Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Glad It's Over: Thai-Cambodia Overland Border Crossing

Today was yet another "adventurous" overland border crossing kind of day from Thailand to Cambodia.  This was right up there with the complicated, anxiety-provoking overland border crossing from Ecuador to Peru that we did back in May. 

We've read and heard a lot of chatter about the potential pitfalls and traveler nightmares of crossing the Cambodian border. Perhaps a visit to these sites for some inspiration:  Seat61, Poipet - WikiTravel, Cambodia: Poipet - A Warning

It's not that we were worried about whether or not immigration will let us in.  We already had our $25/pp Cambodian e-visas issued in advance.  It's all about getting across the border and to our destination without getting scammed...too much.  Basically, bribes and scams are rampant in this stereotypically rundown border town of Poipet, Cambodia, and oblivious tourists are the main target.  Though this may not be a true representation of Cambodia, it is a good representation of most corrupt border towns around the world, and Cambodia is no exception.

By now, you should know that we made it across the border to live and tell about our experience!  So, how did we do?  

Here's what our 13-hour travel day looked like...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Return Trip from Ko Samui to Surat Thani Train Station and Bangkok

A week ago, our 18-hour "amazing race" from Bangkok to Lamai Beach in Ko Samui couldn't have gone more smoothly.  We thought the tour company providing bus transport directly from Surat Thani train station to the Seatran ferry terminal was a really good deal and without the headache of trying to find our own way, since we didn't see any public buses or taxis nearby the train station.

Our return voyage from Lamai Beach in Ko Samui to the Surat Thani train station to catch our 9:04 pm Express 84 overnight train back to Bangkok was a little more "on our own" and time consuming.  

We thought we would have plenty of time to catch our night train, so we thought we left our hotel really early at around 2 pm.  But it took over 5 hours.  We finally arrived at the Surat Thani train station at 7:30 pm, so remember to leave plenty of time for travel!  Here's how it went...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Onward to Cambodia: Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields

In 2 days, we will be making our overland journey into Cambodia. We are definitely looking forward to visiting the main Cambodian attraction, the Angkor Archeological Park near Siem Reap,  which people claim is even more spectacular than Machu Picchu! 

However, we cannot ignore the late 70s genocide by the Khmer Rouge that wiped out 1/3 of the country's population.  Some of our travels take us to cool places like the beaches of Thailand, but we think it's important to witness other, more sobering places like Cambodia.

The sad and dark history probably evades most people's memory, either because we were too young to recall, but more likely because it occurred in the shadow of post-Vietnam War and the rest of the world either turned their heads or simply did not know what was going on in Cambodia.  They were "forgotten". 

Visiting Cambodia requires historical context.  We've been brushing up on Khmer Rouge history, Killing Fields, and the infamous S-21 torture prison in Phnom Pehn.  We challenge you to at least read the history of Cambodia via Wikipedia and watch the movie, "The Killing Fields", again.  We did.  We also finished reading Haing Ngor's compelling personal story of survival in his book, "Survival in the Killing Fields".*shock* *sob*

Like the holocaust, it's unbelievable that fellow humans did this to each other.  Particularly in Cambodia, they were killed by their own flesh and blood.  Learning the history makes us acutely aware that genocide still occurs and can go on without being detected.  Yet, be able to celebrate their resilience by experiencing a very ancient and amazing culture.  

Cambodia, here we come!

Ko Samui, Our Week in Thai Beach Paradise

Postcard perfect Lamai Beach, Ko Samui, Thailand.
The word "Samui" means cold in Japanese, but I doubt that is what this island's namesake means in Thai!  While "Ko" means island in Thai, "Samui" may actually be named after a native tree called mui or after a Malay word, saboey, meaning "safe haven".  This island in the Gulf of Thailand is very tropical and definitely not "Samui" or cold.

There are so many nice islands in Thailand, it was difficult to choose where to plant ourselves for a week.  Ultimately, we chose the ever popular Ko Samui for its ease of access (if you consider a 12-hr train ride, 1.5-hr bus ride, 1.5-hr ferry ride, and hanging off the back of a songthaew truck, easy...), beautiful unspoiled beaches, and a variety of activities. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

I Could Be Turning Into A Hippie...

What is it about traveling through third-world tropics that make it seem acceptable to start ditching my REI or Northface gear for something a little more...cotton-y and flowy?

Truthfully, it's just too damn hot for the synthetic, quick-dry, über-cool, high-performance, fitted, multi-pocketed, anti-theft, anti-sun, bug repellant, superpower gear.

I find myself wearing the unrestricted, flowy, cotton-y, all-sizes, hippie wear for the rest of our Southeast Asian trip.  It's cheap, easy to wash, easy to wear. Somehow, it just happened. 

I'm not kidding.  I've got the long unruly hair, hippie-sack bag, flowy skirt, and Birkenstocks to prove it.  

I would never wear all of this together at the same time, but you get the drift.  I've gone hippie.  Omg.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Amazing Race from Bangkok to Ko Samui, Thailand

One could fly directly from Bangkok to Ko Samui island and be sipping a piña colada on the beach before noon, but what would be the adventure in that when you could spend 18 hours traveling instead?

For the mid-range budget travelers that we are, flying is usually not an option.  Plus, the train system in Thailand is so good, 12-15 hours on an overnight train is a very pleasant experience.

Here's our amazing race of a day from Bangkok to Ko Samui.

First class cabins. Seat
converts into bunkbeds.
The trains in Thailand are awesome.  Online booking is very easy through www.thairailticket.com, although you could also walk up to the ticket counter and find a seat on one of the many trains departing daily.  For overnight travel, first class private cabins book up very quickly in advance, so we made these reservations about 2-3 weeks prior to our travel date.  There is more availability for second class air-conditioned cars; but we would advise you avoid the second class fan-only cars.  Besides being hot, the windows are left wide open and offers 'free boarding' for mosquitos. 

The overnight express train (express, because it skips stations; but definitely not due to speed) in first class ($43/pp) from Bangkok left at 1930 and was scheduled to arrive at Surat Thani station at 0706 the next morning.  This was our third overnight train in Thailand, and we've yet to arrive anywhere on time.  The 11.5 hour ride took more like 12.5 hours.  

In the past...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Chiang Mai Spell

After visiting a place, have you ever seriously considered, or at least daydreamed, about moving there?

During the past 5 months, we've come across several places where we could see ourselves living, but nowhere is beckoning us more than Chiang Mai.  Yes, even with the tropical heat and mosquitos...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Everyone's Got A Story and Wants to Feed You in Chiang Mai

Reflections on one of our best weeks during our travels in Chiang Mai.  Being in nature, riding elephants, and visiting more temples was good; however making new friends, reuniting with old, and trying out some good (non-Thai) food is what will remain in our memories.  Everyone's got a story in Chiang Mai. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Elephants, Hiking, and Bamboo Rafting in Chiang Mai

There are tons of things to do in Chiang Mai, but one of the star attractions is to ride an elephant.  There are several options for elephant camps.  Those catering to the ethically-minded treatment of animals offer a full-day or multi-day visits to elephant rescue parks where you can adopt an elephant for a day, learn about them, bathe them, feed them, etc.  These parks do not offer rides because they feel it is "inhumane".  We love animals but didn't stop us from finding a place where we could climb aboard one for an hour or so.  What we didn't want to see was a bunch of chained-up elephants in a "show" performing tricks for the audience, which there are plenty of as well.  

We made a day out of the elephant ride by going into the Doi Inthanon (tallest mountain in Thailand) National Park with a group of about 13, and rode elephants, hiked around the national park, visited some hill tribe villages, and rode a bamboo raft down the river.  All this for 2 hours worth for transportation, front-door pick-up/drop-off service, lunch, and guide cost $30/pp.  We usually avoid group tours, but it was the most economical and efficient way of getting to do everything in the national park that we wanted to do.

The rest is all photos!  Really, no explanation needed.  The only photos we don't have are from the bamboo rafting.  We didn't take anything with us that could potentially get wet, including our camera.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wat Phrathat temple Atop Doi Suthep Mountain

Most people refer to the Wat Phrathat temple on Doi Suthep Mountain as just "Doi Suthep".  It is one of the most visited temples in the Chiang Mai area not only for its 309 brick steps, beautiful temple grounds, but also the panoramic view of Chiang Mai, weather permitting. 

The short version of the story goes like this.  A monk found Buddha's shoulder bone, claiming to have magical powers.  He took the bone to King Dharmmaraja but it displayed no such powers for him, so the king was uninterested.  Instead, the monk took the bone, which split in two, to King Nu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom in northern Thailand.  The smaller piece of the relic was enshrined  at Suandok, but the King couldn't decide where to keep the larger bone fragment relic of the Buddha.  He placed the relic on the back of a white elephant, which roamed the area until it climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted 3 times, then died.  Seeing this as a sign, the king decided to build a temple to house the relic here in 1383.  Since then, the temple complex has expanded.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Flying Through the Jungles of Chiang Mai - Treetop Zipline Adventures

We were advised that there are 3 main (and legitimate) outfits in Chiang Mai operating a treetop jungle zip lining adventure with internationally approved safety equipment.  The most popular and also most expensive is The Flight of the Gibbons zip line tour at 3300 baht (~USD$110/pp).  They claim to fly through the jungle with the gibbons (type of ape).  The Jungle Flight offers 3 packages, A, B or C with A on the low-end having 22 platforms.  Cost for A is 1990 baht  (~USD$65).  For almost the same cost, Eagle Track offers a similar tour, but through rice paddies and other scenery.  All three offer front door pick-up and drop-off service; free t-shirt or something like that; water; and a meal.  Our hotel receptionist was saying that for some reason, for those who decide not to go with The Flight of the Gibbons, most Asians go with Eagle Track while westerners go with Jungle Flight.  Who knows. 

Although our $19/day hotel cost leaves us a lot of room for spending, we still didn't want to spend 3300 baht/pp so we went with the 1990 baht Jungle Flight and was not disappointed.  By the way, there were also plenty of Asians in our group.  :).  They picked us up promptly at 8 am and took about an hour of mountainous nausea-inducing drive to their home base.  We quickly got outfitted with the proper gear, including a very "attractive" pink net to wear over our hair before putting our helmet on.  After getting the waiver signed, we got a short briefing and we were on our way to the 22 different platforms.  Most of them were zip lines atop or amongst very tall trees.  The view was breathtaking.  We also crossed swinging bridges, went down spiral staircases built into the tall trees, and finished off with a 100-foot free falling rappel station that we had to jump off of.  We spent about 2.5-hours zip lining, just in time to hike back UP the mountainside for a lovely traditional Thai meal, buffet style.  We even got a commemorative t-shirt.  The staff were entertaining but professional and the whole experience felt safe.  We were back in our hotel, 6 hours later!

[photos and videos below]

We Love Chiang Mai!

So far, we haven't done anything substantial (by checklist tourist standards, anyway) in Chiang Mai, but we really like its vibe.  It's the  largest city in Northern Thailand, but it's not that big, has a small town feel, waaay more laid back than Bangkok, is surrounded by mountains, and plenty of things to do...or not at all.  Whatever floats your boat.

Well, what the heck is there to do in Chiang Mai?  It's an adventure sports dreamer's dream.  In the mountains, there's trekking, rock climbing, zip lining, white water rafting, cave exploring...whatever.  There are hundreds of temples (wats) to visit if that's what you're into.  The tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, is here at 2500 meters.   Not to mention spending time with elephants, of course - whether it be elephant riding or being a "caretaker for a day" or visiting the elephant nature preserve, etc.  At night, there's the Night Bazaar full of artisanal crafts and flea market finds, plus bars and restaurants galore.  Although, there may be more Thai massage parlors than bars...it's a toss up for sure. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thailand, A Street Foodie Paradise

One of a thousand Pad Thai stands
Oh, how we longed for this day to come where we could feast on street food (hawker stands) in Thailand!  Especially when we were traveling through the Balkans about 6 weeks ago, eating yet another unidentifiable minced meat patty or something they called pizza.  

For so long, we've been dreaming about ordering food from one of the myriad food carts and watching the little old ladies whip up our pad thai, chicken fried rice, noodle soup, spring rolls, or grilled skewers of meat, right before our eyes.

In Bangkok, it's more difficult to avoid someone selling food than finding food.  Right outside our guesthouse in a back alley are probably 10 food vendors grilling, frying, or sautéing away!  Once we get to the main street, we can't hardly walk down the sidewalk because it is packed with food stalls on both sides.  We have no idea what most of the stuff is, but it all smells good.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Historic Bangkok: Grand Palace and Wat Po

At the Grand Palace
We can't remember the last time someone said they're going to Bangkok for the historical sites.  Usually, it's the food, nightlife, and shopping that attracts the visitors.  However, as capital of Thailand, there are some very cool historical things to see in between the hangovers from previous night's gluttony. 

Here's a few interesting tidbits about this area:

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by a European power and is sometimes referred to "the land of the free".  The Thai monarchy has been in continuous existence since the founding of the Kingdom Sukothai in 1238.  King Rama IX (HRH Bhumibol Adulyadej) is the ninth ruler under the Chakri Dynasty since 1782, and is the world's longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history since 1946.  He was actually born in Massachusetts while his father attended Harvard University (so, that makes him American by birth?). By law, it is a crime to criticize, insult, violate, or defame the royalty, punishable by imprisonment.  Yup.  No texting, Facebooking, hypothesizing, etc. about the King out loud.

Chao Phraya River and Wat Arun
in background on west bank 
The history of Bangkok dates at least to the early fifteenth century, when it was a village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River that eventually grew into the current capital on the east bank of the river under King Rama I.  Before most of the canals were filled or built over for city expansion, Bangkok was referred to as the "Venice of the East".  The full Thai name of Bangkok is, "Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok popnoparat ratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit" (กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานี บุรีรมย์อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์) and is listed as the world's longest location name by the Guinness Book of Records.  In English it means, "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn".

As far as historic places, our visit focused primarily on the two main ones: (1) The Grand Palace and (2) One of the more famous buddhist temples - Wat Po.  Home of the Reclining Buddha.  These 2 sites are right next to each other in the Old Bangkok, Rattanakosin District.  Just when we thought we couldn't take another cathedral, church, or mosque; we have gladly welcomed a whole new level
of architecture and religion to admire!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Happens in Bangkok, Stays in Bangkok

Khaosan Road during the day
The Vegas rule of engagement applies here, too.  What happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok.  So, don't expect any Hangover Part 2-esque accounting of events.  However, we can share a few observations to keep our blog going!

Ironically, we just left Jerusalem, the holiest and most religious city for one of the backpacker capitals of the world - Bangkok, Thailand.  Long gone are Jesus's sites, prayer books, wailing wall, churches, synagogues, mosques, and pilgrims.  

Now, we are surrounded by bars, clubs, tattoo parlors, Thai massage joints, pad thai street vendors, plastic buckets full of cheap booze, piercings, beer girls, lady-boys, hippie flowy clothing, tuk-tuks, and a sense that practically anything goes in this city that makes Vegas look like an amateur, as evidenced by the ping ping girls in Bangkok's Red Light District, Patpong Street (look it up, or read this R-rated article: Ping Pong Show by Adventurous Kate's blog).  

Cost: 7 Days in Jerusalem

We know that everyone spends differently, and a budget can be extremely variable; however, after leaving an area, we want to provide some perspective on the cost associated with staying there for anyone interested in doing a similar trip.  Our budget of $150/day (we started with a lower target range of $100 but we are obviously nowhere close to that!) is for 2 people and does not include the $10,000 round-the-world flights (plus trip insurance) already paid for.  The budget also does not account for the bills we are continuing to pay at home.  The bulk of our budget allows for low-to-mid-range lodging in hostels, budget hotels, or guesthouses for a target of $60/double; meals/drinks; use of public transportation; and cost to do some sightseeing and/or activities.  At $150/day, we have found we are not depriving ourselves from any experiences; except that, as foodies, we aren't as liberal with our budget on finding the best and trendiest restaurants (which we haven't missed at all).  An article titled, "Set Your Daily Number" by the veteran travel bloggers from Married With Luggage confirms that a daily average is a simple strategy for setting and meeting a budget.  We've got in the habit of taking a few minutes to record our daily expenditure so we can make small adjustments along the way.

Israel has the prettiest money!
Long ago when we decided to add Jerusalem to our RTW trip, we knew it would be a temporary budget-breaker, but we didn't care.  We wanted to experience the Holy City no matter.  

So, despite the up charge in our lodging due to Yom Kippur and Sukkot holidays, we came out only slightly scathed at $190/day ($1327 total).  

Currency: USD$1 = 3.86 Shekels

Friday, October 5, 2012

Tips For A Successful Visit to Jerusalem

While we originally thought a week in Jerusalem was excessive, we're glad for the extra days we had to explore the city because we never intended to visit right in the middle of the Jewish holidays - Yom Kippur and Sukkot - as well as the Sabbath, where everything literally shuts down.  Although it was nice to have a few "forced" days of rest right alongside the locals celebrating their holidays...the lack of public transportation and closed businesses made us think of other nice-to-have-known tips for visiting Jerusalem.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Zion, the Wall, Holocaust Museum, New Jerusalem, and Sukkot

Kind of a boring title but that's exactly what we did on Day 153 of our travels.

We would've also added Dome of the Rock to the title, but we decided not to stay in the long Disneyland-esque line, waiting in the scorching Middle Eastern sun for over an hour to see...more mosques.  The mosque is built on top of the foundation of the Second Temple so it happens to be the holiest place for Jews and the third holiest for Muslims.  However, non-Muslims can only go into the Temple Mount space, and cannot enter the Dome of the Rock or the Al-aqsa mosques anyway, plus we've literally seen dozens of mosques for the past 6 weeks, so we let this one go.  We took some photos from the exterior.

Temple Mount compound.  Gold Dome of the Rock sits on top of Temple foundation and the Al-aqsa mosque to the right with the black dome.  Note the long line already formed at 8am.  The Wailing Wall is in front of the gold dome on other side of the bridge leading into the compound.  
After walking through Jaffa Gate of the Old City, we walked past David's Tower and ruins of King Herod's palace remains, kept going through the Armenian Quarter, and found our way to Zion Gate, which led us out of the Old City walls onto Mount Zion.