mistakenly put us on the wrong car — interestingly, while the seat/car numbers are written in the Roam alphabet on the train tickets, the train is labeled in the Myanmar alphabet, making it impossible for us to match up where we’re supposed to go.  For this ride we were able to get “Upper Class” seats, but they were not much different than the “Ordinary Class” ones on the (apparently) nicer train from Mandalay – no more than bench seats with a bit of thin cushion on them, still no A/C, and the train was super old and dirty.  

So I was feeling really nauseous by this point, and as we were hurrying between cars I lost my coke and crackers – giving everyone on the train a good show as I puked three times while making my way down the length of the train.  Seeing no alternative to the 8-hour ride ahead of us (which ended up taking almost 11 hours) I declined Steve’s offer to abort.  Instead I spent the ride trying to sleep.  Ilene and Steve were nice enough to give me a whole bench so I could just about lay down with my legs crunched up — assuming the fetal position.  Sitting up was more than I could handle!  I tried to hold down water, but had two more rounds of losing my cookies.  The most exciting was when I got up to use the toilet, but barely made it to the open side door of the train in time to puke out the side of the moving train.  Some locals sitting in the seats by the door saw this and sweetly asked if I was okay (using a questioning thumbs up sign) and offered me a piece of fruit.  I said thanks, but hand-signed back that if I ate the fruit it would also come back up, so no thanks.  Somehow I made it through the hot, rocky ride on the train (the narrow gauge railroad cars rock so much that at points I was sure we’d derail).  It took two rounds of antibiotics to clear this thing, so much of my time in Inle was spent eating rice and resting. 

What I did see of Inle was beautiful.  What is sad is that the air quality is not great – likely because they burn all their trash right out in the open, often right on the side of the road – otherwise the mountains surrounding the lake would be more visible.  On the days I felt well enough to go out, I joined Ilene and Steve in exploring the town on bike, got a Myanmar massage (mostly similar to Thai massage, but not a rough), saw a traditional puppet show, and did a full-day boat trip.  From the boat we saw the floating villages and the fisherman (including the ones who just seem to pose for tourist photos right at the entrance to the lake), and of course were escorted to many local artisans – weaving, woodworking, silversmiths, blacksmiths, cigar making, etc. – who all wanted to sell us souvenirs.  It’s amazing how quickly Myanmar has got the tourist circuit mastered, considering the country only recently opened officially to tourism.

This puppet plays football!
This puppet plays football!
So many puppets!
So many puppets!
The pervasive betelnut leaves, pre-rolling
The pervasive betelnut leaves, pre-rolling
Time for a boat ride!
Time for a boat ride!
This guy was camped out at the entrance to the lake, just waiting to pose for tourist photos (for a price, of course)
This guy was camped out at the entrance to the lake, just waiting to pose for tourist photos (for a price, of course)
I guess he caught at least one fish before posing for photos
I guess he caught at least one fish before posing for photos
One of the floating villages
One of the floating villages
Fishing
Fishing
Fisherman on the lake (one is using their foot to paddle, as is their custom)
Fisherman on the lake (one is using their foot to paddle, as is their custom)
On the lake
On the lake
Boats in the water, with the water plants
Boats in the water, with the water plants
The plants lurking under the water
The plants lurking under the water

 

Farming on the lake
Farming on the lake

 

In the floating villages the streets are made of water.  The locals had both bigger commuter boats and small boats for getting around town parked in front of their houses.
In the floating villages the streets are made of water. The locals had both bigger commuter boats and small boats for getting around town parked in front of their houses.

 

So many colors - at the weaving mill (of course they weave by hand too)
So many colors – at the weaving mill (of course they weave by hand too)

 

Stopped at the silversmiths -- again they do everything by hand here
Stopped at the silversmiths — again they do everything by hand here

 

At the blacksmith (we all bought knives from these guys)
At the blacksmith (we all bought knives from these guys)

 

Steve enjoying his giant coconut
Steve enjoying his giant coconut

 

These coconuts are huge!
These coconuts are huge!

 

Cruising up the river
Cruising up the river

 

We opted not to take this route up the hill in our flip flops
We opted not to take this route up the hill in our flip flops

 

The old monastery - we were hunting for how to get up to a temple on the hill at our stop up the river, but never did figure it out (none of the tourists we saw did)
The old monastery – we were hunting for how to get up to a temple on the hill at our stop up the river, but never did figure it out (none of the tourists we saw did)

 

Keeping the flowers fresh
Keeping the flowers fresh

 

One of the many little bridges over the river (that's just bamboo laid across in the middle there)
One of the many little bridges over the river (that’s just bamboo laid across in the middle there)

 

A farmer letting his hard working water buffalo cool off in the river
A farmer letting his hard working water buffalo cool off in the river

Around Inle, the locals do all their bathing and washing in the lake — it was really common to see whole families in the water splashing around with soap in their hair, having their afternoon wash.  They also grow lots of produce on the lake, which is interesting.  The lake is really shallow and water plants are visible on the surface or right under it in most areas.  But the farmers have also set up fields on top of the water to grow all sorts of produce.   Pretty ingenious.  Another impressive thing was the bamboo lock system on the small river we went up.  The first one looked like a dam made out of bamboo, and I thought maybe we couldn’t go any further.  But there was a small slot cut out of the middle just wide enough for the long, narrow boats to slip through.  The boats fit through that slot one at a time, passing through the locks to make their way up or down river.  Pretty cool! 

Going through the locks
Going through the locks

It’s Myanmar (not Burma, thanks), Part I: Yangon & Bagon

Most everything I read about travelling to Myanmar said it’s a country that time forgot.  I won’t echo that well-worn sentiment here, but I will say it is the most un-tourist-tainted country I’ve been to.  Yes, there are English menus in all the major cities, you can find your way around between cities without much problem, be quoted prices in English, and even find Western food in most areas (although we mostly steered clear of it).  But, the locals still dress conservatively in their traditional longhi, paint their faces with a thanaka root-water mixture to protect against the sun, chew betelnut and smoke hand-rolled cheroots all day, burn trash on the side of the road, don’t seem to mind tepid refrigeration, do most everything by hand (including road work), and are happy to see tourists in their midst.  I’ve never been stared at, prodded (mostly by women, thankfully), and photographed by locals the way we were there (of course some of that may have been helped by Steve’s impressively thick beard – we saw only a handful of locals with some scraggly facial hair).  It was also funny to see very traditionally dressed Myanmar locals tucking cell phones into the waist of their longhiis and kids in remote areas playing handheld video games.  So I don’t really agree that time has been forgotten in Myanmar.  But it is a special place nonetheless. 

Yangon

Yangon was Rangoon to the British and it almost seems like not too many changes have been made to the city center since the imperialists left their capital in 1948.  The infrastructure is in need of some repair and I can easily imagine how my friend Ryan fell through the sidewalk here.  However, after seeing Mandalay and some other spots in Myanmar, Yangon appears to be the most well-developed of the cities – after all, it does have paved roads, stop lights, sidewalks, high-rises, and well-placed parks.  Although much of the infrastructure is crumbling and blackouts are the norm (there was one most nights, and many places were prepared with generators), Yangon’s crumbling beauty makes it feel like a very special place. 

Our first beers (and the ubiquitous peanuts) in Myanmar.  We finalized our plans for the trip over these beers!
Our first beers (and the ubiquitous peanuts) in Myanmar. We finalized our plans for the trip over these beers!

Although some tourist have complained to us about the food, we were excited to have it given our love for Burma Superstar in SF.  We had a lot of curries in our first couple of days, but Myanmar curries are pretty heavy and oily (not at all like the Thai curries I have become addicted to).  So we decided to venture to the street venders in Chinatown (passing through a very colorful street produce market) for some whole grilled fish and skewers of squid and veggies.  This simple meal was one of the best we had in Myanmar (the other being another whole grilled fish in Inle Lake).  The fish comes with some amazingly tasty dipping sauces, and we learned that chopsticks are the best way to pick apart a whole fish (you can get all the meat).  This feast along with enough beer to make us happy was also only $5 a person.     

Night market on the street (literally)
Night market on the street (literally)
Maybe some crickets for a snack?
Maybe some crickets for a snack?
Overlooking the madness of the night street market
Overlooking the madness of the night street market
We drank many of these!
We drank many of these!
Grilled whole fish and so much more!
Grilled whole fish and so much more!
Steve is sooo happy about that whole grilled fish we just had!
Steve is sooo happy about that whole grilled fish we just had!

Overall the heat in Myanmar can be a bit oppressive.  When we ventured to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the symbol of Myanmar), we were therefore grateful to have a very good English-speaking guide who did a heroic job keeping us in the shade during our visit.  He told us about our birthday animals, which are determined by the day of the week you were born.  I was born on a Friday, so my animal is a guinea pig.  Given that there are dragons and tigers to choose from, I felt a bit gypped.  But we nonetheless each took turns paying tribute to our animals and Buddha — pouring water over their statutes in our birthday corners around the pagoda.  As honorary Buddhists for the day, our guide encouraged us to ring the big bell, three times, which notifies everyone that we had done a good deed for the day.  Reportedly paying tribute to our birthday animals counted as a good deed! 

Yangon

Buddha under the banyan tree
Buddha under the banyan tree
I just love the look of the language
I just love the look of the language
Sweating it out at Shwedagon Pagoda!
Sweating it out at Shwedagon Pagoda!
One of the many marble "rugs"
One of the many marble “rugs”
Paying tribute at my Friday corner
Paying tribute at my Friday corner
Mustn't forget to douse the guinea pig!
Mustn’t forget to douse the guinea pig!
Ringing the bell - 3 times!
Ringing the bell – 3 times!

Yangon Yangon

The mythical animal that is 6 animals in one (fish, dragon, bird, horse, elephant, antelope)
The mythical animal that is 6 animals in one (fish, dragon, bird, horse, elephant, antelope)

One of the any things that is really interesting in Myanmar is the driving.  Now although we saw plenty of kids a the wheel in Myanmar, foreigners are not allowed to drive or even rent motorbikes (although we could rent e-bikes, a weird loophole).  But after seeing the driving there, I was totally fine with this restriction.  Apparently after the Brits left, the government changed the rules so everyone is required to drive on the right side of the road – you know, to further distance the country from its colonial period.  But the funny thing is most of the cars still have the wheel on the right side, even new cars (actually there is no standard, as it seems perfectly okay to have a car with the wheel on either side).  To account for this difficulty (I mean the passenger can more easily see if it’s safe to pass on the left side when the driver is on the right side of the vehicle), Myanmar drivers use their horn.  A LOT.  From what I gathered, honking is required at least whenever (1) you approach an intersection without a traffic light (which is most intersections), (2) you are passing someone on the road (this applies even if the other vehicle is in the other lane of a multi-lane road, because you just never know when land lines won’t be followed), (3) you just want others to know you’re there, just because you do (we saw several drivers just honking intermittently), (4) you’re merging, or (5) you see any vehicle trying to enter the road and you don’t plan to yield (I never saw anyone yield).  In the few times we had e-bikes or push bikes, I learned that a driver honking to pass was more the sign for “hold your line” versus “move to the right.”  Once you get used to all the honking, it starts to make sense. 

These funny little trucks are so common (and loud)
These funny little trucks are so common (and loud)

Bagan

From Yangon we flew to Bagan (after hunting down the Air Mandalay office in Yangon to pay for the reserved tickets in U.S. cash – yes, they still only take brand new U.S. cash money for many payments in Myanmar).  The town around Bagan is cute and very manageable.  We got bikes from our hotel the first day and rode around a bit.  We went to check out the big “new” (active) pagoda in town.  Now most of the locals are super nice and helpful.  So when one directed us where we could park our bikes, we didn’t think much of it.  But then that nicety came with being led by the hand to their souvenir stalls inside, where we were basically forced to buy something. 

I was totally cleaned out (of like the $20 worth of cash I had on me).  After having some jade rings forced on me, I made the mistake of asking about a puppet (puppetry is big in Myanmar, who knew?).  After she wouldn’t be bargained down any lower, I indicated that I couldn’t go lower because I actually did not have any more money on me – making the point by pulling out my last $11 in bills.  Now we were haggling over a 1,000 kyat ($1) price difference but she wouldn’t budge.  When I tried to walk away she grabbed the money in an iron grip and wouldn’t let go.  She simply would not let me end the transaction and walk away with my money.  She asked me for something else to make up for the perceived $1 shortfall – my perfume, lipstick, something!  When I said no way and offered her my Kleenex, she finally gave up and let me have the thing for $1 less.  We had all been basically forced to buy something we didn’t really want or need.  After that experience were all a bit wiser about the hard sell tactics (although we honestly never again met women that were that bad – they were the exception). 

Visiting our first temple in Bagan - Shwezigon Paya
Visiting our first temple in Bagan – Shwezigon Paya
Steve never met a bell he didn't want to ring
Steve never met a bell he didn’t want to ring
So much gold!
So much gold!
Our bikes (mine has some suspicious looking leaves on the seat)
Our bikes (mine has some suspicious looking leaves on the seat)
Peppers - yum!
Peppers – yum!
The colors of the marketplace
The colors of the marketplace
I spy Ilene in the market
I spy Ilene in the market

We otherwise did the requisite touring of only some of the many thousands of ancient pagodas in Bagan.  Seeing both a sunrise and sunset, as required.  We rented a horse cart to take us to see the sunset.  We thought it was a genius idea – drive out to watch the sunset, grab some beers on the way, no problem!  Well, when we bought beers, our driver bought whiskey.  After he tried to take us to a closer pagoda to watch the sunset we did get him to take us to the recommended one, which was further out and of course which we had bargained for ahead of time.  This required some more bargaining with the head of what we dubbed the horse cart mafia — all the horse carts seemed to want to take the tourists to the closest pagoda on the grounds that the big popular one was too crowded.  We made it to the larger one, and it was honestly pretty crowded.  Squeezing up the dark, narrow internal stone staircase was a bit scary, but it was worth the extra effort and crowd fighting.  We were probably up on the pagoda for about 45 minutes, and when we returned our driver was clearly drunk.  He ran the cart up the curb a few times and we were sure we’d go over.  But our decision to end the ride was really made when he…let’s say…got a bit too chummy with me.  Thankfully although this was our first horse cart ride while in Myanmar (we had three other horse cart rides after that one, it is a very common way to get around, actually), it was the only one with a drunk and inappropriate driver.

 

The horse almost bit me as I tried to pet him
The horse almost bit me as I tried to pet him

 

Ready to go!
Ready to go!

 

This temple is not big enough for sunset...onward!  (the horse cart mafia seems to take all their foreigners here)
This temple is not big enough for sunset…onward! (the horse cart mafia seems to take all their foreigners here)

 

A blurry picture of one of the may temples we passed in the horse cart
A blurry picture of one of the may temples we passed in the horse cart

 

Such a popular spot to watch the sunset, it was impossible not to get others in our photo
Such a popular spot to watch the sunset, it was impossible not to get others in our photo

 

Now this is more like it...
Now this is more like it…

 

Sunset
Sunset

As I mentioned, we were allowed to rent e-bikes, which are basically just slower motor scooters, and that really helped with getting around in the heat of the day.  After the horse cart incident, we decided to make our own way around for sunrise the next day.  This also gave us the freedom to see old town Bagan at our own pace.  We generally hid out at the hotel pool during the hottest parts of the day, grateful for a pool even though it seemed to come in lieu of good A/C in the room.  The hotel also had a beer garden, where you could get $0.65 draft Myanmar beer.  A cold lager is just perfect on a hot day!        

Sunrise time!
Sunrise time!

Bagan

Eating our boxed breakfasts on top of the temple
Eating our boxed breakfasts on top of the temple
This sweet dog really wanted some of our breakfast
This sweet dog really wanted some of our breakfast
One of the balloons at sunrise
One of the balloons at sunrise
Temples as far as the eye can see!
Temples as far as the eye can see!
Another temple
Another temple
Old frescos of Buddha
Old frescos of Buddha
One of the many gold Buddhas
One of the many gold Buddhas
Pulled off the side of the road for a short visit to some temples
Pulled off the side of the road for a short visit to some temples
It's cool in here - I can see how worship can be a reprieve in this heat!
It’s cool in here – I can see how worship can be a reprieve in this heat!
Graffiti in one of the small old temples we stopped in
Graffiti in one of the small old temples we stopped in
All of our modes of transport - bikes and e-bikes
All of our modes of transport – bikes and e-bikes
Sunset drinks overlooking the river
Sunset drinks overlooking the river

 

 

Banging out the To-Do List in Bangkok

After so much time lazing about on the beautiful beaches of Thailand, I was really ready for the excitement of a city.  I flew from Phuket to Bangkok to meet up with my friend Ilene (who is taking a year off and is 8 months into her adventure) before we head to Myanmar.  Our big to-do was to get our same-day visas for Myanmar.  But we thankfully also had some time to explore the city.

I loved the vibrant energy of Bangkok!  I’ve gathered from speaking to other foreigners that people either love or hate this city, so I wasn’t sure what kind of experience I’d have.  Bangkok is obviously a big, crowded Asian city, and so I think the experience you have there depends a lot on when you go and where you stay.  Going before it’s too hot is good.  It was hot and damp (we got a few sprinkles), but honestly not as steamy as the islands or as bad as I had mentally prepared myself for.  And being able to get around easily really helps.  We stayed in a nice place on the river (thanks to Ilene using hotel points at the Hilton) so we were able to rely heavily on the river ferries and the skytrain to get around.  Of course the sunset swims in the rooftop pool overlooking the river helped too. 

 

Happy to find myself with this girl in Bangkok!
Happy to find myself with this girl in Bangkok!
The obligatory tuk tuk ride (and yes, the driver has a US Navy hat on...but still stiffed us)
The obligatory tuk tuk ride (and yes, the driver has a US Navy hat on…but still stiffed us)
Time to ride the Skytrain!
Time to ride the Skytrain!
Monks get priority seating on the Skytrain
Monks get priority seating on the Skytrain

 

 

The view from the pool
The view from the pool

 

 

Now the river is dirty – we saw plenty of dead fish and even a dead alligator-like creature floating about – but traveling by waterway adds a sense of adventure that no train, bus, or even tuk tuk can beat.  And the Mae Nam Chao Phraya river cuts through a good portion of the city sites (including the old city) that we wanted to see.  After so many warnings about the danger of traveling in the city right now, we avoided the areas where there were said to be political protests going on.  The closest we got was seeing a large encampment out the skytrain window.  But we were both glad we didn’t let the warnings stop us from seeing the city.

In the two-plus days we had in Bangkok, I felt like I got a decent sense of the city.  We spent some time wandering around Chinatown, found a lively Sunday market, had a history lesson at the National Museum, climbed Wat Arun, had some great cocktails in a couple of trendy areas (thanks to some great suggestions from Ryan in Singapore), and had some good food.  Of course we also spent a decent amount of time securing our visas and fresh U.S. dollars for Myanmar, but it really wasn’t much of a pain to get a same-day visa.  

Lots of engines - one of the many auto parts shops in Chinatown
Lots of engines – one of the many auto parts shops in Chinatown
Dinner with a view
Dinner with a view
Party boats on the river
Party boats on the river

 

A blue and gold pagoda @ The National Museum
A blue and gold pagoda @ The National Museum
Puppets!  @ The National Museum
Puppets! @ The National Museum
Lots of ivory @ The National Museum
Lots of ivory @ The National Museum
One of the courtyards (the museum is an old palace) @ The National Museum
One of the courtyards (the museum is an old palace) @ The National Museum
Pretty lady! Ilene @ The National Museum
Pretty lady! Ilene @ The National Museum
Weird hats @ The National Museum
Weird hats @ The National Museum
Royal carriages @ The National Museum
Royal carriages @ The National Museum
Close-up of a royal carriage
Close-up of a royal carriage
A gun cannon! @ The National Museum
A gun cannon! @ The National Museum
Typical stop light - scooters galore!
Typical stop light – scooters galore!
Walking the back streets to find the Museum of Royal Barges
Walking the back streets to find the Museum of Royal Barges
Ready for a night on the town
Ready for a night on the town
One of the fun scenes around Thong Lor
One of the fun scenes around Thong Lor
First fancy cocktail of the night (at an Irish Pub of all places -- we were pulled in by the Beatles cover band)
First fancy cocktail of the night (at an Irish Pub of all places — we were pulled in by the Beatles cover band)
Beatles cover band (a bit blurry) -- they were pretty damn good!
Beatles cover band (a bit blurry) — they were pretty damn good!
Fancy cocktail number two (smoke in a bottle) @ Iron Fairies
Fancy cocktail number two (smoke in a bottle) @ Iron Fairies
Fancy cocktail number three @ Above 11
Fancy cocktail number three @ Above 11
The view from the top!
The view from the top!
Welcome to Wat Arun!
Welcome to Wat Arun!
Wat Arun
Wat Arun
Time to climb!
Time to climb!
Ogres!
Ogres!
Leaving our mark on Wat Arun (they had a banner wrapped around the top level for this)
Leaving our mark on Wat Arun (they had a banner wrapped around the top level for this)

I really loved the street markets we wandered through – busy and a bit chaotic, navigating them takes a balance of patience and pushiness that takes a bit of practice.  But before you know it, you’re bargaining with the best and slipping through the crowd with ease.  And to me this experience is what makes Asia so much fun.        

The night market is a happening spot
The night market is a happening spot
I'm with you!
I’m with you!

 

Two Sides to Phuket

Phuket is such a big island that the “koh” (meaning island) was dropped long ago.  I stayed in two different parts of Phuket – Phuket Town and Kata Beach.  Most tourists skip Phuket Town, where the majority of the locals live, but I quite liked my time there in the old town area.  Kata Beach is another story, a typical tourist beach town that caters to foreigners.  It felt super cheesy after having been to some smaller Thai islands.

I first booked into a hotel that turned out to be far outside of the old town portion of Phuket Town, which I largely picked because it had a pool.  I was, however, kitty-corner to the much-advertised shopping mall.  Since I couldn’t see much else within walking distance, I decided to give the mall a go (I was on the hunt for new sandals after all, and I figured they must have a decent food court for dinner). The mall was so close – literally a hundred yards – and so far – it was across a crazy busy intersection with no pedestrian crossing.  Standing on the corner trying to figure out how to cross, I accepted the offer of a ride from the motorbike taxi.  I bargained him down to 20baht to get this chicken across the road.  But since he sang me a song on our short ride, I ended up giving him 30.  The mall was full of inexpensive stores, and I had no luck finding anything but pizza for dinner.  I really have no idea why this mall is considered an advertisable destination.

The next day I transferred to the Memory at On On Hotel, right in Old Town (again I took a motorbike taxi and tipped extra because he deftly avoided us getting sandwiched between two cars while keeping my backpack securely sandwiched between his knees).  The hotel is an old colonial building, and the place drips with charm. I was instantly happy with my decision to check out of the other place early, as much as my request to do so confused the other hotel staff.  This section of Phuket Town has some great Sino-Portuguese architecture, lots of artist spaces and galleries, (real) coffee shops, and the best food I had in Phuket.  I learned that Phuket has its own regional cuisine and I was lucky enough to try some local fare at Kopitium, after trusting my dinner choice to the owner (asking her to please recommend something local).  I had a dish I can’t remember the name of, but it was great: ground spicy chicken served with fresh veggies, a clear broth soup, rice and an omelet to (as the owner instructed) help cut the spice of the meat. It was amazing!  The next day I had some Thai pizza – massaman curry (my favorite) on a pizza!  It was interesting, although not mind blowing. Overall I was really glad I spent some time in old town. 

 

Scenes from old town.
Sino-Portuguese architecture in old town.
One of the fun art spaces I happened upon in old town.
One of the fun art spaces I happened upon in old town.
I can't believe it took me this long to eat from a street vendor -- eating hot, spicy soup on a really hot day...yep, that's what you do here.
I can’t believe it took me this long to eat from a street vendor — eating hot, spicy soup on a really hot day…yep, that’s what you do here.
The old Chinese school, now the Phuket Thaihua Museum re: the Chinese immigration to Thailand -- getting my history lesson for the day!
The old Chinese school, now the Phuket Thaihua Museum re: the Chinese immigration to Thailand — getting my history lesson for the day!
Lots and lots of coconuts!
Lots and lots of coconuts!
Scenes from old town.
Scenes from old town.
A koi pond inside the house - why not?!  (at the Chinpracha House, a fine example of Sino-Portuguese architecture)
A koi pond inside the house – why not?! (at the Chinpracha House, a fine example of Sino-Portuguese architecture)
Scenes from old town
Scenes from old town
A rather smug dragon (at the Sam San Shrine)
A rather smug dragon (at the Sam San Shrine)
Seen better days (the Luang Amnart Nararak Mansion)
Seen better days (the Luang Amnart Nararak Mansion)
Scenes from old town
Scenes from old town

Phuket

Phuket Phuket

on Soi Romanee
on Soi Romanee
Reflection
Reflection

 

Wat Puttamongkonnimit
Wat Puttamongkonnimit
Saw a dragon, had to check it out, turns out this is the only pretty part of this park in old town
Saw a dragon, had to check it out — turns out this is the only pretty part of this park in old town
Messing around at the Trickeye Museum
Messing around at the Trickeye Museum
More trickeye photos
More trickeye photos

Phuket

Now I’d met several tourists along the way who said I shouldn’t bother spending much time in Phuket.  And after spending some time on a touristy beach on Phuket, I understand why.  I opted for Kata Beach, supposed to be less crazy than Phatong, the main tourist destination.  But I still found it super crowded and I also really didn’t locate any worthwhile food in the three days I spent there.  Don’t get me wrong, the beaches are nice – good sand, a coastline that drops off quickly enough to actually swim in the water, something resembling waves (apparently it wasn’t surf season – that there is a “season” for surfing is already a bit funny to me) – and I can see why this a popular beach destination.  But it was the only beach I went to in Thailand where I had to be careful not to hit anyone while taking a cooling dip in the water, and where the beach chairs were lined up three rows deep!  I also had no idea that Phuket was so popular with Russian tourists, the signs and menus were as likely to be in Russian as English.  And it took me a while to figure out that many of the Thais were addressing me in Russian and not Thai. I know there are other, less crowded beaches on that big island, but the traffic is so crazy there that I didn’t feel like scooting was a good idea.  So I was admittedly a bit limited.  If I go back to Phuket, I will definitely not stay on Phatong, Karon, or Kata beaches (the “top 3” west coast beaches). But honestly I’ll likely just opt for one of the smaller islands, like Koh Tao or Koh Lanta, where you can’t help but slip into true beach bum mode given the slow pace of life there.     

Hot sauce in packets = bullshit!  Food fail on Kata Beach.
Hot sauce in packets = bullshit! Food fail on Kata Beach.
The view from my bungalow - 170 steps up the hillside from the road.  At least I'm close to the pool!
The view from my bungalow – 170 steps up the hillside from the road. At least I’m close to the pool!
Overlooking Kata Beach
Overlooking Kata Beach
Sunset
Sunset
Crowded Kata Beach (complete with a sun bathing sea captain)
Crowded Kata Beach (complete with a sun bathing sea captain)

Having spent so much time on the beautiful beaches of Thailand, I’m ready for the excitement of the big city.  On to Bangkok!

Beach Bum Transformation Complete on Koh Lanta

The quiet island of Koh Lanta is a perfect place to be a beach bum.  I stayed on Ao Phra Ae (Long Beach), as a nod to my home town.  And it turned out to be a great choice – in the spots between the rocky stretches the sand is quite nice and the water is refreshing, and there are plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from too.  There are a lot of rocks on the beaches of Koh Lanta, so you have to find the sandy spots between the rocks to have a good dip.

Chillin' on Long Beach
Chillin’ on Long Beach
DSC03684
Sunset happy hour!
The sunset show
The sunset show

Lanta

The hotel mascots
The hotel mascots
Loungin'
Loungin’

After bumming around locally on my first day, I decided to explore the island by scooter the second day.  I went all over the long island.  Compared to Koh Tao, scooting on Koh Lanta is a walk in the park.  The roads are smooth, wide, and relatively flat, there are few cars, and you can easily go at your own pace. I realized that my experience on Koh Tao was trial by fire – bad roads, hills, debris on the road, lots of locals screaming about – but, hey, I gained some good scooter skills!  I also learned that getting gas from a pump is always a better value than buying it roadside.  Somehow they say they are selling you liters of the stuff, but they certainly are not.  Two “liters” roadside might barely get the fuel gauge above empty, while two liters from a pump gets you half a tank.  I guess you’re paying for convenience!

My ride for the day
My ride for the day
This is how you commonly see gas sold on the islands (at least this one has a funnel, they usually just dump the bottle in).
This is how you commonly see gas sold on the islands (at least this one has a funnel, they usually just dump the bottle in).
The view at lunch, a little restaurant in Old Town over water
The view at lunch, a little restaurant in Old Town over water
I love these homemade hot sauces, most places have them and they're amazing on noodles
I love these homemade hot sauces, most places have them and they’re amazing on noodles

After exploring the island I decide to stop for a swim.  I happen upon two little places – a bar and a restaurant right on the sand on their own little beach at a break in the rocks.  I settle in under an umbrella for a fresh coconut and a beer, a few dips in the ocean, and a nap between book chapters.  They even had a crude outdoor fresh water shower set up, so you can rinse off the salt water after an ocean dip.  I stayed much longer than “planned,” settling into the realization that I really had nothing else to do.  It was in this realization that I knew I’d transformed into a proper beach bum.  See, I usually vacation in cities, spending my days walking from one site to the next, taking it all in.  This is the first extended time I’ve spent in places where the only culture to soak-in is the relaxed local vibe.  I now see the value in learning to totally relax.  And it certainly helps when traveling in a place where transportation is never exactly on schedule and obtaining even a simple meal may take a big chunk of your day.  You’ll get there when you get there and you’ll never be hungry for long.  I’ve learned a new patience in my time here.  Not the patience that feels like you’re being patient (willing yourself not to get too annoyed), but the patience that comes from knowing that things will happen in their own time and you don’t always know when that time is.

Fun little find - a bar on a small beach with coconuts and beer that lived up to its "friendly" name.
Fun little find – a bar on a small beach with coconuts and beer that lived up to its “friendly” name.
The little restaurant next to the friendly bar
The little restaurant next to the friendly bar
Another day, another coconut
Another day, another coconut

I also did go on a snorkel tour, a bit of a waste of time really, but a way to pass a day.

Time for some snorkeling
Time for some snorkeling
Apparently someone lives at this snorkel spot
Apparently someone lives at this snorkel spot
A bit of a storm coming in
A bit of a storm coming in
Shipwreck!
Shipwreck!

 

I Just Can’t Get Enough (Pictures) of Railay Beach

I had meant to go to Krabi Town, but on a whim ended up in Railay Beach for a few days.  The trip – by boat and bus – was longer than I’d expected, but thankfully I was able to sleep most of the time (I booked at 5:20 a.m. trip which made for an early morning).  Going across so much land made me realize that I wasn’t quite ready to give up the beach.  I showed up in Railay without a hotel, and decided to splurge a bit on a good spot in desirable Railay West.  In my two days in Railay I trekked a lot of the area. The beach on Railay West is the nicest – the best water, smoothest sand, longest sun exposure, and only direct view of the setting sun.  The eastern beach is all mangroves and you really can’t swim there.  It’s kinda trashed actually, but it’s a short walk to the western beach on the other side of this narrow peninsula.  The other option, also on the West side, is Hat Ton Sai.  It’s a good beach (the sand is just a bit rockier) but gets shady before sunset given its position.  It’s also decidedly more rustic and seemed to be a bit of a hippie paradise. 

 

Finally saw a sunrise (on the boat from Koh Tao)
Finally saw a sunrise (on the boat from Koh Tao)

 

Interesting stop lights in Krabi Town
Interesting stop lights in Krabi Town

 

In the longboat to Railay Beach (the girls in the background are the Germans who I navigated the many transport changes with)
In the longboat to Railay Beach (the girls in the background are the Germans who I navigated the many transport changes with)

 

View from the boat
View from the boat

 

The eroded limestone cliffs are so cool looking
The eroded limestone cliffs are so cool looking

 

No idea what the polka-dotted person refers to -- but if it means no lepers, I may have a problem given that all my bug bites have made me into one
No idea what the polka-dotted person refers to — but if it means no lepers, I may have a problem given that all my bug bites have made me into one

 

The view from West Railay (loving the Thai fro on that longboat driver)
The view from West Railay (loving the Thai fro on that longboat driver)

 

West Railay
West Railay

 

Yep, I'm actually here - this place is like a dream!
Yep, I’m actually here – this place is like a dream!

 

Amazing sunset on West Railay
Amazing sunset on West Railay

 

Sunset serenade
Sunset serenade
East Railay
East Railay

Railay is a big rock climbing spot, given all the picturesque limestone cliffs.  And there are a few viewpoints that I’d read you “have to see.”  Of course no one says how to hike to these places, and the map from the local travel agent had no roads or trails marked – i.e., not very helpful!  So I decided to see what I could find.  I walked to the end of the Railay West beach and found a promising-looking trail behind the fence of the final resort.  So I started up the slope.  I quickly lost the trail and went in circles a few times trying to make sense of things.  I eventually happen upon a rope tied over a boulder, so I figured that was a good sign that I’m on the right track.  But after that there is again no sign of a trail. 

So I looked for well-worn rocks and tree roots and just keep heading upwards.  Finally I came to a part that is more clearly the trail.  This trail is steep and at times a bit slippery given the loose dirt and leaves.  There then comes a point with ropes up the side of a craggy limestone face.  I read about ropes, so I figure – okay, I can handle this, NBD.  Grateful for my intro to bouldering (although there are no mats here to cushion a fall) I made it up two levels of the ropes, curious to see if there was anything resembling a semi-horizontal hiking trail in the next phase.  Of course there was not – the ropes actually continued diagonally across the face of the rock cliff.  At this point I’d made it above most of the tree line, so I call it a success and decide to head down before I fall off.  I’m “climbing” in a pair of Tom’s, which aren’t really made for this, but the rock is really easy to grab onto so it was a pretty easy surface hold onto.  Coming down I ran into a German couple at the bottom of the rope portion who were getting out their climbing harnesses to tie into the ropes.  While they were impressed with my ability to get down so easily, I realized I was right to come back down when I did! 

This is as clear as the trail got
This is as clear as the trail got
No where to go but up!
No where to go but up!
Looking down on West Railay
Looking down on West Railay
Starting up the second set of ropes
Starting up the second set of ropes
And there the rope goes diagonally across the rock face - no thanks on that one!
And there the rope goes diagonally across the rock face – no thanks on that one!
Snapping a photo of the view from the tops of the second set of ropes with my free hand
Snapping a photo of the view from the tops of the second set of ropes with my free hand
Back on mostly horizontal land - I'm a bit wiped from climbing in the heat
Back on mostly horizontal land – I’m a bit wiped from climbing in the heat

I later hiked over to Hat Ton Sai beach to check it out (and saw the Tham Pranangnai cave and some monkeys on my way).  I ran into a nice Canadian family (whose son happens to also be living in Singapore, what a funny coincidence) and we chat about home, our impressions of Singapore, and our Thailand travel plans. They convinced me that I can surely still get back over to Railay West by walking along the shallow water at the shore.  Of course by then the tide had come in and I didn’t want to get my camera wet.  So again I did some rock climbing (in flip flops this time) when the water got a bit too deep.  It was slow going, but I did eventually make it back around to the west beach and even caught another beautiful sunset! 

The cutest little spirit house I've seen yet
The cutest little spirit house I’ve seen yet
Exploring the cave - I heard bats and here I thought they slept in the daytime!
Exploring the cave – I heard bats and here I thought they slept in the daytime!

 

Exiting the cave, unscathed by the bats!
Exiting the cave, unscathed by the bats!
Swapping photos with some Brits - too bad my eyes are closed (lame)
Swapping photos with some Brits – too bad my eyes are closed (lame)

 

Just hanging out
Just hanging out
Hey there, Mr. Monkey
Hey there, Mr. Monkey

Overall I really enjoyed Railay Beach – the cliffs and hiking were a nice change from the other islands and I couldn’t take enough photos of that picturesque scenery!    

Railay

A few more shots of the rocky islands
A few more shots of the rocky islands

Koh Tao – I Love this Little Island!

In contrast to Koh Samui, I feel like I got a very good overall sense of the smaller island of Koh Tao and what it has to offer.  Mostly because we rented scooters and hit up a different beach every day. I stayed right on the beach at Chalok Baan Kao in a modern little bungalow that I loved.  And by this point I knew to be grateful to start my day with real espresso (instant coffee reigns supreme here). 

And somehow the bags all make it back to their owners
And somehow the bags all make it back to their owners
Maite at the top of their cliff-side hotel - great view!
Maite at the top of their cliff-side hotel – great view!
The beach at my hotel, mere steps from my bungalow, just before my first sunset swim.
The beach at my hotel, mere steps from my bungalow, just before my first sunset swim.
Even doggies need to cool off with a dip
Sometime even doggies need to cool off with a dip

Amy and I again went for a dive together – so fun to have a good friend for a dive buddy!  But the dive sites in Koh Tao were the most crowded I’ve ever seen.  I spent more time trying not to collide with other divers while simultaneously keeping track of my own dive group than admiring the sea life.  The most excitement was when a trigger fish (with his trigger fin up) was guarding the buoy line on our decent on the second dive.  You hear so much about how to avoid a run-in with one – they are apparently the only aggressive fish out there that will actually attack you.  I was amazed that none in the crowd of divers got attacked by that one.  I again noticed a lot of plankton in the water and again felt it biting me – in Samui I ended up with so many bites from these “sea fleas” that between those and the mosquito bites I had started to look like a leper – but I thankfully didn’t notice the hair floating in the water that Amy later commented on.  That there was so much hair in the water isn’t a huge surprise given the number of people diving in the same few spots.  I did observe that dreadlocks don’t really move under water.  Several of the guys on our boat had them and when I saw them underwater, their hair looked exactly as it had on land.  I tried not to think about how many sea fleas got stuck in their tresses on a daily basis.

My adventures on the scooter were mixed, but overall super fun!  We rented scooters in the evening of our first day.  I have never driven one before, but in exchange for my passport and 200 Baht (like $6) I was handed the keys.  Right off I nearly crashed trying to avoid the potholes in the dirt road.  I was apparently giving it way too much throttle.  We decided to ride around a bit to get me some practice, even if in the semi-dark.  Of course Amy used to drive a Vespa around SF (and I have fond memories of zipping around with her) and Maite also owns a scooter at home – so I was the only novice.  All was going okay until we stopped at a crossroads and I was going to take the lead in our scooter caravan.  As soon as I tried to pull out I (of course) gave it too much throttle, skid on the gravel at the side of the road, and the bike went over.  Miraculously I was unscathed except for a chip out of the middle of the nail polish on my left big toe.  A local – who from his boxing shorts and layer of sweat shine looked like he had just come from a Muay Thai gym (and here I thought the fighters covered in sweat on the boxing billboards were faking it with oil) – runs over to help me get the bike up and says in perfect English (with a British accent no less) that I should be careful of the sand and the bumpy roads.  Thanks, will do! 

My confidence shaken, we decided to drop off my scooter and have me hitch a ride with Amy for the night.  Over the following 3 days I become more confident on the bike, the most challenging ride being the one up to Mango viewpoint.  On the steep roads you are grateful for pavement (no matter how narrow the road – some are only one car width wide) but make due when soft dirt is all there is.  I don’t fall again, but after dark decide to rely on Amy to get me around safely. That little fall did cost me, as the owner claimed she would need to replace every part on the bike that was even barely scratched.  I could talk her down a bit, but when your passport is held for ransom you have to pay.  So, my first time on a scooter included a $400 learning curve!       

Mango Viewpoint - the view was worth the crazy steep ride and hike
Mango Viewpoint – the view was worth the crazy steep ride and hike
The view from the Mango Viewpoint - Maite in her new Hater hat
The view from the Mango Viewpoint – Maite in her new Hater hat
Enjoying our well-earned coconuts and taking in the view
Enjoying our well-earned coconuts and taking in the view
Sitting on the edge of the word
Sitting on the edge of the word
The viewpoint at Dusit Buncha Resort (our first snorkel spot)
The viewpoint at Dusit Buncha Resort (our first snorkel spot)
Sunset on the sea at Dusit Buncha Resort - Nangyuna Island is across the water
Sunset on the sea at Dusit Buncha Resort – Nangyuna Island is across the water
Watching the beautiful sunset
Watching the beautiful sunset
Sharing a cigar with the ladies
Sharing a cigar with the ladies
Maite contemplating the beautiful evening
Maite contemplating the beautiful evening

Most of the beaches on Koh Samui and Koh Tao have good sand and a slowly sloping shoreline that makes it difficult to get more than knee deep without wading out a hundred yards.  The snorkel spots are generally the exception – there the reef is close to shore and the land drops off more steeply.  They make for good swimming and good snorkeling.  One of my favorites was Hin Wong Bay, where we had an amazing lunch and I saw an impressive coral garden with some of the most colorful burrowing clams I have seen anywhere (one was florescent green).  I did cut myself on the coral once, which is healing very slowly.  The dive master in Samui had an infection from a cut on his foot and told us that every cut he’s gotten in Thailand has ended up infected.  So of course I have been applying Neosporin liberally and keeping a closer eye on this than I’d usually bother to.  So far, so good! 

The little lunch spot we found at Hin Wong Bay -- awesome noodles and homemade hot sauce.  And my new hot pink fisherman's pants are so comfy!
The little lunch spot we found at Hin Wong Bay — awesome noodles and homemade hot sauce. And my new hot pink fisherman’s pants are so comfy!
Snorkeling and soaking up the sun at Hin Wong Bay
Snorkeling and soaking up the sun at Hin Wong Bay
Hiking back to our scooters (we decided not to ride down this sketchy road)
Hiking back to our scooters (we decided not to ride down this sketchy road)
Hin Wong Bay from the top of the road (where we left our bikes - the hike back up was tough)
Hin Wong Bay from the top of the road (where we left our bikes – the hike back up was tough)

After so many days on the beach with Amy and Maite I am ready to venture out on my own.  So I’m off to Krabi on the other side of the Thai peninsula.   Without Maite around I’ll need to carry my own “mosquito arsenal” – since going out after 5:00 p.m. requires a dousing of “Mosquito No. 3” (i.e., deet)! 

My last beach day with the girls on Koh Tao
My last beach day with the girls on Koh Tao
I'm loving the built-in shade on the beach here
I’m loving the built-in shade on the beach here

Koh Samui – Welcome to the Islands!

Koh Samui is a big island and I can’t say I saw much of it.  We (me, Amy and Maite) stayed on Chaweng Beach and didn’t leave that area much.  Most of our days were spent in true beach bum style – getting daily massages and sipping the juice of fresh young coconuts (and I’m now expert at getting the pulp out of one) – just passing the time and enjoying the clear, warm waters in the Gulf of Thailand.  As Maite put it, the ocean there is “total bathtub” – warm, calm, and shallow.    

Steps to the beach from my hotel
Steps to the beach from my hotel
Sea steps
Sea steps
Boats in the shallow waters
Boats in the shallow waters
Sea plants washed ashore
Sea plants washed ashore
I love the anchors on these boats.  Not sure what those lights are about.
I love the anchors on these boats. Not sure what those lights are about.
Scenes from Chaweng Beach
Scenes from Chaweng Beach
Boats on Chaweng Beach
Boats on Chaweng Beach
Towing his boat
Towing his boat
I need to get better at selfies
I need to get better at selfies

All those 300 Baht (about $10) massages got me accustomed to the crazy acrobatics you’re put through in the name of relaxation.  But that first massage on the beach (in a bikini with only a hand towel as extra coverage) was honestly a bit nerve wracking.  I kept wondering whether my bikini bottoms were still in the right place and whether I’d end up injured by the pretzel poses my therapist pulled me into.  Fast forward a few days and we had all gotten comfortable with the process, often stripping down behind makeshift curtains to change into the massage-wear provided by some places (usually fisherman’s pants – like the hot pink ones I bought (photos later) – and a traditional cotton smock).  

Amy was getting her dive certification, so I joined her for the last day of her open water dives.  I hadn’t dived in 8 years – since getting my open water certification on the Great Barrier Reef – so my first time going under induced a brief freak-out, similar to what happened my first time going down in open water all those years ago.  I’m sorry but a refresher in a swimming pool does not prepare you for going under in the ocean!  So Amy’s super chill instructor ending up spending our first dive of the day working to make me comfortable as much as helping Amy with her last few underwater skills.  I swear there is a separate training on patience and comforting that comes with being a dive instructor, and for that I am grateful.  The second dive of the day was much better.  I quickly got past the initial “I’m going to drown” feeling and remembered that I needed to accept the feeling of having water up my nose the whole time.  Overall the diving was good but I now realize that I was completely spoiled by starting on the GBR.  The clarity of the water, the colors, the amount of sea life, it’s amazing there.  We did see some eels, avoided a run-in with a trigger fish, and see a huge sea anemone garden off Samui.  And I again pushed past my fear, which is an accomplishment in itself!

Heading to my first dive in 8 years - yikes!
Heading to my first dive in 8 years – yikes!
Dive buddies! Me and Amy after our two dives.
Dive buddies! Me and Amy after our two dives.
Back from our dive and taking in the view!
Back from our dive and taking in the view!
Mr. Owl keeps watch over the dive school
Mr. Owl keeps watch over the dive school

One thing that is everywhere here are Buddhist spirit houses.  My tuk tuk driver on Koh Lanta finally told me what they were. Here was my intro to them on Samui:

 

Sea front spirit houses, prime real estate!
Sea front spirit houses

 

Buddhist spirit houses come in all colors
Buddhist spirit houses come in all colors

 

Let’s Start with a Few Days in Singapore

My experience in Singapore was a mix of the very Western (making my foggy jet lagged brain question whether I had actually left San Francisco and flew half way around the world) and the clearly foreign.  The farm-to-table dinner at Fordham & Grand and artisan cocktails at HongKong 28 made me wonder why I had bothered to leave home.  But then we ended up amongst the ladyboys, dancing to a 90’s cover band while downing pitchers of Tiger beer at the seemingly condemned Orchard Towers (or as my friend Kris calls it – “Four Floors of Whores”), which showed me the grungier side of this seemingly plain-vanilla city.  I was happy to be experiencing the mix of high-end and low-brow that is Singapore.  In the same day you can pay sing$4 to eat some questionable clams in your lunchtime Char Kway Teow at a locals ‘ hawker stand, and end your evening on the sky deck of the Marina Bay Sands sipping sing$30 beers (at least I was paying that much for Hoegaarden) with a view of the futuristic downtown skyscrapers.  While Singapore is “Asia lite” – clean and largely crime free with relatively few offensive sights and smells – you have to admire it for what it is.  A city state that has quickly shun the habits of its neighbors Westerners deem offensive (spitting on the street will get you a hefty fine while expelling such bodily fluids is considered a healthy habit in most of Asia) to welcome in international corporations and become an extremely wealthy but still culturally diverse country (and the most expensive.)  

Overall I am glad that I stopped through Singapore, even if I did only start my trip there to see my ex pat friends who I miss dearly and whose help easing me into Asian culture was a god’s send.

View from Ryan's high rise apartment
View from Ryan’s high rise apartment
I could get used to dining al fresco in this warmth
I could get used to dining al fresco in this warmth

 

After sunset
After sunset

 

Fresh off the 19 hour flight, we head to Ryan's local hawker
Fresh off the 19 hour flight, we head to Ryan’s local hawker
Noodle time!
Noodle time!
Happy Happy - spending some quality time with Kris and Rocco before Amy and Maite arrive
Happy Happy – spending some quality time with Kris and Rocco before Amy and Maite arrive
Hey there, blue eyes!
Hey there, blue eyes!
The year of the horse
The year of the horse
Shopping in Chinatown
Shopping in Chinatown
Scenes from Chinatown
Scenes from Chinatown
Stopped in at the temple
Stopped in at the temple
Chanting in the temple
Chanting in the temple
Yep, they take crime very seriously in Singapore
Yep, they take crime very seriously in Singapore
Lilypads at the Botanical Garden
Lilypads at the Botanical Garden
Segways must be popular in Singapore
Segways must be popular in Singapore
The coolest bench ever
The coolest bench ever
Chili crab on Clarke Quay
Chili crab on Clarke Quay – Nick made a special guest appearance (he happened to be in town on business, what luck!)