Ah! OK, the long-awaited Update!
Dec. 17, 2010
Kiwis Unite! We Love Kiwis!
“Hello, mates!” and “Happy Christmas” as they say from the Kiwi Nation of New Zealand! It’s hard to imagine Christmas with this weather, though right now, sunny and fluffy white cumulus popcorn clouds, then it’s terribly windy and raining – quite like California! Santa wears sunglasses, and the red and green aren’t hollies, evergreens, and berries but the native bottle brush shrub! We’ve met some REAL Kiwis (adorable, and MUCH bigger than I thought they’d be!), as well as some Wekas (Kiwi look-alikes). Rock climbing with Chris and Amy at Castle Hill Valley, Flock Hill, and surrounding rocks and boulders. One word: Scary. I prefer the belay versus the “bouldering.”
More about NZ soon…
Nov. 28, 2010
Hopping around in Sydney!
We are now in Sydney Australia and have been for the past week.
More about that later…
Happy Belated Thanksgiving, and … advance wish of a Merry Christmas! The Time Zone, warm weather (it’s beginning of Summer here!), and the lack of Americans put us into a bit of a time warp on WHEN exactly Thanksgiving was! We even forgot to call back home when the families were gathered to Skype our Wishes! The Tuesday after Thanksgiving, we had our feast at the Sydney Tower – rotating 360 degrees in an hour – we got a view from daytime, sunset and to night lights. We met a lovely couple from Melbourne, a math teacher who tried to explain Chris’ humorous message left on the sill for anyone to read. Ironically, the only one who read it was in front of us, and hence, the message traveled almost 360 degrees before it was read! The math teacher left the message, and Chris received his reply soon after that! It took over an hour… and a lively mathematical conversation ensued.
China > Thailand
Oct. 31, 2010
The transition from China’s last port for us, Hong Kong, was a bit on the down side as we were only able to stay in HK for less than 24 hours, and arrived to learn that the hostel owner cancelled our reservation. The HK Night Markets – the over six blocks of it! – were a hit with the kids, but I always felt like I’d been ripped off if I didn’t put up at least 15 minutes worth of dickering. After five such transactions, I wished that there were just set fair prices, and be done with the purchase!
The cab ride to the airport was a bit nerve racking as we only had RMB200, and weren’t sure if the cab driver would take it. Apparently, he’s originally from Shanghai, so I figure he can still use RMB though most drivers live in HK and want HK$s. The bill comes out to HK$240, but the driver takes only our Y200, and we give him all our coins for tip, though tips aren’t expected.
Hong Kong Halloween
Though HK and China sold lots of Halloween costumes and decorations, NO ONE dressed up at the airport when we waited for our flight! Amy put on the witch’s hat I bought her, and Chris juggled at our gate, but otherwise, nothing else seemed to indicate any other liveliness. Amy respectfully, and perhaps a bit fearfully, removed her witch’s hat when her passport was being inspected for leaving Hong Kong (which is NOT like leaving China – HK still acts like its own country). Of course, our flight out is scheduled for 9:45 am. Pretty early.
The night before, Amy has planned out her future – where we’ll live after traveling, what kind of house, what kind of dog(s) we will have, how we’ll remodel the basement / garage to be a gym for her gymnastics practice, … she’s really been thinking about it!
We manage to use up ALL of our HK money for breakfast at the airport. Small surprise. The flight into Bangkok was uncrowded, but it’s AirAsia.com – a VERY discounted airfare company. The seats were new, clean and very plastic-y. The attendants were pleasant welcoming us in, and seating us. Then the dickering began, … okay, maybe there was no negotiating, but there was an expectation of wallets to appear as headsets, blanket-pillow sets, drinks, snacks, and alcohol were offered! The flight was more uncomfortable as the seats did not recline! Oh, well, it was a daytime flight and mercifully short.
The Big Bang in Bangkok!
Bangkok is a riot of color, shapes, and styles. Beautiful! As has become our habit due to our luggage, rolling or not, we took a taxi to our hotel – the Aiya Residence and Sports Club – located SW of the Grand Palace across the river, it apparently is in the palace’s former location, before it was moved across the river. Getting money from the ATM in Thai Baht was a mathematical mind challenge – it just seemed like a lot of money with an extra “0” at the end… So, $1.00 = about 28 Baht, though we used $1 = 25 Baht,, or 100 Baht = about $4.
“A Baht is a lot!” exclaims Amy.
The Aiya (coming from China, we found it amusing… “Aiyeee -Ah!”) surprised us with a large room containing a queen-size bed, and a twin bunk bed, a balcony with a table set, desk and chair, small refrigerator, TV, closet space, and a sleek doe brown leather couch. Fan and air conditioning were on when we arrived, and the room was so spacious that our spreadout luggage and contents did not seem to diminish the size whatsoever. The wooden floor was pleasant to walk upon without any shoes.
The elevator to the 6th floor was a bit inconvenient as it went down from the 5th, as the call button was out of order when we checked in. The next day it was repaired. The shower and bathroom was the least glamorous – basic bath tile of light blue, and shower doors that slid. The oddity was the wall-mounted water heater for the shower. To turn it on required pushing a large button to start the low flow hot water spray. It was so high however, Amy couldn’t turn on the shower herself.
Also a bit odd, the cleaning crew left us the following daily, though we didn’t use most of it: shampoo and conditioner bottles, packets of cotton swab, shower cap, and toothbrush. By the end of our 4-day stay, we amassed quite a collection – which we left behind.
There is a Sports Club associated with and behind the hotel, and it wasn’t until just before we were to leave that we learned guests could use it for B200 (about $8) for the day. It has a swimming pool, yoga and exercise classes, workout room, showers, etc.
One of the first things we did was to hire a “tuk tuk” cab to take us to the Grand Palace – though it was almost sunset, we figured we’d at least find out where it is, and look around that area. He quoted us B200 ($8), and we took off like a shot! The wild ride of Mr. Toad comes to mind … We shot around the roundabouts of a famous General, another one decorated with giant pictures of the Queen, and over some bridge, through some major streets, and landed … in front of the Princess Grand Hotel! We explained that we wanted the Grand Palace (even showed him the paper with it written in Thai by the front desk). So, we shot off again! And landed in front of … The Royal Palace hotel! We felt it HAD to be closeby to the Grand Palace, … so we told him again where we wanted to go, but he demanded another B200! Scammer! We’d been warned about Tuk Tuk drivers doing this, so we refused, and he called over some other driver to tell us to pay. We’re about ready to call the police, as I’d read somewhere that the Thai police are sympathetic to foreigners. They back down, and the other driver tells our’s where we want to go. When dropping us off, he still tries to demand B100.
Walking around the Grand Palace as the daylight quickly dims, we see elaborately designed rooftops, edging, walls, columns… it’s beautiful!
A few days of visiting the many “Wats” (ornate temples – 95% of Thais are Buddhist, 4% Muslims, and the rest a mix of whatever is visiting at the time), Chinatown, parks, boat tours of the canals, residences, “floating market” that consisted of one boat, tuk tuk rides, and shopping at various markets and shopping centers (Silom and Chinatown’s night markets) kept us excited and curious. Khaosan Road, where many of the expats hang out, consists of many shops, very cheap hostels rooms, and hawkers geared for the non-Thai community. Some are also owned and run by expats. The street vendors provided good entertainment in cooking the dishes on their carts, and right in front of everyone. Chris threw caution to the wind and bought several orders of pad thai, and we all tried the Thai pancake, a crepe filled with a choice of nutella, bananas, cinnamon and sugar, and / or chocolate, or all of the above. The pad thai was less than $5 for a heap of noodles, and the pancakes all came out to be $9. Coffee was $2.50 at a restaurant.
We bargained for some fake Birkenstocks (not leather) and got them for $20 (a rip off), a Turkish style pants for $15, and a skirt for Amy for $10. All in all, we didn’t bargain very well, but after China’s markets, we didn’t care.
Jim Thompson and Thai Silk
A unique place to visit was the house of Jim Thompson, a silk merchant from America, who fell in love with the Southeastern Asia, and revived the sagging silk trade in Thailand. His factory and marketing outside of Thailand helped the Thai handcrafted silk masters, and created a demand that continues to this present day with the rich, brilliant silks and patterns made in Thailand. The house and grounds are hallowed and revered by the Thais as the Legend of Jim Thompson grew after he disappeared while visiting friends, and on a walk in a jungle in Malaysia. The grounds have only mildly changed with the plants’ growth and replacement, but otherwise the buildings are intact as they were designed and used, with some modified to a museum-like quality.
The quantity of pictures I took while at the house consist mainly of the patterns of the plant life, and some of the beautiful carvings from the various house parts that Jim Thompson collected from the SE Asia, like Malaysia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. The main house is made up of hallway connections of six different houses brought over and reconstructed on the site. They were kept intact except for minor changes like the carvings facing inward instead of outward, and modern appliances and conveniences installed. Jim Thompson’s wholesale of their seconds and out-dated prints shop was the only business that actually filled out a slip for me to declare at the airport to get a refund of part of the tax I paid. Though it only came out to be B235, I only received B135 because of a B100 administrative fee! Well, it was good to know that part of the VAT does get refunded! Alas, I could only spend it at the airport on the Thai souvenirs, so the money went back to Thailand anyway!
Getting out of Bangkok
Our attempt to reach Phuket (“Poo – ket” – the “ph” is NOT an “F” sound!) was rained out by a monsoon, and the roads were closed due to floods just north of Phuket. The southern peninsula was closed off except by plane. There were fundraisers around Bangkok for the flood victims. We did our part in donating some money. However, the cost of a flight to Phuket would have been about $325 / person. We were greatly disappointed to not go there.
That said, we entertained the idea of heading to Chiang Mai, and from some advice by two travelers from Brazil who suggested taking the bus which was First Class for much less. A bus ticket came out to B811, and left at 9 pm.
Curious about the bus ride since it was hyped up as “first class!” (Ha ha!) we got to the bus station just in the nick of time, we ran to board after shoving our luggage into the bottom of the bus, and climbed up a winding stairway to the upper level. The seats were comfy, clean, and had fuzzy upholstery. They reclined somewhat more than a plane’s seat, and there were TVs playing a comedy show. It was pretty loud. Soon after we began the ride, there actually was an attendant on the bus who served us a box dinner (unfortunately, we’d already eaten dinner), and gave us blankets. Chris fell asleep immediately. Amy and I watched the comedy show. The lights were turned down, and by 11 pm the TV was turned off. The show seemed quite amusing and funny, so I’m going to find out more about this Thai style of humor. Dozing off finally, we were awakened to darkness when the bus stopped. We arrived at the Chiang Mai bus terminal on time, at 6:30 am, unfortunately.
Despite our terribly early beginning, our two short days in Chiang Mai were idyllic. We stayed at the Butterfly Resort Hotel, a hole in the wall place – or by the river – about 15 minutes by taxi northeast of Chiang Mai center. It’s been around for only two years.
With our predawn arrival the taxi driver missed the front three times, and by the dawn’s early light – we saw the discrete signs, ‘Butterfly Resort” decorated with small butterflies on the elegant but muted fence. The gate’s lamp was lit, and the door open. We brought in all of our luggage across the stepping stones to the open thatched dias but no one was about. We left the luggage there, and wandered around the premises, found the restaurant staff just starting to lay out the breakfast items. Exhausted, we asked to stay, and were offered breakfast though it didn’t begin for another hour! That was our introduction to Chiang Mai.
As the sun came up, our surroundings grew more and more idyllic! The fast-moving river bordered the green grassy slope of remote wicker and wooden settees, cabanas, and provided the view from lounges and cushioned sitting areas scattered around the property. Some can be found on the 2nd floor, complete with triangular-shaped cushions on raised platforms that catch the cool breezes under the top-heavy thatched pointed roofs. With the tall shade trees providing the mottled shade, butterflies really floated freely by us as we sat! A large serving of peaceful quiet! What more could one ask after the bustling hustling of China and Bangkok?
One evening, we decided to take a cooking class offered by Siam Rice, owned and run by Nan and Pot in their home turned culinary institute! We met several people, and took a ton of pictures, learned how to make Thai curries from scratch – ALL of them! From mildest Mousamam and Penang to Green, Red, and Jungle Curry! Chris was the only one who chose Jungle curry, and was greatly admired by all for his courage. Especially by Nan and Pot. They said that it was a real man who made and ate such a curry. It contains at least ten Thai peppers supplemented by 30-50 more chili peppers, mostly reds, being the more potent one. The other curries had 3-10 red and / or green chili peppers. Amy chose the Mousamam curry, the one containing only 3 chili peppers, as she opted for NO heat … well, it was the minimum, and she bravely tasted all of our dishes, except for the Jungle. No amount of encouragement from Chris could have her even THINK of trying the Jungle!
It was a great evening, and Nan and Pot are really friendly, funny, and fun-loving people. They are easy-going, accomodating, and experienced chefs. At one point, since they didn’t want Amy handling a wok on fire by herself, Nan took her under her wing as a demonstrator, and stood by her to flambe the wok. When it came time for Amy to flip in the scoop of chicken, her hand slipped, and the scoop dumped the chicken onto the floor next to Nan! Without missing a beat, Nan took an extra bowl of chicken, put it and all the rest of the items needed into the scoop, called to her assistant to clean up the dropped chicken, and prompted Amy to do it again but into the WOK this time! The flambe was impressive. Amy shrank back in amazement, though Nan encouraged her to give the wok a shake! When the flames died down a few minutes later, Nan said it was all the rest of our’s turn! “Whoooosh!” “Floom!” Flames from everyone’s wok shot up at least 2 feet! Good thing we were cooking outdoors in the driveway modified outdoor industrial kitchen. For B800 each (Amy was only B400!) it was a great dinner, learning experience, and we each received a homemade cookbook! We also bought some cute aprons that Nan’s family made to sell for their son’s college education fund (he’s one-years-old right now). They were only B100, so we bought 5 of them. On the drive to our hotel, we found out Pot likes karaoke, and that Nan had tried the Fish Spa for five minutes, though she said perhaps after 25 more minutes she would have felt more relaxed. A Fish Spa is where one sits by a large fish tank, placing one’s legs inside the tank, the water just below the knees, and small to medium-sized fish begin nipping at the dead skin cells. It looks like the legs are covered by wiggling brown grey fuzz as the fish kind of line outward from the legs.
The next day, Amy and I went on a 100+-meter high Zip-Line tour in the rainforest trees – used by scientific researchers, originally – and met the Changs from Singapore! Little did we know what a great discovery we made then!
Helmeted, harnessed, trained how to clip on and off, Chia Leng, Young, Isabel, and Amber (AKA Mei), Amy and I gamely explored the heights of the many platforms and cable lines strung amongst the tall trees – mostly multi-limbed and stemmed Banyan trees (Ficus bejamina) with “Yo” and “Ai” as our experienced guides. They climb and zip through these trees at least five to eight times a day, leading a max of ten people each time! Twenty plus lines later – longest one being about 80+ meters and about as high up, travelling a rise and drop of about 1,000 feet, we were served a simple Thai lunch of red curry and veggies, jasmine rice and a tasty vegetable soup. Then a hike to a beautifully long and tall waterfall before being dropped off by 6:30 pm at the Ducit 2 hotel, where we had planned to meet Chris. For B2,995 each ($120), it was certainly an active way to remember Chiang Mai!
Something NEW: Lead Climbing
Chris had spent the day learning how to lead climb. He finally returned at 7:30 pm – an hour later than we planned! Amy was greatly disappointed as she wanted us to meet the Changs at the Dinner with the Tigers – though we found out that was about 30 minutes away, and we were to leave by train at 9 pm. Chris, however, was on cloud nine about his experience lead climbing with the lead climber and guide, Muad Kaekwan, and the limited group that went on this advanced trek on the Chiang Mai mountains. They began at 8:30 am and returned by 7:30 pm! His climbing cost the same as our Zip-Line tour! We thought we got the better deal, though.
Train Ride from Chang Mai to Bangkok
The 9 pm train ride back to Bangkok arrived to the Chiang Mai station at 10 pm, no explanations. Before we could board, a crew began cleaning out the 3-car train. One man used a power sprayer to hose down the platform side of the train, occasionally missing the open windows (those turned out to be to the bathrooms), and the entrances to board the train. We were given a box dinner, and nice thick basketweave white cotton blankets. There are rotating electric fans blowing from the center of the ceiling, making it cold as the temperatures in Chiang Mai were lower than in Bangkok, about 65-70 degrees F.
A batch of four backpackers in front of us began drinking and playing a card game. It looked like a long sleepless night… until the conductor saw our tickets and insisted we move though the car was less than half full. Our car was the 3rd one, and we were sitting in the 1st one. So, taking all of our luggage, blankets, boxed dinners, we got up to move. Our blankets were confiscated from us! Odd. Anyway, in the right seats in the right car, we were given blankets, too, thank goodness. It was a quieter car, no groups planning on staying up all night. The box dinner contained rice and some slices of an unknown meat. We didn’t eat any of it – not because we just had dinner beforehand (an expensive one at the Ducit 2 hotel!), or that it looked unappealing – which it did – but we were just too tired. The plastic seats reclined quite far back – a blessing – but therein was the benefit. There were a gazillion stops along the way, and passengers got on and off, even in the middle of the night. Our ride began about 10:30 pm, and we stopped at about ten stations. I don’t know exactly as at some point, I might have passed out with exhaustion.
Lessons learned: The ride actually DID take 12 hours. We arrived at Bangkok main station, the last stop, at 10:30 pm. The whole ride cost us B611 each (about $21 each). Between the bus up to Chiang Mai and the train ride back to Bangkok, I’d say they were about even in convenience, cost, comfort… the 3 C’s. One star out of five. */*****
The train’s western bathrooms are worse than the squat toilets – even with windows wide open. (I can hardly wait to ride the trains in India after this!)
Our last day in Thailand we spent lounging around a bit, repacking, and relocated to a hotel closer to the airport – which was a mistake as the cab ride to there cost us twice what we would have saved if we’d stayed at the Aiya and taken a cab from there! The reason it cost us so much? The driver was lost and couldn’t find the address, much less the street! He consulted with locals, and finally found the place. It was an okay place – sterile, it had an elevator to lug our suitcases and baggage up to the fourth floor, but every floor had a short set of stairs to reach the rooms! What a relatively useless elevator.
The “restaurant” in back, the only easy access place to eat, was more a trailer with food brought in from the kitchen somewhere else. Though not expensive, it wasn’t delicious either. Massage is offered 24 hours from a woman who boards in one of the rooms, and is pretty inexpensive – B40 for one hour (about $13). I was tempted, but too tired. We had to get up early for our flight to Singapore!