Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thailand: Bangkok

The theme song for Bangkok was set to "Walkin' in Memphis" but of course Memphis was substituted with Bangkok. "I'm walkin' in Bangkok with my feet 10 feet off of SiLom..." it really was playing in the background of my thoughts pretty much constantly. Oh, and of course we took the Midnight Train to Georgia (Bangkok) from Surat Thani and arrived early in the morning. Bangkok was a very melodious stop. I'm not going to document Bangkok day by day since, we lost a day due to being sick (my turn) and had other tedious, uninteresting things (getting a visa for Vietnam, laundry, groceries, cooking) to do. It makes more sense to discuss and provide pictures of the places and events rather than provide a daily chronicle of our time.

In Bangkok we visited the following Wats (temples):

Wat Pho:

The size of the reclining Buddha is impressive

The statue is 15 m high and 43 m long

Along the corridor there are 108 bowls meant to represent the 108 characters of Buddha. Visitors drop a coin in each bowl for good luck.

The site of the reclining Buddha is also believed to be the first University in Thailand and where Thai massage originated.

These Buddha statues line the hallways and are representative of a display we saw reoccur in several other temples and monasteries.
Wat Arun:
This temple was under restoration, but is unique in its own way.

One of the spires without construction

Not super flattering but a picture at the entrance
Wat Saket (The Golden Mount):
A tiny, golden replica

Happy Buddha in a waterfall. This Wat had several steps and was surrounded by lush greenery. The climb was interrupted by platforms which contained bells and gongs to ring (Jared loudly obliged).

 It was simply stunning as the sun set.

On the way down, I caught this monk letting a dog have a drink from one of the little ponds.
Ayutthaya is considered the second ancient Siamese capital in Thailand. It was founded in 1350 and was destroyed in 1767 by the invading Burmese. It was at that time that Bangkok was established as the capital of Thailand. Anyway, it was very cool to see the ruins and the audio tours began to give us a context for understanding Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, I don't remember the names of all the places we saw. But here are the pictures and some commentary:
Jared climbed to the top, I stayed down below.

This Buddha in the Bodhi tree at Wat Maha That was very cool to see and quite unique. It is a Bodhi tree that has grown around a Buddha image.

There were signs about respecting the Buddha during picture taking (do not straddle the Buddha, etc.) which is a sad commentary on the level of respect paid to these religious sites by tourists.

A Buddha and small prasat (temple)

The sizes of some of the Buddha statues, carved from stone, are so impressive.

On the steps up to the central prasat

This is Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, one of the larger (and probably most iconic) sites in Ayutthaya. It has three large chedis still relatively intact which house the remains of three Siamese kings.

A smaller, all stone reclining Buddha

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

Jared was starting to feel tired after our day of Wat trekking.
Grand Palace:
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a marvelous complex, and it is easy to see why it is held in high esteem by the Thais. The Emerald Buddha is housed here and is considered the most revered image of Buddha in Thailand. Pictures are not allowed of this Buddha.

The hermit doctor at the entrance to the grounds. He is believed to be the originator of Thai herbal medicine.

Gold is, obviously, a common color choice for decoration.

Intricate detail.

Many of the temples and auxiliary buildings are closed to tourists, but the exteriors are still stunning.

A golden guardian

A stupa...also gold.

This picture is of the many tourists that lined up to take pictures with the Thai Royal guard. They're not quite as rigid as their British counterparts but close.

The temple which houses the Emerald Buddha
We also saw some Muay Thai boxing, went to the weekend market and took our first boat taxi. Overall, Bangkok was a nice, clean city with excellent options of public transportation (although some of the tuk-tuk drivers can be sneaky) which has some beautiful, cultural sites. I think 6 days was plenty of time and we both were ready for a change of scenery. Next up, we visited the Cambodian city of Siem Reap and explored the breath taking ruins of Angkor Wat!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Thailand: Khao Sok (Rainforest Paradise)

My goal when we left was to write every night. Just a little bit. Every night. Well, that sure hasn’t happened. I am way behind. But, this particular destination has been one of my favorites and I am looking forward to documenting our time there, even if it has been over a week since we were there.

Khao Sok is a national park in Thailand, located in the mainland of southern Thailand. Jared had to show me a map because, in my complete and extensively absent knowledge of geography, I had no idea that Thailand looked like this:


Khao Sok is part of that green bit in the middle. We took a bus from Phuket town to the entrance of the park. Our hotel was about 800m (half a mile) from the entrance and was part of a cluster of hotels which advertised tree houses and bungalows as the primary lodging. These were nowhere near as rustic as they sound and were in fact quite nice with private bathrooms and mosquito nets. Psh. Who needs that stuff? Rainforest national park, you say? With a beautiful lake in the middle? Let’s go on a two day hike and stay in a floating hut! We were both beached out and having trees and mountains as scenery instead of college kids and drink stands was refreshing. The night before the trek, we went to the hot springs near the park. The springs themselves were not real fancy and did not compare to those in our beloved Arkansas, but they were still plenty relaxing and it was fun to go to a place that was, by all appearances, exclusively used by the local Thais. Our twenty minute ride there, was in the back of a pickup truck. On the way back to the hotel, when the stars were out, looking up at the sky we could have easily been back in Oklahoma. No matter where you are the view looking up at the night sky from the back of a pickup truck is the same. The only difference is whether, when you look to the side you see a cow or an elephant (yes, that happened…twice).

In the morning, we set off for our two day jungle adventure. After arriving at the pier and paying the national park fees, we boarded a longtail boat with ten other tourists and headed toward our bungalows. Here are some views from the boat ride there:

So. Beautiful.

I thought that the range looked like it was giving a thumb's up!

Different longtail boat. Different View.

Cheow Larn Lake is a man-made lake formed about 30 years ago after the Klong Saeng river was dammed. It was a clear, blue lake and a perfect temperature for swimming. The freshwater was also refreshing after being in saltwater for the past two weeks. The bungalows we stayed in were part of a larger dock which actually sold refreshments and was where we all gathered for our meals. There were bathrooms up the hill (even a western toilet!) and huge logs which had been buoyed to form a swimming area.

Floating bungalows on Cheow Larn Lake

Our guide (who acted and looked like a Thai version of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean (this opinion was shared by other members of our trekking party as well)) informed us that after lunch we would go on our first hike through a cave and that we needed to bring our head lamps and wear clothes that could get wet. Not clothes that were water resistant, but clothes that could get wet.  The reason for the dress code was not the possibility of rain or splashing from passing waterfalls, but rather because we would be encountering chest-high water. Chest-high? Oh, ok, cool. No big deal. The rainforest portion of the hike was beautiful and we saw some giant bamboo stalks and other lush greenery. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what we saw. I was pretty focused on the chest-high water in my clothes portion.

Green, lush beautiful-ness

The cave was actually a pretty awesome experience. We saw some creepy big spiders, bats and baby limestone mounds just waiting to turn into stalagmites. The water bits weren’t too bad and if it got tricky there was a rope to hold onto to help ease on down the cascading waterfall. Of course, through the whole thing, we had Captain Jack to help us along.

Creepy big spider

We're goin' in

We finished by crawling through that

The experience was unlike one either of us had had before and I doubt one we will soon have again. We both commented on the differences between this cave experience and the much more sterile one we had in the Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur. Where in the Batu Caves, shining a light at the bats was strictly forbidden (bad for the bats’ eyes, etc.), Johnny flashed the bats with his light and did not advise against touching the limestone (apparently skin oil is bad for baby stalagmites). While this made for a unique and interesting tour, it may not be the most conservation-minded approach. But, I am not a cave-ologist so, who knows?

When we returned, we swam some more, had dinner, went on a night boat ride in search of wildlife and then sat up (until the electricity got turned off) and chatted with some guys from the UK and a couple from Switzerland. During this conversation, I became thankful for Jared’s knowledge of “football”, geography, and world politics. If it weren’t for him, we would have ended up spending more time than is warranted talking about Love Actually and Harry Potter.

The next day, we woke, ate breakfast, swam and took the boat to another hiking destination. We spent more time going uphill and did not have to swim mid-hike. It was a lovely hike but it did get quite hot. So hot, in fact, that Jared felt the need to take off his shirt.

It's gettin' hot in hurr

I teased him that I was going to start a Naked Hiking reality show. He assured me that he would not get completely naked during the hike. As if I was worried. After our semi-naked hike, we had lunch and then it was back to the pier and then the hotel. While we were gone, we switched rooms (to the original room we had booked) and this was our bathroom:
A seat with a view
Washin in the great outdoors

We spent the evening at the hotel playing dice and then hit the hay early. The next day we left our little jungle paradise and headed towards the big city. Bangkok is next.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thailand: Phi Phi and Phuket

We arrived in Koh Phi Phi in the late morning. We didn’t have a room reserved so walked until we found a place that seemed suitable. There are plenty of places to stay and it wasn’t hard to find a private room with AC that was in our budget range. The main town center is small enough that you can walk anywhere easily. In fact, there are no cars or motorbikes, everyone walks or rides bicycles. That part of Koh Phi Phi was refreshing. We walked around the first day and looked at shops and restaurants and found a beach and a drink with an umbrella. We quickly realized that this island was very different from Koh Lanta for several reasons:

1.       We were surrounded by college age kids

2.       There were tattoo parlors everywhere

3.       Drinks were sold in buckets

Not like "oh hey 5 beers in a bucket of ice." Buckets. Of liquid. Seriously? The beach and the whole town is manicured to appeal to the college party crowd. Now, don’t get me wrong, it made for some excellent people watching but for sleeping and normal-person enjoyment it had little to offer in the two days we were there. I will say that we saw potential. Had we more time or more money or both, we could have easily enjoyed Koh Phi Phi on our terms. However, we had two days and a limited budget, so the hostel we found (which passed our initial standards), happened to be right next to one of the most popular (loudest) bars in town. While this was fine when we were enjoying L.A. Confidential during the sunset screening on the rooftop of the same bar, it was decidedly not fine while we were trying to sleep at 1 A.M.

Rooftop screening of L.A. Confidential 


This French bulldog loved the fire show on the beach!

Our first morning there we had an Americanish-style breakfast and then walked to Long Beach which is part of the main island. It was nice but we soon got hot and returned to our hostel to work out next day details, when we were met with our first island power outage. We went ahead and used that time to give Jared a haircut and nap a bit. The power quickly came back on and went to dinner and were in bed early. Did we go to sleep early? No. Double, super triple, extra-loud, bar NO.
We grabbed as many ZZZ’s as we could and woke early to hire a long-boat taxi to take us to Maya Beach. This is a beach that was made famous by the movie The Beach (which Jared had not seen and I could not remember ,so I’ve downloaded it so we can watch it when we get the chance). We wanted to get there early so there wouldn’t be as many tourists. It was worth it.

We got there as the sun was rising over the mountains

Maya Beach with no other people in the picture!

Another scenery pic of Maya Beach but again, no people or boats!

We also stopped in this little cove and got out and swam.

Maya beach is on Koh Phi Phi Le which is a different island from Koh Phi Phi Don (the main island where we stayed). We took the long boat around the island and were able to see many different, beautiful vistas. However, the Andaman Sea is not a calm place in the morning. It was terrifying. There were several moments when I thought “Ok, when we flip over…” Only kidding, it was pretty intense for a boat ride but neither of us ever felt sea sick and we trusted our driver (who has lived on Koh Phi Phi his whole life) completely. We obviously survived.

So, while Koh Phi Phi has an overall ‘party’ vibe to it there is definite potential for an excellent island experience. One just might to pay more than we were willing to in order to stay at a more secluded resort.

I am lumping Phuket on the same post with Phi Phi because the beach experience was extraordinarily similar. Actually, I would like to recant some words I used previously to describe Koh Lanta. I said that Koh Lanta was a ‘commercially tropical’ island. I completely take that description back as it becomes increasingly more appropriate as you go from Koh Lanta to Koh Phi Phi to Phuket. On Koh Lanta there were beach shops which were obviously targeted to tourists and nice(ish) beach restaurants which also had bar services (this was only in relation to the beach we were at, I’m not sure what the rest of the beaches are like on Koh Lanta). Then, when you get to Koh Phi Phi, you are inundated by beach side bars with lounge chairs, shops selling the typical ‘beach’ stuff, people in their ‘20’s, and of course the tattoo parlors and street food vendors. BUT Patong beach in Phuket takes the cake. WOW. These three beaches have been a great reminder as to how experience can change perspective. On Patong, there were people:

This may not look like many people but, it was more than we had seen.

See? More people. But it is still beautiful.

It was still beautiful but there was a significant increase in the number of people. There were also people walking along the beach, trying to sell a number of miscellaneous items from selfie sticks to bracelets to beverages (this was something we did not see at Koh Lanta or Phi Phi). There were also jet skis to rent and parasailing. Then, when you get off the beach, the scene is like something I have a hard time describing; in short, it is the quintessential less-than-glamorous beach party scene. It is Bourbon street meets Austin’s 6th street with some Panama City mixed in there. We had a beer there and then caught a taxi back to our hostel (which was 45 minutes away, thank heavens!). Actually, on our way back to the hostel, Jared made us have a stop at the Big C grocery store. He was hankerin’ for peanut butter. We found some! Then it was to dinner and to hostel and to bed.

That was actually only the account of the beach portion of Phuket, called Patong Beach. We stayed in Old Phuket town which was much different and more Hedges friendly. Our first night there was a Sunday and there is a Sunday night market which we went and walked through (we love our night markets and street food!). The next morning was the super bowl so, while Jared streamed it in our hostel room, I went for a run and got breakfast. Then, before our beach adventure we went to see Wat Chalong, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Phuket. It was elaborate, richly colored and stunning.

Yay! Night Market!

The beach scenes at Koh Phi Phi and Phuket were definitely not our style, but we also experienced parts of both that were redeeming for us. The Thai culture continues to prove to be diverse, intriguing, accepting, and delicious! We are currently in Khao Sok, a national rainforest park, and then we will be heading to Bangkok! We can’t wait to see what more Thailand has in store.