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!