Category Archives: Thailand

The Best and Worst of Southeast Asia (and Nepal)

People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was.  That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food.  We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.

We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go.  There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog.  For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t.  There are a lot of ties.  This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you.  Here are the highlights, and lowlights:

Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut

Worst Meal: Luang Prabang, Laos – fishy papaya salad

Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons

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From Poon Hill – some of the tallest mountains in the world.  Annapurna region, Nepal
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Prayer flags on Poon Hill
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Morning mist in Bagan, Myanmar
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Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar

Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water

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Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia

Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans

Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas

Best coffee: Vietnam

Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos                              

Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups

Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas

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Monks with umbrellas in Laos
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“Formal” Longyi (skirts)
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Tough to ride a bike in a skirt
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Even tougher to work construction in one

Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair

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Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam

Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam

Best new vegetable: Morning glory

Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams

Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos

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Not even ice and beer could dull the pain – I was red for a month

Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man

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And we were only 7 hours late on the way up to Sapa, Vietnam

Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos

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Miles and miles like this

Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum

Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore

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Marina Bay Sands & Lotus inspired museum, Singapore

Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali

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Bajawa mountain village, Flores, Indonesia
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Ubud house entrance, Bali, Indonesia
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Ubud house courtyard, Bali, Indonesia
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Another courtyard in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)

Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans

Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)

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Rice terraces outside Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee

Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places

Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam

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Phong Nha caves, Vietnam

Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar

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Sukhothai, Thailand
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90,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar
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80,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night

Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia

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Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam
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Bamboo train tracks, Battambong, Cambodia
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Bamboo train, Battambong, Cambodia

Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand

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James Bond Island, Thailand

Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia

Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia

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Borodubur, Indonesia
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Prambanan, Indonesia

Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar

Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)

Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal

Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore

Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)

Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated

Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia

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This was one of my all time favorite moments. Rhinos in Chitwan, Nepal
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Scary macaque in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia
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Elephant in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia

Sipadan (1)
Look left, see Riki
Sipadan (4)
Look right, see me.
Sipadan (3)
Look left again, see (sea) turtle.
Sipadan (2)
Look right again, see shark. Repeat.

Most interesting city: Kathmandu

Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)

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School girl in Laos

Best propaganda: Vietnam

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Propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam
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More propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Coolest flag: Nepal

Safest street food: Thailand

Best night markets: Thailand

Best music: Nepal

Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival

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Spontaneous street dancing, Pokhara, Nepal
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More dancing, Pokhara, Nepal

Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)

Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them

Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia

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Not just tall – they grew out of stone

Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)

Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)

Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)

Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)

Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings

Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry

Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses

Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)

Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises

Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening

Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics

Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella

Most useless item: umbrella

Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts

Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts

Crazy things we are used to now:

trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language

Things we missed:

Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers

I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth.  I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs,  and standing on an escalator.  Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous.  I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day.  I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels.  I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street.  But Zurich’s not all that bad.  It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.

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Money, money, money…Backpacking Southeast Asia

According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans.  And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far.  We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend.  Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news.  We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases.  I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures.  For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen.  This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted.  We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions.  These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash.  The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip.  We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages.  For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).

First, the average accommodation prices.  Keep in mind these are double occupancy.  Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost.  Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.

Thailand: $13.89

Vietnam: $15.05

Nepal: $17.14

Laos: $9.96

Cambodia: $13.12

Myanmar: $20.61

Indonesia: $14.33

Malaysia: $15.76

Singapore: $22

Brunei: $26

We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.

Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries.  However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw.  In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food.  Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants.  Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu.  These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal.  Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning).  My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time.  Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.

Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries.  This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking.  Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.

Some tips for planning:

We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia).  These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers.  It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently.  Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive.  We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided).  Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+.  We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us.  It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles.  For a long trip like this, it was worth it.  For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.

Nepal is a tough one to write.  We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died.  It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete.  However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (deuchatri56@hotmail.com).  It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.

In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked.  The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort.  Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.

Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive.  While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours.  We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia.  Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.

As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia.  For this was the place to do it.  By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal.  And it was so worth it.  Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month.  You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam.  Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.

In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything.  Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive.  There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.

MONEY.  Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar).  We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs.  Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills.  Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards.  We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving).  Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards.  With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.

To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply.  Estimate accommodation according to above numbers.  Spend $3-8 on food per day.  Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar.  Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40.  We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service.  Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop.  For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab.  Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.

Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination.  They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet.  If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do.  Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here.  Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way.  Our recommendations will be in the next post.

Final thoughts since they have wifi at the airport….Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

275 days. 10 countries. 15 flights. 7 trains. Countless buses. Over 100 different beds/floors in 92 lodgings (not including night buses). Meals with bugs in them: 1, that we know of.

So overall, a pretty good trip. We think. We certainly didn’t know a year ago what this trip to Asia would entail. We did significantly less research ahead of time than some travelers we met. But we also did a lot more research on the road than many too. We weren’t ones to show up in a new city without an inkling of an idea of where to go. We may not have had a hostel reservation, but we usually had a street or neighborhood in mind when we alighted in a new place. And we were certainly prepared in a toiletries/medicine sense. We had way more Immodium and Benedryl than needed, but the rest of the toiletries we slowly used up and our bag now is a fraction of the size as when we started. FYI – they do have all the necessities in Asia, especially Cambodia, where you can buy almost any medicine over the counter for almost nothing.

Some things we didn’t need, most of which we returned with my parents when we met them in Nepal: full size tripod (replaced with mini tripod in Bangkok), nice flats (flip flops are universal here), extra long sleeve shirt (too warm most of the time), carabiners, extra shoelaces

Some things we lost/broke/replaced along the way: 11 socks (lost), 2 combination locks (lost), sunglasses (broke), running shoes (worn out), rain jacket (turns out it leaked), 2 of Julie’s large backpacks (each knockoff lasted about 3-4 months)

Some things we wished we had: real Swiss army knife, better rain jacket (see above), quality sunscreen (we brought 6 bottles, but had a tough time finding replacements)

Some things we acquired: incredible art from all over SE Asia, custom suit/dresses from Vietnam, friends from all over the world, ability to say “hello” and “thank you” and “chicken” in a number of languages, insight to people and cultures we knew little or nothing about

Some things we will miss (not to say we will never experience these again): access to some of the best food we’ve ever had, abundant amount of friendly & helpful locals (besides New Orleans, we’ve never experienced this outside Asia), frequently meeting new people with incredible stories, the thrill of a new and exotic city, having no set schedule

Some things we will not miss: smell of dried fish, squat and trough toilets (especially for ladies), people throwing trash out windows

The best advice I can give to people attempting something similar to us is not to overplan (and travel light). Some of the best things we did were found through word of mouth. Not having a set schedule gave us a chance to determine once we arrived how long we would spend there. It is a luxury not many people have, but even if you only have a few weeks, it is easy enough to plan a few days at a time, rather than be tied to a strict schedule. For us, because we had so much time, we usually found we were cutting days off of places we didn’t find as exciting, rather than adding days, though we tacked on a rest day when needed. I think the only time we felt really rushed was in Indonesia, when it was more difficult to get around and we only had a 30 day visa. We would have liked to visit more of the islands, but flying more and getting a visa extension would have proved cost prohibitive.

Speaking of costs, we didn’t have an overall budget for this trip. We saved for a number of years and travelled as cheaply as possible, without overly inconveniencing ourselves. Some of the cheap alternatives we took were grueling bus rides and eating street food. We walked everywhere we could, saving money on taxis and public transit. We didn’t buy many souvenirs and we spent very little on added luxuries. We avoided restaurants with table cloths, settling for plastic chairs most of the time, which turned out to have some of the best food anyway. We also stayed in hostels most of the trip, sometimes dorms, but usually double rooms with shared bathrooms were cheaper. We haggled everywhere, when appropriate, and saved a lot of money by being smart about our purchases and hardly partying. It wasn’t easy and sometimes it was very stressful, but having the luxury of no real budget let us experience a lot of things we may have forgone had we been on a strict budget. When we get back to a secure internet connection, I hope to compile our bank statements and figure out how much we spent in each country. It may be more difficult than it sounds, but I think it will be a good precedent for any future trips we take and a helpful thing to share with other backpackers.

We have been incredibly humbled by the generosity we have been privy to over the last few months. So many people have made our trip a truly unique and genuine experience. And while the food and sights were amazing and beautiful, it was ultimately the people we met along the way and the support we got from friends and family that influenced us the most.

It is bittersweet as we are waiting at the airport to leave Asia. We are excited to see familiar faces, but sad to leave behind the fabulous new things we have discovered. So thanks for reading, and sorry there are no pictures this time.

Stay tuned for more post trip conclusions and our struggle with reverse culture shock.

last day packs

Riki’s first trip over the equator….Jakarta, Indonesia

We took a 1.5 hour minibus to the Phuket airport from Phang Nga, which was uneventful, except for the rude guy who took up two seats and then spilled his coke all over the floor. We were very early for our 7 pm flight, but the airport had free wifi and we were able get some research done and I even finished a few blogs. The Phuket airport was packed with tourists, which made for very interesting people-watching. We had plenty of time to explore, but this also meant we needed to eat. Having depleted our snacks, we went to a ‘New York deli’ and tried to order a chicken sandwich.

Sorry, no bread.

Ok, but you have panini bread, can I have it on panini bread?

No, set menu.

Ok, but you don’t have a chicken panini.

No.

So I can’t get chicken on panini bread?

No, set menu.”

My only other option was a sliced meat resembling ham, so we left and I decided to break my super-chain rule and went to DQ for some ice cream. But then the guy in front of me had a very similar problem. He wanted a chocolate sundae, but they didn’t have any more plastic cups for the sundaes. But they had ice cream, and chocolate, and paper cups of the same size. But they couldn’t put the sundae in the paper cup because that was only for blizzards. So he left. I ordered a mango and sticky rice blizzard and was thankful I even got to eat.

Arriving in Jakarta at 10 pm, we had arranged for our hostel to pick us up as the public transport options were not available that late. We paid our $35 visa fee (which is being suspended later this month, just a few weeks too late for us) and went out to find our driver. But he wasn’t there. Eventually, we got in contact with the hostel, they called the driver, woke him up, and he hurried over to collect us. Not a great intro to Jakarta.

Luckily, the next day was much better. Many people skip Jakarta, as it is big, bustling and hectic. Fortunately, that’s right up our alley. We arranged for our train to Yogyakarta the next day and then headed out to wander the neighborhoods around our hostel. Jakarta has some Dutch influence from when it was an influential trading center in the 18th century.  It was later occupied by the Japanese in 1942.  The Dutch tried to return after the Japanese fell in 1945.  They were met with resistance, but still managed to prolong Indonesia’s independence until 1949.  Indonesia is now made up of thousands of islands with many different cultures.

Within minutes of leaving our hostel to explore the neighborhood, we had heard “Hey mister” a dozen times and were a bit perplexed. Where did they learn this? Why not just “Hello.” So nobody was talking to me, just Mister (Riki). It was a bit strange. But we soon realized that this was all in a friendly way – nobody wanted to sell us anything or scam us. Just a greeting. Big smiles, lots of waving and many curious looks. Not many tourists walk the small alleys there.

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Poor frogs – alive, but shackled together

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Then we walked to the old center, around a very crowded square (as it was Saturday – it was packed with locals) and where we were less noticed. Locals were renting bikes which came with matching sun hats to pedal around the plaza and take pictures.

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Old Dutch bridge
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Not a job I’d want – the water is very polluted
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This waterway was particularly odorous
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Old town plaza
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Bikes with matching hats
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There must be loads of pictures of us on Indonesian Facebook. We get stopped every day to take pictures, so we get one for ourselves as well.

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We navigated back to a big bus stop and found our way south to the National Museum.

This museum may be worth it in itself to visit Jakarta. We arrived only 2 hours before closing, and we had to hurry through to see everything. It is very well laid out, with different sections for all the different cultures of Indonesia. I had no idea they were so different. It was a great introduction to the country for us, complete with good English translations. We have been to so many terrible museums on this trip, but this one is incredible. And it costs less than $1 for foreigners. A favorite section had miniature models of all the different kinds of houses around the countries.

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But there were sections on language, music, religion and clothing as well. The penis sheaths being particularly amusing.

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The next day we took a walk around a neighborhood that was heavily affected by the riots in 1998.  After the Asia financial crisis in 1997, Jakarta became an epicenter for violence and crime.  At one point, four students were shot by security officers at a university.  This sparked riots that lasted for four days, damaged about 6,000 buildings and killed about 1,200 people.  There is not much left to see now, but we did notice that many neighborhoods still have tall gates at each street, presumably to curtail the spread of violence.

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Big gate

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We then headed to the train station for our 8.5 hour trip to Yogyakarta, which was smooth, but incredibly uncomfortable on hard seats that were very upright.

Secret Agent Island….Phang Nga, Thailand

Our last stop in southern Thailand is Phang Nga, not to be confused with the locale of the Vietnamese caves we so greatly admired – Phong Nha.

It was a torturous 86 kms from Krabi to Phang Nga. In the States, that could probably be done in about an hour, with smooth roads the whole way. Not so here. We first had to take a minibus to a travel agent’s station, where we were dumped in with a hundred other tourists going to a dozen different locations. And waited for an indeterminate amount of time. Everyone else had stickers on their shirts, but not us. As we were the only ones headed to Phang Nga, we were eventually squashed into a very hot and cramped minibus with others going past Phang Nga to Phuket. Riki’s prickly heat was not amused. We stopped after 30 minutes so the crazy driver, who sped up around turns, could eat lunch. No one else ate. Then we were back on the road and deposited at the local bus station after almost 3 hours.

Phang Nga is not known for hosting many tourists. And it shows. Our air-conditioned hotel was not really up to the standards for its Bangkok price of over $15. We opted for a/c to cool the prickly heat and planned on a luxurious few days in the chill enjoying our hot water, mini fridge and TV. Well, the hot water didn’t work, the fridge was less than luke warm and the TV only had a two channels in English (Nat Geo – which only has fishing shows and a strange movie channel with an intense delay between picture and sound). But we weren’t here for the hotel room.

We were here to take a whole day boat trip to see some amazing and gorgeous islands, that have been inhabited for thousands of years.

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Very old cave paintings

Our boat trip was a bit dampered by three rambunctious boys in our boat, but the scenery more than made up for their antics. To sum it up: Rule #1 of parenthood should be: never buy your children noise makers (especially on a 10 passenger boat).

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Our boat

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We visited the James Bond Island, where The Man With the Golden Gun was shot.

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Classic pose
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Another classic pose

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At the end, we stopped at a village where the only thing on dry ground is the mosque and the cemetary. The rest is unfortunately, tourist shops and a cool floating “stadium.” They also had massive cats, no dogs.

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Floating stadium
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Just think about trying to learn a bike when this is your only road, 20 feet above water/mud with no railing.

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I also discovered sticky rice with mango, coconut milk and little seeds. Why I never tried this before is beyond me. I ate as many as I could. We also discovered a million dollar idea – popsicles dipped in unflavored gellatin to keep them from melting. Genius. And delicious.

We visited the Heaven and Hell cave, which has some gory scenes outside and an awesome dragon walkway/entrance. Unfortunately, the lights weren’t on and we couldn’t go into the cave very far.

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Screw threw her belly – definitely not a heaven image

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At the same location is a nice view of the area, or so we heard. Our ascent to the viewpoint was hindered by a horde (flock, gaggle, herd, etc) of mean monkeys, who bite, or so we were told. I had to leave my little bag of snacks at the entrance, or risk being bitten by these aggressive guys. Riki was too afraid to take out his camera and attract their attention, but we were 30 feet from the top with a Thai man and his sister, when we realized there would be no passing these red-faced creatures. Riki’s fear of heights kicked in, and rightfully so, as the concrete stair seemed unsupported with a rather short guardrail. We raced back down, single file, with me practically stepping on Riki’s feet trying to avoid the monkey who was at my elbow. We did get a photo at the bottom, before collecting my bag and walking back to town.

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Calm little guy after chasing us down the steps
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One of these is real. And mean.

Other news – our last day was the Princess’ birthday. Everyone was wearing purple (her birthday color) and we heard there were blood donor centers and free haircuts. Riki got a free haircut, but it was using my second grader scissors in our bathroom where the sink drains to the floor and the drain is across the room, so every time you walk in, you step in toothpaste. Genius.

Next stop: Phuket Airport for a quick flight to Jakarta, Indonesia.

 

Back on the mainland….Krabi & Railay Beach, Thailand

The island of Koh Tao was a bit too touristy for our liking, so we hopped on a catamaran ferry and headed back to the mainland for some peace. No crazy travel story, besides the normal day long trip – taxi, ferry, switch ferries, bus, minibus. We arrived in the town of Krabi, in southern Thailand in time for dinner. Krabi is not overrun with tourists, but it is a jumping off point for some islands and has an airport, so it is more bustling than we expected. However, it was very badly damaged by the tsunami in 2004. It is mostly rebuilt and has an interesting collection of artwork lining its waterfront.

We went to the night market and scoped out the food before deciding that the Mexican food at our hostel would be a nice change from rice and noodles. It wasn’t very Mexican – my burrito was more like a taco, but the flavors were close and sometimes you just can’t eat any more noodles.

We spent the next day researching for our next stop, Indonesia and catching up on the blog. Our hostel only had fan rooms, and ours had no outside window. This hot combination proved to reignite Riki’s prickly heat and we spent as much time as possible under any available fan.

The next morning, we joined some other tourists for a long tail boat trip to Railay Beach. It is not an island, but is only reachable by boat because of the rock formations surrounding it.  This is a popular climbing place, and no amount of convincing was going to get me to try that (my lack of upper body strength and Riki’s “fear of heights” prevailed). I’d rather go diving.

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We did however find a viewpoint and lagoon to climb to. And climb we did. There were ropes and dirt involved, and at one point a lost flipflop (yes, we were in sandals). It was enough climbing for us.

This beach was also very hard hit by the tsunami and Riki spent a good hour looking at videos from the area later. Take a look, they are incredible. It’s a beautiful spot, but full of tourists. Not really our scene. Back to Krabi that evening, which has a nicer mix of locals and foreigners.

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There is a crazy video of this beach during the tsunami on youtube.
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Climb down to the lagoon
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Very steep descent (and ascent later where Riki dropped his flip flop)
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Food stall

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And an artsy shot:

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Next stop: Inching closer to the Phuket airport at Phang Nga.

 

Swimming with shark(s)….Koh Tao, Thailand

We took the morning long tail boat back to Ranong, Thailand, where we switched to a songthiew and then to a minibus headed to Chumphon. We had planned to take a night ferry from there to Koh Tao, but arrived just in time to catch the afternoon high speed catamaran instead. The night ferry sounded pretty uncomfortable, but we thought it would take much longer to cross the Isthmus of Kra. We forgot we were in Thailand, where the buses are pretty reliable and you don’t have to wait very long to go anywhere. But then the boat left 45 minutes late anyway, so you never know.

The first stop of the boat was pretty jarring. We approached Nang Yuan, a small group of islands connected by isthmuses of beach. It was a beautiful setting, so Riki went up top to check it out. While he was gone, hundreds of tourists got on the boat, overflowing the aisles in their matching hats, shirts and even shoes, the first of whom yelled “where’s the champagne?” as soon as he got on the boat. We’re not in Myanmar anymore. Luckily, it wasn’t far to our stop, Koh Tao. We were a day early for our scheduled accommodation, so we stayed near the pier at a cheap place, while we cruised the little roads jam-packed with tourist shops, dive centers and restaurants. We saw more Westerners than Thais, but also a surprising number of people from Myanmar. A complete contrast to our quiet week on Koh Chang.

The next day we checked into a dive center’s hotel and then went on a hike, over the mountains to the deserted resort on the other side of the island. It was pretty eerie, as this resort has been closed only a few years, so is mostly intact, except for missing windows, furniture and a few thatched roofs.

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That afternoon we started our open water class. We were introduced to the course and then watched some videos with two other students. It was a bit intimidating, as Riki and I were both a bit apprehensive about diving. After, we were given homework to complete for the morning. It wasn’t hard, but it took a brain shift to read and answer questions again. Not something we’ve done in quite a while.

On our first full day, we met in the morning to go over our homework and watch more videos. These included a lot of safety info, as well as procedures for ascending, descending and how to use all the gear. That afternoon, we took a boat out to the island, Nang Yuan, the same island where the hoards of tourist had boarded our ferry. We did a swim test, involving swimming around the boat three times and then floating for 10 minutes. We passed.

We then proceeded with our “confined” dive, which for us was in open, but very calm water. Everyone had neglected to tell us that while this sounds very easy, it is actually terrifying. The water was shallow and at no point could we not have surfaced, but just being under the water and breathing from a small hose was a shock to our senses. Plus, my goggles were fogged almost the entire time, so I couldn’t see more than just blurry shapes in front of me. Oh, and I had some problems getting one of my ears to pop, despite being only a few meters down. Riki ran out of air first (probably all that heavy breathing to calm down), so we headed to the surface for some more exercises.

Day 2, we met in the morning to go over our homework and take the final exam. We passed. Then we headed back on the boat to the same area for our first real dive. This went better than anticipated. We were able to relax a bit and swim around without freaking out. It was still really intimidating to be so far under water and there’s always that little urge to look around for sharks in the back of my mind (or front). We saw a porcupine pufferfish, a white-eyed moray eel and a ton of small fish and sea cucumbers.

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Day 3 began at 6 am with a longer and very choppy ride to a deeper dive site. As we arrived, the boats already there were signalling shark. For me, that means, no way in hell am I getting in the water, but we had learned that this particular shark, the whale shark, was not a danger to us and doesn’t eat humans. I just told myself it was a whale, not a shark. So we were rushed into the water, which was not great since we were still very new to the process of getting everything ready and buddy checks and whatnot. Within a few minutes, we spotted a 4-5m whale shark, with tons of smaller (but still big) fish circling it. It was a pretty magestic sight. Apparently, this was a small one and they can get much, much bigger. It was still immense to me. The whale shark swam above us and rather than following it around like many other divers, we went off to explore the rest of the reef.

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We saw so many beautiful fish, coral and things I can not yet identify. Luckily, we had a videographer with us that day, so we can share some of the images. It was like something out of Planet Earth, or the underwater equivalent TV show.

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The whale shark didn’t make another appearance, so we ascended into big swells and boarded the boat for our second dive in calmer waters. Same same, beautiful marine life in clear water.

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I think we were supposed to flip more, Riki got close.
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I didn’t quite get far enough around.
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Riki is double OK. (not thumbs up – that means go up to the surface)
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There we are.
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I found some fish.
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High jump
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SHARK!

We met up that night to watch the video from that day and say goodbye to our group, as we had booked a ferry back to the mainland for the next day.

I really must thank Riki’s parents (mostly mom) for convincing us to try diving. We had both kind of shouldered it off as something we didn’t really want to do. But we were very pleasantly surprised, once we got over the kind of claustrophobia of being attached to an air hose while under 18m of water. And we were very lucky, it takes some people thousands of dives to see a whale shark. We reached the pinnacle of our diving career on dive 3. Its all downhill from here.

Next stop, Krabi, Thailand, to see some beaches and eat some good curry.

Life’s a beach….Myanmar to Ranong & Koh Chang, Thailand

We were told to report for our 14:15 flight at 11:00 in the morning. 3 hours early for a 45 minute flight. Ok, no problem. We arrived at the tiny airport right on time and attempted to follow the other passengers into the “terminal” (code for low brick building with little kiosks and one metal detector). No luck, we were turned back at the police checkpoint and told to wait outside for an undisclosed amount of time. Well, it was hot and sitting on the curb wasn’t much fun, so we kept asking if we could go in and showed them on our ticket where it said 11 am. Finally, they relented and we were able to enter the building, and at least sit in broken plastic chairs until we could check in. When we were finally able to check in, we put our bags on a massive, ancient scale (which said they weighed 7 something, couldn’t have been kilos or pounds as our bags are more in the 12-15 kg range) and were ushered to the immigration counter, where a very nice man who spoke pretty good English questioned us and painstakingly wrote down our names (they haven’t figured out what is surname and what is not in Myanmar, so we are often times referred to by our middle names). Then we waited some more before being lined up for the security check. I don’t know why they even bother with the metal detector. Every single person in front of us kept their wallets and/or phones in their pockets and set off the machine. And then they had an official use the beeping wand over everyone. I didn’t set off the machine, but they still used the wand. It was madness and took forever to get through the 50 people who were boarding the plane. The plane was on time, and we took our premium seats at the front of the full flight. And then it was lovely. We had a pretty good view of the Mergui archipelago and followed our map as we flew over island after island. I leaned over Riki the whole way to see out the window. Nobody spoke English, but we were given shortbread cookies and Cokes. Wonderful contrast. Nothing like the night buses (or the 12 hour ferry we opted to forgo).

Arriving in Kawthong on the border of Thailand, we hitched a ride in a strange motobike side car vehicle and were dropped off at the pier, where we were promptly scammed from the getgo. The only way across the border is by boat, which is supposed to cost a few dollars and take about 20 minutes (we know, we read up on it). Well, first we wanted to change all our kyat to baht, buy a bottle of Myanmar rum and then go to immigration. A guy followed us around the whole time, warning that the border was going to close (it wasn’t) and that we should get on the boat right away. He found a guy who would change our money and then he followed us to the immigration counter where we were stamped out and then told to go get our stamps photocopied in town. So of course our little shadow showed us where conveniently, we could photocopy our passports right across the street. When we returned to the immigration desk to hand in our copy, I gave the guys at the desk an earful. They had a copier on the desk (said it didn’t work) and they had a passport scanner. They also had a little camera and high-tech software. They didn’t need a physical copy. Such a waste of trees. While Riki was fretting that they would put us in jail for causing a scene, I reasoned that we already had our exit stamp so there wasn’t much they could do. I’m not sure they understand all the scolding and pointing anyway. We took our boat and were packed in with 8 other Myanmar people. We went through at least two checkpoints and were finally on the Thai side (an hour later and quite a few dollars more than expected), where the immigration was painless and straightforward and free.

After hailing a songtheaw, we arrived in the town of Ranong and checked into a basic hotel for a night before heading back to the pier for a boat to Koh Chang the next day. Koh Chang was just what we needed, some quiet  beach time. It is full of older German people, who come every year and leave their books behind. I managed to find some English ones and read on average one a day for 5 days. Like Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia, this island only had power from 6-10pm. It does have at least one restaurant with wifi though.

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So we played cards, went swimming and walked around the island. The food was really good, reasonably priced for an island and we drank our bottle of Myanmar Rum. The island is full of cashew trees and rubber trees. Having never seen these up close, we were delighted to find that when it dries, rubber comes out of the tree just like rubber bands. That entertained us for longer than it should. Cashews grow on a tree (who knew) and have a very strong smelling fruit attached, part of which is poisonous (or sour, depending on who you ask).

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Cashew fruit

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The tides on Koh Chang were immense, possibly the combination of the new moon and the equinox at the same time? In the early morning, we had to walk for a few minutes to reach the water. By 11 am, it was a few seconds from our bungalow. The water was warm, calm and the beach was fascinating with fine black sand mixed with chunky white sand.

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Same boat

We also discovered a friendly bird species, the hornbill, who would come hop around in the trees near our bungalow. They were huge and looked like a toucan with a protrusion on the top of its bill.

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Our first evening, we were minding our own business playing cards at the restaurant, when a small lizard landed on Riki’s leg. Apparently, they fall asleep and then fall from their upside down perches. Not 5 minutes later, I was putting the water bottle back on the table, when a huge lizard jumped from the roof onto the bottle, knocking it over and shocking both me and himself (as I assume he then realized the water bottle was not a giant bug) before hopping back up to the roof. We saw a few more like this big one, great colors.

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We also spotted another Iguanadon (monitor lizard?) later in the week, but we didn’t have the camera. So we spent the days reading in hammocks, drawing maps (Riki), writing Myanmar blogs to be posted later (me), sewing patches on our bags (both), wandering the island, and just generally avoiding the sun (as most people do at the beach, right?). And developing prickly heat (Riki) – a local term for heat rash. Riki saw a cat eat a lizard.

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We witnessed the highest tide of the year, which flooded the paths and made crossing an already precarious bridge, even more so. It was just what the doctor ordered, except for the prickly heat. During this time, we were convinced by a few people (mostly Riki’s mom) to try scuba diving. So we arranged for an open water class and headed off to Koh Chang to the other side of the Isthmus of Kra.

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Making friends
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Friends made
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Saving little fish that were washed up on the dock
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Water came up over the dock
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Flooded paths
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Blogging in our bungalow
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Blue wasp
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Sea creature or fuzzy coconut?
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Funny land fish

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Cambodia into Thailand overland….Back in the BKK, Again

Our trip from Sihanoukville, Cambodia into Thailand went pretty much how we predicted. Chaos and scams. We have yet to do a land crossing that hasn’t been ridiculous, so we were prepared. We took a tuk-tuk from the beach to the bus office, where we almost forgot our food bag (and discovered the rat from our previous accommodation had nibbled through it). Luckily, I spotted it out the window of the bus before we left. This is an important bag. The places the buses let you out for breaks tend to be over-priced and often not very clean. We always have snacks.

We had booked the bus to Koh Kong (on the Cambodia side of the border), but were actually able to take it all the way to the border, about 10 minutes further away. This saved us a couple of dollars and was much more convenient than finding a tuk-tuk (who will over-charge because they are the only other option). Having reached the border, we disembarked with all the other passengers, grabbed our bags and walked through the scorching sun to the departures and arrival building. This is where we encountered probably the biggest scam of our trip. The line for departures was only about 20 people deep when we arrived. So we stood in the sun and waited. And waited. And waited. The line barely moved. And this is why: There are a bunch of Cambodian guys who offer to take your passport for as much as $7 each and get the exit stamp for you. They are not official workers, just guys in polos and jeans. But what they can do, which we could not, is cut to the front of the line and pay off the guys behind the counter to stamp the passport faster. This just makes it even slower for the rest of us. Another reason the legitimate line is slow: they take your fingerprints. I’d like to point out here that they don’t take your fingerprints when you enter the country and Thailand doesn’t either across the border. And I have NEVER been finger-printed in my entire life. So what are they going to do with my fingerprints? Absolutely nothing. I purposefully put my fingers a bit sideways so they couldn’t have my full print. So there Cambodia. AND, the people who paid the $7 to expedite the stamp, they weren’t finger-printed either. After an hour of waiting, we finally got our stamp and were able to exit the country. And by that I mean, walk 100 meters down a dirt road to the Thailand arrivals counter, where it took less than 10 minutes to enter the country. No questions asked. Literally, none.

After all that, we were pleasantly surprised by our awaiting transport. We hopped in a spacious and air-conditioned minibus for the hour trip to Trat, where we planned to stay two nights before continuing onto Bangkok.

Trat is a jumping off point for some Thai islands, but it appears its glory days have ended. It used to get a lot more tourists, who had to stay over in Trat before continuing on after their trips to the islands. With more bus and boat options, you no longer have to spend so much time there and it appears not too many people do. We were only there to break up the 12 hour bus ride to Bangkok. It is a cool place though, small streets and many old buildings.

We spent that afternoon wandering around the city. They have an interesting short walkway along the water, complete with fire hose stations. The next day we went to the Trat Museum, which had loads of English signs, but not another soul besides us and the ticket lady. We also saw a wat or two. With decent wifi, we did a lot of research and caught up on blogging that night.

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Ice chipping store
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Lots of street art and murals around town
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Large mural of a picture we saw at the museum
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Windy elephant?
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Leaf notes
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More art
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So many unknowns in the market. Not brave enough to try
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Drying meat
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Different kind of art
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New Orleans: Canal Street Car Line New Orleans Real Estate

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The next morning we took the bus to Bangkok. We stayed at the same place we have stayed at the past few times we were there. This was our fourth trip to Bangkok and were only coming to catch a cheap flight to Myanmar. We spent one day wandering around Chinatown, which was in full swing as this was just before their New Year.

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That evening, Riki ordered the sauteed morning glory at one of our favorite cheap places. Unfortunately, his morning glory also came with two small pink worm-like bugs. When we showed the waitress, she squealed and jumped back. Good to know this is not a normal thing. She took 10 baht off our bill, a bargain, as lots of people actually pay to eat bugs in Bangkok.

Our last day in Bangkok we had an appointment to get our teeth cleaned (~$35 each), bought some more malaria medicine, did a little shopping and discovered our hotel had just built a pool. Score!

Next stop: Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar

 

Wait what? White Wat….Chiang Rai, Thailand to Laos

We arrived early afternoon in Chiang Rai and checked into a hotel very close to the bus station. Chiang Rai is a small city, with not much to do. Two notable (and free!) attractions are the White Temple and the Black House. We dropped our stuff and immediately went back to the bus station to catch a public bus about 20 minutes south the way we had come. Arriving at the White Temple, we joined dozens of other tourists to tour the most unique Wat we have seen in Thailand. The entire thing is white, hence the name, and includes some contemporary icons, including Batman and Despicable Me. Arms coming out of the ground greet you at the entrance and small mirrors adorn almost every available space.

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Lots of the tops are a bit off.
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Just a bit off.

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Riki abandoned me for awhile to photograph the glittering structures and I sat in the shade under a canopy of prayers written on thin metal sheets hung with beads and bells. We took the 20 baht bus back to town and explored the city on foot. We found a few more wats, two clocktowers and a supermarket to stock up for our Laos boat trip. That evening, we did something Riki is still talking about. We set out for the night market, conveniently right near the bus station and our hotel, and discovered a ring of food stalls. A bit confusing at first, as most of the stalls just had baskets of raw vegetables and eggs. Didn’t look so great, until we realized they were for hot pots! Having never had one, we timidly ordered chicken and beef and waiting patiently as the server showed up how to set it up and cook it. We are now hoping to encounter hot pots again on our trip so we can partake.

 

 

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We got up early and headed back to the bus station. Riki tracked down a bus headed north and we got on just as it was leaving. The buses have ticket takers who are in charge of taking money and telling the bus driver where everyone is going and when to stop. We told our lady twice Black House and she seemed to understand, as she nodded and told us the fare. However, 40 minutes passed, and we started getting nervous (well Riki was nervous earlier but I confidently told him “Don’t worry, she will tell us when to get off”). So I asked the ticket taker Black House? when we stopped next. She looked at me, said Black House! to the driver and pointed to the other side of the road. Obviously, she had forgotten and we were going to have to backtrack. There were only about 10 people on the bus and we were right up front by her the whole time. Rather frustrated, I insisted on getting my money back, as we were now going to have to catch another bus. She would only give me half back, but we crossed the highway and hailed a songtheuw back the way we came.

The driver of the songtheuw (which is a modified pickup with covered benches in the back) seemed to know where we wanted to go, but when we were dropped off on the side of the highway, we weren’t so sure. But we spotted a small sign across the road pointing down a thin trail crossing some wet areas with wood plank “bridges.” The Black House is an estate of 40 odd buildings, all very darkly painted, that a Thai artist worked on for years. This is not a place for animal lovers. The place is adorned with all sorts of animal hides, horns and carvings. A bear skin covered the bed in the first building we saw (head and all) and the next few buildings were similarly furnished. There’s an entire elephant skeleton laid out under one building and some incredible huge one-plank tables. We even spotted some wildlife. A bird sounding much like a small child speaking sits next to a cage with two enormous snakes and another cage with a large owl.

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We made it back in time for the 11:30 bus to the Laos border, but only barely.  We took some of the last seats on the bus, which happened to be in the rear.  I sat behind the open door the whole 3 hour trip.  The door was bungee corded open and we rested our feet in the boxes of circuit breakers in front of us.  Not the least comfortable I’ve ever been on a bus and there weren’t any animal passengers. The scenery was beautiful though and we got some glimpses of karsts much like we saw in northern Vietnam.

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Here is where we encountered the first of the Laotian bureaucracy at its finest.  What used to be a simple boat crossing now involves quite a few steps and quite a bit more money.  First, the bus drops you off conveniently in front of a row of tuk tuks who graciously offer to take you the next 2 km to the Thai immigration station.  This costs 50 baht per person.  They even have an official looking sign.  So the 6 people going that way got on a tuk tuk and begrudgingly paid the money rather than walk with our bags.  Once you arrive at the immigration station you return your departure card and then pay another 20 baht per person plus 10 baht per bag to get on a bus to take you across the border.  We waited half an hour for the bus to leave even though we had a lot of people waiting.

When you arrive at the Laos immigration station, you grab your bags from the bus and then try to figure out what to do next. There are no signs, but we followed some people to fill out some papers and then pushed them through a window. We waited for the officer to get off his cell phone, scratch his belly some and generally look bored. Then he requested our $35 US, put a sticker in our passports and waved us away. Then we walked to another counter, where normally they would check your visa but were waved along again and then once more at a table near the exit. No one actually cared to confirm we got the visa. Then you get scammed again, as there is a took took (new spelling here) driver waiting to take you to town for 100 baht each, which is insane. We had read that you could just take a boat for 30 baht across the river and the whole process took only 5 minutes. Since they built the bridge, this is no longer the case. We spent almost an hour just trying to get through. But we eventually arrived in Huay Xie, found a decent room and a decent restaurant (where our food/beer runner was 6 years old and our waitress was 10, no one else around).

We liked the vibe of Laos almost as soon as we got done with the bureaucratic stuff. It is very relaxed, slow and friendly. Can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has to offer.