After one hectic and rewarding day in Bangkok, we escaped from this Mecca of tourism and commerce to something a little more our speed, Kanchuniburi.
After a long dusty train ride with many Thai commuters and stunning countryside scenery we arrived to the quaint town of Kanchuniburi west of Bangkok near Myanmar. Upon arriving in this small border town, we wandered around looking for accommodation and received many deserved blank stares considering we were out of the major tourist centers and knew very little Thai to communicate. We finally found a lady with an open air kitchen and communicated our order via pictures on the wall. We picked at the suspect pork noodles and moved on to find a place to sleep. About 40 steps away we found a cute little guest house that had been recommended by some travelers that Nat met. Close, cheap, available. Check, check, check. So we dropped our bags and heads off to explore the town.
On the way to find another restaurant to satisfy our unquenched hunger, I was caught tourist gazing and tripped on the sidewalk. Yard sale. I rolled and my bag and camera went everywhere. Nat kept my head from hitting the ground. With hurt pride and a bruised knee, we trudged on to our intended destination.
We found this beautiful little restaurant that we heard had delicious Thai food. And lucky for us it indeed did. Full of spicy shrimp and fried morning glories, we were ready to tackle the day. My tumble had been almost forgotten after our beautiful meal and then all of a sudden Nat got violently ill. After a few episodes on the banks of the River Kwai, Nat went home to try to sleep this one off and I looked for the TAT to get information on tours of historic WWII sites and such.
After an hour of wandering, a 60 baht taxi for about 20 feet, i was a very hot and thirsty girl. I understood for the first time how difficult it must be for other travelers with less common languages to travel. Luck had it I met a girl name Dow who set us up for a tour the next day and even gave me a ride back to the guesthouse on her scooter through town. Back to feeling good. Nat was still sick in the room so I sat on the deck overlooking the Kwai River and read. Around dinnertime, more patrons began to come out of their river huts and I met several really nice women from all over. We shared travel stories and wine. Great night, good wine, excellent food, perfect view.
As I began writing this post, two phrases that I have heard my entire life immediately came to mind: “you get what you pay for” and “nothing in life is free.”
With streets bursting with endless hotels, massage parlors and nail spas, Bangkok seems like the perfect place for a traveller to regroup and recoup. However, I found that this place is actually a pretty easy place to get frustrated and frazzled. I had read and been told to watch out in Bangkok for “gem scams” but it really isn’t until it is happening to you that you realize you’ve been duped.
Nat arrived in the morning after taking an overnight bus from the south. We caught up on each other’s last week and then off to explore Bangkok. After we got our standard morning coffees, we found ourselves at a crossroads (literally) trying to figure out which direction to go to reach the canal ferry to the north part of the city. We were immediately “helped” by a little old man (lookout) strategically planted at that place to “assist” unsuspecting tourist into a “cheap” 10 baht tuk-tuk waiting for them to take them to their destinations as well as all around the city to gem shops and boat charters in order to get gas coupons from the vendors. We figured this out on our first stop at a private long boat charter for way more baht that we were willing to pay. A headache and a tank of gas. Lesson learned.
We finally found the ferry and took a relaxing ride up one of the dirtiest rivers I have ever seen (Mae Nam Chao Phraya) to Ko Ratanakosin (an island created by the river and many man made canals to protect it from invasion in the old days). Here we planned to walk around the old city, eat and take in a few monuments.
Fresh off the boat and I’m sure we looked it, we were met by another “helpful” tuk-tuk driver willing to take us to 3 sites (Big Buddha, Black Buddha and Ko San road) in trade for one stop at a gem shop so he can get his gas coupon. We agreed and were off.
Big Buddha was stunning and indeed big. The Black Buddha which is actually gold and is also known as the good luck Buddha. While visiting this one, we met a man from Belgium who gave us many helpful tips on Thailand and for Nat all of Southest Asia. He also showed us how to read your fortunes with what I called Thai pickup sticks. We commiserated over the consistent absence of toilets and trashcans as well as delighted in the stunning beauty apparent at seemingly every stop in this entire region.
Now on to our drivers promised gem stop for a gas coupon. These places were strange to say the least. We walked into a nondescript building and the door shut behind us. I thought, is this how woman are sold into the sex trade? Gut instinct was no, these are fine. As soon as I saw a few families and other tourists, I knew we were going to be ok. Heckled endlessly to buy fake gemstones, but ok.
Once this was over we proceeded to Ko San road which is so ridiculously touristy that it looks like a movie set. When leaving the tuk-tuk, Nat asked if he would wait here for us to grab a quick bite of street food and on to the Grand Palace. We had given him an additional gas stop so we figured it made since to tie on one more stop as well. Well this did not go over so well. He immediately lost it and began pounding the stirring wheel. We said ok and exited promptly. He drove off before we paid him. So I guess some things are free, but you still get what you pay for.
We ended the day on top of the Banyan Tree hotel with a breathtaking 360 panoramic view of the entire city. It was as billed – stunning. We were up there for several hours enjoying the ambiance. Like a sleeping baby, Bangkok looked almost peaceful from this view. Unable to hear the constant roar of this machine, the stress of the day was gone. Tomorrow the exodus to the countryside…(content sigh)
Hailing from the state of Tennessee, this phrase always meant something different to me. However, in maneuvering my way around Bangkok I could not help by notice that every few steps I am struck with an image of their King Rama IX, the Great (since 1946). It seems the “dictatorship” in the phrase democratic dictatorship is still alive and well in this country. Nat told me a story of a German writer living in Thailand who reran a story in the local paper that was not a favorable portrayal of the king and he now faces 20 years imprisonment. So much for freedom of speech. Consequently, this story was posted on Facebook and a Thai student “liked” it and he was immediately imprisoned. The moral of the story and one of my
Mom’s favorite pieces of advice: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Anyhow, Bangkok continues to remain as crazy as I remember upon arrival. No amount of acclamation to Southeast Asia has weakened the shock of the traffic, trash and tourists in this city.
Note from the author: I am waiting to post this until I am out of the country to insure my safe return. :)
Today I woke up extremely tired for some reason. Too much fun yesterday I guess. Either way, it was off to another day of exploring. Today it was a tour of the northern hill tribes in the southern Himalayan Mountains.
I boarded another transport bus, this one air conditioned, and was met by an older American man and young Thai girl. We introduced ourselves and it was off to pick up the rest of today’s gang. After two more stops I realized I was a lone traveller on a bus with 3 older American men and their early 20s new Thai wives who they had just met. This is not a judgment on this practice, only an observation. As the day progressed I could not help but observe the awkward interaction of all three couples as they struggled to communicate through broken English and body language. This day should be interesting to say the least.
Our guides for today were Aah (tour guide) and Mr. Dong (driver). Since I have the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy, I was very pleased that these were their names.
As we ascended into the Himalayan Mountains, we learned that almost all the hill tribe people are catholic because a missionary from South Korea came and converted them all about 20 years ago. Also, I learned that there were originally two kingdoms, Siam and Lanna. Through marriage, the two kingdoms were united into one Thailand. Siam was the region around and south of Bangkok and Lanna was the Northern Province. Interesting…
We then travelled to the White Karen village. This tribe is from Myanmar and is known for their traditional white dress of the young girls. We did not see them on this day as they are in school. We were met by older woman and pedaling gypsy from other tribes – some may even call them tour bus chasers. It became extremely apparent upon reaching these villages that these minority tribes are struggling to maintain their ethnically independent identities as tour buses become their primary income source. I felt guilty but could not change course now.
The next group was Lisu who migrated from Southern China and looked very different. Separated by only a bridge, these two tribe about 30 steps from one another speak different languages but communicate with one another in traditional Lanna language. Apparently most people in this region can speak Lanna dialect but cannot read or write it as it is was forbidden by the King of Siam in the marriage union of the two countries. The official language of the country is Siamese Thai which is what all speak and learn in school. More knowledge for Jeopardy…
We then walked to another village community called the Akha tribe. This tribe migrated from Tibet and their name literally means “people who move away from the river.” Apparently about 90 years ago they moved from Tibet as they were plagued with sickness from said river. Anyhow, we walked into this village and I immediately smelled marijuana (a throwback to the early cash crop of this region, the poppy business). We then walked immediately up to a man boiling a pot of beetlenut which is apparently a root that you boil until it becomes sticky and then chew it to become high (which he was). This was a tradition of the older generation of this tribe and is apparently legal now due to the grandfather clause. At this point, I had become quite friendly with one set of the new lovers and began a good rapport until one of the tribes woman pedaling goods at the Akha village called her beau our papa. This was a little awkward to say the least but we moved on unscathed…at least I think.
The day ended at an equally touristy stop with the long neck Karen tribe. I could not help but feel bad for participating in the bastardization of this culture. Shack after shack of goods to sell and all out for tourist display only. Sad day.
Anyway, the ride in the mountain was wonderful and I feel like I learned a lot. All in all a good day, except the papa comment… Still lucky to be here and happy for the experience.
The answer to that question is of course yes, however the origin is probably a little different than you would imagine.
Today I booked a Thai cooking class at a farm about 30 k outside the city. I boarded a transport bus that I had only before seen used to move workers to the job site. There I met a lovely couple named Phillip and Anna Claire from England and France respectively. They were on a six month journey around the world. Their stories were inspiring and I began to dream of what their life must be like.
We picked up a few more eager would be chefs and then it was off to the market.
This place was like no place I had ever been. Row after row of beautiful vegetables fresh from the fields and meats fresh from their recent last breathe. Literally. I watched a lady cut open live frogs which was extremely disturbing and made me painfully aware how far removed I am from the process in which I get my food.
After this enlightening visit, we loaded back on the bus and off to the farm. I found myself positioned with all the French speakers in the group which made me feel as if I were in a windstorm of beautiful phrases; however after about 20 minutes on the ride out to the farm I began to feel dizzy. Was it the barrage of beautiful foreign phrases all around me or the crickets, beetles and other street food I consumed at the night market last night? Tough to say, not knowing. Either way, I was thrilled to finally pull up to the beautiful farm for my lesson in Thai cuisine. My hope is to make my food of choice from home. We shall see.
Our instructor was named MB and she immediately brought smiles to the faces of all in the group. Her clear instruction and occasional awkward joke made it an amazing day. Each time I would ask for more chilies or tell her I wanted Thai hot she would say “you want sexy lips.” I would say yes please, bring on the heat. It was intense, but delicious. She also provided tips on how to keep your man by feeding him garlic root and lemongrass. She would say “good for your maaaaannn”. This meant give it to him and it will repel woman. Smart lady. Ps. Lemongrass is apparently very good for mosquito bites as well.
I met a really warm and interesting girl named Erika from California. She was here with her boyfriend whose brother is married to a Thai woman and lives in the east on the border with Cambodia. They have been staying with them and she has had a wonderful introduction into the Thai culture as a result. This region has had a lot of conflict as recently as last week. Apparently there is a temple that is on the border with Cambodia and has been and still is disputed territory. Ramet told us about this as well. Anyway, she was great. We exchanged emails and will hopefully meet again.
I also met a very cute group of young kiwi kids who I had been observing most of the class as an attempt to decode their nondescript accents. Until the guy next to me asked for “an egg because it would make it taste much better” and the New Zealand heritage was clear. At lunch his friend related the kiwi accent to a lazy language where all the vowels are tired. Either way, sweet people and love their homeland so moving on…
On the way back to the hotel, Marie, a girl from Reunion Island near Madagascar recommended places in her region to visit. She raved about Benin and Burkina Faso which are now on the list.
Also a girl named Tina from Cologne, who looked exactly like my friend Ellen, filled me in on the situation in Thailand with the flooding. She explained that “they were very fast of cleaning it because of d touristic”. As a monolingual American, I appreciated her ability to communicate well in English however I always love a good malapropism.
I said another goodbye to new friends and was dropped at the hotel where I quickly changed and headed to the night bazaar to continue my support the local economy and buy the remainder of my gifts for friends and family. Once this task was complete, I got a $1 fresh coconut for dinner and a $5 one hour foot and leg massage. Then directly to the hotel and sleep. This day was a one for the books. Mark it down a success. Full belly, relaxed body and sexy lips.
Thanks for the hospitality Chaing Mai.
So after a pretty seamless flight, I arrived in delightful Chaing Mai. I immediately felt relaxed upon disembarking. I went directly to my hotel Dusit D2 and it was love at first sight. I got a welcome drink and as I was signing in the staff spontaneously broke out into a “choreographed” dance routine. I must have been smiling from ear to ear… So happy. Best arrival presentation ever.
The room was beautiful with a tub (also with doors) and no bum gun (the measure of a great room in my opinion). Like I said love at first sight. Also, there was an orange box by the bed that was filled daily with a new gift from the hotel to celebrate the New Year. Well done D2.
After our Everest to Purgatory roller coaster ride courtesy of the remote and stunning isle of Koh Phi Phi, my saint of a mother graciously booked us at the Holiday Inn Resort at Patong beach in Phuket. Another den of solace from the parade of travelers fully equipped with their Chaing beer wife beater (or singlet as the Aussies deem it), fanny pack and vapid stair. We settled into an amazing room with clean sheets and two options (firm and soft) for the world’s best pillows. Heaven. Also, two firsts for this trip were a shower with a door and a toilet without a bucket of water next to it to flush and a bum gun. Happy girls for sure.
I ventured onto the Canal street of Patong beach and was shocked and pleasantly surprised to learn I could buy a “real” Swiss Army brand carry-on and a Jimmy Choo purse all for under $40. This place is magical. ;)
To the mountains tomorrow. Love this place but ready for a change of pace from spring break 2012. Laa-gon-ka (until later) Phuket.
A post from Nat’s blog about our experience in Koh Phi Phi …I couldn’t have said It better myself.
It started out like any other day. Any other day in Phi Phi that is. In hindsight it was a day that locals might deem ‘same same…but different.’ The roosters still crowed at 5:30 AM and continued to let us know they were awake until 8AM (not sure if the natural alarm clock was included in our $50 per night price tag??). The price was high given the location and lack of amenities. One month in SE Asia and I had quickly realized that I was trading in my western ways and price tags for Asian living. That is until I arrived in Phi Phi with throngs of tourists during the island’s peak week following New Year’s day.
There are usually 2 classes of western tourists – the newbies on holiday wearing pasty pale shades enhanced by fluorescent lighting and the seasoned travelers (insert backpackers) who usually sport a bronze glow. The red ones (of which there are plenty to choose from) proudly show off their confrontation with the sun and can fall in either group which is why a second criteria is needed – the haves and the have- nots. These groups are segregated by geography upon arrival in Phi Phi. The backpackers disembark and immediately swarm the streets and guesthouses of Ton Sai village, a small strip joining the larger halves of Phi Phi Don, while those with disposable incomes veer east to the numerous resorts dotting the coast. The coastal resorts are only accessible by water taxi which helps keep the borders well defined.
Not to whinge, but I had forgotten how hectic and disappointing traveling at peak season can be. Finding a place to stay can be difficult to impossible – especially if sleeping on the beach is not allowed (FYI Phi Phi prohibits it – I checked). Prices are also inflated to 2-3x their normal rate. Still inexpensive by western standards, it’s a shock to the system for someone coming from cheap as chips Vietnam and Cambodia. Fortunately, my haggling, ahem bargaining skills, have been sharpened through recent practice. UNfortunateley, on an island full of tourists at the height of the season vendors are less willing to compromise and the dollar doesn’t stretch as far as other places. Thanks to Elizabeth we at least had accommodation on the island before arriving, key for our sanity and keeping stress levels down. The Banana Resort was also within budget. Although we were prepared for basic living and a bit of a hike due to the reviews on trip advisor, we weren’t prepared for the fresh water/sewage pool a block from our hotel, wafting its scent towards our room. So after Day 1 of crowded beaches and hanging with backpackers we decided to see how the other half lived. The Beach was filmed here. We knew there had to be more than pizza joints and neon lit bars with fire dancers at night. Which brings me back to the present – the rooster crowing on Day 2 of Koh Phi Phi.
E. graciously took one for the team by scheduling a massage at a posh 5 star hotel, so we could make full use of the pool and amenities and finally realize some relaxation. We talked to a few drivers before jumping on board a water taxi and set off for the secluded and pristine Laem Tong beach on the north side of the island. This was the Phi Phi we had envisioned! White sand beaches, scattered palm trees for shade, and a tenth of the people we had encountered on Ton Sai. The place was totally serene – a dramatic change from the spring break 2012 scene in Ton Sai. I fear I am starting to sound old. Before I age myself further, let me point out that we did return to spring break PP style and fully embraced the nightlife but not without some hurdles.
While we were tempted to stay for dinner on Laem Tong, we had waited too late and our window for getting back to our hotel for the night was closing. Luck was on our side it seemed. We found only one driver willing to take us in his long tail boat – basically a canoe with a lawnmower motor on the back. Once we got in the boat, we found out why. The strong winds at night and way the boats are parked makes it challenging to get out much less navigate to the other side of the island. Within minutes the boat rocked onto its side with each new wave, and I tried to judge how far the swim to shore would be if the boat capsized. With white knuckles, E. put on her life jacket and I quickly followed suit. We used delirious laughter to overcome our panic and nearly kissed the ground once setting foot on the beach. We were so relieved that E. tipped our boat driver a third of the price, rendering all my negotiating before the trip void.
What a day. Fast forward to pizza and fire dancers on the beach and a return walk to the banana to sleep. So we thought. Still awash with the sun’s afterglow from our wonderful day, we were less deflated going back to our basic bungalow on the hill. We unlocked the padlock on the front of our band-aided door. And then we saw it – a solo shoe in our room. A bit dusty and cheaply made, and nearly my size. It was missing a mate…and its owner. The door to our hut was slightly askew towards the bottom, enough for us to surmise that we had been broken into and this was the culprit’s exit. Further clues – an open window and some missing bracelets – didn’t take a crime scene unit to piece together that we had been robbed. But it was the lone shoe, that tangible piece of evidence, that made me most unsettled. The questions leaped out. Obviously they had left Ina hurry. Were they interrupted by something outside? Did they act alone? And who was this person walking the streets of Ton Sai with one bare foot and wearing Elizabeth’s bracelets? As these thoughts filled my head, the serenity of the day faded. We packed our bags anticipating an early move the next morning. I slept very little, kept alert by our predicament. The irony that Phi Phi has transformed from a paradise into a capitalist haven struck me and I couldn’t help wondering why I didn’t get here earlier, before Phi Phi lost its sole.
The day we left Cambodia, Ramet kindly offered to drive us to the airport in the open air bat mobile. We were all very sad. It is so strange to spend two days with someone and feel as though you know them. Side note: and you paid them to hang out with you. Either way, the warmth of the people in Cambodia continues to permeate my experiences here. Okay, enough with the sappy. So we hugged Ramet goodbye (which is unusually awkward in this culture) and boarded a plane to the southern beaches of Thailand.
Immediately once we got off the plane, I could feel a difference in the temperature and culture. It was hotter as I think there are only two temperatures in Southeast Asia – hot and hotter. It also felt much more like a tourist destination than a cultural experience.
Phuket. If Panama City Florida and Las Vegas Nevada shacked up on Canal street in Manhattan and had an illegitimate child it would be named Phuket. That is all I have to say about that.
We stayed in Phuket one night and then eagerly headed to the island of Koh Phi Phi in the Adaman Sea. This had been the portion of the trip that I was most looking forward to. After a two hour ferry ride, we arrived at an equally busy tourist trap at the dock of Koh Phi Phi. To remain consistent with my analogies, if Spring Break 2012 shacked up with the Burning Man festival on a deserted island their offspring would be named Koh Phi Phi. I now fully understand the stubborn will of Sal from the movie “The Beach” when she asked if they had shown the map of the island to anyone. She emphasizes that they value their privacy because if they found out about the beauty of this place they would ruin it. I believe she called them parasites. I think that might be a bit harsh, but it is hard to imagine how breathtaking this place might be without the throngs of fake goods shacks, trash and body paint all over the Tonsai village.
The endless search for the authentic adventure has led all us touron to the same place meeting each other and experiencing nothing of the place we are visiting. It seems that by continuing on the same path, the scores of travelers searching for a unique experience end up exactly where they started – eating a sausage biscuit at a Hardee’s with a Starbucks coffee and a screen saver in the backdrop. Why leave home? The 2 days of brutal travel? The massive amount of trash everywhere? The language barrier? I think we may have all lost the plot (new favorite Aussie phrase).
Anyhow, this place is still amazingly gorgeous and I feel infinitely lucky to be here. Just a little deflated today. Our next pursuit is to find a secluded place to relax after a day of planes, trains and tuk-tuks.
Just as the year comes to an end, so does my short time in the beautiful kingdom of Cambodia. So last I wrote we were about to take a batman tuk-tuk. This may have been one of our best decisions this year.
We rode with an instant friend named Ramet who had an infectious laugh and taught us many Khmer phrases along the way. Specifically I appreciated “ot tey ahr coon” (no thank you) as I was running out of dollars and riel and drowning is rattan bracelets and cheap postcards pedaled by Cambodian woman and small children at each temple stop. Ramet made the choreographed touron (mix of tourist and moron) parade of temple hopping a one of a kind experience. He plans to come visit us in the US one day. We have promised to throw him a party if he comes. It will be like his American coming out party.
Oh yeah I almost forgot, and we saw one of the wonders of the world. The mix of Hindu and Buddhist traditions proved very enriching. We learned about the churning of the ocean of milk. This legend was my favorite. It’s amazing that the majority of these temples were built as Hindu shrines in the 10th century and when the Buddhist took control of them, they did not rape and pillage. They simply moved the Hindu shrines to an alternate less pronounced location and continued about their business. Provocative. We also learned how the Cambodian psyche has been affected over years of invasion, genocide and civil war. All in all, I think we both left a little heavier in the knowledge of Southeast Asia category for Jeopardy.
Our time with Ramet ended at the top of Bakai Mountain overlooking the warm, glowing spires of Angkor Wat as the last people to view this site in the year of the Rabbit – well us and about 2000 Japanese tourists on a massive tour bus.
Anyway, I loved Cambodia and would go back early and often. The people make it one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Thailand, the bar has been set pretty high. Let’s see what you got.
NOTE for friends with equally itchy feet:
If you ever plan a visit to Siem Reap, you should definitely ride with Ramet. We are building a site for him now however you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and eventually at batmantuktuk.com.