Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SE Asia Map

This will be a work in progress.

Marker: Destination
Marker: Border Crossing
Marker: Possible Destination
Line: Bus
Line: Slowboat
Line: Possible Bus
Line: Train (shown on roads, not train tracks)
Line: Flight

View SE Asia in a larger map

Pacific Coast Bike Tour Map

View Pacific Coast Bike Tour in a larger map

Thailand Map

I made this today to show everyone where we've been in Thailand.

House: Home
Triangle: National Park camped
Hikers: National Park visited
Marker: City
Marker: Historical Park
Line: Bus
Line: Train
Line: Motorbike

View Thailand in a larger map

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Birthday Bliss at Si Nan National Park

Last weekend was our friend Tristan's birthday and what better way to spend it than exploring another one of Nan Province's national parks?? We didn't have school on Friday, so Thursday after our classes were done Ethan and I took off for Nan city. The park we were headed to was about an hour from there, so we decided we would leave Friday to do some recon at the park and meet everyone there on Saturday.

Sometime during the day Thursday Ethan spoke to a Thai friend of ours about getting a bamboo tattoo from a monk. The friend told Ethan where to go and even said he would go with us if Ethan wanted to go that night. This seems pretty impulsive of him, but trust me...he has been thinking about it for a while now. Anyway, he decided he wanted to do it, so after we got to our guesthouse our Thai friend, Benz and another friend Katie met up with us to go to the temple. Getting a bamboo tattoo is the traditional way to get a tattoo in Thailand. Instead of a tattoo gun, which is a set of very fine needles, to push the ink into the skin, they use a piece of bamboo (1-2 feet long) with a needle at the end. It seems like it wouldn't look good and that it would be hard to get really detailed tattoos with just a piece of bamboo, but that is definitely not the case. Obviously, the detail depends on how skilled the person doing the tattooing is and what the tattoo is supposed to look like. Ethan got his tattoo by a monk, but you can get them in normal tattoo shops too. Anyway, we had to wait around a while at the temple for the monk to return from whatever he was doing, but once he got back and Ethan decided what he wanted the tattoo process only took about 20 minutes. The inscription says "good luck" "prosperity" and "protection from evil spirits" - at least that is what we were told it says. Let's hope it's true!
Wat Chiang Rai just south of Nan. Thanks, Benz.
After we were done we went out for dinner and I finally got one of the things I've wanted since we got here - a stuffed Stitch (from the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch). I had one in high school, but it was tragically taken from me (a story I'd rather not recall) and when I saw that they had them here we made it our goal to find a small one for relatively cheap. I can't take any credit for finding it though because Ethan went out while I was napping and found it for me. (E- Skye is extremely picky when it comes to her stuffed animals and I think I failed on her birthday present stuffed animal (sorry Sanook) so I scoped out the little bugger, but waited to buy it until it got Skye's approval.) So Ethan got a tattoo and I got a stuffed animal - Happy Early Valentines Day to us!

Friday morning we got breakfast and headed out to Na Noi - the town at the base of Si Nan National Park. It didn't take very long to get there for which we were both thankful - our butts appreciated it the most. We got some lunch in town then headed up to the park. The park was also not very far away, which was good and bad. I was kind of hoping it would be higher up in the mountains because in the last two weeks the temperature here has soared into the 100s. So I was looking forward to some relief from the stifling heat, but it wasn't to be! The good thing about it being so close was that we could go back into town for food quite easily.

When we got into the park we headed straight for one of the viewpoints. Unfortunately, this view point wasn't one you could drive up or one that was a quick and easy hike. It was a short hike on land and then a short hike over jagged rocks. I was not at all prepared for how scary it would be or how hard it would be. I was sweating like crazy and got stuck a few times because I got scared. I seem to forget that I am scared of heights until I'm on top of something really high. There were a couple times where we were on rocks that had nothing under them or there was a hole and I would get so scared that they were going to cave in that I wouldn't go any farther. Fortunately, Ethan wasn't scared of these holes and was able to talk me through these situations. I didn't end up crying and I know you were waiting for me to say that I lost it! When we finally got to the top of this cliff I was shaking and couldn't stand up, but the view was stunning. Well worth the struggle... and the sweat. Then we had to go back down.... much less terrifying, but still not very fun. (E- I'm pretty sure there were some tears forming at one point. Maybe they didn't make it onto her cheeks, but they were definitely there. I also had to straddle these "holes" so Skye wasn't scared of falling into them. That's fun for me though so it was a win-win.)
Pictures from two climbs up to Pha Hua Sing from Doi Samer Dao
After we were back on solid ground we went to the park headquarters to see how much tents/cabin were so we could weigh our options when everyone else got there the next day. Once we had done our reconnaissance work we headed back into town to find a place to stay. This proved to be more difficult than expected and we ended up at the first place we checked out, which was quite a bit more than we are used to paying, but there was air conditioning and free wifi! We added the stay to our Valentines Day gifts to ourselves. We got dinner and checked out the teeny tiny market nearby. We spent the rest of the night enjoying the a/c and taking full advantage of the wifi.

Saturday morning we laid around until the rest of the group got to Na Noi around 11:30. We all got lunch then headed to the park together. We decided that a cabin would be the best place to stay at the park because we tend to be very loud when we're together and each one came with its own fire pit. (E- the cabin had 6 twins and a double so it worked out perfectly for our group of 8.) Once we had all that figured out and paid for we checked into our little house where we sat and chatted for quite some time. Once we felt sufficiently caught up with each others lives Ethan led the group up to the view point we did the day before, while Kristin and I enjoyed the view from down below. I was not about to put myself through that again! After the climb we went back into town for food and beverages, which took a bit longer than we expected so it was dark when we got back. But we did get a chance to check out the stars on the way back, which was awesome! Ethan and I even saw a shooting star! No, we won't tell you what we wished for! :] We spent the rest of the night chatting around the fire about life and all sorts of things including, but not limited to, stuffed animals, love, marriage, the universe, traveling, religion, being adopted (E- the Illuminati, Kanye West, how terrible cigarettes are)...the list could go one, but I'm sure you get the point.
Pha Chu cliff - highest flag pole raising in the country
Sunday morning it took us a while to get it together, but we eventually checked out of the cabin and headed for Pha Chu, the other viewpoint. This hike would have been a lot easier than the first if we had had more water and had eaten a decent breakfast (E- and hadn't celebrated a birthday the night before.) Unfortunately, none of us were in the proper mindset that morning so we journeyed to the top fairly unprepared. (E- I'm always in the proper mindset for a hike.) There was a lot less rock climbing on this one, but it was almost just as scary...for me. We made it to another really awesome view though and I didn't cry! We stayed up there until everyone was too hungry and thirsty to stand it. On the way back Kristin and I brought up the rear and had a wonderful discussion about the culinary expertise of Panera Bread Co. and how much we missed it. Mouths watering, we headed back to Na Noi for lunch and then back to our respective places of residence to prepare for the last two weeks of teaching.

It is currently Wednesday evening and we are as excited as ever to finish teaching. Right now the students are preparing for their final exams, which means several of our co-teachers are teaching in Thai leaving us with lots of time to think about our travel plans. Ethan's sister Emily has decided to join us for our first month of travel and will be here in a little over a week! We'll be going to Bangkok next weekend to pick her up! It is very surreal having this experience come to a close and to think that in a little over two months we'll be back in the US of A. :]

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Road Trip!

Two weekends ago (Feb 2-3.....Geez! I'm really falling behind here! I wish I could say it was because I'm so busy doing important things, but that would be a lie!) we decided to take the motorbike to Chiang Rai, a popular tourist destination about 3 hours (we were told you can get there in 3 hours in a car) northwest of where we live.

Ethan had looked up cool things to do/see near there and (surprise, surprise) found a national park (Phu Chi Fah) with an awesome view point. Ethan loves planning anything that involves the great outdoors and great sunrises (in case you couldn't tell). We were going to leave Friday afternoon, but after finding out that all his classes had been cancelled and that I only had class first period, we decided to leave after first period. It was good a decision since it ended up taking us 5 whole hours to get to Phu Chi Fah. We stopped for lunch and a couple other times very briefly, but it was a very, very long ride. Our butts were almost as sore as they are after a day of actual biking - that's pretty sore. Painfulness aside, the motorbike didn't get a flat tire and was only making slightly weird noises - WIN!
When we got there we decided to head straight to the view point to check it out. Other than having to walk up there, which was a lot harder than it looked, it was really awesome. The mountain comes to a point (sort of) at the top and looks very similar to pride rock in the Lion King, but with a 360 degree view. The surrounding mountains were incredible and there is a village below the cliff that was very picturesque. Ethan decided it was one of his favorite places in the world after being up there for about 5 minutes. We still needed to find a place to sleep that night, so we had to leave the wonderful view. (E- You are basically right at the Thai/Laos border so "everything the light touches" below the cliff is Laos. The Mekong River is also in view, which is where we will be starting our adventures into Laos.)

I'm not sure that the town there is actually a town or if its just a collection of bungalows on the side of a hill. Either way it was pretty neat. Every guest house (there were several) had detached bungalow rooms and most of them had a great view of the hills below. There were a few restaurants, which also had great views, convenience stores and several souvenir shops all selling almost the exact same stuff. Anyway, we found a place to stay (wasn't the nicest/cleanest, but it was supposedly cheaper than all the others), got dinner and went to bed early so we could get up before the ass crack of dawn to watch the sunrise.

Ethan's alarm rang promptly at 4:45 and we were out the door by 5. It was very, very cold and it had just rained so everything was damp. Despite the cold we made it back up to the top - very slowly. On the way up there were a few Thai kids singing with little donation boxes. We felt bad that they were out in the cold at 5am so we gave them all money. They were so cute! When we reached the top we set ourselves up on a rock and watched a layer of fog on the ground below swirl around over the little town and around the hills. It was just like we had read about - a sea of clouds. So we waited until the sun was supposed to come up, but it never showed. The clouds were too thick. We were bummed, but it was still a great experience. (E- Phu Chi Fah is famous for the "sea of clouds." Even though we missed out on a sunrise, we were still treated to the main attraction.)
Once we were back at our room we decided to pack up and head out. (E- We had to wait until Zetterberg was done scoring 3 goals and assisting on 2 others in Detroit's 5-3 win over St Louis. It is weird having to watch the games at 7:30 am. My mood for the rest of the day is greatly affected by the outcome. Good thing this one was a W!) We stopped for breakfast on the way to Chiang Rai and got there around 11. We had planned on getting in touch with Jeff from Canada (went camping with us the previous weekend), who was visiting Chiang Rai, but we did not plan on running into him the minute we stopped in Chiang Rai. We randomly pulled over at a Pizza Company to check the map and find a place to stay when Jeff comes strolling up from the cafe next door. Chiang Rai's not a small town! Anyway, we decided to drop our stuff at a guesthouse then meet back up with him for lunch. We got a bit lost finding the place, so we left him hanging for a bit (sorry Jeff!), but eventually made our way back into town. We got some American food and chatted with Jeff about what to do in the city. After lunch,  he took off for Chiang Mai and we headed back to our room to change. By the time we were ready to go though a torrential downpour had started so we stayed put for a while until it let up.

It didn't exactly stop raining, but we had a few places we wanted to see before they closed so we headed out in the drizzle. It was quite the miserable afternoon in northern Thailand - cold and wet. Felt like we were in Michigan! The first place we went was a place called The Black House. Its a temple-like house with a bunch of smaller buildings that all house a bunch of really old and rather strange things. The main building had 5 tables in it - one that ran the length of the house and 4 smaller ones on the sides. Each was decorated with snake skins, huge chairs with horns and fur and random animal skulls. It was very weird. The rest of the grounds had a bunch of small buildings with more random artifacts....most of them were closed though. We walked around the grounds and eventually spotted an owl in a cage. We were looking at the owl when I noticed another cage. I looked over and saw something huge lurking in the corner of it. I stared at it for a while before I realized it was a giant snake. I pointed it out to Ethan who quickly rushed over to get a look at the monster. We soon realized that the gigantic python was actually two snakes, each about 10 feet long. We walked around their rather small enclosure and saw that there was a little door that we assumed they used to get the snakes food. Then Ethan realized that the padlock on the door that was keeping it closed wasn't actually locked. Hmmmmm. That's not right. Two giant snakes capable of taking down a grown man in an unlocked cage. We looked around for a worker to ask if this was normal or if it should be locked. We saw someone, but he didn't speak English so Ethan showed him the lock. He just kept saying no... soooo we didn't really know what that meant, but we left it unlocked. We hope that no one gets any crazy ideas about letting those snakes out because things could get really awkward for that worker.
We left the snakes and the black house behind and headed for a rather famous temple just outside the city. The temple was really tall and unlike any we had seen in Thailand. Inside the temple was circular and had stairs leading up nine floors. Of course Ethan had to see every single floor so we went all the way to the top. The first floor had a massive wood-carved Buddha and all the other floors had different wood-carved Buddha images. It was actually pretty cool if you don't mind walking up 9 flights of stairs. After I took a picture of Ethan hanging out of the window of almost every floor we headed back into the city for dinner. We, of course, ate dinner at the Pizza Company and strolled around the night market afterward. Didn't buy anything though.
The next morning we packed up and headed out to see the famous White Temple of Chiang Rai. We had heard many things about this temple and were really excited to see it. When we got there, though, it was not at all what we were expecting. It was more of a tourist attraction than a temple and they ran the place like an amusement park. The temple itself and the landscaping were really pretty, but it really did not feel like an authentic Buddhist temple at all. The inside of the temple had been painted with murals and the mural on the back wall is (quite famously) painted with pictures of action heroes like Batman and oddly the World Trade Center towers burning. A couple of trees had plaster heads of people from scary movies in them. The whole place was just weird. Really the only thing that impressed me was how everything was white. Normally temples are very colorful and flashy, but everything at this one is white.
We left the temple feeling a bit disappointed, but glad that we had the chance to see it. We headed back to Thawangpha after we left the temple. It took us 5 hours to get back and our butts hurt pretty bad, but the bike held up the whole way!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Birthday Weekend Camping

This past weekend was Ethan's birthday (now two weekends ago.) Yay! Happy birthday Ethan!! 25 years young! (E- My Darren McCarty birthday!!) We decided it would be a great weekend to FINALLY camp at the national park near us - Nanthaburi National Park. If you recall, we had been briefly once and the second time we tried to go we got a flat tire. We were determined to go there and actually spend the night!
it was a tough trek to the waterfall
Friday night almost everyone who was going hung out by the river in Thawangpha to start Ethan's birthday celebration. We didn't stay out too late though so we could get up and get going to the park in the morning. Ethan and Jeff (the guy from Canada that we met last weekend. He decided to come check out what Nan province had to offer) got up early to watch the Red Wings game. The Wings won and as soon as it was over we headed out. Before we left TWP we were joined by our friends from Pua, Tristan and Kelly and Caitlin C from Nan city. We stopped at the market for lunch and snacks before we left, which was supposed to be a short trip. It ended up taking over an hour, but eventually we headed west toward the park. It took us a long time to get up there because we took two long breaks to wait for people to catch up and to eat.
the waterfall was well worth it
Right before the second break Jeff and Josie (teaches in Wiang Sa near Nan), who were on the same bike, ended up doing a wheely somehow and Caitlin C saw a huge snake that snapped at her bike. She is pretty sure it was a king cobra....YIKES!! (E- King Cobras can kill elephants with one bite. Not too shabby! I'm super jealous we missed it!) Luckily, no one was injured or bitten and we made it to the park (and we didn't get a flat tire!!). We rented three huts for the night and dropped our stuff in them before heading out for the waterfall that was about a 2km walk away. The walk didn't feel very far, but it was actually kind of hard and really steep. Toward the end we ended up using a vine to help ourselves down a particularly steep portion. Amateur repelling if you will. We made it down to the waterfall, but dreaded having to go back up. The fall was really pretty, but the water was really cold and the area was shaded, which added to the coldness so I didn't swim. All the girls, except brave Caitlin C, chatted on the rocks, while Ethan and Jeff explored the jungle. It was very relaxing and B.E.A-utiful! As expected, the climb back up was torture and my legs still hurt from it - out of shape? YES. When we got back we put warm clothes on and chilled in the beautiful camping area to watch the sunset. The camping area is a large flat grassy area on the very top of a hill. You have an amazing almost-360 degree view of the surrounding area. The sunset was phenomenally picturesque and we snapped plenty of artsy, Instagram worthy shots.
interesting night with locals
After the sun went to bed, Ethan, Jeff, Caitlin and Kristin went into the tiny little village nearby for some grub, while the rest of us stayed back and tried to tend to the weak campfire the rangers had started. Our efforts were to no avail though, even with Josie's expert camp fire building skills. We also didn't try very hard to find smaller sticks to get it going with, but we're girls...what'd ya expect? It was dark. The others returned with soup and som tam (papaya salad) and the lady even gave us bowls, plates and utensils to borrow! We ate and then the boys (with Josie's help) built a glorious fire, which lasted until we went to bed. Great fire building on their part. We spent the night chatting about Thailand, teaching, life and all sorts of things. Ethan and Jeff made friends with the head park ranger and a few other Thai folks. A couple a rangers joined our camp fire and we attempted to have conversations with them all night, but it usually just ended awkwardly because we couldn't understand them. They did show us how to roast sticky rice like a marshmallow though, but I didn't really care for it. Eventually we were told we were being to loud and we tried for a while to stay quiet, but when you put a bunch of good friends at a fire who have had a little "liquid encouragement".... you end up with loud voices. We decided we'd better get to bed before people got mad and so that ended our night. We had to whisper the happy birthday song to Ethan at midnight - not nearly as fun as belting it out obnoxiously.
tired after a less than stellar sleep
When we rented the huts we were thinking that they would be warmer than a tent, but what we didn't think about was how what we'd be sleeping on. The huts came with blankets, pillows and paper thin mats to sleep on and I don't think anyone slept well - except Cait C. I was sleeping on top of two comforters and still wasn't comfy - it was rough. We really wanted to watch the sun rise in the morning, but 6am came a bit too fast. Fortunately (& unfortunately), it was cloudy so we couldn't actually watch the sunrise. This is unfortunate because we want to bike to the top of the mountain, but decided against it because there wouldn't be a good view with all the clouds. So we ended up having chatting over coffee and hot chocolate in the "kitchen" area. The way back down the mountain was much easier - no wheelies and no snakes! We all got lunch together and parted ways.
a beautiful sunset and a gorgeous moonrise behind us
I don't think we'll ever be able to say that we celebrated our birthdays swimming at waterfalls or camping on top of mountains again. So, even though having a birthday abroad is bittersweet without our families and friends, I am certainly glad we got to spend ours with the good friends we've made exploring the great outdoors in the lovely land of Thai!