Friday, January 30, 2009

Coral Island

Yesterday we went out to the pier Rawai Beach and hired a longtail boat to take us to Coral Island, home of even more beautiful beaches and cheap snorkeling. Longtails are the traditional fishing boats around these parts, but I didn't see Weng, our driver, do much fishing (maybe afterwards).


Weng and Christin boarding the longtail


The ride out was beautiful, and on the way we passed more than a few remote islands and what will soon be the larget statue of Buddha in Asia. That makes me think that it will be the largest in the world, but on that I'm not entirely sure. Anyway, you can't really tell in the photo, but it's BIG. Like, building big.


Asia's largest Buddha (the white thing in the middle on the horizon)


We arrived at Coral Island early in the morning, which turned out to be a good decision on our part because just as we were taking our first break, a boatful of European falangs pulled up and filled the beach with speedos and children.
Coral Beach

We saw more than a few colorful fish, some (but not a lot) of coral, and a few jellyfish. All in all, it was the perfect final day in the South. Back in Bangkok today, we're heading to Chiang Mai in the North by train tomorrow. We only have 14 more days before our Thai visa expires and I think we'll cross the Laotian border exactly on day 14.

Thai longtail at Coral Beach

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Phuket

We've been staying for the past week on the Indian Ocean in Kamala, Phuket, Thailand. The beaches here are beautiful and legendary, so it follows that it's crowded, farang-laden, and expensive. Luckily, we're again staying with a generous CS host, Tom, who's quite the social butterfly and has shown us our first parties since we've arrived in Thailand.

Sunset at Lem Signh

We've spent most of our time on various beaches, including Nai Hahn, Lem Singh, and Kamala. The sunsets are gorgeous, the water is crystal clear blue, and the random outcroppings of rocks mean there's lots of fish!


At Nai Hahn, there's a beautiful salt water river (a klong) which flows into the sea. We spent Sunday perfecting our dead man's float and lazing into the ocean. Ahh...

Christin floating in the klong at Nai Hahn beach

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Now I know why my Mom loves the United States so much

Today I am proud to announce that I have successfully used a squat toilet in the manner in which it was intended!!!


For those of you who have never used one, I'll give you the break down.

The toilet itself is that hole in the floor on the right side of the picture. The bumpy lines on either side of it are the foot pads where you are supposed to stand. (These are always impossibly slippery.) Basically, you just stand over the hole, get a low as you can (so as not to get your shoes/pants dirty), and do your thing.

Now, this toilet does not flush. That is where the pool of water on the left side of the photo comes in. You take about two or three scoops of the water using the green scoopy-bucket and pour them down the hole, which moves everything right along quite nicely.

You may have noticed the little trash can in the bottom left of the shot. This is not necessarily for trash per se. There is no toilet paper provided in a squat bathroom. (I think the locals might use the pool of water. I won't go into detail, but I will say that there is a reason that in many parts of the world people only eat with their right hand.) So if you had the foresight to bring your own, don't throw it into the toilet (no plungers either). That is what the trash can is for.

There are usually no sinks for hand washing, either. Which is why I am sooooooo glad that we thought to bring hand sanitizer.

I hope this has been helpful, as there are no instructions in a squat toilet. It took us about a week and a half to piece together the entire procedure from bits and pieces we gathered along the way.

Oh, and also, it really is backwards here. This picture was taken at a 7Eleven bathroom, which was the cleanest in town.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Doglet

Old Town, the tiny Muslim fishing village we stayed at on Ko Lanta, is, like the rest of Thailand (and every other third world country I've been to {that being Egypt and Bushwick}), filled with stray dogs. Sorry, that was probably the most confusing, convoluted sentence I've ever written.

Let me try again: There're lots of stray dogs in Old Town.


Many of them, however, seem to have been quasi adopted as pets by the locals. One of them, a cute little pregnant mutt, has been named Doglet by our hosts, James and Sarah. She always came around when we got home, eager for love and scraps. She was very sweet and very mangy and hopefully not flea-ridden, because her favorite spot to lay down was underneath the bed that Christin and I slept in. Sarah theorized that that was where she was planning on having her puppies. Glad it didn't happen while we were there.


The neighbors would actually leave dog food out for her. I think she got a little extra care because she was so pregnant. I guess that's how more stray dogs get made.

Happiness in the Strangest of Places

Today we left Koh Lanta for Phuket, a legendarily beautiful peninsula in Thailand along the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. Lesson learned, we took the government bus to Krabi. When we arrived at the bus terminal however, we got a call from Sarah. I had accidentally left my favorite dress and a bikini back at her place. Crisis.

She called back a few minutes later to say she thought maybe she could convince the next driver to bring it to us in the station if we were willing to pay 100 baht upon delivery. The deal was made. The only catch was that the next bus wouldn't arrive for more than 4 hours, and we'd have to wait in the hot, dusty, crowded bus terminal to meet him. Yuck.


While we were waiting, we decided to start a Thai lesson from our book. About halfway through we realized we had an audience. A young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, was smiling away at us. We smiled back and kept plugging away practicing our pronunciation. Before we knew it, she was correcting us. That caught the attention of her mother, then her father, then her brother, and before we knew it a whole crowd of local children were crowded around teaching us words.

The father pointed to Kyle's guitar and gestured that he'd like him to play, so Kyle obliged. Pretty soon, all the kids were strumming his guitar and the whole terminal lit up with smiles. Sometimes joy sweeps in when you least expect it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Koh Lanta

For the past few days we've been staying on Koh Lanta, which is an island just off the coast of Southwestern Thailand in the Andaman Sea. It's absolutely beautiful: the weather is comfortably warm, the sunsets are lovely, and the air and seafood are fresh.

Longtail boats at the beach at Relax Bay on Koh Lanta

We're staying with some fellow couchsurfers, Sarah and James from the UK, in the their wonderful little bungalow in a small fishing village on the southern part of the island called, "Old Town." Their open-air home is beautifully decorated with blue and green tiles, stone flooring, old dark wood, and a lovely little fountain complete with fish.

View of Old Town from the Pier

The best way to get around Lanta is by motorbike, and we've rented one of our own for 250 baht, or around $7, per day. The drives to and from the various beaches are stunning. Tall moutains rise up behind dense forests with little fishing villages running alongside the road. The fauna's not too bad either. :)

Roadside elephants: an everyday occurance on Koh Lanta

How not to get from Bangkok to Ko Lanta



This is what actually happened:


When purchasing the train tickets to Surat Thani, the guy at the window asked me what my final destination was. I said, "Krabi." Without saying anything, he booked us a bus ticket from Surat Thani to Krabi. The total came out to 1298 bhat (around 35-40 dollars), which was less than we thought we would have to spend. Sweet! We had our transportation all the way to Krabi taken care of. This was going to be easier than we thought!


It was an overnight train, and we decided not to pay extra for a sleeper car. But the train wasn't full, so I was able to go across the aisle and sprawl out across two seats. I dozed for about twenty minutes, and was then awoken by the ticket checking guy who signaled me back to my assigned seat. He then proceeded to open the window all the way, lay down across both seats, pull out a nice, warm blanket, and start snoring loud enough to wake up everybody in the train car. To boot it was now so cold (because of the open window) that nobody could fall back asleep.


The Train

Of course nobody said anything, because that would have been impolite in Thai culture. And we didn't want to say anything at the risk of looking like a couple of farang kwai (a-hole foreigners). So we just shivered and complained quietly to ourselves until morning.


At Surat Thani, we caught our bus to Krabi with no problems. The bus dropped us off, however, on the outskirts of town at a little bus stand owned and operated by the same bus company that had brought us there. They wanted 800 bhat to take us the rest of the way to Ko Lanta, over twice what the guidebook said we should pay.

The view from the train in the morning

So we made our way out to the main road and hailed a tuk-tuk. For those of you who don't know, a tuk-tuk is a pickup trick with seats in the back that operates like a cross between a bus and a taxi. It took us into town for 80 bhat.


Once in Krabi, we had to track down PP Family travel agency (at the recommendation of our hosts on Ko Lanta). There we arranged (after some haggling) for a mini-bus to Ko Lanta for 500 bhat. Then, all of a sudden their mini-bus was full, so we hopped into the back of some guy's car (who worked at the travel agency) and he drove us to the bus station, where they put us on another mini- bus to Ko Lanta. After the driver made a couple of monks move out of the way (which we felt kind of bad about), we were finally on our way to Ko Lanta.

Monks on the ferry to Ko Lanta (the one on the left wasn't pleased about the picture)

Now, our hosts in Lanta were staying in Old Town, so we asked the driver to take us to old town. He found a girl in the mini-bus who spoke English and she assured us that that was where we were going. Then, we got to the island and the driver stopped at a little bus stand operated by the same company that had brought us there. He told everyone to get out and told us to take a taxi.


The price they wanted to take us to Old Town? 600 bhat. More than we payed to get to Lanta from Krabi. So we went out front and found another tuk-tuk, but he wanted 600 bhat also. We told him "pang maak maak (way too expensive)" and stared to walk away. He followed us. "How much you want?" he asked. I said 100 bhat. He said that it cost him 150 bhat just for gas to get there. Then he said, "200 bhat. 150 for taxi and 50 for me eat." We agreed.


So finally, 22 hours and 2080 bhat later. we made it to Old Town. We made our way to Beautiful Restaurant (totally apt title), got a beer and a papaya salad, and waited for our host to come meet us.
Beautiful Restaurant

Epilogue: After we met them, our hosts informed us that we could have taken the train to Trang and then caught a government bus that would have dropped us off right in front of their house. Ay que mierda!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thai Royalty

When we went to the Thai royal palace and royal temple, we were lucky enough to have a Thai girl, Eve, along with us. With her around, what might have seemed like a meaningless procession of really ornate temple buildings seemed more like a representative history of Thai culture.

One thing about Thais is that they really love their King. As Eve put it, "I love love love him. He like my father." It's illegal to badmouth him at all (even jokingly) or to disrespect his image (which is everywhere), and they'll jail you or throw you out of the country for it. The longest seated king in world history, he is a tremendous source of pride for Thai people who revere him absolutely.

From what Eve tells us, he deserves their respect as he is humble, un-materialistic and unselfishly serves his people despite his tremendous wealth. Her favorite story is this: The king often wears common clothes and walks unseen amongst the people. Once as he tried to walk down a street which had been blocked off, he was stopped by a police officer who didn't recognize him and refused to allow his passage. Rather than get angry, the King promoted the man to a higher office and gave him a raise for doing his job so well.

Another favorite was that when his shoe broke once, he refused to buy new ones despite the insistence of everyone that he should have the nicest shoes available. Rather, he chose to have them repaired saying that he didn't want to waste the wealth of the Thai people on finery such as new shoes.

Eve said, "I so happy I Thai. Look how beautiful (referring to the palace). The King say this belong to us."


Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Giant Escalator to the Sky

On Wednesday we took a bus up to Victoria Peak, which is a mountain top on Hong Kong Island. A mountain peak on Hong Kong Island is akin to a mountain peak in the middle of Manhattan, so as you can imagine the views are fantastic.

View of central Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Once we were up there, we found a walking path that snaked down around through pretty extensive greenery for a major metropolitan city. The best part: it ended at a giant escalator that spans 800 m to take you from the bottom of the mountain to almost halfway up. Called the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, it's the longest escalator system in the world. An escalator up a mountain. Who would've thought?

Path down from the peak

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Welcome to Chek Lap Kok

We went out to Lantau Island today with the intention of maybe riding the gondola or doing some hiking or something beautiful like that.


On the way out, we saw a non-refridgerated, open-air truck full of intestines. Makes me glad we don't eat meat.


Of course, we missed our bus stop and ended up all the way out by the airport (which is on another island). We didn't want to spend any money taking the bus back to Lantau, so we decided to walk. The gondola didn't look that far away anyway.

Next to the base of the gondola was a stairway on the side of a hill with a sign that said, "this way to the gondola," or something like that. So we went up it. After nearly getting our heads taken off by a passing cable car, we discovered that we were not at the entrance to the gondola, but the halfway station. But we went up the rest of the hill anyway and found a really nice view of Tung Chung and the surrounding harbor.


Here's what it looked like in real-life 360 degrees! (You damn kids and your newfangled technology!)




At the peak of the hill, we found a little pagoda...


...with a little sign inside that read...


I'm finding out that I suck at getting us where we are going, but that I can usually stumble on something even better. When we finally did get to Tung Chung, it turned out to be a little tourist trap mall with an overpriced food court where we paid way too much for way too little Indian food. And the gondola (Which we just missed. They pulled out the red felt rope as we were walking up.) ended up costing $100.

Cheh Lap Kok was free.

Dragon Fruit

We discovered a new fruit today: Dragon Fruit. It's the fruit of a cactus and is grown in SE Asia, Central and South America, and Israel.

Dragon Fruit at a fruit stand near Tai Po Market

On the inside it can either be white or pink with little black seeds. It's very attractive and really easy to serve. It has a texture a little bit like a firm kiwi. The taste is very subtle, just a little sweet but really juicy. Learn how to choose and cut one here.

Breakfast

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hong Kong

Hong Kong the city is a network of islands in the Pacific, and it's very green. The airport lies just outside the city right next to Lantau Island, and the views are beautiful. In order to reach our host's house in the New Territories, we took a double decker bus and sat in front right above the driver, which meant we got to see how close he came to hitting everything in front of him. We also got to see lushly forested harbors and tall sandy colored buildings. Everyone's underwear was drying on their front porches, and there was one guy who seemed really out of place in a tiny fishing boat in the middle of a vast harbor.


The city itself is huge and difficult to navigate on foot. Plus, all the cars drive on the left side of the road so they put little reminders on all the crosswalks telling you which way to look. We managed to take in the view of the impressive skyline and Victoria Harbor from Kowloon. Turns out Hong Kongers love bright flashing lights. All the buildings were lit up with rainbows, and the skyline becomes a free light show set to music every night at 8:00.

Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbor

Today we went to Hong Kong Park. It's a really nice park, better even than Central Park. It had an aviary, a conservatory, a Tai Chi court, a foot massage path, a walk-in fountain, and an artificial lake with mustached goldfish. We went into the aviary as it was closing and the women let us in, but then walked behind us the entire time saying, "bye bye."

Kyle on the foot massage path

Photos

We're posting photos to Picasa. Anyone who wants to view them can do so here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Why I Joined the Marines


So I was going to travel the world independently with the woman that I love, but then I decided to join the marines instead. I mean, on the way to Iraq we stop in 12 ports in 10 different countries. So it's like a world tour that I get paid for. And at the end of this one I get to kill some people.

Ohhhhhhhhhh!!! Gotcha! I didn't really join the Marines.

These are the real reasons that I cut my hair.

1. It's hot in the tropics. And long hair resting on a sweaty neck is not comfortable.

2. You get less hassle at international borders if you don't look like a hippie. Or at least, this is what I hear, and we plan on crossing a lot of borders.

3. We can measure the duration of our travels by the length of my hair. Theoretically. If I don't cut it again.

4. It is symbolic of my rebirth, or indicative of entering a new phase of my life, or something like that. But it is significant... spiritually. Or something like that. You know, like what monks do... or soldiers i guess. Wow. This blog has come full circle.

Arrivals and Departures

We caught a ride into NYC yesterday with a really nice couple who contacted us through couchsurfing.com. Their names are Jenny and Bryan, and they also recently quit their jobs to travel (around the U.S. for them).


Our last glimpses of Ohio were beautiful and strangely fitting: stark white snow against the dark brown of trees in a gray sky. We've been in NYC for only a day, but my anxiety levels have already been elevated by the rush of the city. Makes me glad we're flying out in the morning, even if it is a 16-hour direct flight from JFK to Hong Kong. We're finally starting to feel a little exhilarated.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Packing List

For those of you are curious about the nitty gritty details of packing a backpack for world travel, read on. For those of you who aren't, stop here. I'm about to post a detailed list of exactly everything we're taking with us.

First off, our backpacks. We each choose 50 liter packs, which are fairly medium-sized backpacks. We wanted to be able to carry everything we need, but we also kept in mind that we would be carrying them, so we kept them on the smaller side. His is an Osprey Atmos 50, and mine is an Osprey Aura 50. With everything crammed in, mine weighs 21.4 lbs and Kyle's comes in at 22.8. Not bad considering some packs reach an upwards of 100 liters and 50-60 lbs.

As for everything inside, here's a complete list of their shared contents:


1 daypack
mesh lingerie bags (for organizing our clothes)
1 king sized sheet sewn into a sleep sack large enough to fit both of us (thanks Mom!)
1 full sized sheet sewn into a sleep sack for one
2 collapsible water bottles
2 pack towels
1 small single blade knife
1 Leatherman multi-tool
1 lighter
4 boxes water-proof matches
1 hand-held voice recorder (a sort of music journal for Kyle)
various guidebooks (Lonely Planets)
1 travel journal
2 pens
passports and photocopies of passports
credit cards
ATM cards
1 camera with memory card
1 photo uploader thinger
rechargeable batteries and wall charger
1 Ipod
1 Ipod charger
2 money belts
2 camping forks
2 camping spoons
1 x-bowl
safety pins
1 mini-sewing kit
20 ft. 3 mm cord (multi-purpose clothesline)
rubber bands
1 international power adapter kit
1 back-up pair of glasses and case
5 sets of contacts and solution (beach life here we come!)
plastic bags
2 backpack rain covers
2 purse umbrellas
1 tiny shopping bag with stuff sack
2 headlamps
Malaria meds
Anti-biotics (in case of severe traveler's diarrhea)
12 packs birth control
Pro-biotics
1 bag of TP
1 universal sink plug
10 packets cold-water laundry detergent
1 pillowcase (for dirty laundry)

First aid kit:
assorted band-aids
Neosporin
Cipro
Pepto Bismol pills
alcohol swabs
Ace bandage
Advil

toiletries:
Burt's Bees chap stick
suntan lotion
face wash
shampoo
conditioner
soap
toothbrushes
toothpaste
floss
lotion
hair ties
hair brush
comb
bobby pins
nail clippers
tweezers
feminine stuff

shoes:
1 pair Teva sandals
1 pair Keen sandals
1 pair ballerina-style Crocs
1 pair Teva men's casual slip-ons

Clothes (Christin):
1 cotton skirt
1 pull-over cotton dress
1 multi-use sundress
1 sleeveless shirt
1 t-shirt
1 multi-use scarf thing that can be made into a skirt, shirts, etc. (see video)
1 waffle shirt
1 lightweight long-sleeved shirt
1 pair linen pants with drawstring bottoms that button into capris (thanks Mom)
1 pair lightweight waffle pants
1 headbandy headcover thing from Costa Rica
2 camis
3 pairs socks
5 pairs underwear
2 bikinis

Clothes (Kyle):
3 t-shirts
2 undershirts
1 white men's dress shirt
1 pair linen drawstring pants
1 pair khakis
3 pairs socks
5 pairs underwear
1 long-sleeved waffle shirt
1 pair waffle pants
1 pair swim trunks

3/4 sized guitar and carrying case
5 sets nylon guitar strings
slide
capo
pitch pipe

Notice there are no shorts or jeans. What are we, a buncha tourists?