Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cooking and Elephants in Chang Mai

The train arrived mid-morning. I got lucky and saw a sign for Julie's Guesthouse, which the Australians had recommended. I hopped in the back of a red covered pick-up truck, the favored transportation in Chang Mai, with a few others and checked in to the guesthouse. I walked around the city with a girl I met at the hostel till the evening when I met up with Nate, another friend from Korea. He was traveling with a friend of his from home. The three of us went out for dinner and drinks and they told me about their day at the Elephant Nature Park, which I quickly decided I had to visit as well.

The next day the three of us walked around the Old City checking out wats and eating delicious Thai food. Nate headed to the airport while Cecilia and I headed for Thai massages. I had read in my guidebook that one of the best places in town to get a traditional massage was at the woman’s penitentiary, so naturally I had to check it out. We came across the prison, razor wire and all, and saw a sign pointing us across the street. It was my first Thai massage, so I had no basis for comparison, but Cecilia had already had quite a few and she said it was better than all the rest. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hoped to get many more six dollar massages while on my trip. I couldn't help but think about what my masseuse had done to land herself in prison, but she was nothing but kind and I was happy to play a small part in the rehabilitation program program.

The next day I went to Thai Cooking School. This was the activity I was most looking forward to in Thailand and it lived up to my expectations. It was called Sammy's Organic Cooking School and I was the first one Sammy picked up at 8:30. As the pick-up truck filled I realized it was all couples – I was the ninth wheel. This was a little awkward at first, but we all got along really well and had a great day. Sammy took us out to his farm where he and his wife taught us all about the food we were cooking in an open air kitchen. We each got to cook five dishes of our choosing. My biggest accomplishment was the curry paste I made from scratch, but I must say that all of the food I cooked was delicious! They sent us home with very full bellies and a book with all the recipes. I hope I am able to make some of dishes at home even if they are only half as good.

I spent the next day at the Elephant Nature Park. It is very different than most of the elephant parks, as it is a rescue
park for hurt or abused working elephants. There were some with broken backs or hips, some that were severely abused, and even one that was blind. The day was split up into education, feeding, and river bathing. It was upsetting to learn about some of things that go on with working elephants, but it was definitely overshadowed by the time I got to spend with them. I was scared to get close at first, but ended the day by putting food directly into an elephant's mouth and I even got a kiss!

On my last day in Chang Mai I took at trip up to Doi Suthep, a temple overlooking the city. This was the first day that rain had truly ruined my plans. Luckily I did have an umbrella, but it had been sunny when I left so I thought nothing of the thin light blue skirt I was wearing that quickly became see though. At least my driver got quite akick out of it. I think he felt bad so he drove me around the city a little and showed me the instant flooding that happens there when it rains. It looked like a disaster to me, but everyone was just going about their normal business.

In the afternoon I headed to Pai, a small town three hours northwest of Chang Mai.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Quick Stop in Bangkok

After a couple of mini bus transfers I got on the night bus from Krabi to Bangkok, which was actually quite comfortable. I started the trip with two seats to myself, but the guy behind me, Luke, was getting dripped on by the air-conditioner so he moved up to sit next to me. This was lucky for me because I figured I would find a place to stay when we got there, but we arrived early and in the dark I felt a bit lost. He was part of a group of five Australians who had been to Bangkok many times and they invited me to tag along with them to find a place to stay. We all ended up in single rooms a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Kho San Road. The room was just big enough to fit a twin bed and my backpack. It had only a window to the hallway, no outlets, and a shared bath, but what did I expect for 250 baht (about eight dollars) in Bangkok?

The nice thing about arriving so early was that I was up and out exploring the city before any of the other tourists. I hit the Grand Palace, the Emerald Budda, and Wat Pho all before 11am. The architecture of the palace and watswas completely different from what I had gotten so used to in Korea and I really enjoyed it.

Right outside the palace I came across a rather interesting sight - a massive barber shop set up on the sidewalk. There were tents with no less than 30 people getting their hair cut beneath them. Many of the barbers attempted to gain my business, but with no success. I walked on to the black briefcases I had read about in my guidebook.If a black briefcase is set out in front of a person on the sidewalk it signifies that he/sheis a palm reader. I knew that it was a bit of a joke, but I was fine with spending 50 baht for a little fun. The first one I saw was an older man who said he spoke English because he had been a teacher. He of course told me all good things – that I would live a long life, marry someone I loved, have children, and be very successful – all in all, the fortune I wanted to be told.

In the afternoon I walked up to Vimanmek Palace taking every side street possible. At one point I was walking along a canal and found myself on the outskirts of a small slum, I went to turn around, but the local men told me to keep going. I ended up walking on rotting wooden planks through what appeared to be people's living rooms, but everyone kept pointing to go straight. When I eventually got to what I thought was the palace it wasn't, but the woman behind the counter said that someone would give me a ride and she pointed out the door. I got in a golf cart and Joe, as he introduced himself, gave me a ride. He greatly enjoyed his 15 minute English lesson and was waiting to give me another ride when I walked out of the palace.

The palace itself was nice, but would have been much nicer if the teak wood hadn't been painted over. When you arrive you have to put everything in a locker, as they don't want pictures taken inside. The second I closed the locker I realized that I had forgotten to take out my shoulder cover up. The woman who was helping me said it was no problem that I could borrow something like many of the people that were in shorts or tank tops. The tops were all horrible Hawaiian shirts, but for some reason I was the only one with a bright orange one. Three different groups of people felt the need to point this out to me. Luckily, as everyone's cameras were in lockers, there is no photographic evidence of me wearing the hideousness that was that shirt.

I decided to save my feet for the sunset walk I wanted to do and attempted to get my first taxi. I had been warned of a couple of scams that the taxi drivers pull on the foreigners and was told to always ask for the meter to be turned on. The first taxi driver quoted me 80 baht, I said “Meter”, he said “70”, I said “Meter”, he said “60 with a shopping trip”, I said “Meter”. He went down the line to see who would turn on his meter and the seventh and last one was the only one who would. I got back for 50 baht with no shopping trip. (A shopping trip is when they are given gas money for bringing you into a shop.)

In my guide book it suggested watching the sunset over Wat Arun from the opposite side of the river. I attempted walking along the river, but there isn't a river walk like in most cities. The only place I could get a glimpse of the Wat was a boat taxi port where they asked me everywhere I was going every two seconds. I gave up on the sunset, but my walk took me through a bunch of really great markets.

I headed back to my guesthouse and met up for dinner with the Australians. We had fantastic food and I even got to try frog legs for the first time. It was a birthday for one of them, so we celebrated with buckets from one of the bars on the sidewalk.

I decided to move on to Chang Mai the next day so I bought an overnight train ticket from a travel agent. It rained almost the entire day so I spent my day walking around and ducking into cafes when it started pouring. Because of the rain I headed to the train station early figuring it would be something new to see. Hundreds of people were sitting on the floor of the train station and I joined for some people watching. Suddenly at six o'clock I heard some music and everyone stood up. I followed suit and waited till the song was over to ask what was going on. Apparently at eight every morning and six every evening the song is played and sung by everyone in public places showing respect for the Queen.

Ten minutes before the train's departure I found my cabin. It was a sleeper with four beds. I shared it with a Thai couple with a one year old and a German man about my age. The baby was super cute and would come to me every chance he got. I spent the evening talking with two men I met, an American and a Japanese. We were joined by a rather intoxicated Thai man who spoke exactly one word of English - nickname. He spent his entire evening trying to get us as drunk as he was, but was not successful as he fell asleep on the American every 10 minutes.

The next morning I found the best part of the Thai train – you can stick your head out the window! The scenery was beautiful and even better with the wind in your face.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Relaxing in Railay

Jen was heading to Railay the next day and had great things to say about it, so I decided to join her. The ferry takes about an hour and half, but there is no dock so we had to get in long boats then walk though the water. We quickly found a place to stay and walked around the island. Railay is breathtakingly beautiful. It isn't an island, but you have to get there by boat because there are limestone cliffs everywhere that make road access impossible.

The next day Jen went rock climbing, but I decided to stay behind to give my foot a rest. It was the first time I had been alone on this solo journey of mine. Over breakfast at a little restaurant I realized how much more
aware I was when I was alone. A mother and daughter, of about ten, were running the restaurant. Every electrical appliance in the place was plugged into one extension cord that was dangling from the ceiling. The little girl would deliver each person's food individually on a tray as her mother did all of the cooking. When I asked if I could take her picture she was almost honored. I felt like it was my first genuine interaction with locals.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the island's beaches and caves, before saying goodbye to Jen and heading to Bangkok. I booked a night bus with my hotel which included the boat transfer to a larger city nearby. A hotel staff member walked the group to the beach and pointed to any one of 15 long boats that were out in the water and said go. I asked which one and he pointed again at no boat in particular, so I led the group into the water. We waded thigh deep, some of us with backpacks on, others holding their luggage above their heads, till one of the boats waved us in.

Halfway through the boat journey I realized that I was in need of a toilet and quickly. I could see land so I just tried to think good thoughts. Once we got to the dock I thought I was home free, unfortunately the dock was the longest dock I've ever seen, at least it felt that way. I started to run/walk wishing there was a tree or anything that could be used. I sighed with relief when I saw a small restaurant/convenience stop and asked one of the men where the toilet was, he nodded his head no. I said toilet again with a look of desperation, he must have gotten the idea because he got on his motorcycle, turned the key, and motioned for me to hop on. I am scared to death of motorcycles, but I didn't hesitate for a second, I dropped my bags and jumped on. He took me a kilometer down the road and dropped me at a toilet in middle of nowhere. After I walked back and thanked him profusely I boarded a mini bus and started the first leg of my journey to Bangkok.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Near Death on Koh Phi Phi

In the morning we took the hour and half ferry to Koh Phi Phi. On the boat I met Hasan, a very talkative Turkish man that had been living on the island for seven years. He took us under his wing and showed us where to stay and where to eat once we got to the island. The hostel he recommended was completely booked so we stayed right across the road and moved over to “The Rock” hostel the next morning. We went out for a bit of the beach night life and enjoyed a very dangerous fire show where they were constantly throwing the fire sticks into the crowd.

At the hostel the next morning we ran into Jen, a Canadian teacher that had stayed at our last hostel as well. The three of us got settled in and headed to Long Beach, one of the nicest beaches on the island. I asked a local how to get to the beach and he told us to just walk along the shore and we would be there in 15 minutes. No so. We walked along the rocks, not easy in flip flops, for 45 minutes before we arrived. On the way back we of course found the trail that got you back in 15 minutes. Long Beach is absolutely beautiful and relatively empty, so we spent the entire afternoon there before walking back to see the sunset from one of the viewpoints.

In the evening we ended up at a boxing bar for Garreth's last night. Muay Thai boxers started the night out then they let anyone that wanted to box into the ring to accept challenges from others in the bar. Garreth and another guy we were hanging out with both boxed and held their own against their opponents. For this feat they were both given buckets filled with Thai whiskey and red bull, which is quite the way to start an evening.

The next morning I woke up covered in bites, and I am not talking a couple little mosquito bites. It looked like I had chicken pox and I, knock on wood, almost never get bitten. I freaked out, had a mini panic attack scared that they were bed bugs, then tried to calm myself down. Jen and I were the only ones that had them in the dorm, and if they were bed bugs I assumed that they entire place would be infested. I saw some ants in my bed and prayed that they were just ant bites. Just to be safe we moved into a double room and sealed our pj's in ziplock bags, which I carefully examined for five days before opening.

The day before when we booked a tour to Maya Bay (the shooting location of the movie “The Beach”)` we asked which tour was most popular with people our own age, this tour happened to be the cheapest one available – that was our first mistake! They put us all in small wooden long boats which were a little scary, but not too bad on the way there. We stopped a couple places along the way for snorkeling and swimming, which was fantastic. The last place we pulled into was a small bay with cliffs all around it. In one corner I saw ropes hanging and a staircase that started a few feet above the water level. There were probably twenty people in the water, only a couple with life jackets. They were being pulled back and forth by what looked to be a very strong tide. As the waves crashed into the cliffs they tried to reach the ropes to get to the staircase. I immediately thought that there was no way I was doing that, that I would sit in the boat and wait for the next thing, but they said that this was the way to Maya Bay, the whole reason for going on the tour. All of us thought about it for a second and jumped in the water. What none of us realized was that there were tons of sharp rocks and coral right beneath the surface of the water that the tide scraped you against as it went in and out. I am a fairly strong swimmer and I can say without a doubt I have never been so scared of drowning. The tide was ten times stronger than it looked and everyone was in survival mode, so once you got up to the ropes elbows were being thrown. Once I got to the top of the stairs I promptly pulled an Amsbry move and fell down the back side of the stairs. When I stood up I of course laughed at myself, but then realized that I hurt my foot pretty badly. Did I hurt it with my stupidity of getting in the water or with my klutziness of falling down the stairs? Who knows. I now understood why I had seen so many people limping around on Phi Phi. Lesson learned – you get what you pay for, do not go on a 250 baht tour, and as always, trust your instincts, if the water looks that bad, it is bad!

When I got to the beach it was like a scene out of “The Beach”, well maybe not that bad, but there was blood everywhere. People had scrapes all down their backs and up and down their legs. There were swelling ankles everywhere I looked. This obviously made it difficult to enjoy the scenery. I got in the water for a bit, but found trash floating all around me, so Jen and I decided it was time to brave the trip back to the boat. Once we were on top of the stairs the water looked even worse and the Thai guys that were helping people up before had left. Some girls from another boat motioned to their guide that he should come around to Maya Bay to collect them. They were successful in getting their driver to come around so we did the same.

When we saw our boat we all sifted through the trashy water for the rough ride home. The water had gotten super choppy and I felt like the boat was going to tip over at any moment. I was not going to make the mistake twice of not wearing a life jacket so I wrapped one around myself. I can't even begin to explain my relief when I stepped off that boat.

Yes, I had a bit of a rough time on the island, but I still really enjoyed my time. It's absolutely beautiful, and I've never seen water that color. I would definitely recommend visiting the island, just stay away from the 250 baht tour!

Next Stop: Railay

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lessons Learned in Phuket

The beginning of my trip will be the most vacation like portion of my two month journey. I did this because who doesn't want to start with beaches, and the fact that it would make it the most expensive part, so I would be more and more pleasantly surprised by costs as I went along. The beginning is also when I guessed I would make the most mistakes and I think it is wise to make those where the tourist road is well traveled.

These mistakes I speak of started about 20 minutes after I got off the plane. I am ashamed to admit it, but I managed to lose an ATM card immediately. In Thailand the ATM gives you your money before your card, which is opposite of what I am used to, then steals the card after five seconds if you don't take it. Luckily I am pretty paranoid about stuff like that, so I had a backup and was able to learn my first lesson with minimal damage.

My second lesson came shortly there after. The Phuket airport is quite far away from Patong Beach where I was staying, so I knew that I wanted to try to split the cab with someone. I started walking around talking to the foreigners to see if anyone else had the same idea. I quickly met a friendly British guy and we tried to talk the
cab drivers down a bit, but they didn't go quite as low as we had hoped so we booked a mini bus.
They told us to wait for a bit, a bit turned into 20 minutes, this is when the taxi drivers that work for the same company started to approach us and tell us that it would be at least another 40 minutes before the bus would fill up and they would leave. They were no longer willing to negotiate the price. We waited another 20 minutes and realized that we might never leave, so we got a taxi. Lesson learned – make sure there is always a departure time.

I checked into my hostel, Bodega, which was fantastic, and met up with a friend from Korea, Garreth. We spent some time walking around the city and the rest of the day on the beach where I got properly sunburned despite applying sunscreen four times. Next lesson – aloe is very, very expensive in Thailand, so bring your own. We went out for drinks in evening, which definitely gave me a window into the seediness that is Patong Beach - creepy old men and ping pong shows are everywhere! I still had a great time, but I would recommend staying on a different beach.

The following day I spent some more time at the beach, but this time under an umbrella. On Patong beach someone comes along to try to sell you something every ten seconds. We found this super annoying till the aloe lady came along. She had giant, fresh, cold aloe leaves that for the price of 200 baht she would give you the full body rubdown. Garreth talked her down to 50, and after watching his I had to get one myself. I was left gooey, chunky, and cool. It was the best 50 baht I had spent yet.

The next day we went on an island hopping and snorkeling tour. The best part about it was that almost our entire boat was a missionary group from Korea. They absolutely loved that we could understand a bit
of Korean. Having a small
window into Korean culture I had an idea of what was to come on the island. Most Koreans don't know how to swim and most beaches in Korea are not covered with bikinis, but rather fully clothed people that go about waist deep into the water. The group was made up of about 25 people, all fully clothed, and all wearing life jackets. Before getting into the water they all did the calisthenics routine that I had seen my Korean students do before every gym class while the group leader shouted out the commands. The entire beach stared.

When we got back to Phuket we headed for the food stalls. It was the cheapest and the best food of my trip so far. I met up with some girls from the hostel and spent the rest of the evening dancing.

Next stop: Koh Phi Phi

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life Right Now

Eighteen months ago I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved to South Korea to teach English. My experience has far surpassed any expectations I had when I arrived. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to live and work here. Everyday has been an adventure and I will miss Korea and all of the amazing students, coworkers, and friends I have been lucky enough to meet.

For all eighteen months I have had the intention of writing down the stories that were my life, but somehow there has always been life to be lived instead. Now that I'm leaving I wish I would have made the time because I don't want to forget the little things that made life such an adventure.

My next step is a big one and I don't want to forget any of it, so I will be keeping a travel journal here. I'm hoping that it will give my family a little peace of mind, be a guide to my friends that travel to these places in the future, and that some of you will enjoy my stories.

As for the next adventure, I am flying into Phuket, Thailand and flying out of Hanoi, Vietnam two months later. I have a general route planned through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and a hostel booked for the first night, from there I am just going to let the adventure unfold.

So, goodbye Korea and hello Thailand!

And yes, some of these pictures do deserve an explanation, but you will just have to wait till the next time you see me!