South East Asia

Cambodia and Laos border crossing and 4000 Islands adventure

The route we decided on had us heading north to Laos from Phenom Penh. We had received some sound advice to stop in Kratie to break up the long bus ride to the border, so that is what we did. We didn’t arrive in Kratie until after dark, so we essentially used it as a hub city and didn’t do much exploring. From what we did see, it seemed like a pretty sleepy town that didn’t have too much going on. You could take a river tour on the Mekong and look for Irrawaddy dolphins, but you can also do that in Laos, which is where we were headed.

After reading about the border crossing and talking to a couple of tourist offices and hotels, we decided to book the combined, mini van, bus, bus, and boat ticket to 4000 islands in Laos. The border between Cambodia and Laos is apparently very sleepy and not many buses or taxis are waiting on either side. So, if you don’t do a combined bus ticket, then you might not have a ride. This is one of those moments where Dave and I know we don’t want to do the tourist bus border crossing-any organized border crossing can be riddled with scams-but don’t really have any other options, so we go for it.

Well, the mini van, which took two hours, was late to arrive at the bus drop off. This was because they were waiting to fill the van, and by fill, they mean add an extra person to every row. This means 4 people sit where 3 people should actually be sitting…aka luxury travel. This delay made the bus driver annoyed with all of us because he had to wait. Thankfully this ride to the border was short and there was plenty of space for everyone.

On the way to the border the bus worker was asking everyone if he could have their passports and the money needed to get a visa for Laos. He explained that if he got all of the visas and stamps, versus each of us individually, it would go much faster. Right away buzzers went off in our heads that this was definitely a scam. At about the same time, another traveler from China also had the same feelings. The bus worker was telling us that it would cost a US citizen $45 for a visa. We are usually pretty good about knowing what it would cost, but our book only had a range of what it could be based on your nationality. We also knew there would be some miscellaneous fees they would charge for stamping just to get more money out of us. So all in all, we didn’t really know if it was $45 or less.

We, of course, asked many questions to see if this was a scam and if the guy doing it got any money out of it. He repeatedly told us it wasn’t a scam and this is how much it will cost and assured us that we could ask anyone at the border and if it was different he would give us back the money. We asked many times if we could just do it by ourselves. He implied that if we did it ourselves that it would take too long and the bus wouldn’t wait for us on the other side. When we enter a new country we have no idea what they would or wouldn’t do in regards to leaving behind tourists. So Dave, Jen, our Chinese friend, and I all agreed to give him money and if the price was different we’d get any extra money back.

Once we reached the border, the bus worker headed off with all of our passports and visas. Both Dave and our new Chinese friend wanted to follow him and ask the workers how much it was, but the bus worker was adamant that if they did that, it would cost more and go slower.  They were only allowed to ask the fellow tourists on the bus, which were obviously getting charged the same as us. Dave and our Chinese friend were just as adamant about finding out the true cost and not getting scammed out of money. They had followed him and asked him at every check point how much everything was and eventually broke him down to the point where he said “alright, I get $1 from the cut” but when they did the math he was actually get $5 from every person. That is a lot of money for someone living in Laos and for people traveling on a budget. They had pestered and harassed him enough so he finally gave them their money back, but Dave was concerned he was going to tell the bus driver to leave with out us. Turns out, he wasn’t even coming with us on the bus to 4000 islands and his threat of the bus leaving was completely made up. Thanks to the insistent Dave and our Chinese friend, the four of us didn’t lose $4 and we made it to Don Khone no problem.

One of the many knock off Oreos we tried. Still Stereos are not as good as Oreos.

One of the many knock off Oreos we tried. Still Stereos are not as good as Oreos.

Dave and our Chinese friend fighting to keep our money.

Dave and our Chinese friend fighting to keep our money.

Final boat ride to Don Khone.

Final boat ride to Don Khone.

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One of the main reason for coming to Don Khone was for the Irrawaddy river dolphins. The book recommended we see them either early in the morning or late afternoon. We had decided to check them out early in the morning. The boat launch was a good 4 km (2.5 miles) away from our hotel. This was too far to walk, so we decided to rent bicycles the night before and ride them early the next morning.

We went for an evening stroll to test out the bikes and remind our bodies of our cycling skills. Our little stroll provided both beautiful scenery of the Island and an awesome sunset.

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Our first of Beer Lao.

Our first of Beer Lao.

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The next morning we headed out early so we could see the dolphins when they are most active. About 3/4 of the way there we hear a loud bang noise. Both Dave and I turned around and see Jen slowing down with a popped tired. We knew we were closer to our destination than where we came from, so we tried different tactics to get the three of us to the boat landing. Jen took Dave’s bike and Dave and I tried to ride on the bike together and hold the one with the flat tire at the same time. We’ve seen many, many people ride two people to a bicycle and hold crazy things, so it would be easy. Yeah right! We had a really hard time trying to balance just the two of us on the bike and then we had a bicycle that didn’t roll very easily on the side. We tried for about 5 minutes and gave up. Dave just started running with the bike next to him. Thankfully we were only a 2 min. jog away. We found a boat captain and headed on the river and would deal with the tire after.

Amazingly enough, we got to see some dolphins. There was one or two that were active that morning. It was very hard to catch them on camera, but we got one good shot and one ok shot. They are very quick and camera shy.

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The best shot we have of the dolphins. They have short noses, not long like the common dolphins we're used to seeing.

The best shot we have of the dolphins. They have short noses, not long like the common dolphins we’re used to seeing.

Just barely got a snap shot of one here.

Just barely got a snap shot of one here.

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After the dolphin viewing we found a person that was willing to look at and repair Jen’s flat tire while we ate breakfast. He got a new inner tube put in pretty quickly and then started to pump up the tire.. In the process of pumping up the tire, we hear another loud bang and a very surprised bike repairman. After further inspection, he found a huge slice in the tire, which had caused the two popped tires. After some quick engineering skills with the old inner tube he gave us back a bike that could hold air. We checked on the fix the whole way back to our hotel. At one point the fix had come off but the tire stayed inflated. So we had to do a quick repair to the temporary fix of the tire. Thankfully the bike made it to both the waterfall we wanted to see that was on the way back and to the hotel without a third flat tire. Phew.

Laos has really good coffee (or so Dave says) and they serve it with condensed sweetened milk at the bottom.

Laos has really good coffee (or so Dave says) and they serve it with condensed sweetened milk at the bottom.

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Doh.

Doh.

Temporary fix by our friendly bike repairman.

Temporary fix by our friendly bike repairman.

Fixing the temporary fix.

Fixing the temporary fix.

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This was suppose to be the beach where we could swim...just not in the dry season.

This was suppose to be the beach where we could swim…just not in the dry season.

Jen tried to negotiate with the bicycle owner since she paid the repairman herself. Of course he didn’t want to pay because he said it was her fault the tire had a slice in it. There was a very heated argument for well over 15 minutes that included the gentleman, his wife (who didn’t speak English), and Jen. They reluctantly agreed to splitting the repair cost with both parties feeling screwed. Over all it was a fun day filled with adventure. It would be less memorable if things had gone smoothly.

One last fun thing to mention was Jen convinced the sweet older lady we rented rooms from to give us a cooking class. The lady didn’t speak much english, but thankfully she spoke French and there were some French people who translated for us.

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And lastly, they had A LOT of bugs come out at night. We walked through clouds of bugs at times. Strange.

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Categories: Nature, Outdoors, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We only spent a few short days sightseeing in the bustling city of Phnom Penh—the capital of Cambodia. Since leaving Thailand and entering Cambodia the pace of travel picked up quite a bit compared to all the traveling that preceded. Our return flight to the U.S. (already booked) and the consequent end of the trip was only about one month and a week away by the time we left Phnom Penh. Due to the short time left and the amount of ground left to cover, a faster pace was required, as well as being a little more selective about where to visit and for how long. Aside from the little sightseeing we did, we also said farewell to one more of our fellow travelers (Paul), while another (Jen) decided to continue traveling with Sarah and I through the rest of Southeast Asia.

Phnom Penh has a long and rich history as one of Southeast Asia’s cultural and political centers. Though, much of what travelers experience during their time there, as we did, is the relatively recent and dark history revolving around the horrible atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the ruling political party of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 led by then leader Pol Pot. The leaders of the party were responsible for the mass murder and forced labor of millions of Cambodians. For more on the Khmer Rouge check out this Wikipedia page.

Most people typically visit two Khmer Rouge sites, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. Our friend George (Nepal trekking partner) visited the sites before us and suggested we visit both in one day in order to avoid prolonging the depressing experience. We chose to visit only one, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison to house and torture alleged political enemies. The buildings were full of classrooms converted to small prison cells and some larger rooms used for torturing. There were exhibits describing some of the atrocities committed and photos of the victims. It was a somber and eye opening experience. We watched a short film at the beginning describing the history of the Khmer Rouge and the prison.

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Instead of visiting The Killing Fields we chose to spend a couple hours walking around the Royal Palace. The palace sits about 100 meters from the edge of the mighty Mekong river and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Of the palaces we’ve seen throughout our trip it’s in better condition than most. While we were there they were in the process of rehabilitating one of the buildings. The guidebook emphasized something called the Silver Padoda. We searched the entire palace complex looking for the pagoda and couldn’t find it. I mean how hard could it be to spot a silver pagoda, right? Well, it turns out that the name “Silver Pagoda” comes from the fact that a small portion of the floor inside of the pagoda is covered in silver tiles. So the pagoda itself isn’t made of silver. Too bad.

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Though Phnom Penh was a whirlwind experience it was still a memorable one. The history of the Khmer Rouge sticks with me the most. If we visited Phnom Penh again I’m not sure we’d spend anymore time than we did. Two full days seems like plenty.

Categories: South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Floating Village Homestay in Kampong Luang

After a couple of long, interesting days, hilariously described by our guest blogger Paul, we finally arrived at the floating village and our home away from home.

The floating village is located on the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in south east Asia with a few unique characteristics to it. The first being that it changes the direction it flows twice a year with the rainy and dry seasons. During the dry season, the lake is more like the typical lakes we have back home and runs into the Mekong River. But, during the rainy season, there is so much water that it backs up, floods, and forms one very large lake. The difference in water level from dry to rainy can be as drastic as 3 ft during the dry and 30 ft during the rainy, with an increase of over 4 times the surface area of water.

Because of this huge change in water volume and surface area for the lake, the village that we decided to stay in, Kampong Luang, actually moves locations throughout the year. As it gets drier, it moves farther out into the lake and as the lake rises it moves back closer to land.

When we were there, it was the very start of the rainy season so the lake was pretty low and the village was farther out then it is during the full rainy season. But, that being said we got there no problem.

When we arrived, we took a boat out to a floating house and were welcomed by a young mother and her adorable baby. Her and her husband (the boat driver) have been doing homestays for only a couple of months now. It was a two bedroom house, with a small hallway and back area for cooking. There was another area they had for the TV (yes, TV on a floating house), and a folding table set for eating and lounging. Since there was four of us and only one extra bedroom we were a little unsure of where we would all sleep. Turns out that the TV and eating area also can be a location where people can sleep.

Heading to the homestay.

Heading to the homestay.

Our new home for the night.

Our new home for the night.

Dave lounging in one of the many hammocks.

Dave lounging in one of the many hammocks.

Jen in the TV and eating room.

Jen in the TV and eating room.

Out host and her daughter.

Out host and her daughter.

The hall that leads to the bedrooms, kitchen, and bathroom.

The hall that leads to the bedrooms, kitchen, and bathroom.

Bedroom Jen and Paul stayed in.

Bedroom Jen and Paul stayed in.

Part of the kicthen

Part of the kicthen

Bedroom where our hosts stayed.

Bedroom where our hosts stayed.

The rest of the kitchen.

The rest of the kitchen.

Our neighbors had a monkey chained to their floating house. Not sure why...

Our neighbors had a monkey chained to their floating house. Not sure why…

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View from the hammock

View from the hammock

View from the homestay house.

View from the homestay house.

Since our day was so long and we didn’t have any place to eat lunch, we asked our host if she could make us lunch, it was 2:30 pm. She was very accommodating and had a fish delivered by boat and started cooking for us. This gave us ample time to hang out with her sweet baby girl. An hour or so later, the food was done and it was delicious. I’m not a fan of fish, but I tried it and it was ok, but everything else was perfect.

She's a cutie!

She’s a cutie!

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Our yummy lunch.

Our yummy lunch.

After the meal, the husband came back and took us out on a tour of the village. Kampong Luang is the largest floating village in Cambodia and also has all of the necessary shops so that you don’t need to leave the village to get what you need. This includes a church, school, mechanic, convenient stores, a temples, ice making factories, and so on. It was a nice break from sitting in the house. We didn’t realize this until we were there, there is no leaving the house once you’re on it since all around you is water.

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Cleaning the parts right into the water. Standard procedure.

Cleaning the parts right into the water. Standard procedure.

Crushing ice.

Crushing ice.

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These kids were using the plastic jug to slide on the boat.

These kids were using the plastic jug to slide on the boat.

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Gas.

Gas.

School and church.

School and church.

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Mobile shopping.

Mobile shopping.

Temple.

Temple.

Once back at the house we were able to watch the beautiful sunset over the village houses.  When the sun goes down, the generators come on and power all of the houses and TVs. It was somewhat peaceful before this. We still had the loud motors from the boats, but no TV. Our host family turned on the TV once the power came on and left it running even when they were not watching it. It was loud and not very peaceful, oh well. Full experience right?

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They fed us once more around 7 pm and then started to close up the house and set up for bed. Jen and Paul were in the spare bedroom under a bug net with a rather thin foam mattress. Dave and I opted for hammocks rather than the bamboo mat, which offers no cushion what-so-ever. Thankfully all of us were exhausted from the long journey so falling asleep at 7:30-8ish was no problem for us.

The next morning we were woken up at 5:30 am from the house doors opening, loud motors driving by, and all the other noises the village produced. We opted not to have breakfast and to be taken back to the shore at around 7 am. From there we headed back to the main town to catch a bus to Phnom Penh.

It was a fun experience for us all. It was a pretty short amount of time to visit the floating village. Anymore and you would have just been stuck on the boat longer. I’m glad we did it.

Categories: Cities, Outdoors, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Perspiration Road–Pursat, Cambodia

Below is the posting from our final guest blogger Paul.

The four of us hopped on a bus from Siem Reap to Pursat and welcomed the air-con but not so much the 3 hour Cambodian music video. Epic it was. And when it was finally over, they played it again. I found it to be an exercise in patience, much like the entire 3 weeks I spent in the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. Upon our arrival in Pursat the tuk-tuk drivers spotted us from outside and started waving their arms whilst running alongside the moving bus. It would have been unsettling if they hadn’t, as this is standard procedure. Lets face it, as non-Asians, we stick way out in a crowd. Our plan was to spend the night in Pursat, ride the bamboo train in the morning, and head to a floating village about 70 km away where we would partake in a home-stay.

So the one tuk tuk driver that spoke English approached us and stuck to us like a stray cat you just fed a can of quality tuna. It was off-putting, which was unfortunate, because he knew what we wanted to do, made a plan for us that sounded reasonable, but was too expensive. So we all ignored him as best we could and found a guesthouse across the street to drop our bags, wash up, and explore the town in search of eats. We eventually stumbled upon a real, rural Cambodian street market complete with wriggling fish, baskets of live bugs, pig heads, and water buffalo roaming the streets. It tickled and slapped all of the senses.

Naturally the air was already thick with moisture to which every scent seemed to hang on, from scooter exhaust, sea creatures, fried stick-meat and durian,to sweaty bodies, rotting garbage and a lingering putrescence reminiscent of stinky feet and dirty biscuit* (*word substitution by blog administrators). Or vice versa.  Ironically enough we were all quite hungry, but understandably skeptical. Enter Willia. Yes, Willia. A 25 year old Brooklyn girl who was born in Haiti and working with the Peace Corp in Pursat to bring health awareness to the people. She even spoke Cambodian and hooked us up with a noodle stand and ordered for us. A stroke of good fortune. She offered to show us around a little so we took her up on her offer and started walking towards a giant barge that was cemented into place in the river and turned into a park. Neat.

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Group with our new friend Willia.

Group with our new friend Willia.

We were walking on the sidewalk and Willia was walking her bike next to us on the street when suddenly two guys on a scooter clipped her handle bar, lost control of the scooter and did a face plant at 20 mph. We all just stood there slightly in shock, and puzzled. Naturally they had no helmets on, so when the driver finally peeled his face off the street and stood up, he looked just like he did a face plant in the street at 20 mph on a moped. It was ugly. Willia tried talking to him and slowly came to the realization that they were very drunk. That explained it. They picked up the bike, and the passenger, who was not hurt, drove the two of them away, and we walked to the park. Those are not the droids you are looking for. At the barge park I picked up on Willia’s dazed vibe and suggested we all call it a day and head back to our spaces. We had a big day ahead of us and a strange day behind us.

Floating barge.

Barge Park

Jen was able to grab a photo of the drunken scooter drivers as they drove off.

Jen was able to grab a photo of the drunken scooter drivers as they drove off. You can see blood on at the bottom of the passengers pant leg.

The next morning Sarah and Dave got up a bit earlier than Jen and I, shrugged off the stray cat/tuk tuk driver (yes, he was persistent) and sat down for their fried rice breakfast. Jen and I followed suit but my breakfast never came. Lost in translation I suppose, or severe lack thereof. But at least we had a view of some nature, in the form of dogs having sex next to our table. And yes, it was. Doggy style. From there we managed to get a tuk tuk to take the four of us to the bamboo train.

It sounds leagues more interesting than it is. Not even bamboo, but I guess no one would be intrigued if it were called a pallet train now would we. None the less (a phrase I don’t really understand) we got on the slatted wood platform with our bags and headed down the tracks toward what we thought would get us to some transportation to Krakor, the town nearest the floating village of Kampong Luang. The “train” was powered by what closely resembled a lawn mower engine with a fan belt running off a pulley from the crankshaft to a pulley on the axle of the drive wheels. The engine was loose and held in place both by the operator sitting on it and a stick. To get it to move he just took the slack out of the belt by tilting the engine. And there was a stick for braking as well, which we had to do in order to remove the train from the tracks everytime we met a train traveling in the opposite direction. The other trains were loaded with construction grade wood 5 feet high and then 8 to 10 people and their cargo on top. After 3 or 4 of these episodes we got dumped off deep in the heart of a rural farming community.

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It was like planet of the Asians and Dave was Charlton Heston. We didn’t actually get wrangled up and forced into slavery, but it felt like we had gotten out of a spaceship on a strange planet that we would later find out was Earth after the apocalypse. We shortly drew a crowd as we walked down the dirt road with our gear, and umbrellas, sweating like things that sweat very heavily. The whole time clueless as to where we were, and in which direction to walk to get us closer to the floating village. Dave was stopping every person that went by who was operating anything with wheels and an engine in hopes to make a connection and score us a lift. After about an hour my hopes of staying hydrated long enough to get out of the situation started to wane. I must admit, I began to get seriously concerned for our welfare and suggested we go back to where we got dropped off and wait for another train to take us back to Pursat and jump on a bus.

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By that time Dave was able to communicate our need for a ride to a woman who wanted $100 to get us to the floating village. Although we weren’t sure if she knew where we wanted to go. It was vague at best so we all agreed to turn around and head back. When we did, she offered again for $50 but it was still vague and too much money so we kept going. A minute or so after we left, a woman offered to take Jen and her giant bag to the bamboo train stop on her scooter. So off went Jen and her bag. I turned to Dave and said “you know now that we’re split up we will find a ride”. It’s Murphy’s law and its real because 3 minutes down the road a guy comes walking up to us and says, in very clear English, “hi, can I help you guys?” I turned to Dave and said “see”.

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Categories: South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Our Phuket Villa, Andaman Sea Boat Trip and so much more!

Hello Everyone. This is Sarah’s cousin Jen from the West Coast (San Francisco). Sarah and Dave asked if wanted to be a guest blogger, so here goes, hope I don’t make a mess out of their masterpiece.

After our wonderful stay in Chiang Mai, the eight of us flew to Phuket on the Andaman Sea where our four-bedroom Villa, with distant views of the ocean and big buddha, sat high on a hill.  It seemed like everyone was super excited to spend a week all together in a big, clean house with AC, kitchen, large living room, infinity pool and with “almost” all of the other comforts of home. What’s with the beds in South East Asia?!?! Soooooooooooooooo hard.

Villa Infinity Pool

Villa Infinity Pool

When I told some friends and family that I would be going to Phuket, many asked, if that was where the Tsunami occurred. And the answer is yes, we went to the very same area, Kata Beach, which was hit very bad. That very large and terribly destructive Tsunami hit Phuket and Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 killing over 200,000 people. There is a good movie out now on DVD called, The Impossible, which highlights one Australian family’s experience on Phuket at the time the Tsunami struck.

Upon our Phuket arrival, the first thing we did was to go shopping since we had a full kitchen at the Villa. Our driver took us to a very expensive supermarket so we just bought the basics-whiskey, wine, beer, cheese and crackers, stuff for a BBQ and a couple of breakfasts. Shopping International supermarkets is both funny and frustrating. For example, I went to scout out eggs and thought I was loosing my mind trying to find them in the cold cases when they eventually turned up on the warm, dry shelves. Duh! After shopping, we piled into the van and arrived at the Villa.

After getting acquainted with the Villa, we made ourselves at home and enjoyed the beautiful infinity pool. Thailand was extremely hot, sweat poured out of most, so the daily retreat back to the Villa to swim was a joy for all. We decided to check out Kata Beach, so we made the trek down the very large hill and headed to the beach. That evening we had burgers and Mac-n-Cheese and enjoyed hanging out together at the Villa.

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Kata Beach

Kata Beach

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During our long walk to the beach, we had scoped out a few eateries and found a place called, The Red Chair, which quickly became our go-to-place for cheap, delicious Thai food. We couldn’t get enough of the Red Chair. Some of us even splurged and ordered at least two dishes at a time! It was that good. My mouth is watering just thinking of their Panang Curry. Other favorites included their Pad Thai, Fried Spring Rolls, Green Curry and Cashew Chicken.

The Red Chair Eatery

The Red Chair Eatery

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The next morning, we hired the Villa Chef to cook us breakfast, it wasn’t anything super fancy, but turned out to be a nice treat. After breakfast, we hiked down the big hill to the beach. The Andaman Sea is beautiful, but the water was super warm and didn’t provide the relief we’d all hoped for to escape the relentless Thailand heat. I rented a boogie board and most of us tested it out and had a great time boogie boarding and playing in the huge waves. Others hung out on the sand in lounge chairs and enjoyed festive coconut cocktails and such. Super fun day!

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That evening, we hung out at the Villa and ate, swam, danced and played cards. It was so nice to have a consistent place to stay where we could just hang out and do whatever anyone felt like doing.

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The next day we hung out at the Villa enjoying the pool. That evening, we went to the local night market in Phuket Town. The market was split into two areas, food and souvenir shopping. The food stalls were very interesting and offered many different selections. Those that wanted to souvenir shop found some really fun things to buy. We all got a kick out of Karen and Phil’s squawking rooster. And Abby and Jon found some great beach towels.

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After another fun night playing card games and drinking whiskey shots, we decided to plan for a boat trip through the Andaman Islands the next day. We woke up early and headed to the boat ramp for our day out at sea. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea. The boat trip turned out to be one of those factory-type-of-tours where they herd everyone around from island to island. But we made the best of it and still enjoyed seeing the beautiful islands and being entertained by Ms. Jennifer (not me), our Lady-Boy Sea host. Paul and myself had a VERY close call and actually showed up late to one of the island boat ramps to find everyone had already boarded the boat and shipped out! Luckily we had already made friends with Ms. Lady-Boy, so she graciously made the captain go back for us! Our punishment from Ms. Jennifer, a bum paddling for me and a big, wet kiss on the lips for Paul! She-He (I dunno) tricked Paul and got him good, the entire boat cracked up. Totally worth it. Ha!

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After the boat trip, I’m pretty sure we headed to the Red Chair or swam in the Villa infinity pool or vice-versa. Our days consisted of sleeping in, swimming, eating, drinking-rinse and repeat! And most of us got foot massages while Jonathan and Paul had full body massages. Paul even dared the fish spa, where tons of small little fish nibble on your feet to remove dead skin. Ewwwwww!

Phuket Massages

Phuket Massages

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And naturally, during our stay at the Villa, someone got sick. And that person was yours truly. Ugg, I’m not sure what the heck it was, but it hit me hard. I mean hard. The worst of it lasted a full 24 hours-severe stomach pains, diarrhea, hot then cold, cold then hot and brutal body pains. Luckily, I snapped out of it fully in a matter of two days. I am fortunate it happened at the Villa and that Paul was near to tend to my yuckiness! We missed out on the party night in Patong to see the famous “Ping-Pong” show, but the others went and had a good time.

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Our last night was spent eating at our beloved Red Chair eatery, swimming in the lovely infinity pool and sharing libations. I think it is safe to say, everyone enjoyed their time at the Villa and would do it all over again in a heart beat. Cheers!

The Red Chair

The Red Chair

Categories: Outdoors, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chiang Mai: Cooking, Eating, Temples and Temples and Temples

Chiang Mai was not only filled with elephant adventure, although, I think that was by far the most exciting thing we did, we did some other fun things as well.

The second night we were in Chiang Mai we decided to do a Thai cooking class. The whole family decided to do it and we were very excited. The place we decided on (and I think all the other places available) have you choose which dishes you want to cook. This means you personally cook all your meals for the whole night. Cool. This was different from our last cooking class, which we all cooked together and ate the same things.

The school we decided to go to.

The school we decided to go to.

All of the ingredients we would need for the night.

All of the ingredients we would need for the night.

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The ingredients for my chicken and coconut soup and my cashew nut stir fry.

The ingredients for my chicken and coconut soup and my cashew nut stir fry.

Now cook.

Now cook.

Frying up some veggies for spring rolls.

Frying up some veggies for spring rolls.

Making curry paste.

Making curry paste.

Making papaya salad

Making papaya salad

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This is how you break up oyster mushrooms.

This is how you break up oyster mushrooms.

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My egg roll shell spit open. I had to get a new one and repeat the process.

My egg roll shell spit open. I had to get a new one and repeat the process.

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Eating our food.

Eating our food.

Are they sitting like this because they are stuffed? or because they don't know how to sit on the floor?

Are they sitting like this because they are stuffed? or because they don’t know how to sit on the floor?

Our chef/instructor was a young Thai women who had just had a baby so was balancing teaching us and distracting us with her adorable child. All in all, she did a very good job with instructing all of us on our different dishes and helping us cook yummy Thai food. I personally made spring rolls, chicken cashew nut stir fry, chicken and coconut soup, and massaman curry. Others made pad thai, mango and sticky rice, green curry, red curry and papaya salad. The best news was that we got a recipe book for all of the recipes whether you made them or not.

cashew nut and chicken coconut soup

cashew nut and chicken coconut soup

Spring roll

Spring roll

Massaman curry

Massaman curry

Every other moment in Chiang Mai was either seeing temples or cooling off in the pool. Almost two full days was filled with temples. With all of this, some people were templed out/exhausted from all the travel and decided on a more relaxing day of spa treatments and shopping. There are many temples in and around Chiang Mai and I’ve included pictures from three of the main ones that we visited.

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Fish Spa

Fish Spa

Foot massage.

Foot massage.

Chiang Mai is a very relaxed chill place and we were all a little sad to leave so soon. There are many other temples, shops, and eateries we could have seen if we stayed longer. But, we had flights to the south of Thailand and to beautiful beaches. Maybe we’ll return again to northern Thailand since we didn’t get to see all the joys it has to offer.

Categories: Cities, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Learning to be a Mahout!

Our very first guest blogger. I’ll let you figure out who it is through the post! Enjoy.

 

OK I can’t preface all of what led up to the elephants but if you’re reading this you know all about Sarah and Dave and their amazing travels around the globe. We all thought they had been having too much fun on their own so we decided to crash their world trip.
After a very early morning pick up from our respective guest houses, an impromptu stop at 7-11 for some supplies, and a scenic hour long van ride, we arrive at Baan Chang Elephant Park.
The first thing we did when we got there was change into our elephant uniforms. Wait, what? Uniforms?  Why can’t we just wear our regular clothes? Oh, what’s that, because elephant skin is like 200 grit sandpaper over concrete? OK yes thank you, large please. 
The group in uniform.

The group in uniform.

So we all get changed and excitedly bound over to become best friends with 25 rescued elephants… Hold on, pause, Aof has some important info and safety details first. That seems logical.  Our kick ass guide, Aof, gives us a brief run down on the ins and outs of interacting with elephants. Most of them are super friendly and love attention, but a few of them are uncomfortable with strangers, or nervous.. around… I can see them from here! What did Aof say? 
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Finally we get to go see them. They are huge and gentle and majestic. This is what I was most looking forward to doing for the entire trip. It’s all we’ve been able to think about for days and here I am, and I. Am. Terrified. WTF!? These things are enormous! OMG we are supposed to go up to them and feed them? For real?…Like, for real?  If one of them accidentally swings that 9 foot trunk at me, I’m done, lights out. Aaahh! That one almost touched me! Why didn’t I listen more closely to Aof?
Apparently the rest of my group didn’t seem to be plagued with the same unexpected anxieties. 5 minutes in and everyone else was feeding them banana bunches and bundles of sugar cane, posing for pictures, and getting kisses from a baby elephant. I was still strategically wandering around (just out of reach of any wayward swinging trunks) pretending to be satisfied just taking pictures. This went on for about 40 minutes until Jonathan realized I had yet to even touch one. He helped and a few minutes later I was giving one some bananas and sugar cane. I don’t know why I was so nervous!
Jonathan getting an elephant kiss.

Jonathan getting an elephant kiss.

Dave feeding the elephant sugar cane and bananas.

Dave feeding the elephant sugar cane and bananas.

After Elephant kisses.

After Elephant kisses.

During elephant kisses.

During elephant kisses.

Fast forward to Phase 2
After everyone had a chance to get acquainted and comfortable (sort of) we got our first try at practicing getting on and off of them and learning and giving the commands that we’d need for our trek through the jungle. Luckily my anxiety sort of evaporated at this point, because getting on them and sitting on them wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be. Even though they lay down on the ground, an elephant is still a huge huge animal. You climbed up via her leg sticking out conveniently and hoist yourself up and over her back in a rather wide straddle. Some members of our group had a bit more difficulty with this than others.
Jonathan mounting the elephant.

Jonathan mounting the elephant.

I did it!

I did it!

Sarah demonstrating how to step on the elephant to hop on.

Sarah demonstrating how to step on the elephant to hop on.

Little extra help for Mom (and Dad)

Little extra help for Mom (and Dad)

We all took turns first just getting up and down, and then riding in a small loop with a guide. It was thrilling! Their skin really is super rough and some of the spiky hairs on the top of their heads could stab you through the hand. Seriously, this was maybe 2 hours into what would be a 6 or 8 hour experience and I had already drained my camera battery (but no worries, everyone else had one too).
Elephant commands 101:
 “Nonlong” (must be pronounced with authority) – means lay down please if you don’t mind so I can climb up or down off of you.
 “Kway”  with a gesture with your (opposite!) foot behind their giant ear means turn this way please.
 “Poi” means forward
 “Hou” means stop. This is an important one because they will plow right through the jungle if you don’t encourage them to stop.
 “Didi” with a solid pat on the trunk means ‘Good elephant’ or ‘thank you for giving me a ride’ or whatever other positive message you’d like to communicate to your pachyderm.
Dad practicing his elephant mahout skills.

Dad practicing his elephant mahout skills.

Mom saying thanks with some bananas.

Mom saying thanks with some bananas.

Phase 3 The Trek
Unbeknownst to all of us, while we were interacting with and learning about the elephants, the Mahouts (elephant trainers) were determining which elephant we’d each fit best with for the trek based on our interactions. Considering I spent the first 45 minutes trying not to get near one I figured Jonathan and I would be paired with a gentle small one. Nope.
Despite my mouse like bravery, my husband took to the elephants to a duck like water. He’d either squashed down any minor initial anxieties he had right away or more likely; didn’t have them in the first place. He was literally an elephant expert after 5 minutes, and was helping other people feel more comfortable. As a result of this, we were paired with the bull leader of the herd. This wasn’t actually scary like it sounds. Our elephant; Golden Diamond, was steady and reliable, unlike the one Sarah and Dave got. They seemed to have been paired with the wild card, (perhaps the Mahouts could sense their adventurous spirits). At no point during our trek, was their elephant following the others. It was sideways on the path, or halfway up a tree grabbing some vines, or (literally) trumpeting loudly in protest of Dave’s attempts to correct him.
Sitting on the head riding.

Sitting on the head riding.

Jonathan and I on our leading elephant.

Jonathan and I on our leading elephant.

Mom and Dad with their hungry elephant. They also had the biggest elephant in the park. They got the Cadillac

Mom and Dad with their hungry elephant. They also had the biggest elephant in the park. They got the Cadillac

Sarah, Dave, and us on the elephants.

Sarah, Dave, and us on the elephants.

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Our trek took us through into the dry jungle up a path so steep that I would have had trouble navigating it on foot. The elephants trudged up like it was a breeze; they didn’t even miss a beat, holding onto them, however, was a different story.
As the driver, you sit on the back of the elephant’s neck, and have to work to keep from pitching forward, as the passenger you sit on their shoulder blades and have to get into the rhythm on their gentle but massive weight shifts with every step.
Here are some fun videos:
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 The trek ended at a little pond where we got off the elephants and the mahouts guided them into to water so they could get a drink. After they drank their fill, we all got into the water and went over to our elephant to give him or her bath! It was awesome! They love the water so much, they just lay down and you splash and scrub them with these rough bristle brushes. The water is so relaxing they just poop and pee freely and you’re standing waist deep in the same water and you’re so happy that you don’t even care! In my opinion this was the best part of the day. (Also they had showers there so that was good too.)
Best of the day!

Best of the day!

Sarah scrubbing the elephant.

Sarah scrubbing the elephant.

Big mama wants to be scrubbed down.

Big mama wants to be scrubbed down.

Dave on the elephant.

Dave on the elephant.

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All in all, everyone had a great time!
The group.

The group.

Categories: Nature, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

India!

We’ve finally made our way to India. It’s been on our list of places to visit for quite a while, and now we’re here. We arrived on December 8th in Kolkata (Calcutta) after traveling for a few weeks in Thailand. There was no specific reason for choosing Kolkata as our starting point, other than the fact that Air Asia flies from Bangkok, Thailand to either Kolkata or Chennai. After some quick online research, Kolkata won. So, this posting is all about Kolkata.

One of the Hindu statues at the India Museum in Kolkata.

Hindu statue on display at the India Museum in Kolkata.

The experience of India actually started before we even arrived, and even before we left Thailand. The flight from Thailand to India included mostly Indians on the flight, which is to be expected. And with them came a bit of the Indian culture. As is commonly known, India has a large population, about 1.2 billion people. And in many places the population density is very high. According to the 2011 census, the population density of Kolkata was around 69,000 people per square mile. For comparison, in 2011, New York City had a population density of around 27,000 people per square mile and Boston was around 12,750 people per square mile. We’ve come to realize that this density can create competition for space.

This competition for space appeared on our fight to Kolkata. As soon as it was announced that boarding of the plane would begin, people dashed to the doorway leading to the buses that were to take us to the airplane parked elsewhere. Now, out of fairness, this happens at airports in the U.S. and other places we’ve traveled, though, to a lesser degree. People were jockeying for position, cutting the line, and there was a general sense of panic and anxiety in the air. It was clear that the folks at Air Asia on this particular flight were used to this and sent people away from the front of the line. At which point they cut in other sections of the line.

Passports and Visas had to be checked, so the line moved at a little slower than the boarding of most flights, but still a totally acceptable pace. As we waited in line, a couple of men directly behind us were outwardly troubled by the slow pace of the line. They were moving side to side trying to catch a glimpse of the front of the line, maybe trying to figure out what was taking so long. They sighed anxiously every 15 seconds or so, while bumping into my and Sarah’s backpacks almost constantly. Other travelers we met before India warned us that line cutting was common place in India and that you had to hold your ground in order not to lose your place in line. So Sarah and I gave gentle, yet obvious nudges backwards to make them aware of their encroachment.

Throughout the ordeal we couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Once I had reached the front of the line one of the two men made a last ditch effort to make it to the front of a second line parallel to ours. He was quickly rejected and sent back to his place in the other line. I finally asked the men what they were worried about and commented that the plane wasn’t going to leave without us and the 40 other people still waiting in line behind us. One of the men chuckled because he knew it to be true, yet, their anxiety persisted.

After our visas and passports were checked we boarded the buses that would transport us to the airplane. The frantic atmosphere was present there as well. People refused to give up their positions closest to the door, making it hard for others to enter the bus and make their way to empty space. Once the bus reached the airplane, everyone hurried to the side of the bus that was closest to the stairs leading to the entrance of the plane. The doors opened and people squeezed their way through and  then wedged themselves in front of others at the bottom of the stairs. There was still more jockeying for position on the stairs. Sarah and I got a little joy out of creating a human barrier, blocking anyone from passing us.

Once we were on the plane it became apparent why there was so much competition for line placement. Many of the passengers had purchased duty free items and wanted to ensure they had a place in the overhead storage compartments. There was a small group of men that had far more bags than was allowed and took up more overhead compartment space than you’re supposed to. Even without the fight for luggage space, many people had a hurried pace for no apparent reason. All the while, the flight attendants were clearly frustrated, and at times appeared to take their frustrations out by aggressively jamming luggage into the overhead compartments. Luckily, we found space for our bags near our seats, though, not above our seats where they’re supposed to go.

And that was our introduction to India.

After arriving at the Kolkata airport, we had to take a taxi to a hotel we picked out of the guidebook. We were told by a security guard that there were metered taxis outside. So we tracked down a taxi driver who claimed he had a meter. I was skeptical from the get go and once arriving at his car refused to enter until he showed me the meter. He pointed to a very old analogue gauge of some sort, clearly not resembling any kind of meter for tracking the cost of fare. So I said to him, “that’s not a meter”, to which we agreed and then quoted us a ridiculously high fare, 850 Rupees ($16). I’d read on a recent trip adviser posting that the fare should run around 220 Rupees ($4). So we walked away from his cab as he tried to negotiate price, all the while refusing his still too high quotes. The same trip adviser posting mentioned that there was a prepaid taxi. So we walked, carrying our large and small backpacks, surrounded by 5-8 taxi drivers all vying for our business until we found the prepaid taxi booth. We paid the 250 Rupee rate and finally got a taxi to the hotel.

The hotel we stayed at appeared to be a building from the British colonial era. It had an old style lift and a nice classic feel to it. There were bell boys on every floor, always trying to find a way to serve you. We’d read about this ahead of time and always politely told them “no thanks”. They were eager to serve solely in an attempt to receive a tip. We’re budget travelers, so tipping is something we avoid when at all possible. The room we stayed in cost enough, so paying for a service we didn’t want was not going to happen.

The old style lift in the hotel.

The old style lift in the hotel.

It's become a custom to have a beer our first night in a new place.

It’s become a custom to have a beer our first night in a new place.

The room at Hotel Broadway we stayed in.

The room at Hotel Broadway we stayed in.

Our first official meal in India. We started off with Pakora (deep fried veggies). Yum!

Our first official meal in India. We started off with Pakora (deep fried veggies). Yum!

We soon found out that bell boys weren’t the only people wanting money. We were either asked for money directly, or given a service we didn’t want and then asked for money, somewhere in the range of 40-50 times during our three days in Kolkata. Some of these were vendors that approached us in the street asking us to visit their “shop”. The conversation always starts with “where are you from?”. Unfortunately, we’ve had to resort to outwardly saying to people after hearing this question, “we don’t want anything”. So far, this only seems to be a problem in areas that tourists frequent.

Our first night out we walked from our hotel to the tourist area near Sudder St and Park St. We threw ourselves head first into the sea of people and the madness of the street traffic. Crossing the streets in Kolkata was the most challenging and scariest we’ve experienced so far. The best tactic is to join others in a critical mass until you can block the flow of traffic.

This sort of captures how congested the roads are.

This sort of captures how congested the roads are.

An easier way to navigate the city was to take the train. The train line runs past most of the areas we wanted to see during our visit so we took it often. A train ride usually cost us around 4 rs ($0.08) per person per ride. Not bad. As can be imagined, the train got pretty packed at times. On especially crowded rides we had to join the other riders in jamming ourselves into the already packed train cars. The crowd becomes a huge moving mass of people.

Kolkata city train

Kolkata city train

The first night out we discovered Kathi rolls. Think buttered burrito tortilla filled with Indian food. They became a staple food for us because of their low price, around 15 – 45 rs ($0.30 – $0.85) per roll. One roll was sufficient for a meal. The fillings that we tried were paneer (cheese with the consistency of tofu), chicken, vegetables, egg, and combinations of any of those, all with Indian spices. They were a little on the greasy side but very delicious.

Our first Kathi rolls. One chicken and one paneer, both with veggies and spices.

Our first Kathi rolls. One chicken and one paneer, both with veggies and spices.

The master Kathi chefs. The youngest guy on the left rolled the dough into flat circles Then the guy in the back fried the dough and also cooked the fillings on the huge concave frying pan. Next the guy in red filled the fried wraps. The fella in the foreground took orders  and money, and then passed out the goods. Very efficient operation.

The master Kathi chefs. The youngest guy on the left rolled the dough into flat circles Then the guy in the back fried the dough and also cooked the fillings on the huge concave frying pan. Next the guy in red filled the fried wraps. The fella in the foreground took orders and money, and then passed out the goods. Very efficient operation.

Not surprisingly, one of the reasons we were excited to visit India was because of the food. There was plenty to try in Kolkata.

Breakfast a Radhuni. Lentils and vegetable curry with Chapati bread.

Breakfast a Radhuni. Lentils and vegetable curry with Chapati bread.

Breakfast a Radhuni. Lentils and vegetable curry with Chapati bread.

Breakfast a Radhuni. Lentils and vegetable curry with Chapati bread.

Vegetable dosa (pancake with veggies)

Vegetable dosa (pancake with veggies)

Momos from a food cart.

Momos from a food cart.

Paying the bill at the momo cart. Five momos and a small bowl of soup cost 15 rupees ($0.30).

Paying the bill at the momo cart. Five momos and a small bowl of soup cost 15 rupees ($0.30).

We didn't try any of this fruit, but the sidewalks were filled with guys like this selling all kinds of Indian foods.

We didn’t try any of this fruit, but the sidewalks were filled with guys like this selling all kinds of Indian foods.

Chai stands were ubiquitous.

Chai stands were ubiquitous.

Some of the chai stands used disposable clay cups instead of plastic. This is good because there was lots of plastic litter everywhere. Some food carts also used bowls made of dry leaves.

Some of the chai stands used disposable clay cups instead of plastic. This is good because there was lots of plastic litter everywhere. Some food carts also used bowls made of dry leaves.

Close up of the clay cup filled with chai.

Close up of the clay cup filled with chai.

And of course we found McDonald's soft serve ice cream.

And of course we found McDonald’s soft serve ice cream.

Kolkata was the British era capital and is full of architecture and some monuments from that era. One of the most impressive monuments is the Victoria Monument, built in honor of Queen Victoria.

Police car parked outside of the monument. Kolkata was full of this exact car, used as taxis, private cars and police cars.

Police car parked outside of the monument. Kolkata was full of this exact car, used as taxis, private cars and police cars.

Back of Victoria Monument.

Back of Victoria Monument.

Back of Victoria Monument.

Families use the grounds around the monument as a picnic area and to the escape the hectic city.

Statue of Edward the VII.

Statue of Edward the VII.

Entrance to Victoria Monument.

Entrance to Victoria Monument.

The crowd of people entering and exiting the monument. There were so many people that a tour of the monument meant walking in a fast moving crowd/line through the monument from start to finish.

The crowd of people entering and exiting the monument. There were so many people that a tour of the monument meant walking in a fast moving crowd/line through the monument from start to finish.

While trying to buy train tickets to our next destination we walked through what used to be the business district of British era Kolkata. The buildings have held up pretty well and seem to be heavily used to this day.

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This guy is sharpening knives on a peddle powered sharpening wheel.

This guy is sharpening knives on a peddle powered sharpening wheel.

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Trolley system still running in parts of the city.

Trolley system still running in parts of the city.

Central A/C.

Central A/C.

Would you buy insurance from these guys?

Would you buy insurance from these guys?

Small lake in the old business district.

Small lake in the old business district.

You figure it out.

You figure it out.

The Indian Museum was founded in 1814 and is a huge old building housing some amazing artifacts, ranging from fossils to ancient Hindu stone carvings. We spent the better part of a day exploring the museum and waiting for some of the exhibits to open. Aside from the artifacts, the building and old display cabinets were reason enough to visit the museum. It felt like we’d traveled back in time.

A couple hours after opening the museum really started to fill up.

A couple hours after opening the museum really started to fill up.

175th Anniversary plaque.

175th Anniversary plaque.

Queen Victoria statue.

Queen Victoria statue.

Museum hallway.

Museum hallway.

Museum courtyard.

Museum courtyard.

Giant deer.

Giant deer.

One of the exhibit halls.

One of the exhibit halls.

Beautiful old display cabinets.

Beautiful old display cabinets.

It looked like many of the exhibits had been locked up for decades. Many artifacts were covered in a thick layer of dust.

It looked like many of the exhibits had been locked up for decades. Many artifacts were covered in a thick layer of dust.

Some of the exhibits were unfortunately closed.

Some of the exhibits were unfortunately closed.

Human fetus.

Human fetus.

Eight legged lamb.

Eight legged lamb.

Hippo and Asian Elephant skeletons.

Hippo and Asian Elephant skeletons.

After finding the foreign ticket office and bringing the correct documentation, we bought our tickets and made are way to Darjeeling by train. This was our first experience with the train system in India. According to our guide book, the Indian rail system is the largest employer in the world with roughly 1.5 million workers, and transports around 20 million people everyday. Wow!

Being our first experience with the train in India we didn’t know what to expect. The station in Kolkata is huge and was filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Similar to our experience on the flight to India, the train station was a frenetic place with people running back and forth every few minutes or so as platform numbers were announced. Each platform was full of people, luggage, and tons of cargo. As is common in densely populated areas in India, the smell of urine and feces was in the air. There were dogs everyone, food venders, and men moving cargo bag and forth from platform to platform. While waiting for our train we got to experience many more of the curious stares from Indians we’ve come to accept. Suffice to say, it was an exciting, slightly overwhelming experience.

The train ride itself went off without a hitch and we arrived in Darjeeling the next day. There were a few more surprises though. Many beggars, people giving blessings and asking for merit/payment in return, and what I can only describe as rude gypsies clapping loudly in your face and then expecting some money in return passed through the train several times. This gave us more practice at saying “No” in an even more convincing manner. All in all an interesting experience to say the least.

One of the many farms we saw during our ride to Darjeeling.

One of the many farms we saw during our ride to Darjeeling.

There was no need to buy the more expensive A/C train tickets since the temperature was plenty cold.

There was no need to buy the more expensive A/C train tickets since the temperature was plenty cold.

The sleeper car we stayed in. The Foreign ticket office worker reserved us the two bunks on the right, as opposed to the six grouped together on the left, stacked three high.

The sleeper car we stayed in. The Foreign ticket office worker reserved us the two bunks on the right, as opposed to the six grouped together on the left, stacked three high.

The train platform in Kolkata. Of course, people were eager to enter the train to get to their ASSIGNED SEATS!

The train platform in Kolkata. Of course, people were eager to enter the train to get to their ASSIGNED SEATS!

This young guy came through our train car to sing and drum in an effort to earn a little money. It worked.

This young guy came through our train car to sing and drum in an effort to earn a little money. It worked.

Kolkata was a great introduction to India. It gave us a taste of some of the many characteristics of the country. That said, I’m sure there’s much more to experience.

Categories: Architecture, Cities, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pak Chong, Khoa Yai National Park, and Silk in Surin

After our break in Railay we decided to get back on the travel wagon and head for the great outdoors of Khoa Yai National Park near Pak Chong.

We took a brief research detour to the city of Patong, which is on Phuket Island. The one night stay was enough for us to know we didn’t want to stay there in the future with my family. Patong is VERY touristy, the most we’ve experienced so far. And with that comes the frustration of saying “no, I don’t want a taxi or tuk tuk, no I don’t want a suit, no I would not like a massage” over and over again. We booked it out of there the following day and heading up north and then east to the city of Pak Chong.

Pak Chong is  a smaller city that doesn’t have many tourist come through. It’s always refreshing to stay in a town like this. The people are more curious about you and very willing to help without expecting you to visit their shop or buy something from them. Dave and I have come to realize we enjoy towns like this much more than any touristy town out there. The lonely planet guides usually do a really good job of creating touristy towns, so these small gems are a lot harder to find.

We were both exhausted from the 13-14 hour overnight bus to Bangkok and the 3 hour bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong, so we decided to stay in the closest hotel we could find. The hotel was called Pak Chong Hotel and was right across the street from the night market. We indulged ourselves in the best Pad Thai we’ve had so far in Thailand, these crepe type things, waffles, and Happy Milk shakes. All of these were a total of 160 Baht ($5.20), which is what Dave and I spent on dinner or lunch in Railay. These night markets or even the day markets are perfect for us and our budget.

Making the crepe things.

Making the crepe things.

The food station where we got our pad thai.

The food station where we got our pad thai.

Best pad thai so far

Best pad thai so far

Night markets are cheap and offer lots of yummy food.

Night markets are cheap and offer lots of yummy food.

Waffles. We tried the coconut, chocolate, and corn one. They all tasted like butter to us.

Waffles. We tried the coconut, chocolate, and corn one. They all tasted like butter to us.

Happy Milk milk shakes.

Happy Milk milk shakes.

The "American" breakfast that was included with the hotel. Some how they think Americans eat hot dogs and various other forms of pork for breakfast. Not sure where this came from.

The “American” breakfast that was included with the hotel. Some how they think Americans eat hot dogs and various other forms of pork for breakfast. Not sure where this came from.

The following day we decided to book a tour of the national park with one of the companies that offered it. We decided to go with Bobby’s Apartments and Jungle Tours rather than Greenleaf, which was the only other option, for multiple reasons.

  • The cost of the tours was the same 1500 baht/person, BUT, the rooms were only 200 baht per night vs. 300 baht for Greenleaf
  • They included free Wi-Fi – not sure if Greenleaf does, it’s not on their website
  • Hot water showers
  • They both have 5 stars for reviews
  • And to top it all off, we had called Greenleaf the day before when we were undecided about doing a tour or not and they told us “no tour, then you can’t stay here, bye” which we didn’t appreciate at all

The tour was split into two days. The first included a swim in a natural spring, a tour of a cave where a bunch of bats live, a yummy fruit and cracker snack, and then watching millions of bats leave the cave at dusk. When I say millions, I am not exaggerating. It was amazing. They started to come out around 6:15pm and were still coming out when we left around 6:35pm. We were told it takes about an hour for all of the bats to leave the cave. It was an awesome experience that I know pictures won’t be able to capture.

The water was a little cold, very refreshing. A lot of the locals went in with all their clothes on.

The water was a little cold, very refreshing. A lot of the locals went in with all their clothes on.

Dave checking out the source of the spring

Dave checking out the source of the spring

Another section of the river

Another section of the river

Bats sleeping in their cave.

Bats sleeping in their cave.

Sun setting at the farm where the bat cave entrance was.

Sun setting at the farm where the bat cave entrance was.

It's a little hard to see them, but you can see a zig-zag trail of bats coming from the mountain.

It’s a little hard to see them, but you can see a zig-zag trail of bats coming from the mountain.

Another picture trying to capture the bats.

Another picture trying to capture the bats.

Enjoying a local beer after our first day.

Enjoying a local beer after our first day.

The second day was our trip into the Khoa Yai National Park and consisted of a visit to the visitors center, a hike through the jungle to look for animals and have lunch, a short walk to the biggest waterfall in the park, a swim in a smaller waterfall, and a never ending search for monkeys, birds, and elephants. Guess what? We got lucky and got to see all three plus a very poisonous viper and the pincers of a scorpion. Our guide did a very good job finding the animals and sharing the experience with us. I would recommend Bobby’s Jungle tours alone for the guide we had, of course, I didn’t experience other tour guides they might be just as good or better. I’ll never know.

Panoramic from the view point in the park. Reminded us of the smokey mountains.

Panoramic from the view point in the park. Reminded us of the smokey mountains.

The pick-up truck ride that drive us around for the day and our fellow tourist.

The pick-up truck  that drove us around for the day and our fellow tourist.

Monkeys and their babies.

Monkeys and their babies.

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Headed into the jungle to look for gibbons.

Headed into the jungle to look for gibbons.

Found some. Apparently these guys are very shy and you don't see them much. We got lucky.

Found some. Apparently these guys are very shy and you don’t see them much. We got lucky.

They have a really cute face and are pretty fuzzy.

They have a really cute face and are pretty fuzzy.

Hanging monkey.

Hanging monkey.

Our blue leech socks.

Our blue leech socks.

Sun bathing turtle

Sun bathing turtle

Barking deer

Barking deer

We also got to try some Holland candy. Which tasted like licorice and salt. They like them, I do not.

We also got to try some Holland candy. Which tasted like licorice and salt. They like them, I do not.

Scorpion do not like to be woken up during the day with a stick.

Scorpion do not like to be woken up during the day with a stick.

Still trying to get the scorpion to come out.

Still trying to get the scorpion to come out.

Huge termite nests.

Huge termite nests.

Huge trees.

Huge trees.

This is a fig tree. They grow on other trees until the other tree eventually dies and then gets eaten by termites.

This is a fig tree. They grow on other trees until the other tree eventually dies and then gets eaten by termites.

Trying to wake up another scorpion. No luck.

Trying to wake up another scorpion. No luck.

Bird watching is hard work. They move very fast.

Bird watching is hard work. They move very fast.

Gross spiders

Gross spiders

Cool trees.

Cool trees.

Lunch was rice with lemon-grass curry. Very tasty.

Lunch was rice with lemon-grass curry. Very tasty.

Trekking through the jungle.

Trekking through the jungle.

Large fig tree.

Large fig tree.

Lizard.

Lizard.

Very poisonous viper that was only about two feet away from the trail.

Very poisonous viper that was only about two feet away from the trail.

Wild Elephant!

Wild Elephant!

So many monkeys

So many monkeys

Largest waterfall in the park.

Largest waterfall in the park.

Swimming hole.

Swimming hole.

To finish the day off, a beautiful sunset.

To finish the day off, a beautiful sunset.

The day after the tours we decided to go further east to Surin by train. We were told that the trains were a little unpredictable, but decided it would be easier than buses. Well, the train showed up 2 hours late and took about 45 minutes longer than we thought. But, it didn’t cost much and we were in no real rush, so it worked.

When we got off the train we walked into a festival happening in the square. We were told it was a Chinese Opera, but to us it seemed like a lot of singing, dancing, and carnival like games. We didn’t find the Chinese opera until the last night and it was very hard to hear and understand them. We think this was all for the king as it was the King of Thailand’s birthday the day after we arrived. The festival lasted the whole time we were there, which was very lucky for us as Surin is a small sleepy sort of town. But we did enjoy all of the food that came along with this festival. We did get Pad Thai again, but we tried some different things that looked like egg rolls and these cake type things with different toppings. We also got to see the whole town stop what they were doing and sing happy birthday to the king, or maybe it was the national anthem, either way, it was a cool experience. But this was only an added bonus for coming to Surin, we didn’t actually know that was happening until we got there.

Also, all the actors looked very distracted and annoyed that they had to perform at all.

Also, all the actors looked very distracted and annoyed that they had to perform at all.

Again, they were speaking and singing in Chinese, so even the Thai people didn't know what they were saying.

Again, they were speaking and singing in Chinese, so even the Thai people didn’t know what they were saying.

One of the characters in the opera

One of the characters in the opera

This was part of the Chinese Opera. They gave you burning incense to pray in a distinct order throughout this tent. We were someone lost and Dave burned himself numerous times. It was interesting though.

This was part of the Chinese Opera. They gave you burning incense to pray in a distinct order throughout this tent. We were someone lost and Dave burned himself numerous times. It was interesting though.

Traditional Thai dancing by 6 year olds.

Traditional Thai dancing by 6 year olds.

Rides and carnival games for the kids.

Rides and carnival games for the kids.

The cake dessert with different toppings. One was port, we didn't get that one.

The cake dessert with different toppings. One was pork, we didn’t get that one.

Dave trying the egg rolls.

Dave trying the egg rolls.

I think this is jelly fish. We didn't try it.

I think this is jelly fish. We didn’t try it.

Roasted chestnuts.

Roasted chestnuts.

This guy made some sort of egg dish all night on this giant frying pan.

This guy made some sort of egg dish all night on this giant frying pan.

The king projected on the big screen

The king projected on the big screen

Everyone stopped and singing what we think was happy birthday to the king.

Everyone stopped and singing what we think was happy birthday to the king.

Surin was more famously known for it's Elephant round up. Which has thousands of elephants playing games and such. It was in November so we missed it by a week or so. But we still saw elephants in the town.

Surin was more famously known for it’s Elephant round up. Which has thousands of elephants playing games and such. It was in November so we missed it by a week or so. But we still saw elephants in the town.

The reason we did come to Surin is the nearby silk villages. The experience to and from was more exciting than we had expected. Our hotel recommended we take a tuk tuk to and from the village as it would be easier. It was also going to cost an estimated 300 baht ($10), most likely both ways. In our book it says you can take a local truck for 15 baht or 30 baht ($1) total for both of us, a tenth of the cost. Being budget travelers we went with the cheaper option, we’ve taken local trucks before anyway, no biggie. We set off with only the name of the truck we were suppose to take and the town it was going to. We stopped in a local store where the 3 people working deciphered what we wanted from our poor rendition of the Thai words for truck and the town name. Eventually they pointed us in the correct direction, which was the market down the street. We managed to find the market from the direction they gave us, but there was 10-20 trucks all with Thai writing parked around the market. Again, we asked some locals using the same Thai words as before. This time they laughed after we mentioned the town, Ban Tha Sawang, and pointed us towards a street that held most of the trucks. Still not knowing which truck to take, we proceeded to ask every truck “Ban Tha Sawang?” and were pointed in the general direction of the trucks behind them with a laugh afterwards. Finally we found it, but people from other trucks were still yelling out “Ban Tha Sawang” and then laughing afterwards. We were amused by the whole experience and still not fully sure we were on the correct truck. I don’t think many non-locals opt to take these trucks.

Thai iced tea stand.

Thai iced tea stand.

Iced tea in a bag!

Iced tea in a bag!

The truck we took to the silk village.

The truck we took to the silk village.

We arrived!

We arrived!

Anyway, we were on the correct truck and made it to the village. We checked out how they make the silk and shopped around for a couple of hours. Finally decided on a silk handmade scarf for me and a silk scarf that we’re going to use as a table runner whenever we get a table back home.

Silk weaving location

Silk weaving location

A couple of the women weaving. We are still not sure what everything is for, we did not get an explanation.

A couple of the women weaving. We are still not sure what everything is for, we did not get an explanation.

We did see this women take this wooden stick and throw it back and forth. The stick had gold silk attached to the end of it.

We did see this women take this wooden stick and throw it back and forth. The stick had gold silk attached to the end of it.

One of the weavers putting silk onto a bobbin.

One of the weavers spooling the silk.

I tried on one of the silk skirts and asked them to tie it how they normally would have.

I tried on one of the silk skirts and asked them to tie it how they normally would have.

Pretty cool. But I would never wear this.

Pretty cool. But I would never wear this.

One of the many shops.

One of the many shops.

Trying on a one-size fits all dress. Not flattering on me at all.

Trying on a one-size fits all dress. Not flattering on me at all.

After this, we went to the location we were dropped off at and waited for a return truck. Thirty-five minutes into the wait a nice, older gentleman on a scooter asked us if we were waiting for a truck back to Surin. We said yes and he proceeded to tell us that sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t, so he was going to try and tell someone that we were waiting. We said thanks, both slightly confused as to what he meant. He went over to the side of the road and started to wave his hand, the equivalent of holding up your thumb, to hitchhike a ride back to Surin for us. Both of us kind of chuckled and wondered if this was 1. allowed and 2. normal practice. There was no stopping him, so we went along with it. Well, no luck and he said he was very busy. So we thanked him and waited another 10 minutes when we decided that after a total hour of waiting we would walk the 8km (5 miles) back if there was no ride. Another 10 minutes went by, 5 minutes before we decide to hoof it, Dave gets up the courage to start to wave at people. We had decided we would have better luck with pick-up trucks and we got lucky, there were three in a row and one of them actually stopped! Lucky us! Two nice young ladies in a pickup brought us back to town and wouldn’t even allow us to pay them. All in all, I’m glad we didn’t opt for the tuk-tuk, because the experience to and from the silk village ended up being better than the silk village itself.

This is just to show how rural the place was.

This is just to show how rural the place was.

Hitchhiking. Dave actually did this for our ride.

Hitchhiking. Dave actually did this for our ride.

Wahoo, we don't have to walk back.

Wahoo, we don’t have to walk back.

We didn't get a picture with the ladies, but we snapped a shot of the truck.

We didn’t get a picture with the ladies, but we snapped a shot of the truck.

Categories: Cities, Handicrafts, Nature, Outdoors, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Railay, Thailand

There are many things about Thailand that attract tourists. One of its biggest draws are its beaches. Neither Sarah nor I are big fans of beaches. They usually involve a lot of sitting around baking in the hot sun, with an occasional dip in the ocean. But Thailand’s beaches, specifically those near the town of Krabi on the west coast along the Andaman Sea, have a lot more to offer than, say, the beaches of Florida.

A shot of West and East Railay from above.

A shot of West and East Railay from above.

This section of Thailand is full of huge limestone cliffs that aren’t found elsewhere in Thailand. These limestone cliffs add a flavor that most other beaches don’t have, and it’s that extra flavor that drew us to the small coastal town of Railay. Though small, Railay packs a good variety of activities, including climbing, kayaking (near the beautiful cliffs), spelunking, snorkeling, short hikes, and of course, lounging on the beach. Also, Railay can only be reached by boat, which adds to its allure.

This is the main mode of transport to Railay. It's a long tail boat. The name is derived from the long propeller shaft coming off the back of the boat.

This is the main mode of transport to Railay. It’s a long tail boat. The name is derived from the long propeller shaft coming off the back of the boat.

A closer shot of the long tail boat's propulsion system. It's a little scary if you're close to the boats when they lift this thing out of the water.

A closer shot of the long tail boat’s propulsion system. It’s a little scary if you’re close to the boats when they lift this thing out of the water.

The workers on the island are ferried from the boats to land using a rolling platform pulled by a tractor. We had to walk through the water.

The workers on the island are ferried from the boats to land using a rolling platform pulled by a tractor. We had to walk through the water.

Long tails lining the beaching waiting to transport riders.

Long tails lining the beaching waiting to transport riders.

We went there with the intention of doing a little bit of relaxing on the beach, especially after our Myanmar travels, and climbing. We ended up doing nearly everything but climbing. We’re both climbers and were psyched to climb but, we procrastinated long enough that heavy rains showed up by the time we were ready to commit to renting gear. So, sadly, we didn’t climb. But we’re way out of climbing shape anyway, so there wouldn’t have been much climbing happening. Here are some photos of the climbing we didn’t do.

This set of climbs is right on the best beach in Railay

This set of climbs is right on the best beach in Railay

More popular beginner climbs.

More popular beginner climbs.

One of the more popular areas for guided climbing.

One of the more popular areas for guided climbing.

It was common to see beach goers watching climbers. This guy seemed to be a local and was very much performing for the crowd.

It was common to see beach goers watching climbers. This guy seemed to be a local and was very much performing for the crowd.

More of the climbing performance.

More of the climbing performance.

Because of the beautiful scenery, Railay is definitely some of the best beach bumming I’ve ever done. And with the cliff overhangs you could even swim while it was raining. Bonus!

This was one of the coolest areas to swim, solely because of the crazy stalactites hanging overhead.

This was one of the coolest areas to swim, solely because of the crazy stalactites hanging overhead.

Good size beach backed by huge cliffs. Awesome!

Good size beach backed by huge cliffs. Awesome!

Probably the oddest thing we saw in Railay were the two caves filled with phallic wood carvings. Didn’t really get the story on this but I think it’s some sort of offering local fisherman make to the goddess Phra Nang.

Penis cave 1

Penis cave 1

Penis cave 2. It's not a contest but I think cave 2 has the biggest collection.

Penis cave 2. It’s not a contest but I think cave 2 has the biggest collection.

The long tail boats also act as portable restaurants, or food trucks of the ocean. Beach area is obviously pretty expensive. So to avoid paying the cost of opening a restaurant on the beach, several boat owners converted their boats to kitchens that they pulled up to the shore each day to sell food.

Pad Thai from the boat kitchen. Cost about 60 Baht ($2). That's about double of what it costs from a food cart in a bigger city. Everything in Railay was more expensive though.

Pad Thai from the boat kitchen. Cost about 60 Baht ($2). That’s about double of what it costs from a food cart in a bigger city. Everything in Railay was more expensive though.

The daily menu. Pretty large for such a small kitchen.

The daily menu. Pretty large for such a small kitchen.

Satisfied customer.

Satisfied customer.

There were even more cliffs further out, completely detached from the mainland. We rented kayaks for a couple hours one day to explore some of them. While checking them out we discovered that surrounding them was crystal clear, shallow water, great for snorkeling. So we decided to do a bit of snorkeling a couple days later.

Unfortunately, we didn’t bring our own snorkeling equipment but were lucky enough to have some lent to us for free by one of the hotels. They felt sorry for us because there wasn’t any for rent anywhere else. Hotels typically provide it for their guests. Our hotel didn’t. This would be a good time to mention how awesome Thai people have been to us during our time in Thailand. They are some of the nicest folks we’ve come across, anywhere. There have been several occasions where someone has spoken up for us or offered help when it was obvious we needed it.

Long tail boat hanging out near one of the small island cliffs.

Long tail boat hanging out near one of the small island cliffs.

Sarah leading the way on the kayak.

Sarah leading the way on the kayak.

It's so clear.

It’s so clear.

We kept wondering just how often those stalactites break loose.

We kept wondering just how often those stalactites break loose.

Being a remote tourist destination, Railay was a little more expensive than some of the other areas we visited in Thailand. The west side of the Railay especially so. That said, we were able to find an affordable bungalow to rent and a couple restaurants that served good, cheap food. Our bungalow only had a fan but, that’s all you really need at night. It cost us 400 Baht ($13) per night. The two restaurants we frequented served great dishes for 60 to 80 Baht ($2-2.75). For comparison, we’ve found street food for around 30 Baht ($1) in Bangkok and other cities in Thailand, and decent rooms as low as 200 Baht ($6.50).

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Rapala Restaurant

We visited this place the most. We're not sure why, but we think the owner didn't like us. Every time after our second visit, he always found a way to make us feel unwelcome. That didn't stop us from coming though. They had great food at good prices.

We visited this place the most. We’re not sure why, but we think the owner didn’t like us. Every time after our second visit, he always found a way to make us feel unwelcome. That didn’t stop us from coming though. They had great food at good prices.

Delicious green curry served at Yam Yam Restaurant. Ran us 80 Baht ($2.50). It was so good we splurged.

Delicious green curry served at Yam Yam Restaurant. Ran us 80 Baht ($2.50). It was so good we splurged.

Me enjoying a fruit lassi (fruit and yogurt drink) at Rapala Restaurant.

Me enjoying a fruit lassi (fruit and yogurt drink) at Rapala Restaurant.

Our bungalow.

Our bungalow.

Railay also has a family of both Macaque and Langur monkeys. The Langurs were pretty chill, seldom seen and stuck to eating leaves. Macaques on the other hand were always making a showing on some part of the island, typically where they had easiest access to food. We witnessed, on a couple occasions, them stealing food from unsuspecting tourists. Anyone carrying a bag that was obviously filled with food was a potential victim of the Macaques. They simply walk straight over to the person and take the bag out of their hand before they know what hit them. It’s really pretty funny. The victims usually found it humorous as well. When’s the last they had a monkey steal their lunch?

Cute little Macaque monkeys.

Cute little Macaque monkeys.

Not so cute thieving Macaque monkey.

Not so cute, thieving Macaque monkey.

Langur monkey. He won't steal your food.

Langur monkey. He won’t steal your food.

Our last full day in Railay was probably our busiest. I think we spent so much time relaxing that we crammed everything in on the last day. We finally decided to do a trek to a viewpoint on the island that yielded the photo at the top of this post. It also gave Sarah a few scratches and bruises (no surprise there…she’s a peach after all). It had rained heavily the day before, leaving the trail muddy and slippery. We also did the quick walking tour of a popular cave called Diamond Cave. It wasn’t anything spectacular but it was Sarah’s first caving experience.

Inside Diamond Cave

Inside Diamond Cave

Should of brought a climbing rope is what she's thinking.

Should of brought a climbing rope is what she’s thinking.

Finally to the top.

Finally to the top.

Still unscathed at this point. Only muddy hands. Later she ended up with a scrape and bruise on her knee. Bonus!

Still unscathed at this point. Only muddy hands. Later she ended up with a scrape and bruise on her knee. Bonus!

Diamond Cave.

Diamond Cave.

Diamond Cave

Diamond Cave

We finished the day off observing the Loy Krathong Festival. It’s a day each year that people of Thailand say thanks to/for the water for all that it provides. At least that’s the story we got. I think there’s more to it, though. People create small floats made of leaves and flowers and send them afloat in rivers, lakes and the ocean. Small translucent hot air balloons are also released into the night sky. To cap the celebration off, one of the local restaurants put on a fire show. We’d witnessed the same show our first night there but didn’t have the camera with us. Basically, a couple of guys perform tricks/routines with lit rods and chains to music. The show is pretty spectacular.

Some of the flower floats in the ocean.

Some of the flower floats in the ocean.

Hot air balloon let loose. This night was particularly windy, making it difficult to light the balloons and causing a few failures.

Hot air balloon let loose. This night was particularly windy, making it difficult to light the balloons and causing a few failures.

The fire brothers performing together.

The fire brothers performing together.

Awhhh, look at that. It's a heart. Every show they pull in a "volunteer" to twirl fire around their head.

Awhhh, look at that. It’s a heart. Every show they pull in a “volunteer” to twirl fire around their head.

This guy had a shaft lit at both ends.

This guy had a shaft lit at both ends.

For the finale he lit a cigarette with the spinning inferno near his head.

For the finale he lit a cigarette with the spinning inferno near his head.

Railay was pretty good to us. Maybe we’ll make our way back in the future and partake in some of the world class climbing it has to offer.

Categories: South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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