A blog with no name

notes and observations on my travels

Bye bye Thailand

clock January 21, 2013 11:19 by author Phil

After James left, Val and I faced a little quandary. What to do next? Our Thai visa was expiring so we had to leave the country, even if only to extend it.

We could head north to Laos, maybe east to Cambodia or really explore and head into Burma. We'd met some folks who had gone to Burma and it was still exciting there. No established tourist culture like Thailand.  We'd heard of a climbing camp in Laos where there were great limestone walls and no one else around. Angor Wat was supposed to be a great place to visit too. What to do?

In the end, it came down to me being tired of it all. I was ready for something different than SE Asia. So, even though we hadn't heard anything from the New Zealand Immigration office yet, we booked a flight to Auckland.

Bye bye Southeast Asia!

But first, we had to do a very touristy thing: fish spa! If you've ever been to Thailand, you've probably walked past these shops. They have an aquarium out front with a lot of little fish in them. Sometimes you'll see some tourists trying it out and screaming. We thought that it was time for us too:


 

The idea is that you put your feet into the fish tank and the fish eat away your dead skin, leaving you with a nicely exfoliated foot. In practice, it tickles like nobody's business. We were the first people to visit the spa that day and as we got near to the tank, the fish got CRAZY! Val went first and she made some very funny noises. Here's her face after she got used to it a bit


P.S., you can't do this in the US. 

 

At the airport, we got a nice surprise. We knew that we couldn't enter New Zealand without a ticket out of the country. We had a ticket booked for Australia. However, the airline wouldn't let us check in until they saw our visa for Australia. WTF? So we had to head up to the internet lounge and quickly find one. After lots of fruitless clicking, we found one online visa that worked for us. It was probably the wrong one, but we were so frazzled we paid $120 each. Grr, that rankled.


Anyway, we were on our way to the promised land


or something like that.

Next up, New Zealand north 



Hanging with James, Part 2

clock January 12, 2013 21:42 by author Phil

After Pai and elephants, it was time to head down and do some diving. Unfortunately, we didn't take a single picture while on Koh Tao. All these pics have been lifted from the internet.

Due to the time limits on James' stay in Thailand, we decided to fly down to Koh Tao instead of the standard fly/bus/overnight ferry. It cost more, but Val was able to get us there in a single day instead of the 2 or 3 that the cheaper way would take.

Unfortunately, I got sick again the day before we left. I spent the last night not feeling well at all and could hardly move when it was time to leave Pai. It was all I could do to walk down to the bus station and hang out while Val and James got breakfast. In fact, I forgot to make sure that my CPAP got loaded onto the bus. We didn't discover that it was missing until we got to Chiang Mai and tried to offload it. After nearly an hour of trying to get the bus people to understand what we were looking for, Val emailed a picture of it to the bus people in Pai and I got them to put it onto the next bus down. With that, I went back to Banjai Garden to lie down and Val and James got dinner. After dinner, Val went back to the bus station and picked up the CPAP. Yay! That would've been quite a drag to have to find another one in Bangkok.

Early (5:30AM) next morning, we were off to the airport and onto a plane from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Koh Samui. In Koh Samui, we got a ride to the ferry terminal and then on to Koh Tao. Luckily, Val had already booked us spots at Big Blue Diving. They had a driver meet us, which was really good because it was hard to negotiate the gauntlet of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers. Anyway, we got to Big Blue and got James set up. He headed off to his first day's class, a video and Val and I headed off to our room. Turns out that Big Blue has 3 facilities. James was staying at Big Blue 1, taking classes at Big Blue 2 and Val and my room was at Big Blue 3. 

We'd chosen Koh Tao because some other Americans had told us that it wasn't a party scene at Big Blue. HA!

Even though we were a couple hundred meters from the beach, we could hear the music thumping in our room. The night  before James moved in, one of his roommates got really drunk to celebrate his Open Water and then passed out while dancing on a table in the dorm room. He took a header into a table, cut his face up and got blood all over the room. The second night, another group finished their Open Water and so James spent that night in our room. After a day in the pool, he wasn't that excited about diving. It's not that fun practicing your skills when the water really burns your eyes.

In the mornings, the beach is really pretty. All the drunk farangs are snoring in their bungalows and it's mostly locals and early divers who are awake.

 

While James was taking his class, Val and I were diving! Big Blue has a discount policy, where you get reduced costs for more dives. The initial costs are 1000 Baht/dive, which goes down to 900 if you take 3-6 dives, ending up at 700 Baht per dive if you take more than 11 with them. They have boats that leave twice a day, with 2 dives per trip. They also sometimes had night dives, which we didn't end up doing. 

The dive boats were definitely controlled chaos. When you first signed up, you would get your gear together for the next day if you were diving. That involved getting a BCD, fins and wetsuit and putting them into a numbered mesh bag. When it was time to go diving, you'd get your bag from the equipment room and take it down to the beach. They had a longtail boat then shuttle us out to the dive boats. Big Blue has 4 dive boats, one of which is dedicated to their diving classes. On the boat, we'd get a regulator from our divemaster and then set up a weight belt. At the end of the day, regulators and weight belts go back into a big bin and we took our bags back to the equipment room. If you were diving the next day, you just put your bag into the equipment room. I never needed a wetsuit since the water is so warm there. I did wear a rash guard though since it was more comfortable and made it easy for Val to locate me underwater. 

The Big Blue system worked pretty well. We would be assigned to groups of 4 or 5 divers with a divemaster. Sometimes we had an assistant divemaster, someone working towards his divemaster certification. The cost of going from Open Water to Divemaster is pretty minimal at Big Blue because part of the cost of taking the class is offset by the DMT (DiveMater in Training) working dives too. 

Val and I did two half-day trips (2-dives) and a full day trip (3-dives), visiting many of the sites on Koh Tao. On the full day trip, we went to Sail Rock, which was about 2 hours away. We went to Sail Rock hoping to see a whale shark, but had no luck. We did see a ton of Giant Grouper though. Fun times, but the 3rd dive was at Shark Island and we had poor visibility and strong currents. The currents were so strong that Val had trouble catching her breath on the bottom and sucked up her air pretty quickly. Didn't matter in the end, as I was eager to get out of the water after a while spent chasing vague shapes down there. Supposedly, our divemaster saw a shark, but all I spotted was him zooming off just when Val had to stop and rest.

Checking in with James that night was fun. They'd gone out and done their first open water dives. He was ecstatic and his enthusiasm was contagious. His initial dismay with Koh Tao and the scene had been replaced with a new love of SCUBA diving. Each dive was more spectacular than the last. We made plans to dive after he got his Open Water certification. 

We figured an afternoon dive would be best to allow for the traditional blowout celebration. James barely made it too. Good thing he skipped out on the Jaeger bomb the night before! We had a lot of fun on our dive together and can't wait for a chance to take a dive vacation.

However, James had to get back to California and college. We set off the next day to Bangkok. After Chiang Mai and Koh Tao, Bangkok was a major disappointment to us. Lots of cars and smog and people. Costs were also higher than CM and we had trouble finding good food. James had a half day before his flight, so we tried a little exploring. Our usual tactic on this trip has been to just wander around and see what's interesting. We used the Lonely Planet as a starting point, but have found that by the time a place makes it into Lonely Planet, it also gets a hoard of folks who want to go there because they've also read about it. Bangkok was too big for that and our taste does not run to big cities anyway. After turning away from the Grand Palace, we hopped into a longtail boat for a 1.5 hour tour. That wasn't so bad. 

The floating market is not so big on the weekends. It's just a few women paddling their canoes around. Supporting the local economy, we bought a beer. Good thing the drinking age in Thailand is 18

This turned out to be the highlight of our day. We spent a long time in traffic trying to get to Chinatown and then got a little freaked out because of the time it was taking us to do stuff. We didn't find any good food stalls, so we wolfed down some mystery meat on a stick and hopped on the Sky Train to the airport. 

I was very sad to see James leave. He had been lots of fun to hang with for the two weeks we had him. Looking forward to when we can do this again.

After James left, we found this bar:

 

Supposedly, the drinking age has been increased to 20 from 18, but J never got carded. . .



Hanging with James, Part 1

clock January 1, 2013 18:37 by author Phil

After Christmas, which we spent rock climbing, our friends Kurt and Sumi came out to Thailand. We spent 4 fun days with them north of Chiang Mai at Cave Lodge. We crawled on our bellies through a cool, wet cave, hiked around taking 3 hours for a 1 hour hike, and also visited a small Karen village. 

Returning to Chiang Mai, we spent the craziest New Year's Eve ever!

This picture shows some of the insanity of the evening. The yellowish lights are not stars, but paper lanterns, lit by people for good luck in the new year. These paper cylinders are about a meter long and 500 cm in diameter. There's a big chunk of paraffin soaked cloth at the bottom to provide the candle power to lift it into the air. The Thais light them and they drift off into the sky, taking your good wishes up to heaven. 

Being New Year's Eve, other people can't let good enough alone and light them wherever they are, even if that's under a power pole. After we saw 3 lanterns burning on the power line, we decided it was time to move to somewhere a bit more safe.

You see, besides paper lanterns, there was an abundance of cheap, powerful fireworks. This being Thailand, you are more responsible for yourself and can buy most anything if you have enough money. This being New Year's Eve, you are encouraged to consume large amounts of alcohol. This being Thailand, Red Bull is extremely cheap (10 Baht/bottle). Mix all 3 and you get a severe dilution of common sense.

After a while, firecrackers and M-80 bombs became commonplace. Roman candles (handheld tubes that shoot fireballs) became mundane. Rockets became blah. As we walked around the road that rings the old city, we noticed real fireworks. You know, they're the ones that get launched in a mortar and shoot up hundreds of feet into the air. In the States, you have to be a 1/4 mile away where they ignite them. Here in Chiang Mai, you can buy these fireworks in Chinatown. People were walking into the middle of the street and lighting them. We would hear the whoomp of the mortar going off, then a big boom as the explosion rocked us.

It was all very pretty, but we weren't drunk enough to forget that quality control isn't always that good. Sure enough, one of the fireworks exploded close to the ground, showering folks with hot sparks. We got away clean, but heard tales later of really drunk people pointing those rockets at low targets like tuk-tuks.

 

On that note, my son James came to visit us for a couple of weeks. Between semesters in his second year at Humboldt State University, James had accepted our offer to spend his winter break in a warm place. We had lots of ideas, but no set plans. Better to let him have a say in what we were going to be doing.

First, we went to Crazy Horse, our favorite climbing area in Thailand. The rock is less polished than at Railay and the cooler climate is better for me and Val. The 3 of us set out one morning in the Sang Teow provided by CMRCA, the local climbing shop. Another climber there was looking for a partner so we became two groups of 2 instead of a threesome. That meant more climbing for me as our new friend, John, climbed much harder than us. Alas, roped climbing is not really James' cup of tea, so we didn't return again.

Instead, we hopped in a minivan and headed up to Pai, where we found an incredibly laid back town. Val found us a nice quiet guest house and we checked in for the duration. Prices were a little higher than Chaing Mai, but still pretty cheap. We got James his own room too, which was best for all of us. Who wants to share a room with his dad and stepmom anyway?

The main reason we were in Pai was elephants. We'd read about riding them and it seemed incredible that you could spend time on such a large animal. My good friend Michelle had come up here and spent time at Thom's Elephant Camp. After trying to figure things out online and then having a little trouble communicating on the phone, we found Thom's office in Pai and booked a day where we could become mahouts. Early the next day, we went to Thom's and were driven up to their camp, a few kilometers outside of town. We were encouraged to get to know the elephants by feeding them. 

It was a bit intimidating at first. Elephants are big! They weigh around 3 tons when fully grown and are over 3 meters tall at the shoulders. When they saw us coming over with some snacks, they all stretched out their trunks to us. It's kinda like when a big dog runs towards you. Even if you really like dogs, it can be a little intimidating. When a 3 ton animal moves towards me, I tend to keep my distance. Better safe than sorry.

Turns out that the elephants at Thom's are like big puppies. They really, really love to eat and so it was easy to make friends with them by feeding them. We handed them some bamboo and watched as they stripped the papery leaves off with their trunks and shoved them into their mouths. Thom says they eat all day, needing about 250 kg of food a day. It certainly appeared that way to us. 

We got to ride the elephants too! With the command of *Song*, my elephant raised her right leg so I could climb up and onto her back. Too cool! We took a walk around the farm and then went down to the river. This was by far, my favorite portion of the day.

On our way to the river:
 

Then the fun began. The command "Bon" will get you wet:

 

 

The real mahouts had some other commands they didn't teach us too:
 

James tries to stay on

Val
 

 

We stayed all day, helping with more feedings and hanging out when they went on a walk. In time, we came to really enjoy their company.

We ended our day by taking the elephants to their night time pasture and helping cut some food for them. 

Like it so much, we went back the next day to feed them some more when we went out scootering.

Our next day in Pai, we rented scooters and took a long trip through the countryside. It was so different from scootering in Chiang Mai. Hardly any cars and lots of beautiful scenery.

 Let's ride!

 

Next: James learns to dive!



About the author

After working at the same company for 21 years, I've decided to quit and spend some time traveling. I'm going to try and share some of the trials and tribulations of my journey.

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