Monday, Krabi, Thailand
After a long day traveling through Bangkok we finally land in Krabi, Thailand. Krabi “International” Airport is one of those rural airports where there are no jet ways. The plane just lands and a little army of people, in big sun hats, are waiting to drag steps up to the plane. Some of the women are holding homemade straw brooms presumably to sweep up the plane for the return flight to Bangkok. It was just getting dark when we landed, so there wasn’t much to see. We grabbed a cab for the 40-minute ride to AoNang beach.
Tuesday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand
Everything is better in the morning. After a good breakfast and plenty of bad Thai instant coffee, (I swear that stuff is a natural diuretic) we took a walk along the beach. Huge karsts formations dot the land and out in the sea. The water is that beautiful south sea green with colorful Thai longboats waiting to take you to the island of your choice. We get oriented, research things to do and decide to book a boat trip to the national park for tomorrow. We had a delicious Thai lunch and headed to our big hotel pool with the elephant head fountains and relax the rest of the day. We try to exchange our room for one farther from the bad bar music. No dice, the hotel is full the entire week, busy season. Our hotel staff swears they don’t do that music every night, I hope they’re right.
Wednesday, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
|A typical Thai Longboat|
Our group of 12 is international, Mike and I again solely representing the USA. We travel north by van, for about an hour, passing through an agricultural countryside dotted with Mosques and temples. Lots of rubber trees being tapped, palm oil being manufactured and of course fishing remind me of what used to be here before; well… us. We are good for the local economy; in fact tourism is 14% of the GNP the rest is agriculture. On the skinny median of the 4-lane main road I see a cow grazing. I suppose it’s what’s for dinner in Ao Nang should it walk in front of our van.
|James Bond Island, shaken but not stirred|
We arrive at a little dock; our longboat waits with not a lifejacket to be seen. We all pile into the unstable little boat with our very humorous lady-boy tour guide up front. I figure I can swim well so no worries, Sabi Sabi, as they say in Thailand. Phang Nga Bay is everything it’s cracked up to be, strange and fascinating shapes suddenly raising hundreds of feet out of the sea. Our delightfully effeminate tour guide names the individual islands, called Ko that just means island in Thai. They seem to be named literally by what they look like, including KO Silicone, (you get the picture).
|Our Ladyboy tour guide|
|A typical cave temple resident|
just add food
snakes, lizards and frogs. Did I mention Tigers?
After our “Origin of the Specious encounter” the last stop was a tropical waterfall with a swimming hole. I was so hot by then I jumped in with all my clothes, it was a wet van ride back to the hotel. By the end of this day Mike and I were senior citizen tired, and somewhere I had lost my only hat. Since no room change was possible, we faced the music, we put in our earplugs, and hit the sack. I think I’m getting used to it.
Thursday, Railay Beach, Thailand
Taking a longboat to Railay Beach. You can only get to this beach by longboat since there are no roads. Longboats sit down at the end of Main Street, which borders the beach, and when they get 8 or 9 folks they go. The trip costs 100 Bhat, round trip, about a dollar ten in greenbacks. With no dock you just hike out into the knee high water and climb into a bobbing longboat, I toss my shoes in ahead of me, trying to keep them dry (lost cause). The boat sides are pretty high; it took a few tries before I could gracefully get into the boat without looking like a total klutz. The agile Thai boat drivers are ever polite and try to help the people who can’t manage easily, which is mostly everybody.
Railay beach, which is on a small peninsula jutting into the sea, has the most amazing white sand on the West side and on the East it’s all mangrove. This beach is popular with younger backpacking climbers. The Mangrove side is dotted with dumpy backpacker hostels, cheap trinket stalls and places selling or renting climbing gear and snack shops. The center of the peninsula is a Thai slum, complete with rotting garbage, cooking up in the tropical heat and some free range chickens I suspect could be my lunch.
After a short Railay recon we decide the white sand beach is our stop for the day. This beach is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far and beats Ao Nang town beach, with it’s nasty foot stabbing mini seashells. We find a tiny patch of shade and park our blanket, also known as my sarong. The water is walk-in warm, clear as glass and Bora Bora bright green. We read and relax, what can be bad. Paradise is good.
By late afternoon the sun getting higher and the day is getting hotter and our little piece of shade is evaporating. I realize I am burning and getting dehydrated fast, time to stop in at a little cafe on the beach to rehydrate, where we spend time talking to one of the few Americans we’d met so far. It’s amazing how much you miss hearing an American accent when all you hear are Scandinavians and Germans. People you would think are from the U.S. often turning out to be English or Australian.
|Sunset on AoNang Beach|
Later we catch the next longboat back to Ao Nang, and get drinks and dinner at an outdoor Thai seafood restaurant (cheap and delicious) with a front row view of sunset. Sunset I’ve learned the hard way brings out swarms of mosquitoes, the national bird of Southeast Asia, so don’t forget your Deet.
Friday, Ko Phi Phi Islands, Thailand
Today we decide to go to the Ko Pi Pi Islands. These islands are known for their beauty and if you’ve ever seen the movie, “The Beach”, with Leonardo Di Caprio, it was filmed right on Ko Pi Pi Leh, which is a national park and still mostly uninhabited. Since these islands are farther from Ao Nang, out in the rougher Andaman Sea, we are advised to take the larger speedboat. Ko Pi Pi Tours pick us up at 8:00 by van, stopping at various hotels to pick up additional folks, we make our way to a staging dock area containing a grass roofed shack complete with free range chickens, squat toilets and a home made wooden dock. The only common language is English, (sort of) which is not spoken well by either the Thais or the Europeans. It’s a regular Tower of Babel out here. I’m always amazed, after spending time in this country, how well the Thais manage to get everything done so efficiently with so little English. When in doubt, just smile, it’s the Thai way. They don’t call this place the land of smiles for nothing.
|The speedboat dock|
These sleek fast speedboats hold about 18 passengers, 5-crew, a driver, a guide, and 3 crew members to assist the driver in beaching the boat on the dock-less island beaches, and helping us Farongs in and out of the boat. Our boat, number 9, has (3) 200CC outboard marine engines in the rear, and a canvas roof to keep off the tropical rays. After picking up a few people at breathtakingly beautiful island resorts we are off to Pi Pi. The trip takes about an hour to the first stop, Bamboo Island, which is just a drop dead beautiful beach. Someone must have requested a toilet because our guide said, “use ocean toilet”. That pretty much summed up the services on Bamboo.
|Ko Pi Pi Leh|
Then it was off to Pi Pi Leh. Our first stop was a gorgeous bay surrounded by steep mountains rising sharply from the sea. With water like green glass you could see all the tropical fish without a snorkel. Then off to Maya Beach, which was the actual beach used in the movie “The Beach”. Sadly the popularity of the movie killed this place. There was speedboat gridlock as all the boats jockeyed for a spot to park. Our boat was beached by pushing two other boats aside. We just took a short swim just to cool off, among the hordes, and then hung out on the boat talking with the only other two Americans I had seen in days.
Then off for some snorkeling Thai style, which is a group of boats turning dangerously on anchor in deep rough water. At one point a big swell hit the bay and all the boats began colliding. I swam away from the boats and treaded water until the frantic crews got it all under control. If it weren’t so dangerous, with all the people in the water between the boats, it would have been funny. In spite of all the excitement the snorkeling was only so so. I suspect the 2004 tsunami scoured the bottom. Things were just coming back. A word about the tsunami, it’s never mentioned by the locals. We did discuss it with our hotel manager who is Dutch. The only sign you can see, that it ever happened, is signage pointing out evacuation routes and the tall warning sirens on every beach.
|Snorkeling Thai style|
Ko Pi Pi itself was just plain too crowded. It is a very beautiful spot that has been loved to death. It looked like the beach at Coney Island in August with wall-to-wall people weatherizing in the sun. You can smell the hot sun tan oil. The harbor is a circus of watercraft, from humble longboats to giant ferries from the mainland and everything in between. We actually had real trouble locating our boat for the return trip. We wandered around lost until we finally located good old number 9.
Then back to the mainland, the boat beach in Ao Nang was at low tide; so going up the homemade dock was like climbing a ladder. We hung around with the free-range chickens and wandering barefoot toddlers while waiting for our ride back to the hotel. The van to our hotel never showed, so we hopped into the next van heading for AoNang Center after the driver agreed to take both of us in the passenger seat. It was time for drinks and dinner anyway.
Saturday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand
A day of rest was what the doctor ordered. We took our books and blanket to the town beach, found a tree and parked for the rest of the day. We had a light lunch at a farong Thai restaurant that was only so so, but they had a scrawny Christmas tree with plastic reindeer at the bottom. Nobody had told them Christmas was over long ago.
|Pepper Crab at the |
Lae Lay Seafood Grill
We had gotten the name of an excellent seafood restaurant from our hotel manager and decided to celebrate Mike’s birthday there. Since the restaurant was a little out of town, they had their very own Songthaew (pickup truck taxi) to transport you to the restaurant. The Lae Lay Sea Food grill was situated grandly on a hillside lording it over the whole town. The Songthaew left us at the bottom of a very long set of uneven stone stairs. The view that greeted us was well worth the climb. You could see for miles overlooking Ao Nang and far out to sea with the sun setting behind the wonderful rock formations. They had an open kitchen where you could watch the chefs working, in fact since Thailand is always hot, no walls at all in the entire place. I secretly told the waitress we had a birthday at our table and we settled down for a few drinks at a good table over looking the setting sun. If the food had been inedible I would have enjoyed this restaurant, but the food was really good, with dishes I had never tried before. Their Tam Yum was the best I’ve ever had and the crab was rich and tasty. Of course the food was spicy it’s Thailand. After dinner the entire wait staff brought a fruit tray, complete with a chirping plastic bird ornament, and sang happy birthday to Mike, a perfect ending to a delicious meal.
When we were ready to leave the Songthaew was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, which were wet from a recent watering of their tropical garden. They were so slippery that another tourist took a bad fall on the way down. He was lucky he was not seriously hurt, just scraped up.
Sunday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand
|Typical farong attire|
Relaxing was so good we decided to do it again and head to the beach with blankets and books. I sneaked a few pictures of the many seriously out of shape people in tiny bathing suits. One woman with a “Venus of Willendorf” type of body (google it) was bathing topless with only a string thing on the bottom. Those cigarette smoking Northern European people don’t age well and their love of sunbathing doesn’t help. Their embassy should make it illegal to wear a Speedo after 50 unless you’re a gym rat. I often wondered what the modest Muslim Thai women thought about all of these half-naked old Farongs running all over their beaches.
While the Scandinavians flew thousands of miles to get a tan, the locals hid from the Sun by covering up with big hats and long pants. Many brands of whitening lotions sit side by side with the Coppertone tanning oil on local drugstore shelves. For Thai people having a tan is a symbol of poverty-- the whiter the better I’m told because you are rich and don’t work outside. It’s not a bad idea to stay out of the Sun in Southern Thailand, by noon you can feel like you’re in a people barbecue. I got all the tan I wanted by just walking around.
Monday, Chiang Mai, Thailand
|Beautiful Chiang Mai|
We pack for our midday flight to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The one-hour flight to Bangkok was uneventful, but I noticed Thai Airlines always served a sandwich and drinks even on a short flight. No paying for checked bags either. Security at Krabi was the usual security theater, no shoes removed or computers revealed, but we are lucky Osama Ben Laden is no where to be seen.
We had a longish wait in Bangkok. Our plane for Chiang Mai was on Thai time, which is always around a certain hour, never on the money. The flight up north landed with a bang and a bad skid at Chiang Mai Airport. We were seated in back so we got the full bump. The pilot got on the intercom and actually apologized for the rough landing blaming a bad Tailwind for the event. I’d like to see an American Airlines pilot do that! Our expatriate friend Bob and his partner Wee were in the arrival hall while we waited for our bags. We agreed to meet later for dinner and Mike and I took a cab to the Dusit D2 hotel in the city. We later joined them for dinner at an excellent Northern Thai Restaurant, where we had an excellent Musselman Curry, amongst other delicious dishes with plenty of catch up conversation.
Tuesday, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Since Bob did not seem to want to run around in the heat, we decided to arrange to do a few things we had missed the last time we were in Chiang Mai. We got on our computer and scoped out Elephant camps. There were basically two types, those that ride tourists on their backs and those that rescue abused elephants from those that ride tourists on their backs. We elected to spend our elephant day taking care of these beasts at rescue camp. We also arranged for a trip to Doi Inthanon for the following day.
In the afternoon we headed up to the Warout Market, where locals shop. We had a good time bargaining for a friend’s birthday gift. Shopping is hungry work so we walked up to old town to find our favorite hole in the wall Vietnamese noodle joint. Like a homing pigeon Mike found it behind the Wanee Coffee shop. It just happened to be closed. Right next to it was another hole in the wall serving Thai noodles with fish and beef meat balls, populated mostly by locals so we pulled up two plastic stools and had lunch, which came to under 9 bucks for both of us including a giant beer for Mike.
At night we walked around the huge and famous night market, which seemed to me mostly Tourist Theater, with not such great prices. Wee later explained that the fees to have a booth at the market had gone up so much recently that they had to be passing it along to us. We found a great local restaurant called Lemongrass, which had a picture of Elvis Presley with the king and queen of Thailand, taken sometime in the 1950’s. You never see pictures of the king the way he must look now at 80+. Nobody has seen him for a while, which makes me suspicious.
Mike was coming down with a traveler’s cold, too much airplane air, and too many different climates in too short a time kind of cold. We crashed early and hoped he would sleep it off.
Wednesday, Elephant Rescue Camp, (Somewhere out in the boonies)
The Elephant camp van picks us up at 8:00, after a good breakfast at our hotel. Mike has a full-blown cold and is thinking of not going. I dig out some cold pills, after they hit we go downstairs and board the van. We pick up a few more folks at different hotels and off to the north into the country. In the van our guide Bee tells us in her extremely charming bad English about Lek, the founder of this rescue ranch. Lek, which means small in Thai (all Thai‘s are small), is a middle-aged woman, the daughter of a Shaman. I guess if there is an elephant whisperer she must be it.
|Lek with Jungle Boy|
The Elephant rescue center looks like a Thai version of a cattle ranch except with elephants roaming around not cows. The country is mountainous with a jungle river running through the property. First we visit the elephant kitchen. This is a room filled floor to ceiling with baskets of fruit, bushels of bananas, and vegetables. Volunteers are chopping the elephant chow into trunk size pieces. Baskets have the individual elephant names on them, “Jungle Boy” doesn’t like cucumber, and “Baby” needs smaller pieces.
We take our baskets and head out to meet the beasts. We are given a quick lesson in elephant edicatte and then time to feed and feed and guess what more feeding. My first impression is these are giant eating machines. They grab the food out of your hand with their powerful trunks. It feels like your hand is getting sucked off. Those trunks are so strong and there is a hot moist jungle breath coming out of their giant nostrils. We are of course all running around in flip-flops so making sure you don’t get stepped on is paramount. Not to mention the huge Elephant turds land mining the fields.
|Like a cattle ranch with Elephants|
I learned that Asian Elephant females don’t have tusks, only the boys, their ears are smaller than their African cousins, ears wiggling means I’m happy. There are plenty of ears wiggling when eating. We learned that in the wild these critters forage 18 hours a day and only sleep 6. It is a massive job feeding some 36 elephants including 2 babies and every body, visitors, staff and volunteers had a job to do. After feeding comes bathing. The Mahouts (Elephant handlers) bring them to the river where they happily wade in and begin rolling around in the water. They give us buckets to shower them, I try to get water at head level, but they are too tall. Making sure you don’t get rolled over or stepped on is always job one.
|First a bath then a mud roll|
Then a trip to the mud bog for a roll, I’m told Elephants need this mud coating for bug and sun protection. We spend time with Lek and watch her interact with the beasts. For her they do simple tricks like sit on a log, lift her in their trunks and let her ride them. The biggest crowd pleaser is an older female elephant that trades kisses for food. I give her a cucumber and receive a big wet trunk kiss that almost sucked the side my face off. I was not special, all it took was food and anyone could get elephant love.
We saw a film on elephants and how they are abused, which to be honest was not easy to watch. After seeing the film I was glad we decided to do this rather that go elephant trekking which is so popular with visitors to Thailand, they suffer a lot of abuse in these camps. Then what else, but more feeding, boy can these guys eat!
Going back to Chiang Mai in the van I notice I’m coming down with a cold, Listening to some young Canadians complaining endlessly about how careful you have to be with the food in Thailand or your digestive tract will self-destruct. They went on and on. I thought If you are going to worry that much, stay home! I guess I was getting grumpy from my cold, but I’ve never gotten sick from food in Thailand and this is my third trip to this country. The biggest danger with Thai food is finding it nuclear spicy. And… Of course nobody drinks the water, not even the Thais.
Thursday, Doi Inthanon National Park, Northern Thailand
I have an annoying pain in the ass cold, but do I stay in bed, no way. It’s off to Doi Inthanon, a national park that contains Thailand’s highest peak. 7,500 ft. big deal, but the air is fresh, clean and not muggy for a change. This time the van luck-of-the-draw turns up a couple of Canadians that are not bitching about anything and are actually having a great time. Two gentlemen from Vancouver, traveling in Asia for 3 months, since their Inn went belly up. Our other van mates included a couple of Indonesians and a gay girl couple from Germany, who we picked up at a dumpy hotel. Nice folks, but not much English. Our guide was a 15 year old, named ‘Egg’ who actually spoke decent English for a change; he was a really sweet kid. Our speedy Thai driver was ‘Cow‘. A word about Thai names, they are always long and unpronounceable, both first and last, but thankfully they always have a short nickname, not just for us, also among themselves.
|Grandma smokes a pipe, I wonder what she's smoking|
Our first stop was a tropical waterfall, not Yosemite Falls but beautiful nonetheless. Then onto The King’s Project, which is renting out public lands to hill tribe people and having them grow crops and make crafts to sell to you. I had seen real hill tribe villages with Bob and Wee in 2009 so this seemed a bit staged to me, yet another shopping trip, with nice textiles. The Canadians complained the village was a pigpen, but I liked it, just a quaint rural hamlet, with pigs and chickens, homemade houses and old ladies smoking pipes.
The summit was supposed to be cold, but all I needed was my long sleeve shirt. The air was just like California in the summer, ahhhh. A very nice break from the muggy weather that is a constant in Southeast Asia. The summit contained a cheddi with the ashes of a former king, It was pretty, but oddly no viewpoint. There was a tiny visitor center, some nice gardens, and a mini coffee shop with real coffee beans, not the usual bad instant you get in Asia. I gave Egg an English lesson on how to properly pronounce the names of common plants. He was good, getting it right away. (Fuchsia was not Fucksha). Most Thais mispronounce English most charmingly, but I got the feeling Egg really wanted to learn.
|The King's Temple,|
The actual viewpoint was a few miles lower down than the summit. The King and Queen temples sat regally on this choice real estate, The King’s Cheddi being bigger, of course (size matters). This choice Kodak spot was appointed with exotic gardens and a good-looking restaurant, where the Thai air force was having some kind of conference. Perks are perks; it looks good to be in the military. Thai men talk about the 4(M) s of masculine life in Thailand; they have to spend time in the monastery as young people, so it’s Monk, Military, Money and Marriage.
We stop at a hill tribe food market with tourist prices, and then onto another tropical waterfall, not quite as interesting as the first, and home. Onto dinner with Bob and Wee at one of the best Thai restaurants I’ve ever experienced. In spite of my head cold I wolfed the tasty Tom Yam soup. Tom Yam is Thai chicken soup, you can get it’s watery cousin in the US, but it Thailand it’s always custom made by Mama, complex and delicious. Just what the doctor ordered for my cold.
Friday, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Today was the worst day of my cold and Mike still had his, so we decided to take the day off from gallivanting around and hang close to home. We cancelled our planned dinner cruise and sleep late. When we got hungry we wandered up to Old Town and found our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, which was finally open and had a Pho lunch, nothing like hot soup for a cold.
We checked out the big Wat (temple) in old town where we were treated to a Buddhist procession with music. We had a light dinner and packed for our trip back to Singapore.
Saturday, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Singapore
My bag was the absolute last thing to come off the carousel in Singapore. I thought a foreign airline had finally lost my bag. So Far only United Airlines has that dubious distinction. We caught a cab to our hotel, where we arrived in time for happy hour. We had our first reliable Internet connection in weeks; I sent videos and caught up with friends.
Sunday, Chinatown Singapore
Today is our last full day in Asia. We decide to go to Chinatown, an old part of the city with interesting architecture and a few temples that Lonely Planet said were interesting. We took Singapore’s efficient metro to Chinatown, waiting only the usual 6 minutes for our train. What we didn’t expect to find was a large Sunday street market selling trinkets, food and clothes. The narrow streets with their classic Chinese shop houses were crammed with weekend locals catching up on their heritage, shopping eating and praying.
|The Hindu Temple|
Around the corner from this Hindu Temple was the most famous Buddhist temple in Singapore, containing a relic of Buddha’s tooth, called, not surprisingly, The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It’s not old, built around the time Singapore started getting wealthy in the early 1970‘s. It reminded me of a Buddhist Saint Peter’s in Rome. Every room echoed, “I’m rich and powerful”. We followed the sound of chanting to a majestic inner hall where a Sunday service was being held. It was fascinating, the chanting and music were otherworldly. I did not understand what was happening, but we watched till it was over and the saffron robed monks silently filed out.
|A food Hawker center|
All that grander and noble purpose made us hungry, no shortage of places to eat in Chinatown. The Chinatown food hawker center seemed a good place to start. We were overwhelmed by the choices, but following our policy of choosing stalls that seem popular with the locals worked again. We split a duck-a-licious plate of noodles and later a couple of Vietnamese phos with chicken.
Monday, Little India, Singapore
With only half a day available we decided to check out Little India more in depth. On second look, the Tekka hawker food center looked more risky than it did the first time. Hygiene is sketchy at best. If I don’t feel good about eating somewhere I don’t question these feelings. it’s not ever worth the risk of spending quality time on the porcelain throne. I admit I’ve seen things in Asia’s wet markets that upset my prissy American sensibilities. All those critters, crammed into cages and tanks, staring out, waiting to be dinner, was enough to make me think about all the living things I’ve enjoyed eating without ever once asking where they came from. The reality is a little harder to take, but can’t be denied, especially in Asia. All those pigalicious spare ribs were once living animals; Asia really puts it in your face.
On the minus side, as with all of Southeast Asia, it’s hot and muggy, heavy rains don’t cool it off, it just steams more. It’s a nanny state, lots of rules, regulations, taxes and fines. It’s obsessively organized, with neat little gates for lining up and people to direct you more efficiently. It’s a little too safe, for example, coconuts are removed from all palm trees in areas where people congregate God forbid one should fall on your head (unlike Thailand). Lots of overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians, no darting and dodging a million little angry scooters like you do in Thailand and Cambodia to cross a street. Maybe these are good things.
The plane is full and most of the other economy passengers have been shopping, it‘s Hong Kong the shoppers’ paradise. A lot of our fellow passengers are American born Chinese, I can tell by their familiar blue passports and unaccented English. Nobody can shop like an American, except maybe the Japanese. Overhead room is running out fast. We quickly stow our carry on and get ready for a very long and uncomfortable flight. Some late passengers are now arguing with the flight attendants about having no space in the overheads. There is one infant in our compartment and two in the next one behind us starting to cry and who could blame them, I wanted to cry to, but I got grumpy instead. Did I mention the young woman sitting next to Mike has a very bad cough. It’s going to be a long 14-hours to San Francisco.
Jet lag for some unexplained reason is always worse going east. I always regard these long haul flights as a necessary evil for going anyplace far away. Mostly they are doable, but we lost the flight lottery on this one. My trusty earplugs to the rescue, along with the generous free flowing alcohol and a sleeping pill, I can do this. And… I do.
We are home, the next 3 days is a jet lagged blur. My dog, happy to see me, licks my face so hard he bends my glasses. We brought back gifts for our friends, a hill tribe textile mask for our collection, this journal and the flu, courtesy of the coughing woman on the plane. I wouldn’t change a thing, it was a great trip and I’m ready for the next one.