Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Little Bit of Paradise


Because we are falling further behind on our blog and are in desperate need of some catching up, I’ve decided to blog about our break after school in nothing but pictures (and perhaps a caption or two)! But first I must sum up our arrival to the most amazing place on earth…

We ended our second term of grad school with a sigh of relief. Due dates had passed and it was time to take a long needed break. The one thing Jonathan had been planning since we both found out we got into the program was winter break. MUST go to southern islands. So we did. Tickets for the trip were booked at least a month in advance and the only thing left to figure out were the logistics. I was to spend a week exploring Krabi and then our good friend Aaron was to meet us the night before I left and party it up with Jonathan while I spent Christmas in the States. (There are also boring details of how I thought I was going to be charged tons of money because of the weight limits of my bags or the fact that I probably had too many to carry on the plane per Asia Airways standards at least…BUT I’ll skip those details.)

On the way to check out the view of Ao Nang Beach

We arrived in Krabi on Sunday the 12th of December…

Ao Nang!

Day Two: morning time in Krabi

The most commonly used form of transportation around the islands -
headed to Railay for some climbing

Welcome to Railay Beach

Climbing on Railay

Day Three: snorkling on Chicken Island

Having a drink at the Red Porch - which is literally a treehouse

Day Four: Heading to the top of Tiger Cave Temple

View from the top

Stair number 1096...

Ao Nang as the sun sets

Day Five: Kayaking through the mangroves - my kayaking partner...


Made it to the mangroves!

More climbing?

Phra Nang Beach!

Phra Nang...climbing and beach? Deal.

Finally joined by Aaron...welcome to the Lazy Bar

Our entertainment for the evening, Oasis and the Beatles included

More entertainment. No he is not a trained professional...

Back to Phra Nang Beach for some more climbing

- Brandy

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

“Can we ride the elephants??” (Part 2)

The next morning came quickly. We had signed up for one of the famous “how-much-can-you-possibly-fit-into-one-day” Chiang Mai tours. And it was amazing! We started off with an early breakfast at the guesthouse, followed by a quick meet-up with Sara and Tabitha. The van came for us early – I believe 8:30 or so – and we were off to fill our day with touristy Chiang Mai favorites. Of course I only signed up for one thing…to ride the elephants! The rest of the day’s activities were amazing as well but riding the elephants was exactly why I wanted to go to Chiang Mai in the first place.

The elephant riding portion of our tour took us about an hour outside of the city. Once we made it to the elephants, we were quickly herded across a wooden planked bridge towards what I remember to be a bamboo tower. We climbed the towers Noah’s Ark style and shared our ride with another member of the group. I climbed in first and Jonathan got a picture of my excited/“oh Christ, I’m going to fall off this thing” face and boarded the elephant himself. Then off we go! At this point it’s important to remember we were riding an elephant. So when I say off we go what I really mean is ‘if we go any slower we wouldn’t be moving’. But I was in kid-mode and didn’t care how fast we were going. We were atop our elephants for approximately an hour, with JP and myself bringing up the rear. There were several people in our group so there were numerous elephants in front of us, each moving as slow as the one before it. I’d explain our ride in detail but outside of my child-like excitement it was what you might expect an elephant ride to be. When you go up a hill, hold on. When you go down a hill, hold on. Make sure your hands and feet are inside the basket on top so you don’t hit a tree. Oh and, for the elephants, mind the baby. Yes, a baby elephant rode alongside our elephant, making sure to look like a tough guy the whole way. There were several times when the baby would go around our elephant and come to a fallen tree (a small fallen tree, but a fallen tree nonetheless) and pick it up and move it so he could be like momma. Don’t get me wrong, elephants are by no means the cutest or fuzziest animals in the world, but I fell in love. So much so, I tried to name our elephant. I wanted a unique name – something that screams ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ but was much more exotic. The results? Nothing. About a minute after I decided I wanted to name him I was distracted and forgot the entire process. But for my story’s purpose, I’ll call him Howard.
The tough-guy

So after riding Howard through the forest (or jungle) for an hour, it was time to head to our next adventure. So we dismounted Howard, said our goodbyes and headed for the bus. The next stop brought us to a village – I was slightly unimpressed and completely forgot most of the details of that visit. But this village, if I remember anything, was a village of Burmese natives that travelled to Thailand and made it their home. Their specialty was scarves. Of course we were told we could buy them. We didn’t.

The next undertaking had us on foot. We hiked for approximately 20 minutes and came to an amazing waterfall in the middle of the jungle (or forest). It was absolutely incredible. We decided to take pictures on the rocks in front of the waterfall so I handed Sara my camera, took off my shoes and started jumping rocks. Naturally, they were slippery and I almost fell several times, mumbling obscenities the entire way. Once out on the furthest rock I was able to bounce to, we took our pictures and then headed back to the others. I just got my shoes on and looked up when Jonathan yelled my name across bamboo bridge. I looked up and was told to ‘come quick’. There was a little store across the river – I believe entirely made of bamboo – and the owners of this store sold soft drinks, water and beer to all of the travellers coming through on their tours. This store also housed a female dog that had just had puppies! To make a long story short, I was almost more excited about the puppies than I was the waterfall.

We continued our journey on foot through the forest (or jungle). We came to a clearing that brought us back near the village we had been to earlier and had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Once we made it back to the bus, we all boarded and were taken to a local restaurant where we grazed on amazing Thai food and were on our way to the last stop.

A few minutes down the road we stopped again, this time to roll up our pants and sit in some water. We were told to leave our shoes in the car, along with the rest of our belongings, and head down to the river. It was time for a little bamboo rafting, which consisted of me, Jonathan, Sara and Tabitha (plus our guide) on top of a raft that was made of about 8-10 long pieces of bamboo and were roped together. They told us to take off our shoes because our feet would be completely submerged under water – there was nothing under the bamboo. Conveniently, we got the wise guy of the guides and were almost all completely soaked by the end of the ride. He’d tilt the raft to one side, making us scramble or crawl to the other side to stay on. Then he’d lean to the other side, to continue the madness. Needless to say, we didn’t stay dry. We were even offered beer by a few Thais that were on holiday. They noticed the farang laughing and desperately trying to stay out of the water and asked where we were from. “America? Welcome to Thailand! Want a beer?” We tried but no success.

Finally, at the close of our rafting adventure, we again boarded the bus but this time headed back to the city of Chiang Mai. It was time for a shower and a nap and some food. This time we were successful. Jonathan and I eventually met back up with Sara and Tabitha for ice cream and one last beer before we turned in for the night. (I have to throw in the small fact that we saw an elephant walking the streets of Chiang Mai. No joke. He was guided by someone of course. But still, it was an elephant walking down the street.)

Heading to the train - on our way back to Bangkok
The next day was a blur. We spent most of the morning packing our stuff and running to the train station to make sure we secured tickets for that night. Wouldn’t want to miss class the next morning. The rest of the afternoon was spent roaming from coffee shop to coffee shop, wishing our papers would write themselves. We eventually found the courage to work on them.

That evening we caught a train back to Bangkok. This ride was much less pleasant than the ride there, not only because the ride was bumpy, which made it nearly impossible to sleep, but it was also filled with school work. Once we reached Bangkok, we had four days before leaving for Krabi, which meant papers and finals were our top priority. We were glad to get out of the city for a weekend. Bangkok is great, but it’s by no means a good indicator of what the rest of Thailand has to offer.

- Brandy

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

“Can we ride the elephants??” (Part 1)

(I wrote this the week of Christmas…sorry for the delay!)

I want to start this post off with a HAPPY CHRISTMAS! It’s Christmas morning (EARLY) and naturally I can’t sleep – still working on getting over jet lag. I arrived on Monday afternoon and have woken up at crazy hours ever since. So begins the blogging…

We left off with Bangkok. Oh how I miss it already! I truly took a liking to the crazy hustle and bustle of that city. It’s quite unlike any other city I’ve ever been to. Anyways, we were coming to the end of our stay in Bangkok, with just over a week and a half left before the end of the term. Papers were almost done, assignments were slowly being submitted and there was only one final to speak of. So naturally it was time to take advantage of our “extra time” and plan a weekend trip to the mountains of Thailand: to the historical city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has been around for over 700 years – it’s one of the oldest and most established cities in Thailand. At least that’s what my Lonely Planet guidebook tells me. It’s also known for its opportunities to get out of a town and enjoy the scenery of the surrounding mountains. So after much planning, Jonathan and I were officially on a train to Chiang Mai. Class ended for the week on Thursday night and we had a bit of paper writing to do, so we planned to leave on Saturday evening on an overnight train which would have us in Chiang Mai 12 hours after departing from Bangkok. (We had originally planned to leave on Friday night but discovered at the train station Friday morning when we went to buy our tickets that it was a holiday weekend – it was the King’s birthday weekend. A three day weekend means vacations for the Thais. In other words, tickets were sold out for the sleeper cars on the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Saturday night it is!)

We arrived at the train station about 40 minutes before our train left. We approached the departure time tables to see our train platform had changed. We also heard someone say, “leaving to go to Chiang Mai in 30 minutes?” This is when we met Tim – a tall, Dutch backpacker heading to the same place as us, and conveniently, on the same train. We told Tim yes and he showed us our new platform number. We made conversation – the typical small talk when you meet another English speaker during your travels: Where are you from? Where are you going? How long is your holiday? And so on. We invited Tim to grab a cup of coffee with us before the train left, which we did and then promptly headed to the train to board for our long 12 hour ride.
Jonathan's homework face.

We started the trip with a bit of homework, which I continued but Jonathan couldn’t stand the idea of. So he went to grab Tim and have a beer in the food cart. Eventually, one of the train workers came by to make our beds – when we got on the train it was just seats like you would find on a normal train ride to anywhere. These suckers fold out to produce beds with fresh sheets and a blanket! Sleep was soon to follow…for me at least. Several hours later – approximately 6am – I woke up to the rattle of the train. Jonathan was awake and we spent the last 40 minutes or so of the ride staring out the window at the countryside of Thailand. We finally got off the train, grateful to stretch our legs, and grabbed Tim to head towards the taxies. Once on board the back of a red pickup truck, it was off to the center of Chiang Mai. It dropped us off at the end of the road from our guesthouse and, minutes later, we were checked in, our stuff put down, and ready to find banana pancakes for breakfast.

Exploring the tunnels in Wat U Mong
The rest of the day was filled with trips around the city. We first headed (with Tim) to Wat U Mong, a temple in the middle of the forest in the mountains on the outskirts of town. It was absolutely incredible and very unlike most of the temples we had seen so far. There are tunnels built under the pagoda where Buddha statues are down every alcove. It was also the day the monks of the area were receiving their robes, so people were everywhere. I’ve never seen so much orange.
Wat U Mong - pagoda

The next leg of the trip included a trek to Dui Suthep – a temple on the top of THE Chiang Mai mountain. We asked a tuk-tuk driver if he could take us, not knowing the details of the ride up. He laughed and said, “no tuk-tuk”. We took this to mean the tuk-tuk couldn’t make the trip. We didn’t understand the full context of that statement until we were headed up the mountain. We successfully fit 19 people on one red pickup truck. Not sure how the truck made it but it did. After a 20-25 minute ride, we were at the top of the mountain and at the foot of the temple stairs. As everywhere else, there were vendors lining the streets trying to sell visitors anything and everything. We bypassed the shopping and headed towards the temple. Another climb up another set of crowded stairs and then finally we reached the top! The temple was beautiful and, not to mention, completely packed. People were everywhere. In the temple, outside the temple, in the caf├ęs, in the shops. Everywhere. We made it through the crowds and wandered around to the back side of the temple to check out the rest. What we found were incredible views of Chiang Mai. The temple view was completely unblocked by trees, buildings, and the like. We snapped a few photos and decided it was time to head away from the crowds.

The view from the top of Doi Suthep.
After what seemed like the longest trip ever, we made it back down the mountain, although not without nearly falling asleep. Well, I might be speaking for myself only. Nonetheless, we made it down and found our way back towards our guesthouse. I played phone tag much of the day with two of the other Chiang Mai travellers from our group, Sara and Tabitha. We were planning to meet up with them after the hike down from Dui Suthep. But of course bad reception coming down the mountain hindered our plan making. While waiting to hear from them, we stumbled upon a market I conveniently had in mind earlier that day to attend. It’s called the Sunday Night Market – the name is fairly self-explanatory. We wandered through the market, finding things we didn’t need. Or maybe I should again speak for myself. I bought things I didn’t need. Either way, we explored the market, taking in the typical overwhelming sights, sounds and smells of what I’ve come to know as Thailand. 

It wasn’t long before our feet began to tire and our stomachs growl in protest. Time to rest and eat.  But still no word from Sara and Tabitha. Conveniently, seconds later, Jonathan spots both of them across the market aisle. We make plans to make plans – literally. Call us in an hour and we’ll figure out what to do about food. So Jonathan and I head back to shower and relax until we hear from Sara and Tabitha.

The rest of the evening consisted of food at a great Western pub and a drink at several different bars around the area. We even participated in the lighting of a lantern, which Jonathan sent floating into the night sky. Overall, Chiang Mai has quite enough to do to keep the average fairly-easy-to-please traveller happy. Although, I do have to mention that many of the places we visited were geared towards farang, or foreigners. No problem. I hardly noticed anyways.

- Brandy

(P.S. more to come on our adventures in Chiang Mai...but there's so much I wanted to share I had to break it up into two parts. The second coming soon!)