Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bangkok, Thailand, to Anchorage, Alaska

Amber:  We made it back to Anchorage, Alaska!  We had a wonderful five and a half months.  We started in Munich, German, and rented a car and road tripped through Austria, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, and back to Germany.  Of that time, we spent a month in Italy, three weeks in Greece, and two weeks in Croatia.  Each country was beautiful and we wished we had way more time (and money) to spend in all of Europe!  Tim's parents met up with us in Italy, as well as our friend Sarah and her Aunt Jane (and her fabulous friend, Kim).  We all ate a lot of amazing food and drank a lot of delicious wine.  My sister finally met up with us and we had great twin time in Italy and Greece! And ate more food and drank more wine! It started to snow in Europe, so Tim and I returned our car to Munich after driving a total of 8,000 km.  Tim and I then flew from Germany to Istanbul, Turkey, explored for a few days, then flew to and visited Dubai, UAE.  We were in the "Middle East" and it was awesome!!

We finally made it back to SE Asia when we flew from Dubai to Jakarta, Indonesia.  We spent a month in Indonesia, and that was no where near enough time.  We then traveled for six weeks with our friends Justin and Ciara, spending a month in Myanmar and two weeks with them in Thailand. Tim and I finished our trip beach hopping in Thailand for two weeks. We returned to Bangkok to enjoy some cheap shopping, spa time, and meet up with our friend Rico, and our friend Melissa (who was in a 2 week whirlwind tour of Thailand with her friend Cailin).  We ate at Chinatown one last time.  We went to the Sky Bar, where the Hang Over Two was filmed and drank really expensive cocktails. We drank buckets on Khao Saun Road. Finally, it was time for us to fly home.  We booked a ticket using air miles, costing us a total of $75 total due to taxes, and flew from Bangkok, Thailand to Shanghai, China, then to Tokyo, Japan, finally reaching US soil in Seattle, Washington, and after a little over 30 hours, landed in Anchorage, Alaska!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was an amazing 5.5 months.  We both missed our family and friends, but the new experiences and new friends we made were fantastic.  We will be home in Alaska for the summer.  There is no place more beautiful  and no where else either of us would rather spend our summer.  Tim plans on managing a remote mining camp for the summer.  I'm hoping to get some remote work as well, or may stay in town and play a lot with my sister.  We will be heading to South America come winter.  We hope that our friends will join us in Peru when we visit Machu Picchu.  We will go to Mendoza for the wine festival with Tim's parents.  From there, there are so many amazing options in South America that we don't really know where to start.  We've started practicing Spanish!  Tim graduates with his MBA in April (I'm so proud of him!), so that means next winter, you will be hearing a lot more from him!

Thank you all so much for reading our blog!!

Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh

Amber:  We left the peace and quiet of Railay Beach and took a boat over Koh Phi Phi.  There are actually two islands that go by Koh Phi Phi.  Koh Phi Phi Don is inhabited, while its beautiful neighbor is famous for "The Beach" being filmed on its ever so popular Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi Leh.  We got off the ferry and were bombarded by people trying to get us to stay at their guest house.  There were ample accommodations on Koh Phi Phi!  Everyone was advertising 800 baht, about $24, for their most basic of housing.  There are a lot of pricey resorts on Koh Phi Phi, and while they were amazing looking, they were well above our budget at 3,600 baht.  We had just payed 400 baht in Tonsai, so were a little sticker shocked with the jump in price.  We finally booked a ocean view bungalow at 800 baht and were marched from the pier, through the small town, and to the other side of the island.  The white sand bay we were led to was beautiful!  The little, rickety bungalow, however, was not.  Tim almost broke through the porch as he went in.  A mattress sat on the floor and a mosquito net hung limply from the ceiling.  We were not impressed.

We finally found a much nicer room a few hundred yards away from the beach.  Tim was able to barter the owner down to 700 baht a night, and we were happy.  Koh Phi Phi has such a fun party scene.  The bars literally have their dance floor on the beach.  So when the tide comes in, you are dancing in the ocean.  It was fun.  We had a few beers and walked along the beach that was lined with bars.  Each bar had an amazing sound system, so while vacationers jumped flaming jump ropes, played flaming limbo, and jumped through flaming loops, others danced in the surf.  Tim and I mostly watched the crowd and laughed at all the drunken shenaganigans.

We were almost at the end of our five and a half month long trip, so splurged and booked a $150 for three dives, diving trip.  We were so excited!  The diving in Koh Phi Phi was supposed to be amazing.  The first dive sight we went to was a wreck dive.  We took a small boat away from the island for about an hour and a half.  When we got to our dive sight, we were in pretty sharp, 3' swell.  Rocking side to side as the captain had us broadside to the waves, I started to worry about getting sick under water.  Uh oh!  The current was strong, so we were instructed to jump off the stern, then swim towards the bow and take the anchor line down.  The current was very strong!  I was out of breath by the time I made i to the bow line.  Knowing it would be calmer under water, our dive leader told us to go down.  We clung to the anchor line as the visibility was incredibly poor and the current was so strong.  We finally made it to the wreck.  The visibility and the current did not improve.  Tim and I constantly bumped into each other as we were afraid to get too far away from one another and get lost.  The boat had been on the ocean floor for 15 years, so we had been warned to not touch it as it could collapse.  Sea urchins lined the boat's deck. I was terrified!  I burned through my air quickly (I'm pretty sure I was in panic mode the whole dive), and was happy to go back to the surface.  I was shaking when we got out of the water.  Being 90' below the surface, unable to see and constantly being knocked into an old, rotten boat, was not my favorite.

We waited an hour and were told we would be going back down in the same area.  I had been secretly hoping that they would realize that it was far too rough and therefor move.  No such luck.  We dropped in right next to a big rock pinnacle that jetted out of the water.  The rock pile that the boat we had previously dove had wrecked on.  The sea was noticeably calmer, and the water bright turquoise.  We were under maybe a minute when we saw a sea snake.  Clown fish, box fish and puffer fish were everywhere!  Our guide almost bumped into a leopard shark before she spotted him, quietly laying on the sea floor.  Seven feet long, he didn't seem to have a care in the world as we swam by!  The current was pretty much gone, and the visibility was amazing. It was one of my favorite dives.  We finally had to come up, and were settling onto the upper deck for some sun when we realized our boat was driving away with still two divers left in the water.  I ran down and told our dive leader.  She didn't believe me!!  Finally, I was able to convince the captain to turn around and rescue the stranded divers.  How horrible!

Our last dive of the day we drove back to Koh Phi Phi Leh.  The boat backed up to the huge cliff wall that rose up out of the sea.  The visibility was again amazing.  Swimming along the cliff face and viewing it from under water was beautiful.  We saw nudibranches and sea turtles.  It was such a pretty, peaceful dive!  A perfect last dive for our trip.

We enjoyed laying out in the sun pretty much every day we were on Koh Phi Phi.  We layered on the SPF30 and would last about an hour or two.  The bay was shallow, so we would either be on the white sand beach or wade out into the ocean.  It was heaven!  I didn't want to leave.

We took a snorkeling long boat tour of Koh Phi Phi Leh and even beached on Maya Beach.  The islands are truly spectacular.  The water and sand are just breath taking.  We love Thailand!!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Reilay Beach and Tonsai, Thailand

Amber:  Reilay Beach has been on the top of my list of places to visit in all of SE Asia since we began planning our trip in 2011.  The tall limestone cliffs that jet out of turquoise water, surrounding picture perfect white sand beaches, are breath taking.  The rock climbing in the area is supposed to be spectacular.  On one of his previous visits to Thailand, Tim had visited for a few days and had raved about how amazing it was.   I knew I wanted to go!  Last year, with our six country sprint of SE Asia for four months, we accomplished visiting Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore.  While we did pass through Thailand three times, we didn't make it far enough south in Thailand to visit Reilay Beach.  This time around, it was on our we-will-go list.

We said goodbye to Justin and Ciara, after six weeks of traveling with them, on Koh Tao.  They were heading north to Bangkok to meet up with our friend Rico, before flying back to the States.   Tim and I got a ferry, bus, long tail ticket to Reilay beach.  The boat ride was extremely crowded leaving Koh Tao.  The number of foreigners surging to and from the little island was amazing.  The ferry unloaded just as many people as it picked up, at least 500 passengers, and they aren't the only means to get to the island. And this is daily!  Their economy must be booming. At our boat to bus transfer, the wind picked up. Tim and I were sitting in the small bus station when a huge rain and wind storm hit.  A large group of Chinese tourists were trying to board a bus, and their luggage went flying in the gusts.  Women were screaming as they ran through the sheets of rain to get into the bus.  Our bus arrived finally, and we ran through the rain to get onboard.  A huge strike of lightening hit a tower right next to us.  We were already safely on board, so laughed at a black dog that started running for cover.  The poor dog ran down the road our bus was taking for a long, long time!

We ended up spending a night in Krabi Town, and got up early to take a long tail boat out to Reilay.  The long tails only go when they dem they have enough passengers.  The two of us was not enough!  Finally, four more people had signed up, so we were ready to go.  It took us about an hour on the long tail to get to Reilay beach.  It was raining when we arrived.  The limestone karsts were beautiful!  One of the passengers got excited about a particularly pretty photo opportunity and shifted to the far side of the long tail.  We were in a three foot swell from the stern, and the weight shift caused the long, narrow vessel to start to plunge to the left dramatically.  Tim jumped to the other side of the boat, balancing it again.  The boat driver slowed the engine and yelled at the eager photographer; "easy man!"  A flipped long tail would have been an interesting way to arrive in Reilay!

We made it to Reilay, safe and sound.  The white sand beach and limestone cliffs were just as beautiful as I imagined them to be. Tim's class was at ten am, so we trekked through the rain in search of lodging before giving up and finding Tim a computer lab.  Leaving our bags with Tim, I decided to hike over to Tonsai, the hippy climber town on the beach next to Reilay.  Reilay was pricy! The lodging options appeared to be really expensive resorts.  That were beautiful, but well over our price range. So, along the beach, over the rocks and through the jungle I went to Tonsai.  I found the small trail that wound over the cliff that separated the two beaches with out much difficulty.  It took me about twenty minutes before I reached the other beach.  Rock climbers were strung up all over the cliff faces.  How fun!  It made me wish I had some form of muscle in my arms so I could shimmy up the cliffs, too! 

The town of Tonsai was not the most impressive first impression.  I walked along the beach, but there were only a few bars, so took a muddy trail up into the jungle.  I price checked four different options before returning to Reilay.  No one was full, so I wasn't worried about booking a place.  They were all pretty rough, little shacks with mosquito nets.  I felt like a spoiled princess when I went back to Tim, telling him I didn't like Tonsai.  It was dirty and the lodging was expensive for what you got.  Tim laughed at me, and we hiked back to Tonsai and booked a little bungalow.  It was nothing special, but it did have a tin roof, so when it rained, it sounded really cool.  And the bamboo walls, though not particularly sturdy, kept the monkeys out.  The mosquito net did a pretty good job keeping the bugs out, too! 

We did make the mistake of buying banana bread and bringing it back to our room with us, not one night, but two!  The first night, I had left the banana bread in Tim's back pack and left it on the floor of our bungalow, not thinking we were in the middle of the jungle.  A little animal ate a big hole through Tim's back pack and ate a large chunk of our bread.  Not learning our lesson, we bought an even bigger loaf of banana bread and brought it into our room again, this time, protected high up on a shelf in its plastic case.  Tim and I fell asleep, thinking we had outsmarted our little menace.  Oh no!  This time, the little monster climbed into our shack and kept us up all night, trying to get into our bread.  We were stubborn and refused to put the banana bread outside.  With a head lamp, we defended our banana bread!  One teny little mouse was doing his best to get to his prize.  We were successful in keeping him from eating our banana bread, but the next morning, we sleepily asked ourselves if a half a loaf of banana bread was worth a whole nights rest.

Tonsai and Reilay turned out to be as fun and as beautiful as I had imagined them to be.  Tim and I rented a kayak two different days.  Kayaking around all the near by little islands was fun, and Tim likes to paddle trough all the gauntlets and caves as much as I do!  The tide rises and falls rapidly, so it was always different.  We beached at a little secluded white sand cove and looked for sea shells.  We found these amazing little snails and collected a plastic coke bottle full of them.  We promised each other we will make a cool project out of them.  We spent two different days collecting them, so we better! 

Renting climbing gear is extremely expensive, and both Tim and I are pretty darn weak right now, so we never did go climbing.  Food and drinks are definitely island prices, so pricy, but we did walk down to the beach and enjoy the surf and stars, sipping on a beer or Sangsom and coke.  Sipping on a drink by moonlight, beach side, is hard to beat!  One night at dusk, we heard a woman scream.  Everyone moved out to the beach and stared at the 500' cliff that looms over the bars of Tonsai Beach.  We walked out and joined the crowd.  What were they looking at?  Finally we saw; a man on the top of the cliff jumped off!  He free fell for about a second, then pulled his shoot and floated to the beach.  A second man waited a few minutes, and then also jumped off the cliff.  It was amazing watching his tiny body arch off the cliff and then with a woosh, pull his shoot.  As it turns out, the first scream we heard was a woman that lead the base jumpers.  Awesome!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Koh Tao, Thailand

Amber:  Tim and I love Koh Tao.  It is a tropical paradise island with the cheapest diving in the world for us.  We got our Open Water SCUBA at Bans Dive resort last year, and as a result, we get a discount every dive.  Score!  Our good friend and dive instructor Fai lives on Koh Tao.  Justin actually met Fai over six years ago in Bangkok as a Couch Surfer on her couch.  She moved to Koh Tao and became a SCUBA instructor, and Justin visits her every year when he comes to Thailand.  She has now taught Justin, our travel buddies Joe and Rico, Tim and I how to SCUBA dive, not to mention hundreds of others.  She is great; I have never met anyone that is more fun, but can make me feel more comfortable in the water.  With us going to Koh Tao, Ciara was next on her list!

This was Tim's and my third time at Koh Tao.  Fai booked Tim, Justin, Ciara and I a VIP bus from Bangkok and we had the most amazing reclining chairs on the 8 hour bus ride to Chumpon, the ferry port that connects Koh Tao with the rest of the world. It was so comfortable that even Tim fell asleep.  The luxury stopped in Chumpon, however.  We were supposed to be on the fast boat, a beautiful catamaran that takes an hour and a half to arrive on the island.  There had been a mix up at the ticket counter, however, and the four of us were booked on the slow boat.  This boat is old, stinks of diesel, and over booked. And takes about three hours.  We all tried to sleep through the fumes, but it gave Ciara a headache.  The deck was already crowded with people trying to escape the cabin, but we were able to climb past them.  For some lucky reason, no one had taken the bow, so we were happy to soak up a little early morning sun and hang our feet over the side.  There were flying fish that darted out of the water and glided across the waves about twenty meters before crashing back into the ocean.

Unfortunately, a group of very intoxicated French hippies found us.  It was eight in the morning, and they were all still going strong from the night before.  They were smashed.  They kept on standing up and mooning each other, to the point the captain had to stop the boat to get them to sit back down. One fell onto Justin and spilled his beer all over Justin's camera bag.  Not wanting to start an altercation, Justin yelled at them then we moved further up the bow.  We all stewed as they made asses of themselves.  Finally, we made it to Koh Tao, and we were happy to get away from them. 

Because of the mix up on the boats, we arrived in Koh Tao behind schedule.  Tim needed to be in a computer lab at ten in the morning.  He and two others were presenting to his entire MBA class via adobe connect.  It was about ten twenty when the taxi finally dropped us off at Bans.  Poor Tim!  I could tell he was silently seething.  We all found Fai, who was working in reception to help out Bans, said hello quickly, and Tim ran to find the nearest computer lab.  As it turns out, a different group presented before Tim's group was up, so he didn't miss a thing and was able to present as if nothing had happened. 

Bans was fully booked, and Fai was extremely busy.  Justin, Ciara and I went in search of a guest house.  The number of tourist in Koh Tao has increased dramatically!  A lot of the guest houses we have stayed at in previous visits were full.  Those that weren't completely booked had increased their pricing by almost double.  We finally found two rooms at the same place.  The woman that owned the place was a bit strange.  When asking to see the room before committing to staying, Justin also asked if there was wifi available.  She became agitated and shouted "do you want to see room, or do you want wifi???"  Um, both?  It was the cheapest room we had found, and they were nice, so despite the host being extremely cranky, we booked with her. 

It was Valentines Day the day we arrived, so Tim and I had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, just the two of us.  We had baked brie, wine, and pasta. It was delicious!  We got a banana chocolate pancake from a street vendor for desert, my favorite.   Afterwards we walked down to the ocean and light a Chinese lantern while standing in the surf.  Tim can be so romantic!  We met back up with the gang after and had some beers at a beach side bar.  It was such a fun evening!

We spent eight days on Koh Tao.  It is so fun there, it is hard for us to leave!  Fai was finally able to take a day off, so the five of us drove motor scooters over to Shark bay, rented snorkel gear, and swam with black tipped sharks.  Tim and I had gone last year, and it was amazing.  Ciara is very scared of the water, but after completing her SCUBA course, was feeling a bit more confident.  The day we went, there was some chop coming into Shark bay.  The water was cloudy, and there was talk of going back.  No!  We had to see sharks!  We decided to stay in the water and go out into the bay a little further.  The visibility cleared.  And a big shark swam by!  Well, he was at least four feet long, and that seems really big when you are swimming two meters above.  The sharks pretty much did their own thing while the four of us trailed after them on the surface.  They are awesome.  We swam for about forty five minutes and were able to swim with at least four different black tipped sharks.  It was fun.  Afterwards, we went to a calmer beach (with no sharks!) and played in the water on a beautiful white sand beach and soaked up the vitamin D. 

We spent a lot of time just relaxing on Koh Tao.  Thailand is a perfect way for one to wrap up a five and a half month long trip, as if traveling were hard!  Sitting on white sand beaches, playing in warm, picture perfect turquoise water, eating really good food, enjoying great company, Koh Tao spoils you.  We did manage to dive four times, which is always amazing.  We went to Chumpon Pinnacle, where we saw the whale shark last year, but no whale sharks were to be found.  It was Ciara's first time going below 18 m, Fai took her down to 30m to give her her deep water certificate. Having gotten our deep water last year, and gone on many 30m dives since, we all went with, and had fun swimming around.  All the cool stuff is deep, you just can't dwell on the fact that you are swimming 90' below the surface.

We were nearing the end of our dive, and moving up the pinnacle, when I felt my weight belt shift.  Uh oh!  The buckle had come undone.  Two of my four weights slipped off and sank beneath me.  Trying to not shoot to the surface, I let the air out of my BCD.  It didn't help much.  I was surfacing.  All I could think was "Oh no, I'm going to get the Benz" and "Damn, now I can't go on our second dive".  I surfaced, and did a mental check.  Did I have pain anywhere?  No, so that was good.  I looked in the water beneath me.  Where were my friends?  Oh, still at about 18 m, swimming along.  They finally looked up.  I waved, letting them know I was okay.  They did their 3 min stop at 3 meters to, ahem, prevent getting the Benz, and finally joined me at the surface.  I was fine to go on the second dive, and we had fun swimming through under water caves and looking at all the pretty marine life in Koh Tao. 

The next day, Tim and I signed up for two more dives.  Fai was not able to lead us, so we went with Chris, a gentleman from England that was on holiday at Koh Tao.  Once upon a time, he was a dive instructor at Bans, and while he was back, they let him dive for free, so long as he occasionally took fun divers like us.  The first dive was an old battle ship that had been sunk by Bans to be a wreck dive.  At 30 m, the old battleship was eery in the poor visibility.  We swam around the boat and even stood on its deck.  The second dive was also poor visibility, but we did see clown fish, (Nemo!), so that was fun.  Chris let us use his underwater camera.  I so want one for the next time we go diving.  Guess it's time for me to go home so I can afford one!

If anyone is wondering where Tim went as far as blog posts... he is taking two classes and those consume all of his free computer time.  So, all his fun facts are not here in the blog like they usually are.  Sorry!  But, while he works on his classes, I get to write about all the fun we are having.  Then, when he is done with his class time, home work, and group meetings, we can go play!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chinatown, Bangkok

Amber:  One of the reasons I love to travel... the food.  I try not to be too much of a foodie and write constantly about the cool stuff we eat.  But, what can I say, Bangkok's Chinatown's food is worth writing about.  Chinatown it's self is awesome.  It is teeming with energy.  Big red Chinese lanterns are draped everywhere.  People crowd the streets, walking between shops, street stalls, and restaurants.  Everything is so different!  Shark fin soup, birds nest soup, fruits we've never seen, it's awesome (we still havn't mustered up enough courage to eat the birds nest soup, and shark fin soup... that's just wrong).  The streets are still open to traffic, so it can be a bit of a challenge to cross to your next favorite place to eat.  While there are lots of interesting things to shop for, we never actually go shopping, we just eat.

Tim and I have become creatures of habit in Chinatown.  First we start with roasted duck served over noodles at a tiny little food stall. Perched on kids sized stools at a long street side table, crammed in with the locals, we make ourselves at home. It has to be the best duck in the world, for about $1.35.  It is the only thing that they serve, so they have it nailed down to an art.

From there, we walk down the bustling street to find our favorite seafood street restaurant and fill ourselves on giant prawns.  Tim is a master at ripping the head off and getting the meat out of the tail.  The prawns are hot off the grill, so getting their shell, head and legs off usually ends up with me burning my fingers and I somehow end up with prawn guts on me every time.  It's all worth it tho, as they are huge, and are served with the best lime chili dipping sauce.  I could eat them for hours.  We get the prawns with a curried chili crab, which is amazing as well.  It is rich and delicious.  Washed down with a big Chang, it's amazing, and we are full.

But, we keep going.  There are these awesome, warm, stuffed rolls at a tiny little food stall that are to die for.  They are a cross between a biscuit and a dinner roll, warmed and filled with butter and your choice of peanut butter, marmalade, chocolate, or cinnamon sugar.  Having tried them all, marmalade is my favorite.  For Tim, its all about the peanut butter.  Really, its the melting butter that matters.  And at this point, we have to stop eating or else we would burst.

We love taking our friends to Chinatown.  It's a fun way to spent the evening.  So far this time in Thailand, we have gone twice.  The first time, Tim, Justin, Ciara and I took a ferry down the Chao Pria River and they did the circuit with us.  After impressing them with the duck, Justin was able to convince us that dim sum needed to be added to the mix, so we went off in search of the best dim sim in Chinatown.  Being close to Chinese New Year, it was really crowded.  Being as we were in Chinatown, it was really hard to find dim sum.  We were able to find the dim sum restaurant, however, and all shared a large selection.  Ciara had never had dim sum, but I think she now has new favorite food group.  They were tasty. 

The second time we went back, it was actually Chinese New Year.  Complete with the big dragon puppets, it was a special time to be in Chinatown.  It was so packed with people, the streets were actually closed off to traffic.  We hit up all our favorite food groups, and enjoyed the show. Unfortunately, all the photos are locked on Tim's phone, so you will just have to imagine how cool it was!

Khao Yai, Thailand

Amber:  We enjoyed two nights in Bangkok before heading north to Khao Yai.   Justin, Tim, Ciara and I were all thankful for Ciri on Tim's phone as we rented a car and maneuvered the chaotic, massive highways leading out of Bangkok.  The city is at least 7.7 million people, and growing rapidly.  Tim is a very good driver, so he was nominated to drive.  Not only does one drive on the opposite side of the road as we do in Alaska, but the driver is on the other side of the car as well! Tim did great (even with three back seat drivers).  Lane lines in Thailand are merely suggestions.  Cars, motor scooters, busses, semis, all dance around each other in a race to get there first.  While he is perfectly safe, Tim is aggressive!  It is funny when we get home, he keeps up the same offensive driving; darting through traffic.  It takes a few weeks for him to re-acclimate to drive like a normal person.

The car ride to Khao Yai was a little over 2 hours.  Khao Yai is an over 20,000 square km park in the center of Thailand.  Wild elephants, Horn bills, gibbons, tigers, sun bears, and thousands of other animals live in it's protected rain forest.  We were all excited for a chance of seeing a wild elephant.  There are over 250 scattered throughout the densely forested mountains.  Monkeys are everywhere, as well as wild elk and little wild deer.  Justin had gone twice before and been skunked both times, so we all had our fingers crossed that this was the time to find the allusive elephants and gibbons.

Our plan was to drive between different viewing platforms, hike into them, and wait out the elephants.  They were our top priority.  Or where the gibbons?  We weren't sure, we wanted to see both.  And a tiger.  Maybe a little optimistic, but we were excited.  The park was beautiful.  Who knew that such an awesome rain forest was so close the the chaos of Bangkok?  We saw Horn Bills high up in the trees on our drive into the park.  A family of Pig Tail Maquas sat on the side of the road.  They weren't the least bit shy.  Ciara's first monkeys in the wild, complete with tiny baby monkeys!    We drove into the park and searched out the different viewing platforms.  There was elephant dung everywhere!  The Gibbons were nearby as well, we could hear them calling to each other in the forest. 

We spent two nights in Khao Yai, renting camping gear and sleeping in a busy camp ground.  We drove up and down roads, hiked through the jungle, waited in viewing platforms, and stayed out so late one night that we missed dinner as the camp restaurant shut down.  We had Reese's s'mores for dinner, cooked over a charcoal fire, instead.  They were delicious!  As we sat cross legged around the coals, Tim got a leach on his foot.  It was horrible!  It was a little inch worm looking thing attached between his toes.  He pulled it off, and of course his foot started bleeding.  That was enough for everyone to climb into our tents and say good night.  Gross!

We never saw an elephant or a gibbon.  We did see the biggest porcupine I have ever seen in our camp ground, as well as wild elk, the little wild deer, and a little wild cat like thing.  We needed to spend more time in our camp ground and less out in the jungle, apparently!  We did hear an elephant trumpet twice, and gibbons calling to each other constantly.  We fed pig tail maquas potato chips and marshmallows.  It was fun to have them take the food from our hands.  Their hands are so neat!  The big bull was scary, so we stayed in the safety of our car and fed the little cute ones from our windows.  One was so brave, she climbed up onto the car and wouldn't get off.  We threw food down onto the ground and started to drive away, and she jumped down, snatched it up, and bounded back onto the car.  Even though we didn't find the elephants or gibbons (or the tiger!) it was still a beautiful place, and we all had a fun weekend. 

Goodbye Myanmar, Hello Thailand

Amber:  Tim, Justin, Ciara and I returned to Yangon a few days before our Myanmar visa's ran out.  Tim has two classes left before he completes his MBA.  Happily, Alaska Pacific University, the private college he has been attending, has made their masters program into an online format, with an on sight long weekend at the end.  It worked out perfectly for Tim; his last two classes were being offered, and we would have 5 and a half months to travel before it was mandatory for him to be back in Anchorage.  His MBA classes started our last two days in Myanmar.  The classes consist of once a week, two plus hour adobe connect sessions, per class.  Myanmar has just opened up to Westerners, and with that, the internet.  The availability of internet, although vastly improving, is still few and far between, and extremely (painfully) slow.  Yangon was Tim's best bet for getting a connection fast enough to run adobe.  He found one that charged about $0.60 an hour, and was good to go!

Tim, Justin, Ciara and I enjoyed our last few days in Myanmar.  We were all so thankful we were able to experience such a beautiful, fresh country.  The hot, sunny days and cool nights were so enjoyable.  The history was amazing.  We all loved Bagan.  U Bein Bridge was beautiful.  Inle Lake was spectacular.  The trek was so fun.  The locals were such lovely people.  Tourists, although we saw them, are no where near as plentiful as they are in Myanmar's neighbors.  Myanmar Beer on draft in a chilled mug; so delicious!  But... we were also excited to return to Thailand.  Our last night in Yangon, Tim picked up more travelers tummy.  As it turns out, so did Justin and Ciara, who flew to Bangkok the following day.  The morning of our flight, Tim was greenish white and doubled over.  There is no such thing as keeping hot food hot, cold food cold, or shelf life.  Also, there is hardly the appropriate sanitation (at least in the budget accommodations we visited).  Maybe we should have gone vegetarian for our month in Myanmar.  We met a couple at our guest house in Yangon that shared the hot, hour long cab ride to the airport with us. Their story's about their travels, and sharing ours, kept Tim's mind off how sick he felt. 

After taking hours to move mere kilometers by bus anywhere in Myanmar, the hour long flight from Yangon to Bangkok was such an easy way to travel. The views were pretty out of Yangon. Flat rice fields gave way to an island speckled shoreline as we followed the coast south.  After about an hour, a brownish gray haze rose up into the pretty puffy white clouds.  Smog!  We had reached Bangkok.

After getting a room on Khao Saun Road, Tim read more for his classes and tried to get his stomach to feel better.  I went to Ethos, my favorite restaurant in Thailand, and had red curry.  It was spicy and delicious.  I decided to have a mango coconut shake for dessert.  I spent $4 on dinner.  Tim and I had managed to live for less than $30 a day per person, including every expense (airfare, visa, transportation, lodging, beer, food), while in Myanmar.  That was the most I had spent on one meal in a month!  But... it was very tasty, and as a bonus, it was nice to know that I wouldn't be getting food poisoning. It was worth every penny!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bagan, Myanmar

Amber:  Bagan was definitely a highlight for me from our trip in Myanmar.  Found in central Myanmar, it is a huge Buddhist complex of over 3,000 stupas, monasteries, learning-caves, and temples. These span across 20 square miles, following the Ayeyarawaddy River.  They were all built between 1100 AD and 1300 AD, so the same time as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  It is believed that there used to be over 4,000 stupas back in Bagan's hay-day.  The river has changed its course over the last 1,000 years, therefore causing close to a thousand stupas to be lost.  Earthquakes, and of course time, has taken their tole as well, so a lot of reconstruction has taken place.  Millions of dollars have been invested into restoring Bagan.  Unfortunately, historic design hasn't always been followed, and UNESCO dropped Bagan after comparing the extravagant, sometimes over the top, restoration, to Disneyland.  We still thought it was an amazing.  Each structure was different.  While not as grand as the huge, sprawling temples of Angkor, the number of stupas as well as their uniqueness, was awesome.  Some of the stupas still had original frescos of the Buddha painted on the walls and ceilings.  It was amazing looking at 1000 year old art work!

Tim, Ciara, Justin and I took the slow boat down the Ayeyarwaddy River to Bagan from Mandalay.  The 17 hour boat ride was painfully slow as we motored down the river.  Accommodations were to sit very squeezed on the upper deck on plastic lawn chairs.  At four am, it wasn't ideal.  As the day wore on, people unloaded slowly into the small river villages, and our deck space became tolerable.  The sun came out, and it was a beautiful ride down the river.  We ended up getting a few Chang (Thai beer) and played some silly road trip games to pass the time.  We arrived in Nyaung Oo, the small town just north of the historic sight at around 8pm.  It was dark out, so we found a hotel, sleepily had some dinner, and every one was extremely happy to crawl into bed early that night. 

The next morning, the four of us rented bikes and toured the main temples and stupas of Bagan.  Tim bought a map and planned out our day.  It was extremely hot out, but the sky was blue and the sights, amazing.  We took a loop that had us take the less traveled road, viewing literally hundreds of stupas as we biked past in the heat.  Old Bagan houses the most well known stupas and temples, so we made our way there.  After marveling at the beautiful stupas, temples and monasteries there, we biked back towards Nyaung Oo.  Tim and Ciara had been having issues with their bikes being lower geared than Justin and mine.  Both Justin and I ended up at an intersection, waiting for Tim and Ciara.  We waited.  And waited.  Finally, Tim arrived, pushing his bike.  It had a flat front tier.  Ciara was not with Tim, as we assumed she would be.  Justin was just about to turn around to look for her when she too came into view, pushing her bike.  Her peddle had fallen off.  As it turned out, right where we were waiting, a nice local man had an abundance of tools.  He fixed Tim's tire, and then Ciara's peddle.  What a sweetie!!

Ciara and I had asked the man whom we rented our bicycles from if shorts were ok, or, as we were visiting a religious sight, if we should wear long pants.  He had assured us shorts were fine, and we ran into no problems until our final stupa.  We should have know better when we pulled up on our bikes and a group of women rushed out, exclaiming that we should park our bikes next to them.  They pinned butterfly flowers onto our shirts and told us to leave our shoes with them as well.  Ciara and I had no longies, so they allowed us to borrow some they had in their shop.  The local people had been nothing but gracious and sweet to us so far, so we thanked them and carried on to view the stupa.  On our return, we got bombarded.  The woman demanded that we look at their shop, and forcefully made us sit down.  They wouldn't let us stand up.  The items they were selling where hugely inflated.  Ciara and I felt some what obligated to purchase something due to their generosity with letting us borrow their longies.  However, they were very aggressive. I would put an item down, and they would grab my hand and put it back in it. I tried to stand up, and they shoved me back down.  They were doing the same to Ciara.  Finally, we decided we just needed to leave.  The women became very angry, and started yelling, calling us cheap.  We got onto our bikes and shakily biked away.  How awful!

We viewed the temples of Bagan three more days after that.  The next two days we rented a van and looked at the further out sights.  We were even able to climb up onto some of the temples, allowing for amazing views of the planes of Bagan.  We attempted sunset, but the cloud layer didn't work out for us.  We decided to come back for sunrise.  Sunrise was beautiful.  I think all four of us could have spent a week or more at Bagan, especially at sunrise and sunset.  It was so beautiful there!

We became friends with the owner of our favorite restaurant in Bagan, Weather Spoon.  Winton, the owner, had traveled to Europe to learn about Western food and service.  They made the best burger in all of SE Asia!  Tim had three in a row.  The red curry was also amazing.  And we had an avocado salad with each meal.  We pretty much didn't eat anywhere else once we found Weather Spoon. 

Winton was from a small village about 13km away.  He invited us to join him to a very special ceremony where young monks are joined into the monastery. We were thrilled for the opportunity.  It was a very beautiful ceremony, but we felt like the main attraction.  The moment we arrived we were ushered into the front row to get the best pictures of the young monks and monkesses.  Next we were lead into a dining hall to sample small snacks.  An old man with only two teeth developed a strong liking to Tim and lead him by hand around the ceremony.  While we ate, he stood and fanned flies from our table!