James Bond Island

We decided that there were so many interesting things to see near to Ao Nang/Krabi that we’d better combine a few of them into an organized tour. This is pretty common in SE Asia- there are tour companies everywhere, happy to whisk you away to the local attractions and overcharge you a little, but they make it worth your while by taking all the worry and planning and transportation issues out of the equation for you.

Well, we loved the photos we’d seen of the “James Bond island” (so named because ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was filmed there), and so we booked a tour that featured a visit to it. Its actual name?  Ko Tapu, or ‘Nail Island’.

It’s such an impossible-looking limestone karst, rising top-heavy up out of the green waters.

Well, we didn’t get to spend much time there (maybe 30 minutes- certainly not enough time for any of the Bond actors to show up) but the other destinations were pretty fun, too. We also saw a floating village, the Tone-Tai waterfall, and Wat Suwankuha – the monkey temple with Buddhas tucked away in a cave amongst the stalactites.

It was a very full day, and as always, we got to know some of the people on our tour with us, which is always fun and informative (you learn a lot when you meet people from other cities and countries).

And Kim made a very special friend of her own.  🙂

Beach time!

The islands of Thailand are really breathtaking. It’s funny, though- getting to the beach is not at all straightforward.  At home, if we want to go to the beach, we just walk there (assuming it’s summer, of course). But here… no- it’s a bit of
an ordeal.  So… for starters, from Bangkok, we flew down to Krabi in the south of Thailand.

Then we took a bus from Krabi airport to Ao Nang Beach, but this beach wasn’t even a swimming beach. You have to take more boats and trek through jungle to get to the
really nice beaches. So we tried a trip to Koh Phi Phi Don (a 2 hour ferry ride away from Ao Nang), but while the beach in front of us there looked okay, it didn’t appear to be attracting any beachgoers.

So we hiked 30 min through and up and down a rough forest path to get to Long beach- which was beautiful, but had a rough/sharp stone and shell bar to walk over before you could make it into the surf.  Alternatively, you can take yet
another boat to Maya bay on Koh Phi Phi Ley, the site from the movie The Beach.

Maya bay looks really beautiful and calm in photos, but we couldn’t justify spending another $100 just to get to the 4th beach in one day for just 2 hours of beach time. Why wasn’t the first beach the destination?  I have to say that while it’s beautiful here, there is quite a scam on parting tourists with their money in search of the perfect beach.

 

 

 

 

 

It feels much easier to get to a good beach in
the US. In fact, I think I prefer my 10-block walk.  But I’ll take the amazing fresh seafood of Thailand any day!

 

 

And maybe getting there is half the fun?  We certainly enjoyed ourselves. Kim took some great shots of the journey. And we met a lovely couple from Seattle, who shared their umbrella with me in the hot, hot sun. (Which I’m pretty sure was absolutely determined to burn me to a crisp.)

 

 

And hanging your feet off the edge of the ferry, with the wind in your hair, just makes for a better ride home.  🙂

Wat?

Bangkok is not only a modern city of around 12 million people- it’s also steeped in history and thus has all the accompanying historic buildings and architecture. This town has been around since at least the 1400s, when it came under the rule of Ayutthaya (another great place we visited on a separate day). And it became the capital of Thailand in 1782 after things got messy with Burma. So you can tell that there’s going to be some interesting history remaining amidst the new buildings and train systems

 

In an odd parallel with Los Angeles, the locals actually call Bangkok “Krung Thep”, or City of Angels.  I suspect that Bangkok had the name first, though.

There are many gorgeous, ornate Wats (temples) to visit around the city. Kim and I had a Wat day where we sampled some of the best, as well as the Grand Palace.

A bonus was that to get to them, we had to take the river boat, so we fit a little cruising sight-seeing in, too.

All told, we saw the Grand Palace (which maybe deserves an entire day to itself), Wat Pho, and Wat Phra Kaew/ Temple of the Emerald Buddha that day. I think we saw another one, too, but honestly it’s a little blurry post-wat, so I’m not sure.

By the end of the day of walking around beautiful gilded buildings in the burning hot sun, you get a little Watted out, so luckily we saved Wat Arun for a separate day. That was wise- it deserves its own day. (That’s a hint about a future post- maybe for the highlights reel in a month!)

The mix of different styles of architecture and decoration at the Grand Palace was impressive. It was actually created as the residence for the Kings of Thailand/Siam, so they started building it in 1782, but then spent years adding to it after that. That probably explains all the different styles present in this huge complex. I have no explanation for the little blue men, however.

It’s a good educational experience to see how people worship and give differently in various cities and countries. Here they buy little bits of gold leaf to rub on to the Buddha statues. It sometimes makes for a rather saucy Buddha, with all his gold streamers fluttering in the breeze.

Each of these Buddha temples does not sit lonely by itself, of course. That’s part of the reason it’s hard to keep track of how many you’ve seen on a Wat Day.

The wats are usually part of a larger complex with other assorted buildings and stupas and gardens and statuary and I don’t know what else. Like this ancient stone guardian who looks like a character out of a fantasy novel. Would you rather have some of these guys guarding your house, or some of the scary little blue guys?  Tough call… but I’ll go with the stone wizard guy.

Even after we’d seen the Grand Palace complex, the other Wats continued to impress. The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho was pretty incredible. It’s 15 meters tall (49 feet) and 43 meters long (141 feet). And as you can imagine, it’s really difficult to fit in one photo. But you’ve got to love the detail on the toes! .

That’s one of the fun things about visiting these temple complexes: finding all the little details- intricate gold carvings, mirrored walls, gold Buddhas draped in saffron robes, all the decoration.

 

 

It’s so colorful, and a beautiful way to spend the day.

 

 

By the way, Kim and I discovered that our own version of “Wat’s on first” does not, in fact, ever get old.

🙂

Khao San Road

This street/area is ridiculous. It’s wall-to-wall Westerners, and it’s crazy.  Loud, brash, commercial, crowded… but really, really fun. But I’m so glad I didn’t start out my time in Thailand here, because it really is its own unique neighborhood, heavily dominated by and catering to Western backpackers. It has little in common with the rest of Thailand. The food isn’t even authentic, but the shopping and people-watching is great. It came to be only about 20 years ago, but has grown beyond its couple of blocks into several streets around it. And of course it has all those lovely lights and lamps that attract me like a moth to a… well… lamp.

The Thai food in this area isn’t very good-it’s been changed and Westernized to a level that falls short – Thai food in Chicago is much better. But they have some unique things that are tasty (besides the insects, which I avoided). You can actually get cheese wontons- like crab rangoon, but without crab, and with real cheese instead of cream cheese. But the best are the crepes/pancakes/roti.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can accept one of the many frequent invitations to take part in the most bizarre stuff on this road.. Ping pong shows, insects as snack food, (see photo above) it’s crazy.  And seems to border on the questionably legal side of things, as well. But that may be half the fun of it.

Oh, and don’t worry if you’re away from home and think you’re going to miss the big game. You can always catch it in the middle of the street- on the back of a van. And you can order beer 5 litres at a time while you’re watching it. Just in case your team is doing poorly, 5 litres should be a sufficient quantity of beer to quite literally drown your sorrows. Enjoy!

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One Night in Bangkok…

This city is huge! And it’s nothing like the cities in Vietnam. It feels very Western. I walked out of the terminal at Suvarnabhumi airport and into the main building and an involuntary giggle escaped my lips as I spotted a Boots (British drug store), Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Baskin Robbins, etc, etc. Within my first 2 hours here, I had already heard more American accents than I did in a month in Bali and Vietnam.

This is a gross over-exaggeration, but Bangkok feels so much more western than Vietnam that it’s almost like I’ve just returned to “civilization” after a month of camping. There are McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere. And the prices are up.  It’s still cheap compared to the West, but just not AS cheap. And nothing is as cheap as all those stories I read about people traveling in the 80’s.

The dollar was so strong then, and SE Asia so less developed. But there are trade-offs:  the main train line that links the city here (the BTS)didn’t even exist then. In fact, it’s only been here since 1999 and they are still adding to it. My Lonely Planet guide incorrectly lists the train line’s end point, which has already been extended in just the last year.

So, then I start thinking to myself that this is a city that’s really growing and coming up in the world.  And then I walked into a mall. And another involuntary giggle escaped my throat, as I gazed on the luminous altar to capitalism and modernity. And this is just one of many malls here- the big ones are all in a row in one area of the city, oddly enough. I can’t believe I thought Bangkok would be like Vietnam. It’s completely different.  Some of the streets feel the same- dirty little stalls and food cooking alongside the road, but it’s clear that many parts of the city are just as modern as the US.

In fact, I was jealous that there are stores here that I don’t even have at my fancy mall close to home. Especially the nice British ones like Whittards of Chelsea.  Wow.  It’s going to be difficult to reconcile these two very different sides of Bangkok, and my other experiences in SE Asia.

 

Incidentally, you would never think to head to the mall for good food in the US, but in many parts of SE Asia, there is a food court level with really, really good food and also high-level restaurants, to boot. It’s nice to find a place that serves the hygenic equivalent of the local street food, too.

 

I had an excellent mango with sticky coconut rice (black rice!) at one spot, and Kim and I ate the best Pad See Ew in the world at another.  Really.  At a mall.  🙂

 

 

 

 

Yangon highlights

It’s time to catch up and move on to posting about Thailand , but I still have many more little things to share about Yangon.  Here are some thoughts and highlights:

In a confusingly anachronistic, Vegasy way, the Buddhas at each of the compass points in Sule pagoda had bright chasing lights radiating out from their heads like some odd cross between halos and Christmas and pinball machines all mixed together. Very eye-catching, but it sort of detracted from the traditional and reverent feeling I associate with ancient places of worship.

Another aspect of the day that stood out was watching the worshippers toss cups of water or hand-bathe a different set of smaller idols  throughout the paya. I later saw a photo of Hillary Clinton doing the honors, as well. The statue you wash/worship is connected with your day of birth. I like that the day has importance in this religion.

The only meaning I have for my day of birth is the old British rhyme, “Monday’s child is fair of face…”

Less happy was encountering the women selling birds outside the pagoda. Tiny little finch-like birds were packed into a basket, which the women would roughly plunge their hands into to grab a bird and thrust it at you to purchase. Essentially, you got to buy the bird’s freedom as a good deed. They broke my heart, so I bought one and let it go immediately. I’ve read about people buying every bird in the basket and setting them all free, but the catch is that you’re just rewarding the evil bird lady, who will pocket the cash and immediately procure more birds to sell the next morning. Or possibly only 10 minutes later, which is what we realized when we walked a block away, and passed a frantically cheeping crate filled with these poor little things packed much more densely than in the basket.

But, for some perspective, now that I’ve seen where they live, maybe people here don’t have the means or the will to coddle their birds like I would.

We took a local train trip and made it into a tourist attraction for ourselves. There’s a 3 hour circular route around the city- the journey just takes you in a wide loop, and comes right back to the central station.

Three hours is a long time to sit on a hard wooden bench, but the exposure to greater Myanmar is priceless. Even though it’s technically a “city” train, it’s not long before you feel like you’re out in the country and seeing little villages on the outskirts of the tracks’ range. Those views are quite different from the center of Yangon, and make you realize anew that the city is not really representative of the country as a whole. The train itself is pretty interesting, too. It felt really rustic and sort of like I’d imagine a cattle car might be.

The interior of the train car was filthy, and people kept bringing on things like large cartons of eggs and crates of vegetables, so the flies were a bit of a challenge for a while. But mainly, we were really struck by the daily life of those around us, and the living conditions visible from the train tracks.  When you show up in a city, you can be fooled into thinking a place is more modern/urban than it really is.

Remember my post on the sidewalks in Ubud, Indonesia? Well, Yangon’s not much different.  And when it rains, you suddenly discover the reasoning behind all the little bits of brick and concrete that are laid out like stepping stones in front of each high curb. They are the only thing that will get you dryly over the moat that forms during the storms. I love how the dog is watching Kim traverse the lake in the second photo…

 

…now stay tuned for reports of our Thailand adventures!