Monthly Archives: February 2009

Busy in Bangkok

I just spent an afternoon updating this blog- first caving in to a restaurant I found where they made me a panini sandwich (hey, I hadn’t had cheese in a month! I miss cheese!) and then slowly nursing a beer at the guesthouse.  Judit is gone, having caught a flight back to Hungary to see what she missed these past weeks at university while hanging out with me- and a few hours time I will be catching a night train to the north.  We’ll see what I find there.

Happy reading!

(Sort of) Wild Thailand

On our River Kwai trip, it was sort of inevitable that we’d be doing some animal things along the way too.  My cousin loves animals a lot, and since everyone else in Thailand does this we signed up for an elephant ride-

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At this point I should mention once we signed up for this tour and Adrian decided to tag along but heard there was an elephant ride, he got really upset.  Apparently the guy had done a six hour elephant trek over rough terrain in Cambodia and swore he never would again, but sure enough came with us.  In actuality, the whole thing was pretty good- I don’t think I’d want to do it for six hours either, but for a half hour or so it’s fun!

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Chilling on our elephant.  Ah, life.

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A picture of where the elephant keepers live.  Which I include because we Westerners spend a lot of time worrying about the treatment of animals around here, and frankly some of the people sounded silly worrying so much about the animals but not stopping a second to think about the conditions the people were living under.

Anyway, after this we went off to meet another famous animal from these parts, at a place called Tiger Temple-

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Tiger Temple is, in short, a place where Buddhist monks started accepting tiger cubs whose parents had been killed by poachers from the jungle in this area.  There are currently 38 tigers living there who would otherwise be unable to defend themselves in the wild, and they raise money for their care through tourism.

And because I hear my animal friends shouting their objections already, I know this is not ideal at all for the animals but this isn’t the West- there’s really not enough money to do something like rehabilitate these animals into the wild, so they’re raised by humans from the time they’re cubs.

Some people also insist that the tigers are drugged in order to be with the humans.  I asked an American who was volunteering there about this point and he said this wasn’t the case- first of all Buddhist monks wouldn’t consider it, secondly drugging the animals would be too expensive, third an animal raised with people is not going to behave the same as a wild one.  Looking around I concluded most of the tigers were just as lazy as my cat, as tigers spend most of the day sleeping.  Either way, it’s probably  still a better life than they would have had killed as cubs.

With that soapbox explanation, you’ve got to admit this is really kind of cool-

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The monks are currently raising money for the tigers to have a better enclosure, aka these guys can’t be reintroduced to the wild so they’re getting a nice zoo to live in.  There are a few enclosures finished already, where I spotted this guy cooling down in the heat-

image363You know, I really think the person who figures out genetics so they can make housecats look like tigers will make a lot of money…

So that’s Tiger Temple- I will say the whole thing was probably the most touristy thing I did in Thailand, as when you go to pet the tigers they hardly give you a moment before grabbing your hand to go pet the next one.  But still, it was really neat to pet them an even, at one point, rub a tiger’s belly and watch his ear twitch in appreciation.

Bridge Over the River Kwai

Judit was set to leave Thailand without having seen the jungle in the north, so we decided to do a day tour to see a bit of the country.  And when it comes to jungle in Thailand there are few things that spring more to mind than the Bridge over the River Kwai, a two hour drive from Bangkok.  Now I think the Death Railway this primarily famous because of some old movie I’ve never seen (cue the comments from indignant old people), but I can attest that the bridge itself looks quite nice-

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For those my age who haven’t seen the movie either, this railway was built in WWII by the Japanese to ferry their supplies from Thailand to Burma.  They built it very quickly by conscripting forced labor from both the local population and P.O.W.s, and as a result tens of thousands of people lost their lives due to exhaustion or disease.  This bridge above is actually a replica of the original- the Americans bombed down the first one- but the Thai railway service still uses the railway line as you’ll see in a bit.

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We walked across the bridge for lack of anything better to do once the “hey, a bridge!” reaction wore off.  I will note that this is the first place I’ve been to in Thailand with such a decidedly older set of tourists, by the way, as they all walk really slowly on the bridge forcing you to go primarily on the rickety side planks if you want to get anywhere at any point soon.

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Adrian defending the bridge in case a war breaks out again.

Then because we are tourists and this is what we do, we rode a few stops on the Death Railway.  The line terminates in a place called Nam Tok a few miles from the border with Myanmar aka Burma, the government there not sympathetic to allowing a rail line with Thailand, and I’m pretty sure the train carriage was twice as old as me, but the view was nice-

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Frankly, the entire thing reminded me a bit of the “little train” near where my grandmother lives in Hungary that goes out to a nice suburb of her city, but with more humidity.  Plus on this train there was a little old Thai lady who handed us each a sticky fig she was eating a bagful of, smiling as we tried to work out how to crack the shell and hesitantly biting into it (not like she knew the English word for fig or we knew the Thai!).

image333One final train shot, of a wooden bridge we crossed that a thousand people apparently died to build.  Just a few plaques, a sobering cemetery, and a rail line still used in memory of those who died constructing it.  Makes you think.

The Grand Palace

While the beach was fun, it really doesn’t show you much about the local culture in Thailand.  Judit and I decided to change that one day, so our first stop was the Grand Palace in Bangkok-

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It’s hard to visit Thailand for even a day without knowing that Thailand is a monarchy, and that Thais really love their king. (You would too if you remember The King and I, albeit that movie is illegal here.) His picture is everywhere, and insulting the king will land you a few years in jail.

I’ve got to say though, his palace is really nice.  The only complication in visiting is it has a Wat (temple) on it with the famous Emerald Buddha in it (actually made of jade) and Buddhists are similar to Christians in that you need to be decently clothed to enter.  This means something longer than knee-length for women which one usually doesn’t consider in the scorching heat, but the palace gets around this by offering you a skirt to cover up with if you show up at the gate unprepared.

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View of the terrace where the Emerald Buddha lives.  Unfortunately we visited on February 9th, the Buddha’s birthday, so we weren’t allowed in to see it, but it was lovely enough nonetheless to explore and see all the Thais who came to pay homage by burning incense and walking around the temple with lotus blossoms.

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Another view of the temple complex in the grand palace complete with Thai flag.  The architecture is so lovely I doubt I could tire of admiring it.

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Having a bit of fun with some statues decorating the palace temple area.

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And finally, the palace itself!  It isn’t very old at all (Bangkok has only been Thailand’s capital for 150 years or so) and hence what I noticed is how much the palace looks very similar to any you could find in Europe.  Mind, the king still lives here (as evidenced by how the street outside often closes because he’s coming or going) so this is the closest we got to investigating this bit.  Instead we left the palace and headed to Wat Po, home of the giant reclining Buddha-

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This thing is so big it’s difficult to take a good picture of it.  Here’s a better one so you might get a sense of scale-

image297What makes me curious here is that this is apparently the second biggest Buddha in Thailand.  Not the biggest there is, not the biggest in the country, just the ho-hum second.  Makes you wonder what the other ones look like!

I also liked Wat Po because while you walk down the front side of the Buddha admiring it, in the back you can make a small donation for a little box  of coins to distribute to the monks in the temple as alms.  As it turns out Buddhists believe you get great karma points for such an act, but it’s also fun to do so there we are.

The only distasteful thing about the day is how people tried to scam us six times- three offering wrong directions, one telling us Wat Po was closed when it wasn’t, and two taxi drivers who refused to use the meter.  None of these is particularly terrible if you know what they’re doing- you inquire about the meter before you go, and don’t take anyone’s word on if something’s  open or not- but this sort of thing does leave a bad taste in your mouth.  Ah well.

Bangkok

We arrived at Bangkok at 4am to a chorus of touts calling “good morning sir, taxi? where you go, where you go?” I’m tempted to say this is all you really need to know about Bangkok- that even in the middle of the night it’s still busy enough that someone will try to sell you something.

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This  is  the world-famous  Kao  San  Road,  arguably the most famous backpacker street in the world. (Who am I kidding?  The most famous, as it’s not like I know of any others.)  This is the tourist center of South East Asia, filled with guesthouses, bars, stores, tailors (less than $100 for an Armani style suit here!), and anything else you could possibly want-

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A roadside bar that pulls up every night.  I love the endorsement.

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Another ubiquitous Kao San operation, which you will have to zoom in to see in greater detail because these vendors obviously don’t take kindly to photography.  I politely inquired, you can get set up with a student ID anywhere in the world for about three bucks, a driver’s license or press pass is about twice as much.  No word on the diplomas or certifications but it can’t be much more.

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Another shot of Kao San at night with some of its revelers- specifically from right to left, Adrian, Judit, and Sasha.  Remember Sasha?  He was my guide in Japan and was in Bangkok a few days, so he met up with us for some dinner and drinks.

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Elephant walking down the street in Bangkok.  Ho-hum.
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To continue on the shopping theme, we went to the weekend market in Bangkok, as Judit was leaving in a few days time and was in need of souveniers.  This is just outside the market of course- inside is best imagined as a warren of stalls and narrow alleys, selling everything from clothes to pets to food to pets that can someday become food, etc.

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One particularly interesting stall with fried bugs, which it turns out are 10 baht a scoop…

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Mmm, crunchy!

No really,  that’s the best way I can describe what eating a fried cricket is like. (Adrian had had them before, Judit didn’t dare try one.) They don’t taste like anything except perhaps the soy sauce dabbled on them, just a crunch and they’re gone.

It should be noted that despite all this potential purchasing I haven’t really done much of it- my most significant purchase was two t-shirts at the market for under US$5, aka the price I always thought a t-shirt was worth so it made me happy.  You just can’t buy too many things when you have five months of life on the road to go, but it’s nonetheless fun to look.

Ko Tao Continued

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Okay, we caved. Ideally traveler-folk would have moved on by this point (and if by myself I probably would be on the West Coast already) but life is different if you only have two weeks like my cousin does.  And once we sat down and considered things traveling that much doesn’t make sense and we like Ko Tao, so why not be beach bums a bit longer?

I must say though, we don’t hang out with the Lotus Eaters much- just hellos, inquiries about our respective days, and polite rejection of invitations to “Expand Your Mind” parties. (Beyond the obvious reasons, I just finished reading a book about a woman who got caught with drugs in Thailand.  In short, you never, ever, ever want to go to Thai prison.)

Instead, we just joined a motorcycle gang-

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Ok, in short you only use motorcycles to get around Ko Tao with the possible exception of some trucks for hauling larger numbers of people.  Judit and I weren’t totally keen on driving ourselves but met some other travelers more adept at this skill, so we hopped onto the cycles yesterday to visit different beaches.

I don’t have a group shot of the motorcycle gang yet, but we were a mix of Argentinians, Finns, a Canadian, and obviously a Hungarian and an American.  Because if you don’t represent three continents in any activity around here you’re doing it wrong.

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In hindsight, going with people who knew how to cycle was a very good thing- beyond the main road in Ko Tao the interior is all dirt roads, often so bad you need to get off the steeper hills if you’re the second passenger.  So a good amount of hiking was involved!  This was actually one of the better hills honestly, most didn’t have the cement pathway…

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A house up in the secluded jungle.  Might have been a rough ride but I’m so glad we went into the interior instead of forever hanging out on the edge of the island on the beach!

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And here is the fruits of our labor- it took an hour to go maybe 10km and 419 steps to go down the steep mountain to the water (yes, I counted, I had nothing better to do going back up) and we got to Mango Bay- one of the loveliest, most secluded beaches on the island.  Incidentally, also where Judit and I did our first confined water dive, I must say it’s a bit easier to reach by boat… The fish here are incredible though, just watching the top of the water yields schools of them from sardine-sized damselfish to baby barrracuda.

Mango Bay also has nothing but an isolated resort with bungalows, which can’t be cheap but is a place I fantasize about staying at if I ever make it back here.  Of course, by then I’m sure Mango Bay will be worse than Chaweng beach on Ko Samui, so I’m glad I got to see it now when it was ours alone!

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Sairee Beach at sunset.  Because no day exploring beaches is complete without a great sunset.

And while not a member of the motorcycle gang because he was busy with his diving course but certainly a great guy, meet Adrian from Switzerland-

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We met Adrian at the Buddha View bar a few nights ago, where he was staring longingly at my dinner leftovers because as a guy he is always hungry.*  The three of us have subsequently spent every night hanging out together talking about various things, though I give him a hard time occasionally-

“Adrian, is it true that the Swiss have no sense of humor?”

“No.” (Delivered in a flat voice without further elaboration.)

Adrian also is one of those people who seems to know how to use my camera better than me- a depressing thing considering I’ve owned it for two years- so he got me this great shot of the fire dancers on the beach last night:

img_3665Not to run too all over the page, but the few firedancers I’ve talked to have to be some of the most interesting.  It turns out Thailand is similar to the United States in that they have a large illegal immigrant population doing jobs the Thai don’t want, but here instead of Hispanics the immigrants are from Burma.  The firedancers are from there- they drive the boats by day, practicing while the divers are underwater, and by night do firedancing in hopes to get a few extra baht through tips.

And that is how things stand.  Tomorrow we are ending the Ko Tao beach bum life and heading up to Bangkok, as Judit has a plane to catch in a few days and we haven’t been there yet.  Cheers!

*Because people are going to wonder after the drug reference, that’s only hookah you see in the pipe.  I’m not a fan beyond a few puffs as I don’t smoke, but I am so in the minority on this around here you wouldn’t believe it if you are from the United States.

A Day at Buddha View

Every day we’ve woken up around 7 or 8 in the morning due to class, a dive, or a particularly important football game.  It is just any other day at Buddha View, and the first dive boat goes out at 730am so everyone is up early!

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In a place like this, of course, everything is defined by the dives- talk revolves around how many you’ve done or what you saw on the last one above anything else, second place being discussion of travel plans and swapping tips on this.  What else do you expect at a dive resort?

The first time Judit and I got onto the dive boat was yesterday, though it seems an age ago. (I’ve noticed that’s one interesting thing about travel- how if you have been even a day somewhere it feels like you’ve been there your entire life.) The first day is class and doing stuff in the pool, the second day is doing things in confined water (and more class- boo!), and the last two days are dives up to 18 meters.  After that, we’re certified divers free to dive anywhere in the world!

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A picture of us starting off the swimming test before our first dive in the ocean- two times around the dive boat and ten minutes treading water.  There was a strong current, so the swimming was a bit of a struggle towards the end…

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In dive gear!  The first time you put it on it’s surprisingly heavy (you don’t notice in the water of course) but you get pretty used to it.  Actually one of the most impressive things to me about diving is how quickly you get used to it in general- the first time you breathe underwater your throat is soon aching from the dry air (you don’t want any moisture in your tank of course), you can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic breathing underwater, and you go up and down by controlling your breath which is just hard until you get the hang of things.  But you do- I can even clean water out of my mask when it starts filling up, which will impress anyone who remembers how scared I was until much younger getting my eyes wet while swimming!

And diving itself, of course, is fun, but I don’t have pictures of the incredible fish down there as I’m not equiped.  But I’m working on it… There are two dives in the morning session as well as two in the evening (you only do one unless you’re a crazed divemaster or some such), after which one gets home at noon or 5pm respectively.  Just in time for a cold shower as there’s no hot water, another thing I’m impressed that I can handle though I won’t pretend there are no curse words uttered the first time you go under.  You know your life has taken an odd turn where things like a hot water shower or a flush toilet seem like luxury items (as we have the ‘fill the bucket with water and pour it in’ kind).

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Anyway, by evening when one comes back everyone is starved so it’s time for the barbecue- what you see here plus some normal dishes that change every night.  All very cheap and tasty…

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As this pup can attest, who has an uncanny habit of knowing who just filled their plate.  This one’s name is Molly, one of the dive dogs and undeniably the cutest.

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And once that’s done it’s time to head to the beach bar, where beer is 60 baht ($1.70), buckets of Thai rum+ mixer are 250 baht ($7.50) and where, obviously, everyone has a good time!  I also like this bar because they overwhelmingly play classics, singing about brown eyed girls and if money can buy you love and if music can save your mortal soul.  I might be a traitor to my generation but most of the typical bar music I hear is crap, so this is a nice change of pace!

As for the people in the bar, well, I confess I’ve started calling a lot of them Lotus Eaters in my mind. (No, I am not explaining that one as I feel you should get it.) Lots of people have come into this tropical paradise intending to stay a few days but never leaving for weeks or months, and the longer you stay often correlates with the interesting conversation level.  Ok, so I shouldn’t be surprised that there are beach bums in Thailand (shocker!) and I can understand why someone would choose Ko Tao to do this, but there we are.

img_3641And last but not least, I am cheating- this picture is not from very late last night but rather very, very early this morning!  I got up at 6am to watch the Steelers win the Super Bowl today, and must mention how odd this is to do internationally.  Most notably there are no commercials so you just stare at the empty field instead (I was so bored I had to get my book), and they keep telling you helpful websites where you can go and learn how to play American football.  Oh, and the halftime/ end of game commentators speak in Thai, leading to my wondering just how difficult it must be to become a Thai football commentator.  Can’t be much of a market don’t you think?

So there it is- a day at a Ko Tao dive resort.  I must say it’s very fun, and hard to believe tomorrow is our last day!  We are considering staying on a few days longer once our course is done, to which the Lotus Eaters have been shouting “aha, you too!!!” but I don’t think I could be one of them.  Amazing as Ko Tao is, I can’t help but wonder about what the rest of the world is like out there!