Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chiang Mai: Wat Pra Sing

On our first day of exploring in Chiang Mai, we visited Wat Phra Singh, a beautiful Buddhist temple in the center of Chiang Mai's ancient city.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

My favorite part of the temple was a garden that was filled with Buddhist quotes hanging from trees. Definitely something I'll want to incorporate in any garden I have in the future.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

We also visited a cultural/historical museum that describes the history of Chiang Mai. Although the town only has about 175,000 people, it is the cultural capital of northern Thailand. The people here are extremely friendly. Dana and I have already made friends with various shopkeepers, chefs, and massage therapists. A highlight was listening Dana talk to a Thai massage therapist about Thailand's upcoming election during a foot massage. We also got some tips from a Thai lady about how to run a small restaurant business, and we discussed yin and yang with a hippie Thai man at Funky Dog Cafe while eating homemade yogurt.

My Vow

I hope I don't regret this...

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

After watching some overweight Americans downing McFlurrys outside a nearby McDonalds in Chiang Mai, I thought of an interesting challenge for my trip:

I'm not going to eat at any Western chain restaurants until I return in September.

I don't think this will be a difficult task. From my experiences in Thailand so far, local food is infinitely better in terms of price, quality, and freshness. I love buying bags of sliced mango, pinapple, and guava for 10 baht each. Vegetarian food is abundant, and I haven't had any trouble so far finding healthy food that I like.

I told Dana about my challenge and instructed her to give me a very hard time if I ever feel tempted to visit a Western restaurant. The only place I can imagine this might be a real challenge is in small villages - but there is always rice available.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Farang Friends

"Farang" is a Thai word that means "foreigner", specifically referring to Westerners. It's similar to the Japanese gaijin or Spanish gringo.

An interesting thing about traveling through Southeast Asia is the camraderie we feel with other Western travelers. There are very few Americans, but our peers are now the Brits, Dutch, German, and Australians also traveling through the region.

Last summer I spend two months traveling through Western Europe. It would have been interesting to meet and talk to Europeans, but since I was a tourist in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and France, it was hard to meet people my age. Americans traveling through Europe don't have much opportunity for interaction with the locals, unless we're far away from the tourist centers, or if we have friends already in the country.

Here on the "banana pancake trail", there are Europeans everywhere. And since most Europeans learn English in school, that becomes the default language in which everyone communicates. If French tourists meet some Germans, they will have to speak to each other in English, because that is the one common language they share. It makes it easy as Americans to talk to all the European travelers, who are an interesting bunch.

Just from the first two weeks of our trip, I have a few impressions:

-There are 2 kinds of Brits: funny, witty Brits from the North, and spoiled gap-year babies from London and the South of England who are traveling on mummy and daddy's coin.
-The Dutch have the un-politically correct, insulting, and interesting way of swearing. Instead of having a few choice words to yell when something bad happens, the Dutch method of swearing invokes illnesses with varying degrees of severity. If you don't like someone, you can wish typhus upon them. The mother of all insults is to call someone a "kankerlier", which literally translates to "cancer patient". By saying it to someone, it basically means "I hope you get cancer and die a slow, painful death".
-Europeans smoke WAY more than Americans. There is also a breed of traveler called the "travel smoker", or someone who claims they've never smoked before, but they smoke while traveling. This may be an extension of the social smoker, or it may be due to the fact that smoking in Thailand is (like most other things) an inexpensive activity.

Chiang Mai: Cheap Cheap

After spending an entire day in the Phuket airport waiting for our flight, Dana and I finally made it to Chiang Mai.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

Spending 8 hours in an airport wouldn't be my top choice of activity, but I have to say that spending it in the Phuket International Airport is more interesting than any American airport. For one thing, overpriced water only costs 30 baht (US $1) rather than the $5 it would cost at home. In addition, people watching in Phuket is excellent. From completely veiled women and their husband flying to Qatar, to a group of exuberant British gap-year boys toting around a soccer ball, the mix of travelers is interesting to watch.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

Although we've only explored Chiang Mai by foot for one day, the town has made a superb first impression.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

Chiang Mai is much cheaper than the other areas of Thailand I've visited so far. I base this observation on a market basket including

-1 hour traditional Thai massage (150 THB here, 300+ elsewhere)
-Large bottle of Minere water (10 THB, normally 15-30)
-Guesthouse dorm for 1 night (80 THB, normally 150+)
-Large Singha beer (50 THB, normally 80-100)

Granted, Dana and I must have stumbled upon the deal of the year when we found a nice clean dorm guesthouse for 80 baht (USD $2.59 per night). It's above a coffee shop called Quick Bite. Most of the guesthouses here aren't hotels, they are just buildings owned by families who can supplement their income by installing bunk beds and renting them out to travelers.

We're going to see if our impression of Chiang Mai as an inexpensive place still stands after visiting the famous Night Bazaar.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

World's Best Beaches: Railay

After relaxing in Krabi and enjoying the delicious street food and creepy mannequin scenery, we took a traditional longtail boat to Railay, a small beach surrounded by limestone cliffs. Railey is part of mainland Thailand, but since it's surrounded by cliffs, it is only accesible by boat. As a result, Railay is essentially an island. There are a few guesthouses and resorts (ranging from jungle huts with mosquito nets to ultra-luxurious hotels for $3,000 USD per night), a few restraurants and bars, and the most breathtaking beach I've ever seen.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

I recommend going to Railey and getting in the water, floating on your back and staring up at the limestone cliffs. Railay is also a world-renowned climbing mecca.

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

Time essentially disappeared for the 3 days we spend in Railay. My activities consisted of swimming in the ocean, sleeping in the shade, and eating massaman curry (or yogurt, fruit, and muesli).

From She Flies With Her Own Wings

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Krabi: Creepy Mannequin Capital of the World

Krabi is an excellent place to hang out for a few days. It's backpacker friendly (as opposed to Phuket, which caters to the 5-star European tourist), but there are more amenities (A/C) and cheap delicious food everywhere.

Another interesting thing about Krabi: there are clothing stores lining the streets of the small town, each with its own collection of vintage mannequins that look like they belong in some sort of horror movie or haunted house. I'm not sure if these mannequins are just old, or damaged by the heat/humidity, but they really don't do much to make the clothes look enticing. Behold a small photo essay.

Paradise Found

After arriving in Phuket, we drove through Patong around midnight and were so thankful we decided to stay in Kata, a smaller beach with decent surfing and less of a tourist circus. We stayed at a small but comfortable hotel just 5-10 minutes walking distance from the beach.

Since it's rainy season in Thailand from May-October, it is the low season for tourism. This wasn't very apparent when we were staying in the tourist mecca Khao San Road in Bangkok, but it became quite clear in Kata Beach. Although most of the businesses, restaurants, and hotels cater to tourists, everything was empty. Employees and shop owners sat by the side of the road and yelled at us as we walked to the beach, hoping we would buy something and be their only customers of the day.

We relaxed on the beautiful beach and rented surfboards on the first afternoon. The water was the perfect temperature, although the surf wasn't great because it was so windy.

Next to the beach was a vendor selling the best phad thai I've ever had. I sat on a ledge overlooking the beach, surrounded by picnicking locals.

After 2 days of relaxing and swimming in Kata Beach, we took a speedboad to Koh Yao Noi, a small and less-developed island. People told us Koh Yao Noi is similar to Phuket 10 years ago. It was absolutely gorgeous, but searing hot and humid. We stayed at Sabai Corner, which was essentially a bunch of treehouses in the jungle. It was really pretty, but there were mosquitoes and frogs everywhere.

When Dana woke up with a black fuzzy bug crawling on her leg, we decided to move on to Krabi, via longtail boat and "songtheaw", or open-air public bus.

Learning About Thai/Western Culture in the Airport Bookstore

After the chaos of Bangkok, I was really excited to escape south to the Thai beaches and islands.

We flew on Air Asia (Asia's low-cost carrier, similar to RyanAir or EasyJet) from Bangkok to Phuket. It was one of the easiest airport experiences ever (apart from Dana getting her second pocketknife confiscated. I'm surprised they haven't put us on a no-fly list yet).

We entertained ourselves in the airport at the bookstore by perusing books such as "So Many Girls! So Little Time! Your Guide to Romantic Adventures in Thailand". This book was a guide for Western men searching for Thai girlfriends and wives, and it included advice such as "make sure to learn Thai but prevent your wife from learning English at all costs because Western women could corrupt her and turn her against you".

Dana and I read through this book in disbelief, although later, on the small island called Koh Yao Noi, we found a book in our guesthouse's lending library that provided an interesting counterpoint. It was a book aimed towards women that contained love letter templates in English and Thai. It was mean to teach Thai women how to write letters to their Western boyfriends/husbands and included key phrases like "my hut was destroyed due to too much rainfall, please send money" and "Darling, when are you going to send me the French perfume you promised? I would very much like to experience its beautiful scent".

I think these two books highlight the fascinating interplay between Thai women and Western men. There is an enormous amount that could be written on this topic, but the existence of these books alone gave me a lot to think about.

Coming soon: Photos of our beautiful adventures at the beaches!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vegetarian Paradise in Bangkok

Another Bangkok highlight: finding a "vegetarian alley" near our hostel. Tucked behind a main road is a little alley filled with vegan and vegetarian restaurants. Dana and I hit the jackpot when we found Ethos, an Aussie-owned restaurant with delicious and cheap healthy vegetarian food (including house-made kombucha tea and yogurt). The best.

Dana and I have already been here twice. The food here is delicious and it would rival any healthy cafe I've been to - anywhere.

Sights of Bangkok Market

Sometimes the best way to explore a new city is to wander around a neighborhood without any specific destination or goal. This can be a particularly good sightseeing option in a city like Bangkok, where street signs are almost nonexistent, and finding a specific address involves a great deal of guesswork and luck.

Yesterday we set off on just such a "wander tour". We walked by the Grand Palace toward the Chao Praya river and stumbled across an amazing marketplace. It wasn't a tourist market - it was a local market with tons of fresh produce. People were selling fruits, vegetables, and meat to local restaurants and food vendors. Here we found a vast array of produce and and one of the best pineapples I've ever eaten.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sights of Bangkok: Wat Pho

This morning we visited Wat Pho: one of the largest and oldest wats (temples) in Bangkok.

It was also the birthplace of traditional Thai medicine and massage.

Today is the full moon, which coincides with rituals in Theravada Buddhism, which 95% of Thais practice. The wat wasn't very busy with tourists this morning, but there were a lot of Buddhist monks and Thais coming to the temple to pray.

It was absolutely beautiful. I'm glad I'm still a bit jetlagged because 8am is the perfect time to visit a famous temple in busy, muggy, hot Bangkok. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

I'll end on a delicious note: my best meal yet was green curry and vegetables at a small restaurant filled with locals in Siam Square.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You're American and you have a passport?!

Our first day in Bangkok was amazing!

Despite arriving around 3 am, we managed to get a few hours of sleep at a hotel by the airport before beginning our first day. We took a train from the airport to the center of the city, and then a taxi to Khao San Road, a famous "backpacker ghetto" that caters to travelers.

We got our first meal just down the street, at a little restaurant that had a big vegetarian menu.
I got vegetarian pad thai for 45baht, or $1.48.

We took the rest of the day pretty easy, wandering around the Khao San Road area and relaxing in the hostel. We are staying right next to a girl who also went to a small liberal arts school, and she knew some people who also went to Pomona! Small world!

The girl we talked to has been traveling in Southeast Asia for 5 months and she told us that she has seen fewer than 20 Americans during her entire trip. I was shocked! The banana pancake trail is packed with Western travelers/backpackers, but very few Americans. The majority of people at our hostel are German, British, and Canadian. We spoke to a German guy named Marcus and he joked with us, asking "You are American, and you have a passport? Crazy!" There's definitely a stereotype that Americans don't travel, and we like to stay in our own little bubble. Marcus also asked us if we really teach creationism in schools in the U.S. He was incredulous that such a "developed country" could do such a thing. I had no good response.

The highlight of our day was going to a big spa for traditional Thai massages. We paid 450 baht ($15) for a 2-hour massage at a really nice spa. You can get 1-hour massages for about $5 at cheaper places, but someone recommended Healthland to us and we decided to splurge since we wanted to relax after all the flights. It was definitely worth it.

Thai massage is unique because you change into loose-fitting Thai fisherman pants and a shirt, and the massage therapists move you into different stretches as part of the massage. It was amazing and a perfect way to get rid of tension from traveling and help with jet lag.

It was also hilarious because my massage therapist was no more than 4'8". She was one of the smallest people I have ever seen and I think she thought we were freakishly large. She and the other massage therapists kept giggling at us when we tried to move into the different poses for stretching, either because we didn't know what we were supposed to do, or because we're so large/goofy. It was really funny.

Overall, we had a great first day in Thailand and I can't wait to explore Bangkok more over the next 4 days!

Friday, June 10, 2011

And so the sojurn begins...

Up at 4:30 tomorrow morning!

Pack is PACKED and all set to meet Dana at LAX. Then we'll have a day to relax in LA, and fly to Bangkok on Sunday.

Let the adventure begin.

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