Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Southern Thailand

We've enjoyed an eventful week in Southern Thailand. After checking out the Royal Palace and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) in Bangkok, we relaxed for the afternoon and evening before boarding a 10:50pm overnight train to Surat Thani on Thailand's gulf coast. Straight off the train, we boarded a Phuket bound bus that dropped us off at Khao Sok National Park. It was a beautiful drive past limestone cliffs jutting out on either side of the highway. Unfortunately, we had to walk 1.8km with all of our gear in the morning heat to the Visitor's Centre. We set up camp near the Visitor's Centre and relaxed in the sun, reading our new (used) Harry Potter books. There was a nearby dammed river which was nice to cool off in. We found a nice restaurant just outside the park for afternoon drinks followed by dinner. There were little squirrels running around all over the place and the staff were quite friendly. It cooled off just enough overnight for a reasonably comfortable sleep.

In the morning, we set out on a 12km hike along a river which was meant to have several waterfalls. We saw some rapids here and there, but hardly any waterfalls... The waterfall at the end was supposed to be the nicest, but there was one river-crossing that was a little bit too difficult to cross so we never made it all the way. Instead, we stopped at a nice place in the river for swimming on the way back. It was nice, but didn't meet our expectations. We packed up and walked the 1.8km back to the highway in the late afternoon and caught a bus back to Surat Thani at around 5pm. By the time we reached downtown Surat Thani, we were the last ones on the bus and the bus driver didn't even drop us off at the bus station. There was no map in our Lonely Planet book for Surat Thani, so we had to get a tuk-tuk to take us to our budget hotel.

We got up early and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station, but of course, the tuk-tuk dropped us off in front of his desired travel agency near the bus station. No one would give us a straight answer on how to get to the bus station, so we eventually bit the bullet and payed the extra dollar for a travel agency to book our bus and ferry to Ko Pha Ngan. It was never explained to us, but it would appear that the buses to the pier were sold out and the tour company had to drive us themselves by minivan to the pier. Nevertheless, we made it there in time to get on the ferry and we were on our way. Ko Pha Ngan is in Thailand's gulf and holds a famous backpackers Full Moon Party on Hat Rin Beach. This was our reason for going. The party attracts upwards to 30000 people each month in peak season (like now). After a brief search, it seemed that every hotel and guesthouse in Ko Pha Ngan's port town was full. We gambled and took a bus (pickup truck) to Ban Tai, which was about 5km from Hat Rin. We walked down to the beach to the first decent looking resort that we could find, but they were full. Nicole asked if we could just set up our tent on their property so the receptionist called his mom (the owner) and instead, they offered us a small concrete shack for 150Baht which is like $5.00, SCORE!. The shack held two rooms, each with a double bed, it was dirty, but it would be a locked room where we could store our bags while we were at the party. And we were right on the beach to relax for the afternoon. We really lucked out.
Once the sun had set and we were re-energized, we caught a truck to Hat Rin. It was only 7pm so the beach was still relatively empty. We had dinner and by about 10pm, things were really picking up. Establishments all along the beach were pumping out dance music while the beach gradually filled with more and more people. There were stalls all along the beach selling snacks and booze. The booze was served in colourful children's sand buckets. They poured a mickey of alcohol and your choice of mixer and stuck in several straws. This was a bit much for us, so we just nursed a few beers throughout the night. By midnight, the beach was packed with people. Each bar competed with lights and fireworks, fire dancers, fire jump-rope, and blaring beats. We danced a little and walked a lot, but by 1:30, we were ready to head back to our shack. Our spirits were lowered on the truckride home though. A man, likely in his 50's, was lying unconscious in the middle of the road after falling off of his moped. We and the other passengers on the truck watched as others lifted him off the street into another truck. We don't know if he just lost control or if he was freaked by a passing truck. The trucks (or taxis/buses, whatever you want to call them) drive WAY to fast on the dark windy roads. Obviously, the faster they go, the more fares they can make throughout the night. We wonder how many injuries or deaths the Full Moon Party racks up each month. :(

Up early again the next morning, we got back to the pier and took the ferry and bus back to Surat Thani where we caught another bus to Krabi on the opposite coast. From the Krabi bus station, we took a taxi truck with others from the bus to Ao Nang, a beach 30 minutes from Krabi. Ao Nang is a touristy beach town, with easy access to the beautiful Krabi coastline. We found accommodation at the PK Mansion, went out for dinner, walked down the strip and went to bed early. We moved to Bernie's Place in the morning (a slightly cheaper and nicer guesthouse just up the street) and ran some errands. In the afternoon, we took a longtail boat to West Railay Beach. Railay is only accessible by boat due to the beautiful surrounding limestone cliffs. It is a spectacular sight. The area is heavily touristed by rock climbers, but attracts many for the scenery alone. We walked the beaches and admired the cliffs for a couple of hours before heading back to Ao Nang. We booked a kayak for the following day and explored the entire strip, finding sunglasses, dinner and internet. Jason is on his third pair of fake Oakley sunglasses in the past couple of months. :)

Our kayaking day was fantastic! For under $30, we rented a kayak for the day and paddled out to the popular "4 Islands". It took us a little over an hour to reach the first island. The ocean was fairly calm when we started, but the waves gradually became bigger as the day wore on. We stopped on a few white-sand beaches, and paddled along the shore line of each of the bigger islands. Limestone cliffs jutted straight out of the water, warn away at the waterline for some exciting paddling. We really enjoyed our day. Being in the sun on the water all day, we both managed to gain some pretty decent tans/burns. Our shoulders are a deep shade of red... We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet at Bernie's and doused ourselves in aloe. We spent the following day relaxing in Ao Nang, nurturing our sun burns.

Our adventure to Ko Phi Phi was something else. First, we were picked up by a bus that shuttled us to the Ao Nang Pier. Unexpectedly to us, we then had to board a long boat which took us out to the actual ferry to Ko Phi Phi. The boat filled up with people and then we proceeded to pick up even more people at Railay. It was so crammed full that people were sitting on the edge of the boat with their feet dangling. Ko Phi Phi is said to be one of the most beautiful islands of the world. It was nice, but definitely heavily touristed and really not that much nicer than the incredible Railay on the mainland. We walked through the little town and relaxed on the northern beach for lunch. It probably would have been nice to kayak around the island to get away from the people, but after a couple of hours, we boarded a ferry to Phuket.

Phuket is really nothing to write home about... It's the tourism capital of Thailand and is therefore over-touristy. The beaches were decent, but certainly no nicer than the Krabi area. We were glad to have spent our extra day in Ao Nang. We spent one night in Phuket, visited Kata Beach the next day, and then took a 13-hour overnight bus ride back to Bangkok. We splurged on a nice VIP bus with big seats and it was still way cheaper than a flight. We managed to catch a bus from the bus station to the airport with 5 hours to spare. Luckily, we found some free internet in the airport so that we can post this blog. We'll be in Singapore and Malaysia for the next week before heading to the Maldives! Woo hoo!

Pics: Bangkok | Khao Sok | Ko Pha Ngan | Around Krabi | Ko Phi Phi & Phuket

Friday, January 18, 2008

Adventures in Cambodia

In the past 5 days, we've felt many emotions; frustration to sorrow to awe. Our flights to Cambodia were certainly frustrating. We had two scheduled Air Asia flights to get from Chiang Mai to Bangkok then Bangkok to Phnom Penh, but they were two separate flights with no connecting baggage. Our first flight was delayed by about an hour and a half. Therefore, on arrival in Bangkok, we had less than an hour to catch our next flight. We waited for our baggage for 20 minutes but it seemed it wasn't coming. We ran to check in to our next flight and told them our situation. They told us our baggage would have to be flown to Phnom Penh on Air Asia's next flight the following morning. We were able to jump the line at immigration then we ran across half the airport to our departure gate only to discover that our flight was now delayed! We plead with the airline staff to attempt getting our bags onto the delayed flight but they didn't think that there was enough time. After a half hour of waiting at the gate, we were all put on to shuttle buses and then we proceeded to wait another half our on the tarmac! We finally boarded our flight, which turned out to be an hour and a half late also. VERY frustrating. On arrival in Phnom Penh, Jason's name was announced over the PA and they informed us that our bags had actually made it aboard! Yay! So it all worked out, but with much frustration. In our opinions, don't fly Air Asia unless you have lots of time to spare.

To add to it, we knowingly had to pay $20US for a Cambodian visa and we assumed we could pay in Thai, but they charged 1000 Baht which is more like $33US!! Grrrr... Brutal. As evening fell, we taxied into the city to the Okay Guesthouse (recommended by Hester) and were very lucky to get 2 of their last dorm beds. Everything balanced out. We walked up the river to a touristy bar area where we went on the internet then had a drink. The weather continues to be great for us.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is still very poor and is residually recovering from the genocide by the Khmer Rouge back in the late 70's. In the morning, we walked to the Tong Sleng Museum. The museum is itself the site of the largest security detention facility of the Khmer Rouge. Before the Khmer Rouge took it over, it was a high school. Some classrooms were used for torture. They built brick walls in others to separate the rooms into numerous individual cells. The museum is fairly well done, showing many photos and paintings of the torture that took place as well as individual photos of most of the detainees. Almost everyone that was sent to this facility was killed. By the time the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, around 2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia's population, had been killed. Horrible. Cambodia has been the first place that we have visited that we have felt a big urge to give. The people here are so friendly yet they suffer from such terrible poverty. Some sleep in hammocks held up by street lamps along the road and most are self educated, yet they are proud of their ancient past and everyone looks to the future.

We took a tuk-tuk back to the riverside and ate lunch before spending a couple of hours on the grounds of the Royal Palace. The grounds were filled with beautiful buildings, gateways and spires. We moved to an air conditioned room and spent the evening relaxing.

We got up at 6:15am to catch a 6-hour 7:45 bus to Siem Reap, only to be told at 7 that the bus was here to take us to the bus station! Nobody had told us that we had to leave the hostel at 7, so we didn't have time for breakfast... grrr... We were able to get something at the bus station and the bus left shortly after 8. Almost half way there, the bus got a flight tire! It's a good job that the bus had a spare.

Then about an hour away from Siem Reap, the bus accidentally hit a scooter with a mother and three kids on it! The mother was mortified, her daughters were badly scraped up and her son looked to have a nasty gash on his head. We are not sure how bad it was, but he definitely needed a hospital. They all got taken away on other scooters. Very sad and many of the foreign tourists on board with us were well shaken up. The bus driver took off and ran away, we assume to avoid harassment from the villagers. Someone else drove the bus to the local police station and we waited there for over an hour for another bus to take us the rest of the way.

When we finally arrived in Siem Reap, our pre-arranged tuk-tuk to the Yellow Guesthouse was still waiting for us. We had only bought chips for the bus ride, assuming we'd be in Siem Reap for a late lunch, so we were very hungry. :) We watched a documentary about Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (the reason for our visit to Siem Reap) and then watched a movie called The Killing Fields, a story of a reporter and a local Cambodian at the time of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Both were quite informative.

We arranged for an all-day tuk-tuk and driver to see the Temples of Angkor. At 5am, we hopped aboard and got there for sunrise. Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious building. The sunrise wasn't particularly spectacular, but the clouds still lit up fairly nicely for a brief time. We saved exploration for later and carried on to Angkor Thom and the other sites. It felt very similar to when we were exploring Chichen Itza in Mexico. Incredible ruins all over the place, all beautifully sculpted. Many of the sites were built over 700 years ago and had since been covered by jungle until Europeans "discovered" them in the early 20th century. The history of the restoration process is almost as interesting as the history of the initial creation. Cambodia's recent history has made the restoration process quite difficult. For instance, back in the 70s archeologists carefully labeled and documented pieces of buildings that they had disassembled for complete restoration. However, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all documentation and for the past 30 years the restoration has been like putting together a huge three dimensional puzzle. Crazy! Many of the sites have been purposefully half restored to allow the jungle to remain entangled around many of the walls and structures. It makes for some pretty awesome photos :)
By the time we were done exploring all of Angkor our driver was relieved to head home and so were we. We spent the evening relaxing after an early dinner and enjoyed reviewing our 402 pictures. Don't worry, we didn't post them all!

We flew back to Bangkok this afternoon and found a hotel in the touristy Khao San Road area. There's more tourists here than Thai but we're strangely happy to be back in a familiar city. Tomorrow we plan to tour some areas we didn't have a chance to see the first time we were here and we already have our train tickets in hand for our overnight train tomorrow to Surat Thani in the South.

We hope everyone's doing well and we'd really like to hear from you :)

Phnom Penh Pics | Siem Reap & Angkor Pics

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thailand's Northern Half

We've spent little time on the internet the past week and a half, internet cafes are still reasonably abundant, but wireless connections (our preference) are much fewer. In fact, it has meant that we've spent more of our free time relaxing and reading, which has been quite nice. We are really enjoying Thailand so far.

Since our flight from Hong Kong, we have travelled a fair distance around northern Thailand. We spent our first full day in the capital city of Bangkok. Our nice hostel was on the east side of the city, but had easy access to the city's SkyRail, an above ground rail system. We changed some flight dates at the American Airlines office in the morning then took a boat ride up Bangkok's Chao Phraya River and visited the Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew temples in the afternoon. Wat Pho houses Thailand's largest reclining Buddha, but the temple grounds were more impressive, including many buildings and spires in beautiful Thai architecture. Wat Phra Kaew's architecture is also beautiful and it houses a small emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace (former King's residence) was unfortunately closed for 10 days of grieving as the King's sister died on the 2nd of January. Speaking of the King, Thailand's government is similar to that of England, so the King is basically just a figurehead. We guess he has been quite a good king because there are posters of him with banners saying "Long Live The King" around almost every corner all over Thailand. It's quite amazing yet amusing because he really looks quite nerdy. :)

We decided to get out of the city right away and took a bus the next day 3 hours west to the city of Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi is famous for the Japanese POW camp during World War II while Japan occupied much of southeast Asia. Not as famous to Canadians (we hadn't heard of it) since the Allies were mostly Australian, British and American. There is a movie called "Return From The River Kwai", which helped make it more famous (we watched it while here). We didn't book a hostel and our first and second choice places turned out to be sold out. After a hot and tiring walk, we found a place on the river that was really nice with big air conditioned rooms so we splurged on $30/night. It's so much cheaper here, it's nice to splurge and still be paying a great rate. We stayed two nights and decided to take a day tour of the area. The morning was spent hiking through forest up the 7-tiered Erawan Falls. We even had a run-in with a family of monkeys! In the afternoon, we went for a short train ride on a stretch of the Death Railway that was originally built by POWs and we finished the day at the bridge of the River Kwai. It was a quite enjoyable day.

We caught a bus further west to the town of Sangkhlaburi near the border of Myanmar (Burma). The last hour of the 5-hour journey was pretty windy through hills and along a large lake. We stayed at a beautiful yet still cheap place on the north edge of the lake called the PGuesthouse. Our room was in one of many nice stone and mortar semi-detached cabins and the on-site restaurant had a great view over the lake. We stayed here for 3 nights, spending our first day relaxing and reading. They even had nice wood-strip canoes so we rented one for an hour to get a better view of a nearby pagoda and to paddle under the town's extremely long wooden bridge. We even swam in the lake a couple of times but it was almost too warm to actually be refreshing and it smelt a little fishy. The next day, we took a public transport pickup truck to Three Pagodas Pass right on the Myanmar border. It was possible to spend $10US to cross the border for a day, but it was only for a small touristy village that didn't look any different than Thailand so we decided to just put our feet through the fence to say that'd been to Myanmar. :)

The only other foreigner on our bus to Sangkhlaburi was a Dutch girl named Hester who we spent the majority of our spare time with while in Sangkhlaburi. We also travelled with her to Ayuthaya on a series of buses that took us the entire day through Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi. We again both stayed at the same hostel and the room cost us the equivalent of under $3 each. Unbelievable! Our rooms were next to the loud street though and Jason didn't end up sleeping all that well. Ayuthaya was Thailand's former capital before the Burmese sacked it back in the 1700s so the city is chock-full of ruins. We spent the morning walking around the inner city to the more popular sights and spent most of the afternoon on the internet out of the heat. We enjoyed dinners with Hester at the night market.

That evening, we parted ways with Hester and hopped on an overnight bus to Chiang Mai in the very north of Thailand. We opted for one of the cheaper charters instead of the government buses or trains since the stations for those were inconveniently outside the city. We managed to arrive in Chiang Mai safely nonetheless, despite being forced to take their arranged transfer vehicles into the city core to the guesthouse of their choosing. We came prepared assuming that would happen and found our way to our desired hostel. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last remaining rooms at the Julie Guesthouse, again under $3 each and we even had an ensuite bathroom. Once checked in, we decided on our 3-day itinerary and then spent the rest of the day walking around the city. The old core has a moat all the way around it with remnants of the old city wall here and there. We wanted to visit the Doi Suthep temple but the pickup truck buses to it only ran once full and there was no one else going... So we carried on to the market streets on the east side of town and Nicole bought a couple of cool clothing items. Went to bed early and finally got a good night's sleep.

At 9:30am, we were picked up by "The Best Thai Cookery School" and taken to the market for a crash course on Thai ingredients. Then we were taken to the school (the chef's house) and proceeded to learn how to cook several Thai dishes. All were delicious! It was quite a fun day and we even got to take home a cookbook. We're looking forward to trying our recipes out at home!
Today, we were picked up at 8:30am and herded into a minibus. First, we stopped at an orchid farm which was quite pretty and Nicole enjoyed taking lots of colourful photos. Then we stopped at a hilltribe village, seemingly manufactured, but nice nonetheless. The main attraction was the Long Neck tribe. They are a tribe that originated in Burma and flied to Thailand during the war. They put coils around their necks from an early age, gradually increasing the coil size to extend their neck. Apparently, they wear them as armour against tiger attacks, the women are said to be more attractive because of them, as well as several other reasons. Quite interesting. From there, we went to an elephant camp for lunch and we waited to go on a 3-hour trek while other travellers went on elephant rides. As it turned out, 2 other people in our group were taken on our trek by accident so we were left waiting for almost an hour before they figured out that they screwed up... Eventually, we were on our trek, just the two of us with a guide. It was a beautiful walk in the hills, through one tribe village, and finishing at a small 2-tier waterfall. We spent the evening on the internet at Starbucks and we fly to Cambodia tomorrow via Bangkok. Good times :)

Pics: Bangkok | Kanchanaburi | Sangkhlaburi | Ayuthaya | Chiang Mai

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hong Kong & Macau

Happy New Year!
We hope that everyone had a joyous New Year's Eve experience! Ours was a little lacking, but interesting nonetheless. Here, they celebrate New Year's Eve in a similar fashion as they celebrate Christmas Eve. They closed down the streets and again, thousands of people stood around waiting for something to happen. Once in a while, people would cheer as someone let balloons into the air, helping to ruin the environment. Approximately 15 minutes before midnight, the light show began. It was very similar to the light show that they have every day at 8pm, except they added a few fireworks as well. The finale at midnight included some cool fireworks shooting out from the sides of the Two IFC building (tallest building in HK) for about 2 minutes and then the show was over. There was no coherent countdown or anything that the crowd could join together in. Jason was hoping for something more along the lines of what he saw in Sydney, but there was no comparison. We returned to our hostel and watched the hordes of people making their way back to the subway. Pretty crazy.

The rest of our week following Christmas has been good. We spent Boxing Day relaxing and catching up with things on the internet and returned to the Temple Street market to do some Boxing Day shopping. :) The next day, we bused down to the south side of Hong Kong Island to find beautiful beaches. We went to the town of Stanley to check out the Stanley Market and relaxed on the beach at Repulse Bay. The beach was fairly nice, but it was the surrounding green mountains and classy hotels that made it amazing. The sun was low in the sky and it glistened in the water. It turned out to be a little too chilly to swim or sunbathe though, instead we walked around a peninsula to Deep Water Bay where we found an even nicer beach and we stayed to watch the sun set below mountains on the southern islands before returning to Kowloon.

The following morning we moved a couple of buildings south, from the Cosmic Guesthouse in the Mirador Mansion to Li's Hostel in the Chungking Mansion, still in Kowloon. They gave us a room right away and we set out for a day walking around downtown Hong Kong. We started with the Li Yuen Street markets then we rode up the longest series of escalators in the world. We stopped for lunch half way up at a Mexican restaurant. From the top of the escalator, we walked back down through the HK Zoological and Botanical Garden, which houses many birds and animals. It was a really nice park within view of the downtown skyscrapers of Hong Kong. We carried on down past the base of the Victoria Peak Tram to St. John's Cathedral, the oldest English cathedral in Hong Kong. The old church is nestled in the city with new skyscrapers towering around. We walked back to the harbourside and ventured up the Two IFC building. Unfortunately, they only allow you up to the 55th floor where there is a minimal view towards Victoria peak and the west. This was the best we could do in the 415m, 88-floor high structure.

After our first night in the new hostel, Nicole woke with some bed bug bites... We had a full day in Macau planned so we left without investigation. We walked to the China Ferry Docks and took the hour and 15 minute catamaran to Macau. Once there we took a bus to Taipa Village on Macau's south island. Taipa is a small city now but the old Portuguese village of narrow streets are filled with lots of shops and restaurants. We had lunch in a small Portuguese restaurant that was recommended by the Lonely Planet. Jason really enjoyed his stuffed pork loin and Nicole enjoyed her codfish fried rice. Yummy! After, we took the bus back to the main Macau peninsula, took some pictures of the new big casinos, then walked up the downtown pedestrian streets to St Dominic's Church and the ruins of St Paul's Church. The pedestrian street was very European and had a great atmosphere. We walked up to the fort next to the ruins of St Paul's Church and continued our walk all the way back to the ferry dock through many of the small downtown streets. We really enjoyed Macau.

That evening, Nicole investigated our bed bug problem. After much searching, she noticed one in a crack of our headboard. We told the hostel owner and he told us that he could move us the next day. Upon looking more, we found MANY more all around and behind the headboard... We used our packing tape to seal up all of the cracks but we figured that there were more in the bed... Nicole covered herself up with clothes and we went to bed. Turns out that they still got Nicole's face and hands and Jason's shoulder in the night. We can only hope that they haven't spread into our bags... They moved us to a new room with a window that was nicer so that they could spray the room and clean the mattress as best they could.

We didn't accomplish much that day, but in the evening we got in contact with Nicole's second cousin, Simon, and we met him for dinner. We had an awesome dinner at a Mongolian grill restaurant called Nomads where we could choose our own ingredients for the chefs to cook. Jason was especially pleased with his concoction. :) After dinner, we joined Simon and his friends for a few beers in the Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai bar areas. A friend of Simon's from Canada lives near Midland and we had a great time chatting about home. It was a fun night. Thanks Simon :)
On New Year's Eve day, we took the ferry to Lantau Island and a bus up to the largest bronze sitting Buddha in the world. Not only was the Buddha well maintained, but it was situated on a high point on the island and the views at the surrounding mountains were incredible. It was a very enjoyable sight. From there, a brand new gondola took us on a 30 minute trip back down the mountains northward to the city of Tung Chung where we were able to take the subway all the way back to the hostel.

Today we've just been relaxing and planning for tomorrow's trip to Bangkok. Nicole's paranoid about the bed bugs and we're both excited to move on to somewhere new and warmer.

Hong Kong Pics
| Macau Pics