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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Thailand

Way back when we were planning our trip, we knew that we wanted to spend a lot of time in Thailand. It’s known as one of the best spots in the world for independent travel. Our experiences certainly met, maybe even exceeded, our expectations. This was a difficult country to recap, not only because we spent so long here, but because we had such a great time.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea.
  2. Celebrating New Year’s on the beach in Koh Lipe.
  3. Seeing the ruins in Ayutthaya.

Brad:

  1. Diving in the Andaman Sea.
  2. Ayutthaya. Walking around in these ruins, we got the sense of how impressive this city used to be, and how a mere 400 years can change things so profoundly.
  3. Ko Mook, especially the Emerald Cave. Plus, with the surprise snorkel trip we got out of the ferry ride, it was a great day.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Ko Phi Phi. It was almost impossible to find a place to stay and the town was just filled with obnoxious teenagers.
  2. Dealing with transportation in Bangkok. The metro and skytrain are nice, but they don’t go to the main tourist areas. Boats are useful, but obviously they’re limited to the waterways. The buses are hard to figure out and all vehicles get stuck in traffic. Motorbike taxis can dodge the cars, but are dangerous. And walking, even if it is the fastest way, is very unpleasant with the broken sidewalks, traffic, heat, and car fumes.
  3. The cheesiness of Pai.

Brad:

  1. Ko Phi Phi. Okay, the area around the village was beautiful, but the atmosphere itself sucked, and even if we did go to The Beach beach, it would have been overrun with hungover Australians in Chang singlets.
  2. Getting our Chinese visas. We waited in line outside the consulate for two hours, inside another hour, then five days to pick it up.
  3. Being sick in Chiang Mai. Not fun at all.

Best meal?

Nikki: Thai food is incredible! I really can’t pick out one particular meal, but I guess if I have to, I’ll say the pad thai in the night market in Ayutthaya.

Brad: Too difficult to decide! The food was amazing, whether from a roadside cart, a shopping mall food court, or a restaurant. I’d have to say the chicken and rice dish I had at the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok. The rice and the chicken were both unbelievably good for some reason.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Not many bad meals. Had a pretty bad fried rice dish, but I can’t remember exactly where that was.

Brad: Although the mall food courts here are generally very good, I did choose a let-down in Bangkok for lunch one day: cold, tasteless curry. Worse was that Nikki’s lunch looked really good.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: This is also almost impossible to answer, because we’ve met so many great people. I’m going to say May, because she was so kind and interesting and she gave us a free ride to Khao Sok.

Brad: Tough question. I’ll say May from the dive boat, who offered to drive us up to Khao Sok. We learned a lot about Thailand from her.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: No major problems, thankfully. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, our hotel told us they didn’t have a room for us, even though we had made a booking. We were really mad, but then they called the cab driver about fifteen minutes later and said they actually did have a room for us.

Brad: Being sick in Chiang Mai. It started as just a very clogged up nose traveling to Chiang Mai, but the day after I had a fever and the chills, and spent most of the day sleeping. We did go out briefly, and it was a complete disaster. I started feeling tired, and when we started heading back, my sandal strap broke, so I walked back several blocks with one foot bare. But then I didn’t watch where I was stepping with that foot, and landed right in a big pile of dog crap! That was one of the worst days of the trip so far. Fortunately I felt much better the next day.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Jolly Frog in Kanchanaburi. Cheap, clean, great people, and a nice lawn by the river.

Brad: The 7 Century guest house in Chiang Mai. It was just a simple room, but it was very cheap and in a great location.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The rafthouse in Khao Sok. Beautiful views, but I don’t enjoy swarms of mosquitos and bathing out of a bucket.

Brad: Ko Phi Phi. We almost didn’t have a room at all, until Sven, a Belgian, told us about a room for three. We overpaid for the dingy, small, and dirty room, and it was loud all night long. The worst part was Sven’s backpack. He was hardly in the room, but his backpack was emitting the most horrid stench imaginable. We had to keep the room’s door open to get the smell out.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Seeing the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. It was very cool, though much smaller than I thought it would be.

Brad: Phang Nga Bay. Cruising around in the mangrove swamp and between sheer rock cliffs was great.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: While we were eating dinner in Trang, a man with an elephant walked in. You could pay him money to take a picture with the elephant or to feed it. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what’s more weird: an elephant just wandering in or the fact that I didn’t even mention it in my post about Trang. Man, am I getting jaded.

Brad: The longtail boats. They look like homemade mechanical monstrosities, and yet it’s the standard for getting around on the water in Thailand. The propeller is teen feet behind the boat and swinging through the air half of the time. I imagined bringing one of these to Lake Mendota, but it probably would be illegal because it’s too loud and dangerous.

Statistics for Thailand

  • Days in the country: 47
  • Days in Bangkok: 11
  • Places we stayed: 18
  • Rainy days: 2
  • Blog posts: 9
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
  • Photos taken: 1167
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 354, 30% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 3
  • Scuba dives: 13
  • Islands visited: 6
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 55
  • Plane flights: 1
  • Pairs of sandals Brad broke: 2
  • Pairs of sunglasses Nikki broke: 2

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 6
  • Days on the road: 166
  • Places we stayed: 79
  • Rainy days: 30
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 9
  • Photos taken: 6009
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 1353, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 6
  • Scuba dives: 27
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 171
  • Plane flights: 8
  • Countries we’ve eaten McDonald’s in: 6 (100%)

Kanchanaburi

In Kanchanaburi we went to see the bridge over River Kwai. Yes, it’s the bridge in the movie, but the movie is mostly fiction and it wasn’t filmed here. In real life, during WWII, the Japanese needed to build a railway through Thailand to Burma. They did all the engineering themselves, but brought in mainly Australian POWs to do the physical labor. So many people died building the railway and bridges that it’s now called the Death Railway.

The bridge was cool to see, but it’s mostly overrun with tour groups. Then we saw two POW cemeteries, which were much more moving. Walking down the perfectly manicured lawns and reading the ages on the tombstones–23, 27, 31, 25, 28, 25, 24, etc.–made me cry. After that we went to the excellent museum that really documented the brutality and awful conditions in the camps. It was all very interesting, but terribly sad. There’s no way around it, war is just horrible.

Then at night we had dinner with the most random group of people. There was Liz, an 80-year-old who has travelled her whole life and doesn’t really have a proper home. Now she spends her time mostly in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Laos. She confided in us that she worries about what she’ll do when she “gets old.”

There was also Judy, a retired woman from England that kept insisting to me that she has no skills. She loves India, but hates Thailand and Vietnam. She has also never had any desire to visit America because she thought “it was just a bunch of fat loudmouths.” (After talking with us, she’s reconsidering her??opinion.) Her whole family, including 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, lives in the same town. Apparently Brad looks just like one of her grandsons.

Then there was Caleb, a 24 year old park ranger from Oregon. He is just beginning a bike trip through Thailand with his friend Tanner, a part time river guide and a part time drug dealer from California. Tanner was a very Indie, hippie, herbal, “the-man-is-out-to-get-you” type. Caleb was much less paranoid and more rational.

Meeting such a diverse group was fun (I mean, an 80-year-old, a great-grandmother, a park ranger, and a drug dealer? It sounds like the setup for a joke), but it also made me realize that literally anyone can backpack. You don’t have to be young, or single, or wealthy, or brilliant, or anything, really. You just have to be willing to go.

Bangkok Oddities

Bangkok is not my favorite city. ??A lot of it is a sprawling, dirty, polluted, crowded, and convoluted mess. Con artists are common. Transportation is a total nightmare. The heat is stifling and even during the day the??mosquitoes??can be a problem.

But it’s also not my least favorite city. It’s got character and at night, when the temperature drops, it’s much more pleasant. There are many fun things to do and some very nice areas in town. The malls are incredible. It’s modern. You can find pretty much anything you want. And it does have sights to see, like the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew.

We’re here to take care of business, so I’m sure some people have seen more in three days than what we’ve seen in our ten days here. Our day-to-day activities have mostly revolved around arranging the next leg of our trip. We’ve done a lot of research and planning and applied for three visas.??Going to the consulates to get visas is similar to going to the DMV, except even worse. But I won’t bore you with all those details. Instead, let me highlight the more interesting things we’ve done:

1. Watched the Super Bowl

Bangkok is 13 hours ahead, so to watch the big game, we had to get up at 4:30 in the morning. We made it to the bar just in time to grab prime seats with a table. The owners had also set up plastic lawn chairs for people to sit in, but they unfortunately didn’t take into account how fat Americans are, because the chairs literally started breaking. Before the game and jumping and yelling even started, at least six men broke their chairs, maybe even more. ??I lost count.

And in case you’re wondering, no, they did not show the same commercials here.

2. Got to Know the Expats in Bangkok

We became even more familiar with how creepy some of the male tourists and expats in Bangkok are. After two of them introduce themselves, a common first question is, “So, do you have a Thai lady-friend?” It’s no secret that there’s a huge sex industry here. Many men will go to the girly bars and end up with a Thai “girlfriend” for the rest of their trip. It’s common to see balding, overweight white guys with Thai women half their age. (One night, a couple like this sat next to us at dinner. The guy kept trying to make conversation with the girl, while she just sat there texting on her phone, not even pretending to be interested. Awkward.)

Now, I don’t really care what other people do, as long as it’s between consensual adults and nobody else is being harmed. What really irks me is the attitude of these old guys. They seem to think they deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for supporting a lady-friend. Please. You’ve basically hired a prostitute for your vacation. If you want to make a difference, donate to UNICEF.

3. Went to the Dentist

Getting our teeth cleaned seemed much more like a medical procedure here than it does back home. The dentist office was inside of a hospital and they took our blood pressure. An actual dentist did the cleaning, along with an assistant who mainly just handed her things and wielded the suction thingy. When they applied the paste (or whatever it is they apply), they laid a sheet over our whole face. They also had us rinse and spit into the swirling water bowl, which I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years.??Besides that, it was pretty much the same as back home, but I thought it was much more uncomfortable here. Brad thought it was the same. I think the main problem was that they used cold water, and cold water hurts my teeth.

4. Went to the Doctor

When I was sick in Chiang Mai, I developed an ear infection. It went away on its own, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Then a few days ago, it started hurting again, so I made an appointment to see a doctor. Just like at the dentist, there was a doctor and a nurse at the appointment. They had to clean all the goop out of my ear. Pretty gross. After that, they told me not to get my ear wet for three days. I got ear drops and three(!) different medications to take. I’m hoping this will be the end of my ear problems.

5. Got Haircuts

Both of us had kind of odd hair experiences. Brad’s barber didn’t do a very good job at all. He basically just sculpted the hair while it was dry and didn’t bother to cut all of it. Now it’s uneven and crazy looking.

I got my haircut right after the doctor appointment. Of course, I forgot about keeping my ear dry until right before she was about to wash my hair. I told her not to get my ear wet and just to make sure, I got out a wad of tissue and held it up to my ear. I tried to explain it to her, but I’m sure she thought I was a total weirdo.

After the wash, she sat me down and told me to wait for the stylist. A couple minutes later and a lady with a holster full of scissors hanging from her belt came up to me. She spoke some English, but was a very serious, no nonsense person. I told her what I wanted and she started cutting away. She worked very quickly and didn’t smile or talk at all. Then she said, “Blow dry,” and walked away. A third girl came up and spent nearly a half hour carefully styling my hair, making it really sleek and perfect. After that, the stylist came back, looked at me, and started making more, seemingly random, cuts. After she did her finishing touches, she took out a blow dryer and blasted my hair until it looked like I had been in a wind tunnel. Then she stepped back and announced, “Finished.” Huh. So much for the sleek and perfect look.

6. Went to a Movie

We hadn’t gone out to a movie since September. Here, how much you pay depends on what class of seat you choose. In the extra roomy VIP section, you can order food and drinks right from your seat. Before the movie starts, they play the king’s anthem along with a montage of clips of the king’s life. Everyone has to stand up. Besides that, everything is the same. We saw a Thai movie called “ATM” and it was actually pretty funny. Much better than I was expecting.

7. Ate at Cabbages and Condoms

Cabbages and Condoms is a restaurant that is trying to raise awareness of STDs and promote condom use. It was a pretty normal restaurant, except most of the decorations were made out of condoms. They had life-sized sculptures (my favorite was Tiger Woods), as well as lamp shades and wall murals made entirely from condoms.

 

Anyway, there’s a taste of what we’ve been up to lately. It has been nice to get kind of settled in somewhere, but I’m looking forward to leaving Bangkok. Hopefully our next long stop will be in a better city.

Ayutthaya

Between the 1400′s and 1700′s, Ayutthaya was a wealthy and powerful city that controlled most of modern-day Thailand. Taking advantage of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pasak rivers that surround it, it quickly grew into a major international trade hub with a population of one million and home to over forty different nationalities. In their Golden Age, much of their wealth was spent on grand temples, libraries and art. Sadly, the good times came to an abrupt end when Burma captured and destroyed the entire city in 1767. Once the Burmese were driven out, Bangkok was built as the new capital.

Today, Ayutthaya has a modern city area, but the main attractions are the ruins of the old temples. Even in their current??dilapidated??state, they’re incredible and it’s easy to imagine how impressive they must have been to the people living there. For me, visiting the peaceful, solemn ruins was a good time to reflect on how temporary everything is. Ironically, the word Ayutthaya comes from the Sanskrit word for “invincible,” and I’m sure the city probably did seem invincible at the time. Four hundred years later and they’re just crumbling blocks in the middle of a field. You never know what time will bring.

However, one of the temples we stopped at, Wat Phanan Choeng, was a??frenetic swarm of activity, pretty much??the complete opposite of the somber ruins. Packed with tourists and devotees alike, we had to elbow our way through the crowd just to get in. There was so much burning incense in the air, it was hard to see and breathe.??An orange-robed monk splashed everyone with holy water as soon as they entered. A man on a microphone was talking so rapidly in Thai, it sounded like he was an auctioneer. (I really wish I knew what he was saying.) It seemed like there was money everywhere. Huge donation boxes filled with cash lined the aisles along with miniature trees with money clipped to them. After we passed all that, we finally got to the wat’s main feature: a 62-foot-tall gold Buddha that takes up the entire hall.

We explored the city on foot, bike, and boat and managed to see quite a bit. On the busy rivers we passed by tugboats towing concrete barges with just a regular rope. At night, there was a huge night market/Chinese New Year celebration that went all along the main road. There were concerts, dances, and dragons along with stalls selling food and goods. It was definitely the most fun night market we’ve been to yet.

Now we’re in Bangkok, getting our visa situations figured out. It was a bit of trouble, but we managed to get our visa for China. Next we’re applying for our Vietnamese one. It looks like we might not be able to get a tourist visa for Russia, though, so our plans there may be in trouble. We may have to make do with a transit visa and only do the Trans-Siberian Railway or just skip it all together. We’ll just have to wait and see!

Chiang Mai and Pai

We spent quite a while in Chiang Mai, but the first few days don’t really count because we were both very sick. I don’t know if we had the flu or a bad cold or what, but we were out of commission for a while. When we did finally emerge from our room, we discovered that Chiang Mai is a really nice place. It’s the second largest city in Thailand, but doesn’t feel too crowded or busy.

The main tourist attractions are the temples and shopping. Seeing the temples is easy. We practically ran into one every five minutes, especially in the Old City, which is the large square area in town that used to have a wall surrounding it (parts of the wall still exist, but now it’s bordered mostly by a moat). The modern Buddhist temples here are very colorful and tend to have a lot of gold and statues. Sometimes they have gaudy flashing strings of lights and music. That’s partly why I like visiting them, though. I love how zany and over-the-top they are.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was the best temple we saw. It’s up on the hills outside of Chiang Mai, so it has great views of the surrounding area. We rode up in a crowded songthaew, a small covered truck with two benches in the back for passengers to sit on. After the winding ride up, we made our way through the crowds of tourists and vendors, up the long staircase and finally arrived at the temple. According to legend, the temple was built in that spot when a white elephant carrying Buddha’s shoulder bone turned around three times, trumpeted and died there. The main feature of the Wat is the gleaming gold-plated chedi. There were also heavy, l0w-pitched bells hanging all over the place that bring good luck to those that ring them.

We also spent a few nights in Pai, which was kind of a stupid, touristy place, really. This seems like a good place for a quick side note about “touristy” places. Touristy places aren’t necessarily bad. Most places have a lot of visitors for a good reason. The Taj Mahal is super touristy these days, but nobody would say it’s not worth visiting. A lot of backpackers make a big deal about distinguishing themselves from tourists and they spend a lot of time making fun of them, but I tend to think there’s no need for such a distinction. Sometimes backpackers do more “local” things, sometimes we do more “touristy” things. To me, going around the world and eating only Western food and only seeing tourist sights seems just as silly as going around the world and refusing to see any tourist sights because you’re trying to keep up some artificial image as ??a “real traveler.” ??It also seems ironic to me when Westerners complain about the??presence??of other tourists, when they themselves are foreigners contributing to the “touristy” factor themselves.

That being said, some places are really just too touristy, and Pai is one of them. You know you’re in trouble when all of the street vendors are selling “I Survived Route 1095″ t-shirts and bumper stickers. (Because Route 1095 is curvy and goes through the mountains, get it?!) Pai is also filled with hippies. Nearly the whole town consists of white, barefoot twenty-somethings with dreadlocks wearing traditional Thai clothes. (Even the Thais don’t wear traditional Thai clothes.) That wouldn’t bother me so much if there was a lot of good art or music in Pai, but again, it’s really just a tourist trap. I just want to tell all the hippies, “You are not oppressed and you are in Pai, Thailand, one of the most fake places ever. Go to San Francisco or somewhere you belong.”

We did rent bikes and saw a few interesting villages outside of Pai. The countryside really is beautiful there. We also enjoyed the cool weather. We were actually cold at night! It was probably only in the 50′s, but we’re used to it being so hot everywhere. We’ll be in for a rude awakening when we head to northern Asia in the springtime!