Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Our own private Island, and other pictures

Links in this post are to pictures only.
Just see the pictures, and do none of the reading (for you lazy bums out there).

So yesterday I wrote this really funny post... trust me... you all would have laughed your butts off. But the interweb, being what it is here in Asia, is often a bit sketchy if you're on public lines (instead of designated private lines for business, for example). It's even sketchier when you use crummy old computers in some strange internet cafe. Needless to say, my gem of a posting is now lost to the ages. Anything I post now will simply not be as funny, but you'll have to put up with it somehow.

The crux of the post was about our most recent island visit. To summarize, we first went to Phuket to stay in a luxurious resort with my sister, who not only put us up on our own room with a hot (yes, hot) shower, but also provided us with meals, an excellent pool, free drinks, and I even got to share a vicious jellyfish sting with her! J and I then moved off on our own to the island of Koh Phi Phi, where we ran into Andy and Kelly, some friends we met in Kolkata, India several months ago. They were checking out of the island because it was too much MTV Beach Party and not enough interesting things to do. Plus it was ridiculously expensive. After leaving Phi Phi two days later and heading off to Krabi (where we ran into Andy and Kelly again on the street!), J and I happened upon a tiny section of our travel guide about a pair of nearly-deserted islands, one of which was called Koh Jum (rhymes with "toe jam" said with a phoney-baloney British accent). We booked a boat and a bungalow and off we went in search of the perfect island beach.

Koh Jum is a small island that has only three tiny fishing villages and about 10 bungalow operations, each with around 30 rooms. We stayed in a pretty popular, long-established joint in a super cheap bamboo hut (with a bathroom) for about $7/night. Our hut, which was nestled back in the jungle a bit, was still only about 100 m from the sand, and the place was gorgeous. Although it wasn't fully deserted, we rarely saw anybody outside of meal times and maybe a few on the beach. It wasn't some white-sand, turquoise water beach, but it was our beach. The sands were yellow, the water clear and warm, and there was plenty of shade, which you need because the sun was blazing out there.

The bungalow outfit that we stayed with, like all the others, is pushed back from the sand a few feet in a jungle clearing. A path from the bungalow leads across the island to the town, if you want to see it or have something besided bungalow food. Basically, we did nothing for four days, and being on Koh Jum is the most relaxing thing we've done since we started our trip over five months ago. For four days, we spent our time napping, reading, sunning, swimming, chasing/observing the different kinds of crabs on the beach, and eating pizza. Yes, pizza was the best food served at our bungalow, and it was worth it!

Now, I should point out that our bungalow was an old bamboo structure built on a raised platform, but still, we saw lots of bugs and critters. We had a mosquito net, which helped, and some anti-mosquito incense to help, but that didn't help keep out the moths and geckos and skinks, or the wasps that wanted to build a nest in our (cold) shower or the two frogs that liked to hang out under our sink or the (elusive) rat that kept eating our provisions or the huge monitor lizard looking thing and who knows what else. BUT, our bungalow operation also had luxury rooms, too, so before you write off going to Koh Jum, think again. For 30 bucks a night, you get a concrete bungalow, with real windows, a raised bed, a hot shower, sunset and ocean views, fans, lights, and all on an island that almost nobody goes to! Seriously, if you need a break from work or whatever and only have a week off, don't go to Phuket or Phi Phi or Lanta or Hawaii. Go to Koh Jum while it's still cheap and relaxing. The place is nearly perfect!

Now we're in Ao Nang, back on the mainland of Thailand. Tomorrow we have to go to Malaysia for a day to renew our Thai visas, but we'll be back in Ao Nang at night. The following day, the 26th of Jan., we're taking a bus up to Khao Sok national park, before flying up to the hill/mountain town of Chiang Mai on 30 Jan. Till next time, enjoy these pics from Phi Phi, Krabi, and Koh Jum!


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Park and Ride

Yesterday we rented this awesome orange hog (see below) and rode for two hours from Krabi Town up to a wildlife preserve where there's this gorgeous emerald-green pond made from underground hot springs (the water mixes with cold water on the way up, so the pool is quite refreshing). The water just leaks right out of the rocks and collects in this amazing pool. The walks around there were nice, but we hardly got to see any of it because we wanted to get home before it was dark. We failed in this attempt because it started to rain pretty hard before we made it back and we had to stop at a construction yard where there was shelter (and several other riders taking refuge!). The park is the only lowland forest park in all of southern Thailand, and the scenery was quite stunning. Today we're going out to the tiny island of Koh Jum, just south of Krabi, where we'll hopefully have our own beach. We'll keep you posted...


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pictures from Koh Phi Phi

Here's a few pics from our few days in Koh Phi Phi, where we stayed at a super expensive prison cell-like room for almost 30 bucks a night (almost as expensive as Tokyo!), saw way too many fake boobs, bucket drinks, and frat boys with tats. But the scenery was excellent and our snorkeling trip was pretty fun. Phi Phi is actually a few islands in a National Marine Park, but the two main ones are Phi Phi Don, where everyone stays, and Phi Phi Leh just to the west, where "The Beach" was filmed and where there are gorgeous turquoise waters and coral reefs everywhere. Although Fox ruined the ecosystem of the island during the filming (the movie is about a socialist backpackers paradise that isn't ruined by commercialization or greed... the irony is rich here), they recently lost a pair of lawsuits that resulted in fines of almost 100 million Bhat, or roughly 25 million dollars, to help repair it almost 10 years after the fact.

Well, enjoy the pics!

The limestone cliffs of Phi Phi Don's west coast.

Mike swimming in Phi Phi Leh's emerald-colored lagoon.

Longtail boats on "The Beach" movie set at Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, where the sand was as soft as cool whip!

Sunset of our snorkeling day.

Justine's sandy boots.

Longtails on the northeast cape of Phi Phi Don.

The hammock district of Tong Leam, Phi Phi Don's north cape.

A crab and a hermit crab.

Limestone karst in the Andaman sea.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Still alive in Thailand!

We successfully left behind the luxury of my sisters' villa at the Sheraton on Phuket Island and took the ferry to Ko Phi Phi about 2 hours east. It's nice here, but a little bit too much MTV beach party and not enough deep blue ocean. Phi Phi was seriously damaged by the big tsunami two years ago, but because lots of fancy schmancy resorts and rich college kids like to come here for honeymoons or spring break like getaways, the place is recovering quickly.

Tomorrow we're going on a snorkling trip, which could be hit or miss but we came across some friends we met in India several weeks ago and they told us it was a really good trip. It will take us to the island where Leo DiCaprio's movie The Beach was filmed, if you've ever seen it, which is the island of Ko Phi Phi Leh, Phi Phi Don's sister island a short boat trip away.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beaches in Phuket, Thailand and Deep Thoughts

We arrived in Phuket from Bangkok (after a long and annoying bus ride that started at 5:30 pm on 8.Jan... won't bore you all with the story) at 3 pm on 9.Jan. The island is nice enough, and we're staying in a really fancy schmancy resort with my sister (for free, mind you, so I can't complain about that), but everything here is so expensive: J and I paid like 40 bucks for a crummy lunch at the resort the other day, and about 2.50 USD for a coconut! On the plus side, we haven't paid for almost anything else, ate tons of food (I've put on 5 kilos since I arrived in Singapore), have been hanging out with family, swam in a really nice pool and hung out at the beach.

Despite that, it's been a weird experience for us the last few weeks because we went from totally roughing it backpacker style to my uncle's house in Singapore, back to being backpackers for a week in Bangkok and living cheaply, and now we've been living in relative luxury for three days. Tomorrow we leave Phuket for Ko Phi Phi and are on our own again. It kind of messes with my mind and my attitude to flip from one to the other... other travelers must be able to relate to this feeling even though I can't explain it well here, as I imagine it's somewhat like the feeling of going home and ending the trip. There's this sense of relief to be around family or friends or to take a hot shower and sleep on clean sheets, but there's also an uneasiness to switch lifestyles to this ritzy place which isn't really our thing (and wasn't really our thing before the trip, anyway) now that we expect (or tolerate) much simpler conditions and a simpler way of life. Maybe that's the real appeal to traveling like this: Our day-to-day lives are often about survival and basic needs (shelter, food, laundry). Simple things and amazing, complex experiences define our lives and no longer do we worry about the kinds of problems or stresses that bog us down in our lives before this trip and it bothers me that we'll have to leave this simplified life some day. Maybe that's why I've been feeling so weird lately.

But we've also learned that we need to take experiences for what they are... so J and I have been doing some serious relaxing here, including taking a long nap on some hamocks yesterday after lounghing around the beach and taking a late breakfast. Today, we went to the beach with Lisa, got stung by some jelly fish, and promptly left to go swim and spend the rest of the day at the pool. I'll write more about Bangkok another day (when some pictures are online), but we did a bunch of sight seeing there and got a few Thai massages and of course, we ate excellent food all day long! Enjoy the pics.

Relaxing in a hammock in the Hammock District of Laguna Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

An expensive coconut drink on the beach in Phuket. Check the muscles, Mom... I've put on some weight, too!

One of the 178 mural paintings of the Ramayana at the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Thai Cookery!

On Saturday last week (6.Jan), J and I got up early to head over to May Kaidee's, a vegetarian restraunt in Bangkok owned by a spunky 32 yr. old, to take a half-day cooking course with Ms. May herself at the restraunt. The day started with a trip to the market nearby where we purchased a bunch of vegetables and she showed us the different sauces, oils, spices, and curries she buys when she doesn't have time to make them herself. We then went to the back of her restraunt and started cutting up veggies.

We made 10 dishes with her, all in a single wok, including the very best Pad Thai, Tom Yum, and green curries I've ever had.

Here's a pic from the day, which ended around 1pm after we had sampled all the dishes (including spring rolls with peanut sauce and pumpkin hummus... YUM) and made lots of Green Curry and Stir Fried Veggies with Cashews for two customers in the restraunt that had ordered lunch!

May also taught us the Thai Cooking song (in Thai) and the dance to go along with it. Let's just say that we were better at cooking Thai food than we were with singing and dancing!


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Varanasi, from Bangkok

Tonight we take an 18 hr. bus from Bangkok to Phuket, arriving sometime in the afternoon of the 9th. But here's a picture of us that was taken by our friend Sonya while we dined at the good Kasheri restaurant in Varanasi (there's two of them):

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Arrived in Bangkok

We made it and all is calm. All is bright. After a rainy two weeks in Singapore, it is downright tropically warm and sunny here. We are staying just around the corner from Khao San Road, the renowned "tourist ghetto" street, on another tourist ghetto street, in a tourist ghetto neighborhood with a lot of ghetto tourists. It was a strange experience to relocate from Singapore, which we had grown quite comfortable in, to start again in zee hustle and zee bustle (if my brother-in-law Joe doesn't get that quote, nobody will!) of a big city in a developing Asian country. Actually, compared to China, Nepal, and India, this ain't so bad. We were oh-so-happy to see and hear the Bangkok tuk tuk, and have our first touts chase us down, and glare from behind our beer bottles at winter-breaking college kids flashing as much over-tanned flesh as possible under their dreadlocks. Oh wait, that sounded more snobby than I intended. We are a bit worn out from finding the same streets in every country we go to -- doesn't matter if you're in Kathmandu, New Delhi, Pokharra, Kolkatta, Bangkok. I think 3rd Street in Santa Monica may be our American equivalent. Lotsa tourist chotskes (SP?), reggae music, fake label clothes, bong stores, bars, etc. There is certainly a comfortable allure to it, since it is easy to operate here, and one can find convenient internet cafes, edible food, phone cards, chocolate, and cheap clothes. We will make a concerted effort to take this place for what it is, enjoy it while we are here, and make our plans to move onward. We will be here until the evening of the 8th, when we'll get on an overnight bus to Phuket, where Lisa will be waiting for us with her 5-star accomodation. Yay!

There seems to be no evidence of the recent bombings here, with the exception of a few extra police on the streets. Things are operating normally and it appears that only government sites were targeted, perhaps in response to the King's coup. However we will be careful and try to keep up on the news, and if anyone back home hears of anything of interest, please send us an email!


Monday, January 01, 2007

The long awaited story of our Nepali river rafting experience, by Justine

There has been high demand for the full river rafting story, so I have finally finished it, the blog bum that I am. I don't spend much time on the computer but here in Singapore we are afforded a bit more technological luxury, so here it is! And yes, it is a long post.

I have been river rafting once before, as a Girl Scout, when I was about 10 years old. I and the other youngest girl in our troop were thrown in the boat with our two troop leaders since we were too young/small to navigate the waters on our own. Laneisha and I screamed, laughed, and cried our way down what seemed like a watery roller coaster ride. It was such a thrill that I have been wanting to try it again ever since. Fast forward almost twenty years later, here in Nepal, and there is no excuse I can give to *not* try it again, since we are apparently in rip roaring rafting country...

We delayed our rafting trip by a few days due to what at the time we thought was giardia. We left early in the morning by bus with our group of about 25 people to reach the upper Bhote Kose River, about three hours northeast of Kathmandu. After being abandoned by our bus driver, who stopped the bus in a small town and walked off to "visit family", (he was replaced an hour later by some guy off the street who stalled the bus every time he hit the brakes, which was probably not frequently enough) and skipping the promised tea break, we were more than ready to get off the bus, stretch our legs, and eat whatever lunch they put in front of us: cold noodles with mustard, some salad and peanutbutter with bread. Thank goodness for the peanutbutter!

While lunch was being made, we helped our guides prepare the rafts. Lunch was shared with a local dog and a few cows. Afterwards we had a training session on the river side, where the water was so loud many people (including Mike) couldn't hear the instructions. We then seperated out into the three rafts with 9-10 people in each raft (including the guides). A safety kayaker would accompany us down the river to scout out tough areas and be on hand in case anyone fell out.

Mike and I, along with the one other American on our trip, a group of five Polish travelers and our guide Kamel led the three rafts down the river. We practiced rowing, turning, "getting down" (ducking and holding on) and sliding to one side of the boat (to prevent capsizing). Getting eight people to do everything correctly at the same time is more challenging then you might imagine, particularly when the guys in the front had some trouble with the English instructions from our Nepalese guide.

Kamel made certain that those who screeched the loudest (guess who) got the wettest, so we entered several rapids at deliberately poor angles, oftentimes spinning into them as if we had no control of the boat -- good practice for reality.

That night, Mike and I teamed up with an Australian couple and conspired to rearrange the boat groups so we could be with others who might be more compatible (that is, follow directions, understand English, and row consistently). The next day the four of us and another British couple (who Mike and I had met briefly in Songpan, China -- small world!) ended up in a boat together. We were quite pleased with ourselves. We started off north of the dam, which is known to be rougher than the south side. Before long, the river was tossing us pretty well, but as a team we were working together.

Our learning experience began when within half an hour of putting in, we hit rapids at an odd angle and two of us flew out of the boat -- I was one of the lucky two! I had prepared myself mentally for the possibility of landing in the icy water, getting a mouthful of it, and testing my swimming muscles, but once I hit the water all that confidence went swirling downstream. I was immediately swept under the raft itself, and as I came up for air I was met with a hard plastic wall and more water. In the maybe ten seconds that I was under, which as you can imagine felt a heck of a lot longer than that, I went from "I'm gonna drown under this raft!" to "wait a second, I can do this" and climbed out from under the raft just as our guide had taught us, by treating the boat like a ladder and pulling yourself in one direction. As soon as I surfaced I was hauled from the water and scrambling to get back into position with my oar, even as another one of our team (Neal of the Brits) was still swirling in the water. Mike tells me that I flopped into the boat laughing, and remembering that now, I was probably congratulating myself for having survived. He wasn't too impressed with the experience of seeing me disappear and after the adrenaline wore off, I realized that I was mildly traumatized as well. But wait! It gets better!
Our next segment down river had another one of our people go down, the other half of the British couple. After we hauled her back into the boat, all three boats pulled over to take a break. We took a few breaths, clambered back into our rafts and revved up for the next test: avoiding a huge series of boulders just downstream. The safety kayakers went ahead to asess the situation and communicate to the guides the best approach, which was to cut straight across the river to the far bank and let the current sweep us past the danger zone. Our team watched as the two other boats dug their oars in and powered across, just above the boulders. Our guide explained our plan of attack, emphasizing strong rowing, and we rallied a battle cry although we all knew we would surely be going for a swim.

I would have liked to have seen this all transpire from the river banks, because we were probably a pretty comical sight -- within just a few yards of our drop in point we were spinning right for the rocks. All we could do then was GET DOWN and hold on. It seemed we had as good of a chance making it across if we had just curled up into balls on the floor of the boat. Going over the boulders threw Dylan from the boat, taking Mike out with him before becoming a dot in the white water and disappearing downstream. For a moment the boat tipped on to its side, the bottom of the boat parrallel with the waterfall we had just gone over. Mike somehow managed to hold on to the raft's ropes and was looking up at us from below. Once the boat became level again, rather speeding off downstream after Dylan, our boat was trapped in the waterfall/whirlpool created by the boulders. For what seemed like an eternity we were stuck in a slow motion see-saw, having to throw our weight from one side to the other to keep from tipping over. The boat was so full of water that we were standing to keep our balance. After the initial shock of going over the rocks and trying to stay on top of the water, panic set in for Marriane and I -- she because her boyfriend was swept downstream, and me because Mike's face was nearly all that was visible as he clung to the edge of the boat trying not to get pulled away by the rapids. The horrible see-sawing, the roar of the water slamming over the rocks on top of us, and the complete helplessness of the situation was overwhelming. Our guide did his best to keep us together, and at one point it seemed like the only way we would free ourselves from this watery purgatory was just by jumping into the river. In retrospect, through all my screaming and everyone's flopping around, I realize our guide was calculating and waiting. At the precise moment that the boat freed itself, our guide heaved Mike back into the boat and we were flying downstream again.

We had to maintain some kind of composure and continuing rowing several mintues after the waterfall experience, minus one of our oars which had disappeared. When we finally beached we were relieved to see Dylan in one piece and drying in the sun -- he was picked up by a kayaker. At this point the drama had been enough. Mike and I had swallowed and inhaled our share of river water and couldn't stomach the lunch that was prepared. Standing on hot, knobby rocks never felt so good. Nothing could convince me to get back into the boat, and I didn't feel one bit bad about it. I was perfectly content to sit on the beach and wait for everyone else to finish their adventure before heading back to Kathmandu. Mike agreed, and so did the British couple. Thus our river rafting experience ended a few hours early, but I look at it in terms of the quality of our experience, which was just crammed into a shorter period of time. More bang for our buck.

As we discussed later, the six of us learned that being a part of a couple in the same boat makes rafting a lot more complicated. In addition to worrying just about yourself, you are constantly keeping an eye on your significant other to make sure they're still in the boat too. Even if you are perfect teammates in terms of being able to read each other in the boat, you are handicapped by your concern for the other. It also didn't help that all six of us could probably be classified as "light weights" -- either short, skinny, or both. Not much muscle power, and certainly not enough weight to keep the boat from tipping easily.

Mike and I both developed "river coughs" and had bruises that lasted well into India. My left elbow still hurts when I put pressure on it. As a final note, a week or so after our trial by water, I looked up the criteria for classifying river rapids. It is likely that the 3s and 4s we were going through in Nepal would be deemed 4s and 5s (on a scale of 1 to 6) back home. Does this make us expert rafters?