Monday, March 28, 2011

Goodbye Thailand

Tomorrow we drive to Chiang Rai (in Northeast Thailand) and then we'll be heading out of the country on a slow boat down the Mekong into Laos.  I've done a lot over the last few weeks, here are some of the more memorable moments.

1.  Boating, canoeing and swimming around the karsts near Phuket.  Truly magnificent and quintessential Thailand.

2. Riding the ferry to Koh Tao.  It was a very rough day (we were fortunate that the ferry wasn't cancelled) but it meant that about 100 people were either green or hanging over trashcans and the side of the boat.  Unfortunately for them that meant that they were also drenched from the rain and sea spray.  Malena and I were 2 of about 20 that weren't sick.  I was having a great time (as soon as I went onto the back deck where I wasn't afraid of drowning if the boat capsized).

3. Trying to find our way to Jim Johnson's house in Bangkok only to be trapped inside the post office during a torrential rain storm.  When we left (it was still raining) we started hopping between the awnings to move down the street and found ourselves among what must have been all of the mechanic shops in Bangkok.  They were highly amused by our antics.

4. Lost again trying to find the bus station on the north side of Bangkok.  This time we got directions from a guard (all but two words "museum" and "car park" were given in Thai and with A LOT of pointing).  Along the way we wandered through the gates of a garden where we asked directions again from a different guard.  He pointed us in the right direction and we went off.  At the first split in the path we started down the wrong way...only to discover this as another guard came running after us...apparently the guards had been talking on the radio so we were essentiallly handed off through the park by little Thai security guards with radios. It wasn't a normal botanical garden experience.

5. Avoiding the tuk tuk drivers and trying to find the wats in Bangkok.  Although frustrating at the time, it really is funny to think about.

6. Wandering through one of the biggest night markets I've been in so far in Chiang Mai.  Originally on the Silk Road it's history is a long one and the market takes up about four city blocks.

7. Our "adventure" day outside of Chiang Mai with a character for a guide who was playing little pranks on everyone as we went along.  He was originally from the jungle of North Thailand.  We saw a village of long-neck people, rode and played with elephants, hiked to a waterfall then went for a swim in the frigid water, and finished the day rafting down the river.  We had a good group of people (us and 6 others) and it was a full and exciting day.

Pictures will follow soon.  Next up:  Luang Prabang, Laos and then Siam Reap in Cambodia

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What? The Wat is Closed?

A wat is a monastery temple and if you believed the people in Bangkok around the National Palace you'd think they were constantly closed for "special" ceremonies.  Well, at least until 1pm or is it 12:30? Or was it noon? No matter what the time, it's always the same, "They are closed and you shouldn't bother seeing them, so come with me instead and I'll bring you back when they are open!"  The problem is that even with the warnings you eventually start to think there might be something to this story.

On Thursday morning Malena headed home and my mom arrived.  Due to a delayed flight, Mom literally met us on the stairs as I was walking Malena out.  (She came through Tokyo and when her flight was delayed they sent her to a different airport by bus - her hair may have been glowing with the radioactivity when she arrived.)

After Malena left and Mom was settled, we hit up three wats and the grand palace.  We were warned by Malena, who had already seen these sites that people would try to tell us they were closed.  I was also warned by other travelers I've come across, by friends (some even commented on this blog), and it even warns tourists about it in our I thought we were prepared.  I was wrong.

They are so believable and friendly, one guy spent five minutes telling us about how to pray to the Buddha for good luck and fortune.  He showed us photos of his kids and his wife and told us how much he liked Chicago.  Then as my feet were itching to get away, he dropped the information about how all the buildings but one were closed in the Grand Palace until 1pm.  He was so convincing that it was hard to walk away...until he offered to tour us around in a tuk tuk.  RUN!!!  Unfortunately in our haste to get away, we missed the main entrance and walked the entire way around the complex before getting back to it...leaving us wide open and easy prey for other vultures. 

By the time we made it to within 50 meters of the actual entrance we had already had conversations with two people and waved off another three.  The final straw was when a guy who appeared to be unrelated to a company told us again that it was closed until 1p and that we should buy tickets at a different gate first.
Well, mom's will (who I can only assume was tired and less jaded) was starting to falter.  We had a small discussion about whether or not these facts were actually true.  After all, you don't want to go into a complex where you can only see one building and pay the same price.  Fortunately, I'm hardened and skeptical so we forged on...and amazingly found everything to be perfectly open.  (Of course, after we got into the gate people were asking us if we needed a tour guide - we just couldn't escape it).

After it was all said and done, we saw the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Po (which is a HUGE reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn).  It was a long day (particularly when you feel like you've been put through a spin cycle), but mom held out well considering she was working on very little sleep, and we eventually made it back to the hostel.

I write this as we travel north to Chiang Mai on another night train.  The last train offered very little sleep as I nervously laid rigid in my bed after seeing too many cockroaches running around when we got on the train.  Tonight, my bed is comfortable and seemingly visitor free so I have Double Stuf Oreos, and James Bond movies (all of which are on my computer) to look forward to.

The Grand Palace Complex

Wat Po, the reclining Buddha

Wat Arun, The Temple of the Dawn

More photos...

More photos from Thailand.  (Click on the album below to see it in full screen mode)

Bangkok (March 21-25)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Photos: KL and Thailand

I've put together some of my favorite photos from Kuala Lumpur and Southern Thailand.  Enjoy! (Click on the album slideshow to see the images in a larger slideshow format)

Kuala Lumpur

Southern Thailand

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Culture Adjustment

When I left New Zealand I was sad to leave but also very nervous about the trip I had planned in Asia.  It was a very unknown place for me and with that came fears.  Once I landed in KL I quickly realized that I had very little to worry about.  However, it doesn't mean that there haven't been adjustments to the differences:
Snorkeling near Koh Tao
  • The people really are more petite than every place else I've been.  I tower over many of them at 5'7".
  • I've said it before, but the motorcycles really are everywhere!  They pile entire families on one motorcycle.  They have side cars with small mobile food carts attached or trailers to carry anythin from more family members to bags of food.
  • My new qualification for a good bathroom is whether or not it has toilet paper.  The plumbing isn't made to handle toilet paper here so most places don't even have it available.  Instead they have small hoses you can use to wash off (sort of like a bidet).  Since we are not accustomed to this we've taken to carrying it with us.
  • The showers are in the same room as the toilet (without a separate tub to stand in).  Most of the shower heads jut out of the wall just above or around the toilets.  Which means that the question is where to put your clothes and towel so they don't get drenched along with everything else (there aren't any shower curtains around it either - the bathroom door serves as the divider).  
  • It's hot.  And when the sun is shining it's really hot...and humid.  I knew to expect it but even preparation doesn't help someone that isn't a fan of the heat.  I've managed to get a heat rash once already and I expect I'll get it at least one more time before the end of this trip. Apparently the Thai people aren't as affected by it though - I've seen at least a dozen wearing stocking caps.
  • With the heat comes the bugs.  The mosquitos are relentless as soon as you step into an even slightly wooded area.  Fortunately they seem to be unable to penetrate the cloud of OFF that is constantly hovering around my body. 
  • My world is constantly rocking.  I didn't really think about this as I planned the first two weeks out but most of my time so far has been spent on or around the water.  Nearly every day since arriving in Thailand I've spent time on a boat.  Fortunately I don't get seasick but there have been several times when the room is still rocking when I lay down at night.
Tonight I'm on my way by train to Bangkok (which means I'm still rocking) where we will stay for a few days before my mom flies in and Malena heads home.  I expect there will be even more to adjust to when I change travel partners but I'm hopeful the big adjustments have been made.

Things to be thankful for:
- Well, there's a lot right now but the first thing that comes to my mind is a nice shower

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sawat Dee (Hello) Thailand!

Where do I even begin. So far, Thailand is what I imagined and more. I've done so much in the last week since I left New Zealand it's hard for me to keep it all straight in my head, let alone try to put it all into a blog.

Phang Nga Nat'l Park
Kuala Lumpur: One of the things that struck me is how much the city focuses on the environment: Advertising recycling, recycling bins available everywhere, building sites touting their green-ness, carpooling and public transport encouraged and affordable. I was also surprised that their radio djs all had an American accent. There were times that I was listening to my iPod sitting on a bus when I could have been traveling through Chicago rather than half way around the world. The airport had free Wifi and reclining chairs. It was one of the nicer airports I've been in.

Phuket, Thailand: Unlike KL there is definitely a lack of concern for the environment, but for the most part its difficult to detract from the beauty of it all here in the green and tourquise water, the white sand beaches and the limestone cliffs (karsts) that drop right into the water. Most of Phuket has been rebuilt since the tsunami hit in 2004.  There are photos that show the destruction and now that I've visited here, I can't imagine the fear and panic that must have hit with the tsunami.

Attempting the fish tanks
  • The food. It's delicious. I have completely converted to a fan of Thai Food.
  • The doctor fish. They eat dead skin off your feet and legs essentially exfoliating them for you. The only problem is that it feels so bizarre, like little suckers all over your feet. All I can say is that I tried it. I didn't last more than 5 minutes total, most people have trouble at first but then enjoy it.
  • The island tours are cheap and offer an awesome way to see the bays from the water. The guides are friendly and the views are amazing and they are a water-lover's dream: snorkeling, canoeing, swimming. Best money we've spent on this trip so far have been our two tours.
  • The culture. It's different from what I expected. I still haven't worked out how the "lady boys" fit into it all either.
  • The beaches and the water. I love it all. It really does look as beautiful in person as it does in the photos.
  • The photos with Japanese tourists. Malena and I have been asked at least twice now to pose for photos with the Japanese. We agree and flash the peace sign with the best of them.
Our Japanese tourist friends
Tomorrow we wake up early and head to Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand, via flight from Phuket.  We'll spend the night there and then take a ferry to Koh Tao where we will spend some time diving in what is supposed to be one of the best places in the world.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Selamat Datang (Welcome) to Malaysia

I had a very tearful goodbye leaving New Zealand and a long delay to make things worse (only because I had plenty of time to sit in the Auckland airport thinking about my departure).  But I am happy to report I have now made it safely to Kuala Lumpur.

The Petronas Twin Towers
I arrived at 1am and decided to take my dad's advice and take a cab to the hostel in order to avoid the unknown dangers that could have been lurking behind every dark corner.  I got out of the cab in China town and although my last experience in Asia was in India more than 15 years ago, I recognized the smell and feel of the air before my foot hit the ground.  It's incredible what memories strong smells can conjure.  I made my way up to the second floor where I checked into my hostel.  I crashed safely in my bunk after 24 hours without any real sleep. I was exhausted.

On Wednesday I woke up to the hustle and bustle of the city.  Malaysia is a melting pot of people, particularly Indians, Chinese and Muslims have settled here over the years of growth.  It means that there are huge contrasts in the city and culture.  I opted for the hop on and off bus tour so that I could cover more ground in the two days I have.  I tried a small Indian stand for lunch, I toured the National Mosque and the orchid and hibiscus gardens, I chatted with the people on my bus and then, worn out, I returned to the hostel in the early evening.  And in case you are wondering...there really are motorcycles and scooters everywhere! 

Touring KL
Oddly enough the one thing I didn't expect (but foolishly should have) were all the Asians taking pictures.  Which seems stupid considering I'm in Asia.  They clearly use it as their practice ground because it was a struggle to get photos without them in it... except in Chinatown.  I guess that's like photographing a McDonald's they are everywhere.

Today I took the train out of the city to Batu Caves, a place of worship for Hindus.  It was quite beautiful once you got to the top but that may have had to do with the 300 steps that it required on a hot and humid day. 

Batu Caves
As I was leaving an "Indian gypsy" offered me an anklet for 28 Ringgits (approx. $10 USD).  He had slipped it on my ankle so I could see how it looked.  As I struggled to figure out how to unclasp it, the price continued to drop, and drop, and drop.  Pretty soon I told him I couldn't afford it with the 4 Ringgits I had in my pocket.  I was wrong.  He got 4 Ringgits and I received an unexpected lesson...even a 85% discount isn't unrealistic in Asia

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Photos, Photos, Photos!

It's taken awhile to upload all of my photos to Picasa (I actually got them on Facebook first).  But I thought I would at least try to get them up before I started uploading photos from my Asian Adventure.

Spring/Summer in New Zealand (September - December 2010)

Holiday Touring in New Zealand (December 2010 - January 2011)

Touring the South Island (February 2011)

Saying Goodbye (March 2011)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Until We Meet Again New Zealand

Goodbye New Zealand.  Through my experience here, I've learned about myself, this country and my own country too, its people and people in general.  It's been an amazing year.

Thank you New Zealand for:
  • Showing me that it isn't actually necessary to finish sentences, particularly the similes.  Why bother, there really isn't a comparison worthy enough anyway ("Sweet as" "Cheap as")
  • And a vocabulary lesson.  Jandals, Holiday, Boot and Bonnet, Biscuits (instead of cookies), Lemonade (instead of Sprite), Bach, and so many more.  I'm now fluent in two languages.
  • The people who were kind of enough to occasionally mistake my accent for one of yours...when they weren't asking if I was Canadian
  • The wine, bread and other carbs that were so tasty and comforting that they aided in my gaining 20 lbs while I've been here.  Without that I may have forgotten that I was in the best shape of my life before I arrived and I wouldn't have such a high goal to achieve when I leave.  Thanks for that.
  • The technology: Ahead in so many ways and so far behind in others.  It kept me on my toes and tested my temper all at the same time.
  • Destroying my spelling, it's going to take at least a year for me to recover from spelling things with u's and s's and consonants where they don't belong. 
  • Your commercials.  There are just no words to describe the variety.  One commercial featured a girl and her pet...a beaver.  That's right, it was a tampon commercial.  Classy.
  • Teaching me the difference between Australians and New Zealanders.  They aren't the same country...who knew?
I imagine that people will ask, "What was the best thing about living in New Zealand?"  And I'll say the first thing that pops into my mind and smile. But on the inside, I'll be wondering how I could ever actually put into words the amazing time I've had here...I think without someone having the experience themselves it couldn't be described at all.

I set out last March with very few expectations for my trip here, maybe that's why it's been so successful.  My hope was that I could last until my birthday in May, which would have been three months.  The reality is that it's hard for me to leave now, 12 months later.  There are still things that I didn't accomplish on my "To Do List" but I actually knocked off the majority...and many more if you consider everything I've done that wasn't on the list.  I've experienced vacations, time with friends, gorgeous landscapes, remote islands, romantic flings, new adventures and so much more.  I wanted to "Live like a Kiwi" and I'd like to think I've done a pretty good job. 

A big thank you to all of the people I have met here who have helped me enjoy this past year to the fullest.  And a thank you to my friends and family back home who were excited for my travels, followed my ramblings on this blog and kept in touch while I've been away.  It's nice to feel loved by so many people around the world.

Next up:  Southeast Asia tomorrow where the adventure continues...