Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reunited and it feels so good!

We had to crouch so we wouldn't be showing Buddha our bums
When we got back to Ayutthaya, we checked into our room and met up with Alexis and Shannon. We'd been talking about meeting up with them for months and we were finally able to do it - even with our last minute change of plans. Luckily, Ayutthaya isn't very far from where they live/teach so it was a short trip for them.

We chatted about our different situations and it was great to hear how they were doing and the different experiences they were having. After we caught up for a bit, we rented two motorbikes to get around town for the weekend. I didn't tell Shannon, who rode on the back of mine, but I was very nervous! I handled that thing like a boss though... didn't hit a single person or vehicle! :] Anyway, after we got some food we went out to one of the more famous temples in Ayutthaya that has a giant reclining Buddha and went to one of the ruins to watch the sunset (the same one we'd been to on the boat tour, but Shannon and Alexis hadn't been there yet so we gladly went again). We missed the sunset, but it was still really pretty. After sunset the ruins are lit up with orange lights and it looks really cool. We would have stayed longer, but the mosquitoes were outrageous so we headed out to find a market for dinner. It ended up being in unconventional but delicious meal including guava, chicken on a stick, sticky rice, a waffle with raisins, and ice cream. It was a very random mix of foods, but it was cheap and when it's cheap, we'll take what we can get! We got some drinks from 7-eleven on the way back and spent the rest of the night chatting about living in Thailand and where we planned to go when teaching was over.
The next day we motorbiked around to more temples and ruins and got real sweaty - well I got really sweaty. For lunch we ate at one of the guesthouses that had a restaurant. I had a delicious bacon cheeseburger and french fries to satisfy my American food craving and Ethan had a club sandwich. We really miss American food if you couldn't tell. After lunch was more temples and attempting to find our way around the confusing streets of Ayutthaya. At one point Ethan took us over a tiny bridge that was about 3 feet wide because we were on a one way street with a canal in the middle and had to turn around. Shannon and I made it over, although in a considerably less graceful manner than Ethan and Alexis. Then he took us down a dead end ally, where Shannon and I were chased by a dog. Then on the way to take the motorbikes back Ethan took us the long way, which meant crossing over 4 lanes of traffic twice. I could have killed him. But it made for some really good motorbiking practice and I feel much more confident driving one. And most importantly no one got hurt!
At the Chedi for Queen Suriyothai
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha
After we dropped the motorbikes off we went to DQ for some much needed dessert. The girls caught a bus back to Bangkok a little while later, but we waited 'til 7 to get a ride to the bus station. Our bus left at 8:30 and got to Thawangpha at 6:30am. Another night spent sleeping in extremely awkward positions didn't make for good sleep, but we both have a long break on Mondays so we got to take a nap. Overall, it was a really great mini-vacation and we're really glad we asked for it off. We're even more glad that Alexis and Shannon could join us and we hope to meet up with them again after school is done. :]
Playing some footie with locals at a temple
As of now, our plans after school include Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, & southern Thailand - in that order. We are still working out the details, but are very excited to begin this adventure through south east Asia. Shannon and Alexis will be our travel buddies through Bali and Singapore for sure (flights are booked), Vietnam and Cambodia most likely and possibly Laos as well!

When I see an elephant fly...

Last weekend ended up being a bit longer than we expected. Last week, we knew we had Wednesday off for teachers day. We also didn't have school Friday because of the province-wide sport day that lasted until Saturday. So, over the prior weekend we decided to ask for that Thursday off and if we could skip sport day to go to two of the most famous places in Thailand - Ayutthaya and Khao Yai. Ayutthaya is one of the old capitals of Thailand and has many temples and ruins to see. Khao Yai is a very popular national park about 2 hours from Ayutthaya. (E- They are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.) Ethan asked on Monday and we really didn't think this plan had any chance of actually working out. But, Tuesday afternoon we got the news that we had been cleared by the director to go!

We had about an hour and a half to pack and get to the bus station because we wanted to take the overnight bus to Ayutthaya. We got to the bus station at 5:15 and the bus left at 5:30. Surprisingly, the bus was pretty empty, which was awesome because we ended up sleeping stretched across the aisle. At 3:30 am we were woken abruptly by the driver telling us we were in Ayutthaya. So we hopped off the bus only to realize we weren't at a bus station, but on the side of the highway. We wondered if this was some cruel joke, but apparently it wasn't because several buses dropped more people off there. We stood around for a while trying to get our bearings and figure out how to get into town. After some thinking and trying to get information from the motorbike taxi drivers, we decided it would be best to get a ride. Unfortunately, our usual cheap forms of transport were not available so we paid a little over $5 for two motorbike taxis.
The taxis dropped us off at a guesthouse that had no vacancy, so we walked to another one nearby. We were let in by an older woman who spoke a little bit of English. She told us to wait 2 hours until they opened and then we could get a room. So we slept on the couch until 7ish when another woman came in, who promptly told us they were full. So we got up to leave and somehow in that 5 minutes she was able to come up with a room - don't ask me how. We slept for a while, then spent the majority of the afternoon figuring out how to get to Khao Yai and buying bus tickets back to Thawangpha. After we had all that figured out we took a sunset boat tour to some of the temples in Ayutthaya.
This was the last of 3 temples on the sunset tour
The next day our train left for Pak Chong- one of the cities on the outskirts of the park. When we got to Pak Chong we were picked up by the owner of the guesthouse/tour we were taking and had a few hours to get lunch and wander around until the half day portion of the tour started. At 3, we hopped into the tour truck with a couple from Germany, a guy from Toronto (E- It was good to chat with a Leafs fan.)  and a girl from Indonesia - quite the multicultural mix if you ask me. Our first stop was a fresh water spring that had been turned into a swimming hole for tourists. It was pretty neat because the water was crystal clear and came up out of the ground. I didn't swim, but Ethan did. We were there for about 30 minutes then we headed out to visit a cave. The cave was huge and stinky. And there were bats. They were itty bitty ones though so it wasn't scary. After that, we went to the bottom of this hill that contained another cave for the highlight of the tour. At dusk, the bats in this cave all leave at the same time to go hunt for food. We really didn't know what to expect from these bats, but as soon as the the sun went down, as promised, the bats took off out of the cave. It was one of the coolest things we have ever seen. They came out in one steady stream that looked like a giant snake. They were also being hunted by hawks and with the binoculars you could watch the hawks dive bomb the bats and I even saw one catch a meal. The stream of bats lasted for what seemed like forever (it was really more like 40 minutes). It just kept going and going. The tour group claims that there are somewhere between 1 and 4 million bats - we kept getting different numbers so who knows how many bats there really are?! It was crazy. The sound was cool too, but hard to describe. After watching the bats we headed back to the guesthouse, where we ate dinner with the guy from Toronto. We went to bed early because we had signed up for the full day tour the next day, which started at 7am.
Millions of bats and a Buddhist cave
The full day tour was long, but definitely worth it. As we were driving into the park the guide spotted a Great Hornbill bird. This bird is infamous around here and really hard to spot. We didn't have great vantage point because we were right underneath it, but we could see that it was a colorful and very large bird. We continued driving and stopped at a view point that overlooked a lot of the park. As we continued driving into the park the guide spotted Gibbons (monkeys) way up in the trees next to the road. We decided that having a guide was worth it right there because we never would have spotted those on our own. We watched a group of about 5 gibbons swing around in the trees for a few minutes then continued into the park. Up the road ways we didn't have to look hard to spot a large group of pig-tailed macaques (another kind of monkey) walking down the road. They looked like mini baboons. We took pictures as they went past and continued on. After a short break at the visitor center, we drove past some places where wild elephants can usually be seen, but we didn't see any. Elephants are so sneaky! After that, we hiked one of the nature trails with the guide to one of the wildlife viewing stations in the park. It was positioned near a salt lick, which the park replenishes for the animals. The idea is that the salt is good for the animals, it brings them out into the open for people to see, and it also helps keep the numbers of animals in check by providing an easy target for predators. (E- It helps to keep the animal population strong as well because the carnivores, such as wild dogs in the park, will go after the weaker herbivores and the strong will survive.)
We had lunch following the hike and after that we visited the waterfall that was used in the movie "The Beach." The fall wasn't quite as spectacular as it looked in the movie, but it was still really pretty. We spent an hour taking pictures and exploring around the falls. After that we drove up to the highest point in the park to take in the amazing view. That was followed by a crazy elephant "hunt", which I thought was the best part of the trip. The guide was on his walkie talkie trying to find out where we could see elephants and after a few minutes of driving the truck started flying down the road. The guide stuck half his body out of the window to tell us that he received a signal that there were elephants down the road. So the guy driving continued to floor it to the spot, but no elephants. We were disappointed and turned around to head back when he got another call on the walkie that there really were elephants up the road - we had passed them somehow. We sped back at a dizzying speed and were at last rewarded with a group of elephants attempting to cross the road. We pulled off the road and were watching a mother and baby survey us when we looked to the right where a big male elephant had come into view in the trees. He was clearly annoyed that we had blocked his path, but he just turned around. (E- He could have easily just ran right through us. The Leafs fan and I decided that had nobody been injured, we wouldn't have minded him trying to.) The mother and baby got onto the road and ended up coming really close to the trucks. It was so cool. We watched the elephants for a while, but eventually they went back into hiding in the trees. It's pretty amazing that an animal so large is so good at hiding. (E- There was something far more majestic about seeing these animals in the wild. It was incredible.)
Haew Suwat Waterfall from "The Beach"
Mommy protecting her child from the tourists
That night we ate dinner at the guesthouse again and went to a country western bar for a drink with the guy from Canada and a girl that had been on our tour from Germany. Listening to a Thai sing country western was strange. The whole city of Pak Chong was country western themed. It was really strange, but also kind of neat. The guy that runs the guesthouse said it's that way because the whole town is on one street, just like in the old west. The next day our train back to Ayutthaya left at 10. We were really excited to get back there because our friends from orientation, Alexis and Shannon were meeting us there. :]

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How We Did It - Chiang Mai

Ethan here,

Warning: This is an informational post aimed at helping our fellow CIEE / OEG friends that might want to travel to a place that we have already visited. I'll be including how we got to our destination, what we did there / how we did it and any advice that I would have liked to have before going.

How we got there - We took a bus from Tha Wang Pha to Chiang Mai. The bus leaves at 9:25 pm every night from Tha Wang Pha and gets in to Chiang Mai around 3:30 am. It cost 341 baht or approximately $11.37. Getting to Chiang Mai is pretty easy from wherever you are because it is a top destination in Thailand and has a bus station, train station and an airport. We rode on a bus with both VIP and 1st class seats. We chose the cheaper 1st class seats, but handpicked the front row right behind the VIP section which added a little more room than the rest of 1st class. Just ask the ticket booth to show you the computer screen and you can pick out what seat you want.

Where we stayed - We stayed at Paocome Guesthouse and would recommend it to anyone going to Chiang Mai. It is located just outside of the eastern part of the moat near the top. If your tuktuk from the bus station doesn't know of it, Wat Chompu and Eagle House Guesthouse are in the same area. Some information on the guesthouse can be found HERE. It was 300 baht/night for two people in a double, fan room. We were able to check in at 6:30 am after waiting in their lobby for two hours and weren't charged for early check-in. The rooms are basic, clean and you have your own private bathroom with shower heater. The guesthouse also has WiFi. We stayed for two nights (three sleeps (-:) and checked out to go to Doi Int and then came back the following day and stayed for another night. They held on to all of our stuff that we didn't need for Doi Int and locked it in a room. When we returned, they had the key in the door to the same room waiting for us. They were very friendly and made sure to tell us to be safe and wear our helmets going up the mountain.

Rent a motorbike - Maybe Chiang Mai isn't the best place to learn to ride a motorbike, but if you are comfortable on one, rent one here! WEAR THE HELMET AND LATCH THE NECK STRAP! It doesn't do you any good to wear the helmet and not latch the neck strap as the helmet will be well off your head if you need it. If safety isn't a concern, the police can also fine you for not wearing a helmet. You shouldn't pay any more than 150 baht for a manual and 200 baht for an automatic. If you are rolling two deep on a motorbike (like we do), it's definitely cheaper than taking songtaews, tuktuks and taxis everywhere and you have complete freedom to go where ever you want all the time. We rent a manual because that's what we have in Tha Wang Pha and it's cheaper. Also, if you are going up mountains, a manual is better so you can have it in 1st or 2nd gear working your way up. They also have larger wheels which are better for the tight turns on the mountains.

Doi Suthep - This is a very easy ride with the exception of one very tight turn near the top where we were cut off by a song taew and were forced into the curb a little. No harm, no foul though. The park headquarters at the bottom is relatively useless except to take a picture at. There is a nice viewpoint of the city halfway up, but it was cloudy when we were heading up. I would suggest going early in the morning if you can to beat the clouds and the crowds. At the viewpoint, there are some hill tribe women selling bracelets for 10 baht and they will try and steal each others sales and look like they really need the money. There are also hill tribe women at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep selling the same bracelets for 5 baht. Again, they will try and steal each others sales and look like they really need the money. If you are with a group, try and buy from different people to spread the sales. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep doesn't even try and hide that they charge more for foreigners as there is a sign that says so. Foreigners have to pay 30 baht to get in and Thais don't have to pay at all. I know it's only 30 baht, but we were able to use our work permits to get in for free. The sign is at the top of 300+ steps right before you enter the temple. Have a look around inside the temple if you are dressed appropriately and check out the viewpoint of the city.

Chiang Mai Zoo - The zoo is located just outside of the Doi Suthep - Pui National Park so it is easy to do Doi Suthep in the morning followed by the zoo after lunch. (We ate at Amazing Sandwich for lunch and it was aroi mak mak!) It is a must to bring your work permit to the zoo because you can get multiple discounts. The zoo tries to hide dual pricing for foreigners and Thais by using Thai numerals, which I was told are very rarely used throughout Thailand. The initial entrance fee for foreigners is 100 baht/person and we paid 70 baht/person with our work permits. It also costs 10 baht to park your motorbike. We recommend the panda exhibit, which is 100 baht/person for foreigners, but we paid 50 baht/person with our work permit. We fed an elephant for 10 baht. Why not? And other than that, we just walked around to the different animals. We liked the white tiger, the lions and the hippos the most. One thing we noticed about the animals that differs from zoos in the States is that most of the animals were actually up and about rather than just lying down/hiding like they do back home. I'm not sure why this is, but it made for an overall better zoo experience. There's also an aquarium, shuttle and skytram that are extra, but we didn't do any. I'm going to venture a guess that you can use your work permits to get those costs cut in half as well.

Doi Inthanon - This is also known as Doi Int and is the highest mountain in Thailand. It isn't as adventurous as it sounds because you drive all the way to the top. We followed the moat around from the northeast corner south then west until we saw a sign for 108, which you take almost to Chom Thong. I'd suggest filling up the motorbike after you get on 108 and filling it up again when you see the Doi Inthanon sign to turn on road 1009. There's a gas station on the left. This will be good to take you up to the top and probably back down again, but there is a small gas pump near the park headquarters too that we used to fill up just to be safe. Don't wait until you are on empty to try and look for gas in a remote area of Thailand even though you can usually find gas in whiskey bottles anywhere you go. It should take about an hour to get to the base and 45 ish minutes to get to the top, but it took us a lot longer. If you read Skye's post, HERE, about our unfortunate luck with the motorbike, you'll know why and that it was important for us to find the mechanics. You shouldn't need them (it's not a difficult drive) unless your motorbike is rocking a rear tire from the 70s / just too old. There's a mechanic right before you start ascending about 1 km before the park headquarters. There's another mechanic about 1 km before that on the other side as well. We had to use both. And had to get lucky with a random guy on a motorbike helping us. If you feel stranded on the side of the mountain with motorbike issues (like we were), there are a lot of pickup trucks and one of them will stop and help you back down the mountain if you need.

The first place to see is Mae Klang waterfall just before the park entrance. They wouldn't accept our work permits without a Thai driver's license and were going to charge us 200 baht/person so we kindly turned away. We then went to the park entrance hopeful that our work permits would work. They did. We were charged 40 baht/person and 20 baht/motorbike. We then used that ticket to visit Mae Klang Waterfall the next day for free! Hold on to the ticket as you will need it for another checkpoint before the summit. We drove to the park headquarters where they have bungalows and tents for rent. The bungalows were full so we were undecided if we were going to stay the night, but the front desk held on to our stuff so we could continue to the summit unimpeded. We did put on a few extra warm clothes because it's cold up there! Not Thai cold, but American cold! You'll need a few layers and I even wore a winter hat. We went through a checkpoint (have your tickets and work permits ready) to get to the summit and then to the chedis dedicated to the King and Queen. After our series of unfortunate events, it was pretty late in the day and very cloudy so the views were less than impressive. Staying overnight and then heading up first thing in the morning might be a better decision.

We returned to the park headquarters and decided to rent a tent. It was 225 baht/tent, 30 baht/sleeping bag, 20 baht/sleeping pad, and 10 baht/pillow. I'd recommend getting two pillows for yourself or stuffing clothes in the one because they are thin. The tents are pretty spacious, you could probably fit 4 people in and you might want to for the warmth. They are already set up for you at the campground, which is a short drive away, but you'll need to carry the sleeping bags/pads/pillows on your motorbike. There is also a nice little restaurant and convenience store at the park headquarters.

It's very cold at that altitude so Skye and I bundled up for the night and it seemed like everyone else in the campground didn't sleep that night, but as Skye says, "It's a lot easier to fall asleep to loud Thais because you don't know what they're saying." Siriphum waterfall is located very close to the campground and you can see it right as you pull out of the campground. Go back towards the main road and turn right by the gas pumps before the main road. The view is a lot better from far away than it is up close.

On our way down the mountain, we went to Sirithan and Wachirathan waterfalls. Both are clearly marked and very easy to get to from the main road. We accidentally stopped early for Wachirathan at an unmarked parking lot and found our way to the top of the waterfall. The view wasn't too great (and apparently there have been deaths up there from people trying to get too close to the edge for a picture) so we went back to the main road and found the better viewpoint at the bottom of the waterfall.

We then went back to Mae Klang waterfall with our 40 baht tickets from the day before and proudly presented them to get in to the waterfall for free. If you remember, they tried to charge us 200 baht a head the day before. Boom.

Our experience was drastically altered by the four flat tires and we had planned on seeing a lot more than we actually did. Spending the better part of five hours fixing flat tires took it's toll on us. There's a cave near the entrance and some more waterfalls, viewpoints, a karen hill tribe village and hot springs on a turn off after the checkpoint that we wanted to visit as well. Oh well, it was still quite an experience dealing with the flat tires, seeing some awesome waterfalls, finding and camping in cold weather in Thailand and getting to the highest point of land in the entire country.

I got most of my information before we left from THIS WEBSITE!

Tiger Kingdom - Recommended! Recommended! Recommended! There is a lot of talk about them drugging / tranquilizing the big cuddly cats, but we didn't get that feeling. Yes, there were quite a few laying around. However, there were also a number that were quite active. At one point, we were sure we were going to video the next "When Animals Attack" because one of the tigers was very active, crouching everywhere it went, pacing, staring at the human snacks, running to the other side and back, crouching some more, pacing. That's not meant to scare anyone. We felt completely safe the entire time. Another tiger even showed how it feels about the electric fence by just walking into and over it. You could hear the shock. There is an outer, regular fence and then some small, one wire electric fences to keep the tigers away from corners and the trees so again, still safe.

To get there, get on the northern section of the moat and take 107 north toward Mae Rim. You'll see signs from there, but you turn left on 1096 and then your first right to Tiger Kingdom. It's only about five minutes from 107.

Go early! It opens at 9 am and get there at 9 am if you can. We got there around 9:30 and were very thankful we did. By 11 am, the place was packed so we were able to enjoy a rather intimate experience with the tigers with very few other people in the cage.

We chose to see the big cats for 420 baht not because it's the cheapest option (even though it is,) but because we thought that would be the best experience. We were glad that we did. The smallest tigers had way too many people shuffled in and out of the enclosure and you could tell the tigers were irritated by it. Their website is HERE. The prices are slightly different than what are listed on their website, but we can't remember exactly what they were. They range from 420 baht - 620 baht and since the difference isn't even $7 from the big cats to the smallest, don't let price be the deciding factor.

We forgot to try and use our work permits here, but it seemed like it wouldn't have made a difference. It's worth a try though. We didn't expect the work permits to work at the zoo and they did so give it a shot.

Okay, hope this helps you plan your trip to Chiang Mai. Feel free to ask me any questions on here or message me on Facebook.

Came for the elephants, stayed for the pizza and movies

Hello! Long time, no blog right?! Let me explain. (Ethan- Explanation before the explanation. Skye finished this a week ago, but I forgot to edit and add pictures so it's even more delayed. Sorry!) Last weekend (Jan 5th) we didn't really do anything. We decided to stay in Thawangpha to rest up from our vacation and because there really wasn't anything going on. We had actually planned on going back to the national park nearest us, but we got a flat tire on the way there (go figure!) and decided to head back after we had some random guy (who didn't know what he was doing) fix it. The chain was making a funny noise and we didn't feel comfortable taking farther up the mountain. We are bound and determined to camp at this park at least one night while we're here, but haven't made any further plans for it. We'll keep you posted.

Last week was rough. It was a 5 day week, which, oddly enough, is pretty rare at Thawangphapittayakhom School. There were no random activities going on and we didn't have any business to attend to elsewhere. I think it was the first time I had been to all of my classes in one week. We have gotten used to missing several classes during the week, so we were pretty pooped come Friday, but that was not going to stop us from enjoying the weekend. We had heard that there was to be some sort of elephant fair/festival in a city called Lampang. We didn't know much about it and weren't even sure where it was, but that's Thai style and we figured we'd be able to get it sorted out once we got there. Lampang is about 5 hours by bus from Thawangpha, so we gathered all the necessary info about how to get there during the week and headed out as soon as we could Friday.

The Riverside Guesthouse in Lampang
We took a songthaew to Nan and caught the bus there (and got really lucky that one was leaving in 30 minutes!). It ended up only taking 3.5 hrs and we got to Lampang with plenty of time to find a place to stay and get dinner. We ended up staying at (according to Lonely Planet) the nicest guesthouse in Lampang, which happened to be the last place we checked for vacancy. Lucky us! We ate dinner at a place called Aroy One Baht that is known for having delicious and cheap food. The food was delicious and cheap, but it was only cheap because they give you tiny portions. We were a little annoyed, but it was late anyway and we figured it was better that we didn't eat a huge meal.

Saturday morning we visited a temple and then headed to one of our favorite places in big cities: the mall. At home (in Michigan) we don't normally frequent the mall. There are too many people and not many places that we really shop there. It's also far away. However, here in Thailand, we visit the mall  for its familiarity. There is usually a Pizza Company, a Dairy Queen and, if we're lucky, a movie theater. Things that we have grown accustom to having nearby in Michigan. Ethan could probably do without the mall (even though he loves pizza), but for me it's comforting (a little sad, I know, but hey you gotta do what ya gotta do when you're missing home!).

Thai Elephant Conservation Center
We thought about going to a movie before heading out to this elephant thing, but they weren't playing the one we wanted to see in English until later. So we headed out to the Elephant Conservation Center. On the way we stopped at a huge market that's apparently quite well-known. We didn't buy anything, but they had a lot of cool stuff. When we got to the conservation center they told us that the show wasn't until 8... it was 4. And, even more unfortunately, all the other shows had already taken place. So we went to the nearby elephant hospital to try and kill time. This particular hospital is the world's first and is home to some famous elephants. Two of their elephants have had prosthetic limbs made for their legs that were amputated after being injured by land mines (pretty crazy right?). There is a movie about one of them that we had never heard of, but looks pretty great. Anyway, we saw one of the famous elephants and some of the other elephants at the hospital. The hospital is really small and the only thing you can really do there is watch the elephants stand around or buy souvenirs. So we didn't kill much time and decided to head back and catch the movie we wanted to see.
Tree hugger
We saw the movie Upside Down and paid $13 to have our own couch. The movie was great and having a couch with reclining seats was pretty cool too. (Ethan- At the time of writing this, Skye was still feeling guilty so let me clarify how we "paid" for this movie. We gave the cashier our 400 baht and she gave us our tickets, our money back and pointed to the guy taking the tickets. We then handed him the tickets and our money once again and once again he handed us our ticket stubs and our 400 baht back and pointed inside. We figured somebody was going to come take the money at some point, but it never happened. We really wanted to try and pay afterward, but figured there was no way to communicate what had happened so we saw the movie for free.)  After that we walked around the night market and ate some snacks instead of dinner. We bought The Dark Knight Rises on DVD from a vendor and crossed our fingers that it wasn't a crappy pirated version. It actually ended up being really good quality and we decided we might need to increase our movie collection while we're here.

Sunday morning we sat around until it was time to check out. There really wasn't anything else we wanted to do or see in town, so we went back to the mall for lunch and ice cream. We hopped on the bus at 4:15 and headed back to Nan. We didn't end up getting back to Thawangpha until 12 because the 2nd bus we needed was an hour late. It was annoying to have to wait and not have any idea when or if the bus was actually coming, but we were really happy that it wasn't 6am like last time. So we didn't actually end up doing anything super exciting (well it was for us), but we are really glad we didn't stay in Thawangpha twiddling our thumbs all weekend! It was also really nice to be in "civilization" (for lack of a better term) for a little bit. We were bummed that we didn't see the elephant show, but you can't always get what you want!

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Koh Chang New Year

Thursday - We arrived at the train station in Bangkok seriously tired and overwhelmed. Bangkok has so far been our least favorite place in Thailand and we were not looking forward to trying to figure out how to get to this island from there. We had heard that we needed to go to Victory Monument (a large monument in downtown Bangkok) to catch a mini-bus (a van) to the pier where we could then catch the ferry to the island. So we found an information person who was super helpful and told us what bus to catch to get there (Ethan- the taxis were telling us 300 baht and the bus cost us a total of 24 baht!). Once there though, we had no idea what to do. So we just started walking until we saw some people selling bus tickets to other islands and places we had heard of. Luckily, they are not shy about asking where you're going, so we told them and after we, and our money, exchanged hands several times they put us on van supposedly headed for this pier. The trip was not at all comfortable, and longer than expected (5.5 hrs instead of 4), but we did make it to the pier and onto to the ferry headed for our island escape.

View from the cliff our hut sat on
Once on the island we needed to get minutes on Ethan's phone so we could call the place we were staying and let them know we were coming otherwise there was the chance that they would give our hut away. 7/11 wasn't that far away on the map so we decided to walk, but we didn't realize it was going to be so hilly. I was going pretty slow up this hill when this guy had to hop off the back of a motorbike that was going equally slow up the hill. Then he started speaking in Thai to me and laughing and I can only assume he was laughing at me or at the fact that he was too heavy for the motorbike he was on. Anyway, we walked the rest of the hill together - he continued to speak Thai and I just laughed and didn't say anything. It was awkward, but also hilarious because the dude was just wearing shorts and was totally nuts. Eventually we made it to the 7/11 got some minutes and confirmed that they hadn't given our room away. We hopped on a song-taew headed for a city on the very southern part of the island called Bang Bao. The song-taew ride was long and awkward. At first we were alone, but then when we got to the more populated areas we were joined by a family of 8 adults and 4 kids from Sweden who decided to sing every nursery rhyme they could think of the rest of the trip. I was smiling and trying to look as though I was enjoying this impromptu jam session, but really I wanted to throw myself off the nearest cliff (E- We were driving by plenty of them too. I had to hold her back!) It's not that their singing was bad, well it was kind of, but they were singing in Swedish and they were just annoying. The kids were cute, but it was just really weird. Too weird for the amount of sleep I was going on. Anyway, we made it to Bang Bao without killing ourselves or anyone else and set off to find Cliff Cottage - our home in Bang Bao for 3 days. The guy who we made the reservation with sent us walking directions there and I was getting awfully nervous about this place along the strange path he sent us. Eventually we came out to the road though and ended up finding the place with no problems. We ate dinner and then checked into our hut.

the "chill zone" at Cliff Cottage
Our very own hut on a cliff
Skye's nightmare
I really don't know what I expected from this hut that we rented, but I don't think that wooden shack was it. It literally was a 8 x 8 wooden shack. It had a double bed, a very large mosquito net, two plastic chairs, a fan and a night stand. It was also not level so everything kind of leaned to one side. It was not at all how I was picturing our stay for this vacation. On the plus side, it got cool at night so we were comfortable and the mosquito net kept out the bugs and geckos. There were a few other things about the place that didn't exactly suit my fancy (like the cold, shared, dirty shower and the steep stairs/hill you had to walk up to get to the shacks), but the location was quite perfect and the hangout area/restaurant had free wireless internet and a very chill vibe. (E- Skye does not do the location justice. We could watch the sunset over the ocean at this very cool "hangout area" with hammocks overlooking the ocean and then walk a little over 100 meters to the guesthouses private beach and watch the sunrise over the ocean. It was a PERFECT location and we spent very little time in our "shack" so I would say it was definitely worth it!)
Climbing the lighthouse for a better view of the Koh Chang archipelago
Friday - That morning we didn't really know what we wanted to do, so we just wandered around the village for a while. We wanted to rent a motorbike and check out some other places and maybe find a good beach to relax on, but that didn't quite work out. Our guesthouse had kayaks to rent though, so Ethan looked up a good kayak route around the little bay and after lunch we set out. We didn't take the exact route suggested because it ended up being a little too far for us (Ethan would have gone, but I was not having it). We did end up at a neat little beach area that had a bunch of restaurants right there in the sand. We had some pad thai and a banana smoothie and then set out to paddle around the peninsula on the other side of the bay. Ethan had heard that there were monkeys hanging out on the rocks, but when we got over to the peninsula we didn't see any. So we kept paddling around and sure enough we eventually spotted a couple monkeys chilling on the rocks looking for their dinner. They were cute, but a little creepy (I don't know why, but monkeys just creep me out) so we stayed pretty far from them. We kept going and further on a couple of tour boats were pulled up to the rocks and people were throwing bread to a pretty large group of monkeys. We didn't really like the idea of feeding the monkeys, but it was fun to watch them scurry around and we even saw a teeny tiny baby monkey (E- clutching to its mothers stomach.) After the monkeys, the paddle back to the huts seemed to take forever, but we made it back eventually.
Relaxing in our double kayak
 Saturday - The place we were staying also runs a scuba/snorkeling trip that we decided to take part in. We are planning on scuba diving on a different island after we're done teaching so we opted for the snorkeling. It was pretty much your typical snorkeling trip including two snorkeling spots, lunch and a little extra time to explore an itty bitty beach on an uninhabited island. The snorkeling was ok (by my standards/experience, which are obviously limited). The reef had pretty much been killed by the intense amount of tourists and boats in the water, but there were still some cool things to look at like anemones, sea cucumbers, very brightly colored fish and some strange fish that were really long and skinny. Ethan got some videos with the GoPro camera underwater, while I attempted to use my phone with the waterproof camera bag we bought some years ago... it didn't quite work out like I wanted. Mai pen rai! The lunch on the boat was actually quite good and we enjoyed taking pictures on the little beach they took us to. By the time we got to the second spot I was really tired and didn't snorkel for very long. Ethan followed one of the guides into a "cave" that wasn't really a cave and when he got back decided to take part in jumping off the sundeck of the boat into the water. I was not having any part of it, so I just watched. The snorkeling filled up most of the day and all we did after that was get dinner and eat desert at the end of the pier. (E- We got dinner at a place that we sat on the end of the restaurant with our feet dangling over the edge with the water below and the sunset in the distance. I ordered barbecue prawns and the waitress brought out something I was unsure of so I poked it a few times with my not-so-clean fingers until I determined it was definitely not shrimp. Then the waitress came back, took it off our table and placed it on our neighbors table. I hope you don't mind what was on my fingers in your food. #ThaiStyle Then we got these amazing choco balls for the second night in a row and took them to the end of the pier for a nice life chat and watched the moon come out.)
Island 2 on our 3 island snorkeling tour
Sunday - We had only booked our hut for 3 nights so we had to check out Sunday morning. We packed up our crap and headed to town to catch a taxi back up to the northernmost city called Khlong Son. We had only booked one extra night at the place we were going (and had called to confirm this and ask if they had a room for one more night to which she said no) and had no idea what we were going to do the following night. When we got there (after having to walk/wander quite a ways back into this little neighborhood of random houses) we were a little worried about what the room would be like considering that this particular place was very rough around the edges. But we walked in and the lady who owns it confirmed who we were then took us around in back of her actual house to a very nice, concrete/tiled room. I was so happy. And then she told us we could stay the extra night in this room and I was even happier. The bed was huge and comfy, the bathroom was big and very, very clean and there were no ants, spiders, geckos or strange creatures to speak of. We thanked her way too many times, but we were just so grateful to be in such a nice room for less money/night than the hut. (E- If you end up on Koh Chang, Manee Guesthouse! Super nice and motorbike rental for $5/day!) The only downside to this place was that the town had nothing to offer in terms of activities/beaches. There is a huge resort there that we think you can go to their beach and do activities there, but we didn't know if it was free or not, so we never checked it out. The plus side was that Khlong Son is a 10 minute motorbike ride away from White Sands Beach.
Overlooking White Sands Beach
White Sands Beach reminded me of the Dominican Republic. There were a lot people, but not too many. There were several resorts, but they weren't too obnoxious and none of their beach areas were private. There were a ton of places to eat, but they weren't too expensive. And there were even more little shops along the street to shop in. We loved it! Everyone we talked to said that it was too crowded/expensive, but we really didn't think so. We ate western/American food every night and never spent more than $10 for a meal. It didn't really feel like we were in Thailand, but we really didn't mind. Anyway, we spent Sunday afternoon relaxing on the beach, playing in the warm blue water and trying to figure out why Europeans like speedos so much. It was highly entertaining. We went out to dinner at this amazing Italian place that was perched up high right next to the ocean. When the sun goes down they turn on spotlights that shine into the water and light up the rocks and you can see right to the bottom. After dinner we went back down to the beach (which gets much wider at night because of low tide) where all the restaurants had pretty lights on and there were fire dancers! We watched the fire dancers for a while and then headed back to our place.
White Sands Beach
Italian dinner at Invito Al Cibo
Monday - The day didn't exactly go as planned, but it ended up being enjoyable. The first thing we did went well now that I think of it. There are several waterfalls on the island and if Ethan had his way we would have seen all of them. But as it was we just chose the one that was easiest to get to and that you could swim in. We found the park without any problems and hung out at the waterfall for a while. We even ran into some people that we knew from orientation. Small world! After the waterfall, we wanted to check out some of the other beaches down the coast and Ethan wanted to try to get to this island that you can walk out to at low tide. However, the other beach was dirty (Klong Prao) and the tide is lowest at night. So that didn't work out and on our way back to White Sands Beach we had a teeny tiny accident with the motorbike. Ethan had to slam on the brakes because of the guy in front of us doing the same (E- because in front of that truck there was another truck parked the wrong way and sticking out into half of the already too small of a lane. Once again, #ThaiStle), so the front wheel locked up and we fell over. Ethan had a little scrape on his foot, but that was the worst of the injuries (actually Ethan's pride was probably hurt the worst). Anyway, we were wearing helmets and made sure to be extra careful the rest of the day. (E- No harm, no foul!)
Khlong Plu waterfall
We spent a few hours at the beach then came back to the beach after a shower for dinner and New Years Eve festivities. We went back to the same Italian place for dinner and got pizza and garlic bread this time. It was sooo good. After that we got dessert and headed to the beach where all the restaurants were pulling out all the stops for the celebration. The night consisted of us ordering fruity tropical drinks, while relaxing on our own beach mat complete with pillows and little table. We watched people set off random fireworks throughout the night (the fire dancers were there too) and were treated to some pretty great fireworks displays at the stroke of midnight. It was a little cold (I didn't even think it possible that far south), but other than that it was one of my favorite New Year's Eves ever. :]
New Year's Eve- Skye was cold so she stole my shirt
 Tuesday - Unfortunately, we hadn't taken the time to work out our travel plans to get back home, so to be on the safe side we needed to catch the first ferry off the island which left at the ripe hour of 6:45am. The only good thing about getting such little sleep was that we knew we'd sleep a lot on the bus. We successfully boarded the first ferry and caught a mini-bus back to Bangkok. (E- We had kind of planned to go into Trat and catch an actual bus, but there was a lady waiting on the pier for the minibus back to Bangkok so we took the easier and cheaper way, but sacrificed comfort) It was 12:30 by the time we got to the northern bus station and we were hoping real bad that we could catch a bus soon back up north to Thawangpha. But the earliest bus didn't leave until 6:30. So we waited for 5.5 hrs at the station and didn't get home until 6:30 in the morning. School started at 8. :]

Ethan- I hope everyone brought in the New Year in their own magnificent way, even if you weren't in a tropical paradise and instead had to deal with snow...  :-) love you all!

And two more pictures...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Chiang Mai Christmas

As I am sure you are aware, we were very very excited to get on the road for our much anticipated vacation from school. Friday evening, after getting back from picking up our work permits in Nan, was spent packing and prepping the apartment for our long absence. I taped over the gaping holes at the top and bottom of the doors to keep out larger creatures and also sprayed this God awful ant repellant in the holes in the bathroom wall and around all the doors. I really did not want to come home to a bug infestation and while the ant repellant is really not good to breathe, it was worth knowing it would at least keep them out. Once that was all done we headed out and about 3 minutes later ran into our first of a few unlucky events on this trip. Our rear tire was flat again. Why!?! Fortunately, we left with plenty of time to walk to the bus station, but even more fortunately the security guards offered us rides on their motorbikes. We quickly and thankfully obliged. We decided we'd deal with the flat when we got back.

We boarded the bus for Chiang Mai at 9:30 and got in around 4:30. No one was awake at the guesthouse (not surprising even though we told them we'd be there very early), but we slipped into the courtyard through an unlocked side gate and poked around on the internet while we waited. It wasn't too bad despite the fact that it might have been the coldest night Chiang Mai has ever had. I think I was wearing all the warm clothes that I brought and some of Ethan's. We got into our room around 6 and slept as much as we could. We decided that we should take it easy that day due to our lack of sleep, so we went to one of the malls and saw The Hobbit, which Ethan was dying to see. (Ethan- It was my first experience reading the book and then going to see the movie. Yeah, I don't read much... or ever. I read the whole book on the Wednesday before we left. Thanks Rane. And now I finally understand what people mean by movies not measuring up to the book. Good movie, but just not the same after reading the book. Great book!)  I was more excited about getting popcorn and just being at a movie theater than about the movie itself. We got a popcorn and a huge pepsi for less than $5, so I think going to the movies back in the states is going to be a little painful. Anyway, in typical Thai style the movie started 15 minutes late, but the movie was good and we thoroughly enjoyed our Thai movie-going experience. After the movie we got dinner at The Pizza Company, which might as well be our favorite place to eat in Thailand (sad I know). After dinner we went to check out Chiang Mai's famous Saturday Walking Street. Walking streets in Thailand are really cool and we were super excited to see Chiang Mai's, since we had heard so much about it. A walking street is a market that is set up along one or more streets that have been blocked off to traffic. They have them all over the country, but Chiang Mai's is one of the biggest. The vendors sell mainly souvenir type things, but you can seriously get so much random/awesome stuff there. We ended up with sandals, a scarf and a new wedding ring for Ethan. (E- Chiang Mai's Saturday walking street is known for their Hill Tribe silver.) Who knows if the stuff is real, but we didn't really care. 

Sunday funday. Sunday morning we hit up Doi Suthep (doi means mountain in Thai and we recently learned that it also means something scandalous...oooooo!). Doi Suthep is a mountain just outside of the city upon which a very cool temple was built, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We decided to take the motorbike we rented up to the top, which we heard can be treacherous, but it actually wasn't that bad. We had to walk up a million stairs to get there (E- actually only around 300), but the temple was very pretty and the view of the city down below was pretty neat too.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

After that we got some lunch and headed to the zoo. I love zoos and I really didn't know what to expect from this particular zoo. We had read a bunch of reviews about it and talked to people who had been there, while we were deciding whether or not it would be worth it. The reviews proved inconclusive so obviously we decided to go. I would say that it was definitely worth it. The zoo was clean and well kept and other than some really ugly construction taking place right in the middle, I had no complaints. Most of the animals were up and moving, which we found to be a little odd, but they looked like normal, well-fed zoo animals. We paid extra to see the panda exhibit, which was really cool, even though the information about panda breeding displayed all over the walls was a little bit graphic (they showed some rather interesting close-ups of artificially inseminating a panda...unnecessary I felt). Anyway, the zoo was pretty cool and we are glad we felt our money was well spent.

Feeding an elephant some nanners
That night we went to the Sunday Walking street, which is pretty much the same as the Saturday street, except much bigger and in a different location. We didn't spend that much time there because it was just so big and they had mostly the same stuff as the other one. We went to bed early for in the morning we were headed to Doi Inthanon... Thailand's highest mountain! 

Monday not-so-fun-day. After packing up and "checking out" of our room (which just consisted of us moving the stuff we weren't taking to the mountain into the storage closet), we headed out on what was supposed to be an hours drive to the base, plus another 45ish minute drive to the top. We got all the way to the bottom of the mountain with no problems at all, but as soon as we started up it (literally about 1km uphill) we got a flat tire. Luckily, there was a helpful guy with a van who told us there was a repair shop just down the hill. Phew! We were saved! I hopped in his van (that sounds strange) and he drove me down while Ethan rode the bike down. The repair guy had the tire off and a new one on in no time all at all for a whopping 120baht ($4). Hooray! Let's try this again. We went to check out a nearby waterfall first, but noticed that there was something off with the bike. When we stopped it would just shut off, without Ethan turning the key to "off." We decided to take it back after we looked at the waterfall, but the lady at the ticket office wouldn't let us use our work permits to get the "local price" (which we were 100% positive you are allowed to do) so we just went back to the repair guy. He tuned some things and poked around and then charged us 50 baht for about 5 minutes of work. I don't think he actually did anything, but the bike was working fine.... or so we thought. 
Hopping in a strangers truck #ThaiStyle

We took off for the park head quarters where we got our tickets (& used our work permits for the local price!) and then about 5 kilometers later the tire went flat again. This time there was no one right there to help, so we had to walk until some very nice people threw the bike and us in the bed of their truck and dropped us back off at the repair place. When we pulled up there were 4 German guys on dirt bikes, who were in the same situation. We chatted with them, while the repair guy went to get more tubes or tires (we're actually not really sure why he left, but we're assuming he needed something for the work he was about to do). About 15 minutes later the guy pulls up on his motorbike and there's blood all down his leg. Apparently, he got into an accident and seriously injured himself because he couldn't fix our bike or the German guys bike. So we pushed our bike back toward town to try and find another place. On the way we hear some guy hollering at us and when we look he is motioning for us to come over. So we go over and he says he can fix the tire. Hooray! As he is working he notices that there is something wrong with the tire itself, but then decides that it's fine and leaves it (in hindsight we should have made him replace the tire right then and there, but we don't know anything about motorbikes or tires.) We pay him 120 baht for the second new tube. **This story is longer than I thought. If you want the details keep reading, if not skip to Tuesday** 

We made it probably another 5 kilometers past the last breakdown point before the tire went flat again. So we walked until some random guy on a motorbike stopped to help. Apparently, we were close to where he lived because he procured a tire (not new, but in working condition) and the tools needed to change the entire tire and put a patch over the hole in the second new tube. So that cost us 300 baht ($10) and more wasted time. At this point we were highly fed up with the situation and while we felt lucky that people were so willingly to help, we also didn't understand why neither repair guy decided to just replace the whole tire. We also were up to 590 baht in repairs, which is more than we paid to rent the bike for 3 days. So we took a minute to think about our options. We were losing daylight fast and our plans for the day were going with it. We decided to continue on to the top, check out the temples dedicated to the king and queen and then stay the night at the park, so we could check out all the waterfalls (which we planned to see that day) in the morning. The only other unfortunate thing that happen was we had to sleep in a tent because all of the rooms/bungalows had been rented. I wasn't too happy about it because it was so so so cold and I didn't bring that many warm clothes. I also wasn't too excited to sleep in a rented sleeping bag and on a very thin pad. The night didn't end up being terrible other than the cold and the people who never went to sleep (it is actually a lot easier to sleep when people are speaking a language you don't understand!). (E- Skye forgot to mention the good part of this day. We officially did get to the highest point of land in Thailand and saw an amazing dedication to the King and Queen. Also, through all of the bad luck on the motorbike, we came out unscathed and healthy. Which as you'll read in the next post, can't be said about Koh Chang.)
The Naphaphonphumisiri Chedi, dedicated to Queen Sirikit

**Tuesday/Christmas Day: We got up at the butt crack of dawn to check out some waterfalls on our way back down the mountain. (E- Some people have fallen to their death getting too close to the edge of one of the waterfalls we visited. Don't worry, there were two signs reading, "Danger Rock Slide" and "Slippery Route" so we went forward with caution. The photo below is the base of that waterfall, but we were at the top right before.) They were pretty cool and we even got a pic in our santa hats in front of one. It wasn't exactly how I pictured spending my Christmas eve/morning, but it sure did make for a good story...Right?!... and the waterfalls helped make the trip worth it.

Aforementioned waterfall - Merry Christmas
That night we went to the night bazaar, which is a nightly market type deal in the city and got some more random stuff. We planned on video messaging with my family as they had their Christmas morning activities, but we took a bit longer at the bazaar and ended up missing the blessed event of my cousin getting proposed to on our front porch. Ugh!! But everyone was still jazzed about it by the time we got to video chatting. And we got to watch them open the last round of presents. It was awesome and I'm glad we didn't have to miss Christmas with the Grandmarkersons (E- spelling changed thanks to Sam) after all :] And it was the perfect way to end a slightly stressful two days.

"Tasty American snack behind you" -Tiger handler
Wednesday shmensday - We got up pretty early to head to one of Chiang Mai's biggest tourist attractions, Tiger Kingdom. We had heard mixed things about this place, but essentially it is a zoo specifically for tigers that allows guests to enter the cage with the cuddly cats. It seems like the only way to make this safe would be to sedate the tigers so they don't randomly rip someone's face off. So at first we didn't think we wanted to support a place that drugged tigers to make a profit, but the more we looked into it, the more we had to check it out. You have the option of paying to see the big/medium/small/smallest cats or you can see combos of 2, 3 or all 4. We chose the big cats because we thought it would be more thrilling and they were the cheapest. The experience was awesome. Being that close to (literally cuddled up to) an animal that size that could kill you in the blink of an eye was so cool. I was nervous at first, but they really were just like giant house cats. They purred, yawned stretched and one even hit me with it's tail. While I was taking photos with one, the one to my right got up and started walking around, which freaked me out, but it was just finding another comfy spot to have a nap. Anyway, it was really cool and from what we saw the cats were just being cats. The keepers kept a close watch on them and made sure to respond appropriately if they misbehaved. We stayed and watched the other people get their photos with the other cats and we watched the baby cats run around and not stay still for anyone's photos. (E- We also watched one tiger completely disregard the electric fence that was set up for safety. There was one regular fence set up around the whole enclosure and then a small electric fence within that. You could literally hear it shock the tiger and it didn't flinch.)

Skye loves cuddling with "aminals" - usually stuffed though
Once we left the tigers we had to return the motorbike, which ended up going better than we expected. The lady we rented from was a middle-woman, if you will, between us and a "company" that rents bikes. So the company wouldn't give us any money for the repairs, but the lady didn't make us pay for our last day and gave us 150 baht back. She said it was her commission for the rental and then we felt bad so we tipped her 50 baht. It obviously wasn't her fault and we knew that, so it was really nice of her to help us out that way. (E- But even so, we had to pay 710 baht in repairs and returned the bike in better condition than it was rented to us. I think all parties came away happy how it ended though and as the saying goes, "All is well that ends well.") After that I needed to do some laundry, so we spent a few hours doing that, getting lunch and I got my toenails painted. We were taking the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok at 5:30 and we got to the station with just enough time to grab a bite to eat and hop on. The ride was supposed to be 15 hours overnight and we had wanted to get tickets in the sleeper car, but they were sold out. So we got second class seats, which ended up not being all that bad. The train was old, rickety, made a lot of noise  and wasn't nearly as comfy as the one we took out west a few months ago. Also, the windows opened, which was good and bad. It was good because there was no air conditioning, you get fresh air all the time and people were allowed to smoke on the train so it helped ventilate that nastiness. It was bad because it gets pretty chilly at night and some people like freezing cold air in their face all night long and the train was really loud. There was enough room to be somewhat comfy though and the chairs leaned back (but not far enough so that someone's head was in your lap like on the bus). We ended up putting our heads down on the tray tables and sleeping that way. I think we actually got a decent amount of sleep, but we were still zombies when the train pulled into dreaded Bangkok at 10am (only an hour and a half late!). Now it was time for us to figure out how to get to Koh Chang, where a beautiful island paradise awaited us!! 
Good bye, Chiang Mai! Hello, paradise!