What follows is a lightly edited, but mostly stream of consciousness, diary of our recent trip to Thailand.
We took many pictures on the trip, despite the fact that my camera broke a couple of days into the trip. I learned that the iPhone makes a serviceable backup to an SLR camera. We were fortunate too find a fellow traveller who agreed to send us her photos from one special experience. Those photos, and mine, can all be found over on Flickr.
Business class on Cathay pacific. Laid flat and watched movies. Got to use business class lounge in SFO (full open bar!) and in Hong Kong (showers!).
Got to BKK around midnight.
Next day, got in cab out to floating market. Cab driver quoted us 1000 baht ($33 USD) to drive there and back, a little over an hour each way. Great deal. Until we got there and it was 2500 baht each to hire a boat to see the floating market for 2 hours, and no way to escape. There are several “entrances” to the floating market and I think we got the one that paid the highest bribes to cab drivers. On the ride, Amanda asked him what his favorite music was and he said “American music!” and turned on Christmas carols.
Floating market was neat but 10% natives selling authentic things on boats, and 90% tourist gift shop on boats. Prices for beers varied considerably by the boat.
Cab driver took us back to Bangkok, to temple of reclining Buddha. Along the way heard his whole collection of terrible 2007 rap. I made the mistake in the cab, when “Applebottom Jeans” came on, of complimenting him on his music taste. He rewarded this comment by turning up the volume for the rest of the ride. The rest of his playlist wasn’t nearly as good. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha was nice but oppressively hot and I had a headache.
Took a tuk-tuk back to hotel, lounged by pool, Amanda took a nap. Jumping in the pool felt amazing. Showered up and hired another tuk-tuk to find a restaurant from Lonely Planet called “Phavani home cuisine.” Couldn’t find it. Asked locals for help; nobody had heard of it. I was going nuts because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Finally we got out of the tuk-tuk and decided that food, any food, would suffice. After walking a block, we stumbled onto “Bhavani home cuisine.” Amazing spring rolls.
Went to get foot massages. In massage place, they led us upstairs into two separate adjacent rooms, despite our language-barriered request that we be in the same room. Appeared very sketchy. Amanda wanted to leave. But then the masseuses showed up and we got great massages. Apparently a Thai foot massage includes basically your whole body. But they start and end with your feet.
Back to hotel, fell asleep promptly and slept 9 hours.
Next morning, same cab driver took us to airport.
Flew to Koh Samui in morning. BangkokAir has a nice lounge for all passengers regardless of class. Ate some snacks and had tea.
The plane was bigger than we expected — an airbus the size of a 737. One hour flight to Samui airport. All the other planes on the field were big passenger jets — nothing with a propeller. I was disappointed because I was hoping to rent a plane here and fly around the island.
Got to The Passage Resort. We had booked our stay on Groupon and paid half the price of the “poolside villa,” which looked nice but abutted, well, the resort’s big communal pool. They were out of poolside rooms so they upgraded us to an oceanfront villa with a private pool. Lady at the checkin counter told us to keep it “top secret.” The room is awesome and includes a dedicated living room, two flat screen tvs, and a yard with a private pool in it. From the yard, a little gate goes straight onto the beach.
After exploring the room we went straight to the bar for mojitos. Sat by the pool and beach. The sun was hot but we couldn’t figure out how to keep the shade umbrella up so Ryan improvised with a clever boy scout knot. Amanda was scared it would fall down and knock her out but of course it held. Of course it did! Then we fell asleep for a long time, maybe 3 hours. Woke up around 6:30 pm, just in time to catch the end of happy our. Had a drink, then walk on the beach, dinner, and in bed by 10.
I woke up at 5:30 and amanda “invited” me to go read my iPad in the living room, not in the bed. I walked outside to catch some wifi and updated twitter. Back in the living room, tried to fall asleep but the room was freezing from AC going all night and no blankets. Back to bed. Woke up 8:30.
Got hotel shuttle to Na Thon, a little town maybe ten minutes south of the resort. Had lunch there and watched cops set up a trap for people on scooters without helmets. Was pretty entertaining. Apparently only the driver must wear a helmet. You can have three toddlers on a scooter with you and as long as you, the driver, are wearing a helmet you are legal.
Bought beer at a grocery store and back to hotel. Then Timmy the tailor picked us up and drove us to his shop. Ryan got fitted for four suits. US$200 each for cashmere/wool blend fabrics, custom-fitted!! We had to kill three hours at Cha Wheng beach while the tailor prepared the suits to be fitted so we sat at a cafe next to the beach and drank beers. Ryan likes beer Leo and Amanda likes Singha.
Drinking beers all afternoon caught up with us — when we got back to the resort in the late afternoon, had a short swim and dinner, then early to bed.
Today was the day to take a boat trip out to Angthong National Park, some very pretty islands offshore. We booked only the night before so the only boat tour company available was a small boat that cost twice as much as one of the 30-person boats. Still only about $120 a person for a full day’s tour so we went for it. We were expecting about eight people on the boat, according to the tour booking agent at the hotel. But when we showed up it was just the two of us and two young Thai guys on vacation from Bangkok. They wanted to stay inside the boat cabin on their iPhones most of the time so we felt like we had the entire boat to ourselves.
On the way out to the islands, I was happily snapping photos when all of the sudden I couldn’t see anything through the 5D’s viewfinder. I opened the camera up and to my dismay found that the mirror had completely fallen out! So no camera on the most scenic day so far of the trip. I learned afterward through some Internet research that Canon has issued a recall on the mirror of the 5D, because the adhesive holding it on can break down in very hot temperatures. They will fix it for free at a Canon service center. Found one in Chaing Mai, but it’s only open weekdays. So no camera except iPhones until Monday at the earliest.
Boat ride took about 2 hours to get to the islands. Felt like we were going at a snail’s pace — not sure if this was as fast as our boat could go or if there was a speed limit. But we got there, and the first stop was at a beach where you could go on a hike up some steps to a natural lagoon. “Steps” don’t do it justice — these were the steepest and tallest steps we have ever seen, and there were hundreds of them. It was also through the jungle, so 99% humidity and at least 90 degrees F. We have never sweated so much. My quads ached for several days after this death march. Finally you end up at a gorgeous, huge lagoon of crystal-clear turquoise water, surrounded by sheer cliffs of limestone. After the death march, all you want to do is jump in it but you aren’t allowed to. So you see it, and then begin climbing the steps again to get back to the beach. After reaching the beach, thankfully we had some time to jump in the water and cool off. Some great people-watching on the beach as by then the bigger boats had arrived full of the riff-raff. Saw lots of girls posing like they were models, in a completely unironic way.
Had lunch on the boat on the way to another beach, past beautiful lush islands. Our boat anchored maybe 100 yards from shore and we thought they were joking when they said that the way to shore was to swim. But they weren’t! So we donned life jackets and half floated, half swam, to shore. The Thai tourists took the lone kayak. The water was just perfect — probably 70 degrees. We brought snorkel gear but there wasn’t much to see. Floated around for a bit close to shore. After a while, I heard Amanda shriek because she thought I was tickling her toes underwater — but in fact it was nibbling fish. Later I felt them too. They only like fingertips and toes.
Back on the boat, we headed back to Samui, with a BBQ and beers along the way. Got home and we were pretty tired. Dipped in the pool and had a beer or two at the villa, then went to dinner. Eating completely exhausted me. Went straight to bed around 8:30 pm.
We did almost nothing today. Made a midday trip over to Timmy the tailor’s shop to try on the suits and shirts after his last round of alterations. Had lunch at a little spot near his shop. He gave us a ride back to The Passage and we lounged by the pool. On the way, he pointed out a restaurant called Madam Jeed that had good seafood, so we took a taxi there for dinner.
A lizard moved into our room this night, way up in the 30-foor ceiling so we couldn’t reach him. He greeted us with chirping noises like a bird would make, most of the night. Amanda named him “mr. Chirpy.”
Another day of minimal activity. Spent the whole day lounging by the pool and reading our kindles. Timmy came by around 4 pm with the finalized suits, which looked great. Then he and his wife and daughter gave us a ride to the fishermans village, which we think is only open on Friday nights. It was a very cool outdoor walking market, where the streets were closed to traffic and lined instead with vendors of everything from cocktails (full bars set up on folding tables or coolers, but the most common were dedicated mojito bars) to handmade decorative things or clothes, to secondhand clothes, t-shirts, and a wide variety of food stands. We passed on the one selling deep-fried crickets and opted instead for samosas at one, and fresh-made pad Thai at another. Sat on the beach and ate the pad Thai. Also bought some cute bear hats for Oksana’s kids and an Angry Birds t-shirt for Emily. Took a cab back home and skinny-dipped in our pool so we wouldn’t have to pack wet bathing suits.
Woke up early, packed, and headed to the airport. Met Timmy at airport to get the shirts that he forgot to deliver the day before. Got on the plane to Bangkok, and then switched planes to Chiang Mai. On the plane, sat next to a nice man named Ben who offered us a ride to our hotel. Got to the U Hotel, had lunch at the restaurant across the street. Food was good but we were really hot so went back to the room to rest. At night, wandered around Chiang Mai for a bit, finding ourselves at the old ruin in the middle of the city. It was beautifully lit up and made me miss my camera. Walked to the sunday night market, which was huge and quite a scene, complete with all kinds of food and things to buy, and even a little section of carnival games. We shot some air guns to win a stuffed animal.
Walked toward the Meridian hotel, to see if we could find my favorite restaurant from my last trip here, which was just across the street from the hotel. I think we found it, but it is now a Starbucks.
Got foot massages today at Kunka (sp?), which was just a couple doors down from the hotel and also great because they had free wifi. I sat in the massage chair on my iPhone reading blogs while Amanda and the massage ladies laughed at me. It’s my way of relaxing. Amanda fell asleep in the chair, I think.
At night, we went to Siam Rice cooking school, led by Nancy. We were in a group of six, including a recently married young Danish couple and an even younger couple of an Irish guy, Connor, and his American girlfriend Devon, traveling all around Asia for three months en route to Melbourne, where they were moving. At the cooking school, which appeared to be in Nancy’s house, we made four dishes — a soup, a noodle dish, a curry, and a stir-fry. We chose: spicy ginger & hot and sour soup, pad kee mao & glass noodles, parang and jungle curry, and holy basil and some other stir fry. Nancy informed us that for most dishes, you would include two peppers for “American” medium, five for “American” hot, and seven for “Thai” hot. I decided to show off and made my first soup with five and it was very spicy, but the peppers had great flavor. Same for the pad kee Mao. Then for the jungle curry, nancy came and dumped about ten peppers in. Then we mashed the curry ingredients in our own mortars and pestles. The jungle curry was the hottest thing I have ever tasted. I could only eat two bites.
Went to Elephant Nature Park, which was a really special experience. The camp is a shelter for formerly abused elephants with heart-breaking stories from before they were rescued from logging or other activities. One was blind from being stabbed in the eyes by a handler; another had a permanently broken leg from having it broke in chains and never tended to; another arrived at the camp addicted to amphetamines. At the camp you as the guest really connect with the elephants. You start by feeding them from a bit of a distance, then get on foot and walk amongst them, the feed the standing next to them, and then take them to the river to give them a bath by throwing buckets of water on them and scrubbing them with coarse brushes. Ate lunch and then while Amanda watched a video, I took a nap on a raised platform that extended over the area where the elephants roam. Was twice awakened by the whole thing shaking as elephants were directly underneath me, scratching themselves by rubbing against the stilts. Another highlight was watching all the elephants take a bath in a mud pit; seeing the giants lay down and roll around in the mud was awesome. They were having a ball. I was of course without a camera but we made friends with a grad student named Stephanie, who took pictures for us and sent them to us afterward.
That night, went back toward the Meridian in search of Thai boxing. Bought some knockoff Lacoste polo shirts for $6 each and probably overpaid. No boxing that night.
I think this is the night we went to Dash! Restaurant. Very good food, drinks, and atmosphere. Would recommend it.
In the morning, I went to the Canon service center to get my camera repaired while Amanda went to the women’s prison to get a Thai massage. They train the prisoners to massage so they have a skill when they get out of prison. Afterward, we walked around for a bit and it got hot, so we decided to retreat to the air conditioning in Kunka and get another massage. This time, we each got a combination foot/back/neck massage for 90 minutes. Amanda’s second of the day.
In the afternoon, returned to Canon for my camera, which I was pleased to learn had been fixed, but disappointed to learn I could not use for two days because the glue had to set.
We walked over to the main gate area and ran into Connor and Devon. Devon had just had her teeth cleaned at a dental office — cheaper than buying insurance. Got expensive but good cocktails at an upscale hotel restaurant right there. On the way found a flyer for Thai boxing, tonight! We had been thinking that we were going to be out of luck with the Thai boxing, because we had missed it on the other nights it was available. Then went home, packed, and headed out for dinner. Had some tasty fried tempura vegetables and stir fry at a little place by the gate. Then over to the boxing match by the night bazaars near the Meridien hotel. Boxing match was fun, even for Amanda.
Got up early for breakfast, them headed to the bus station. Took the “VIP” green bus to Chiang Rai. The ride took about three hours. Got to town in the early afternoon and had lunch at the hotel. I tried Khao Soi for the first time. Khao Soi, where have you been all my life? Delicious. Napped/relaxed in the afternoon. We were awakened by a huge wind and rain storm. Buckets of rain coming down. Then headed downtown to eat, with coats and umbrellas. I wanted to return to the restaurant where I ate on my last trip — Aye’s — to get another fried fresh tilapia from the tank. It was so good, better than I remembered. I ordered it fried with “three tastes” style. Perfect spice content. Wandered around the night market when it started to pour down rain again. We took refuge in a restaurant called Sawasdee and had beers and I tried the local Sangsom whiskey. On the way out of the market, bought a banana rotee from a street vendor. Delicious.
Organized a guided day trip today, up to the Golden Triangle. Once again we were expecting several people in the little bus but it was only us, so we got a private guided tour. On the drive we saw much devastation from the prior day’s storms — downed telephone poles, missing roofs, and even a modern-looking two-story tourist bus that was pitched on the roadside at close to a 45-degree angle and we were amazed had not tipped over. Went to see a Wat that we think was the original capital, in what I think was the oldest Thai city. All the monks were outside, cleaning up after the storm from the prior day. Then drove to the golden triangle area, where we got on a boat to cross to Laos. Gave the kids working the docks some candy and then shopped a bit. At the first shop there were four kinds of whiskey to try, with different things in them — ginseng, a full cobra, scorpions, and tiger penis. We sampled the tiger penis one. I also bought a bottle of whiskey with a cobra inside. Got “goodwill” Laos passport stamps since this was not an official border crossing, just a tourist no-mans land.
Then went to the Opium museum, had lunch, and up to a couple wats atop a hill. One of them gets a whole flock (?) of bees every year that make a hive in its entryway. They are good luck. Had lunch and then went to the Thailand/Myanmar border. Lots of shopping here; felt very Chinese with a ton of knockoff sunglasses and electronics. There was a woman selling ant eggs as a snack but we did not try them. We watched the cars crossing the border, where in the middle of the bridge they have to switch sides of the road. It was going to be TB400 to cross the border and get an entry visa to Myanmar so we did not actually cross. Then the bus took us home.
That night, went back to the night market area but forgot our guidebook so had to find food on our own. Settled on “da Vinci,” an Italian restaurant. Tasted pretty good to us after having nothing but Thai food since we got here. Then went back to the night market in search of the rumored Ladyboy show but got tired before they took the stage, after finishing a pitcher of Leo.
Not much else to do in Chiang Rai so we hired a Tuk-Tuk to take us out to Wat Rong Khun, the white temple, a new Wat by a famed artist. It is 12 years old but will be under construction for 90 years, they say. It was beautiful in its own way. Like crossing a Mormon temple with a Disneyland temple. Very ornate, and all white. Inside, a huge mural portrayed the struggle between good and evil. Evil was represented by: angry birds, Michael Jackson, 9/11, a serpentine gas pump, fighter jets, spiderman, cell phones. All these images combined to form the image of a huge demon, with George Bush in one eye and Osama bin Laden in the other eye. On the other side of the room sat a large gold Buddha, representing “good,” looking at this all day.
Had the Tuk-Tuk driver take us to another Wat in town, but what we were really after was the Somkhuan khao soi stand beside it. Delicious and cheap. Had meals and cokes for about $5 combined. Then walked to find the river, without success, and after heating up on the walk went instead to an air-conditioned coffee shop and had milk tea iceBOOM style, like a slurpee. Great way to cool off from the sweltering heat. Then back to the hotel for naps.
After naps, decided to have happy hour in our room. We had bought 22-ounce Beer Leos at a 7-11 but had no way to open them. Ryan improvised by popping the cap off on the bathroom door handle, which left more beer on the floor than in the bottle. Drank what was left, then headed back to Aye’s for another fish. I couldn’t leave the country without having one more.
This was our last day in Thailand. Took at tuk-tuk to the Oubkham museum, and then had the tuk-tuk wait for us while we ate lunch at a local restaurant the lady at the hotel had recommended, on the way to the airport. Food was good and some of the cheapest we had found. Why do you always figure these things out on the last day?
Flew from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, and then Bangkok to Hong Kong. Ryan took a shower in the HK first-class lounge again.
For the flight back to SFO, we had one business class ticket and one first class ticket. Amanda won the good one. We got on the plane and while it was boarding I went up to first class to say hello. Right when I arrived, the flight attendant showed up: “Mrs. Harvey, here is your amenity kit and sleeping suit.” Yes, she got pajamas. And a huge seat that folded into the equivalent of a twin bed. And three windows. Poor old Ryan slummed it in business class, sleeping most of the way home.