Friday, March 23, 2012

Mai Thai Paradise: Beach Bummin'

After a week long hiatus from the blogging world, here is the last installment regarding my trip to Thailand.

Phuket and Kho Phi Phi
Following our "adventurous" time in Bangkok, we jumped on an overnight train and headed towards Phuket, an island in southern Thailand that is a popular tourist destination for people that head to Thailand. The train ride was pretty comfortable. Even though we didn't get a sleeper car, the seats were comfortable, there was a fan and the windows were open, creating a nice breeze that made it pretty suitable for sleeping. We rolled into Surat Thani around 7:00 am and changed to a bus. This was one of the most interesting bus rides that I have ever been on.

As we boarded the bus, we quickly realized that there are not enough seats for all 6 of us. It turned out Meg, Mitch, and Jay were able to grab seats, while Steve, Trav, and I had to stand in the aisles. This quickly led to us sitting in the aisles...that is before MORE people got on the bus. Apparently the bus just stops for random people along the side of the road as well. In the end, I ended up going all the way to the back of the bus and just laying down in the aisle. It actually wasn't too bad and I managed to get some sleep, despite the squealing noises of the engine and the random kicks of people using the restroom.

The train...not exactly the ICE trains in Germany...

My view from the aisle on the bus
Before we even reached Phuket, we switched from the bus to a 10-person van that was headed to Patong Beach, the location of our hostel/guesthouse. In the van, we met this guy from Ireland named Ben. He was down in Phuket to get his TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) license so that he could go to Cambodia and teach English there. We struck up some friendly conversation in the van during our ride to our guesthouse, Sweet Home. We got dropped off at the guesthouse, checked in, and moved our stuff into our rooms. Then we headed to the beach, which was only about a 5 minute walk from where we were staying.

Yum Yum Yum!
The beach was nice - nothing too special to be impressed about. The water wasn't as clear as one would like but boy was it warm! It was so warm that even when you got out of the water you weren't cold. We spent about 3-4 hours at the beach, then packed up and headed back to the guesthouse to get ready to go out that night. We ate at this restaurant that had fresh seafood (fish, crabs, lobsters, oysters, etc.) and you could choose what you wanted and how to cook it. I had the most wonderful crab EVER!

Following dinner, we ended up meeting back up with Ben and Trav, Mitch, Ben, and I headed out for a night out in Patong. It was interesting to say the least. The main street was blocked off to traffic, so people were just wondering the streets, going from bar/club to bar/club. There were tons of people out and about and it was just a really fun atmosphere.

The next day, we decided to check out a different beach, so we headed south about 5 miles to Hat Karon. This beach was MUCH better than Patong Beach! The sand was nicer, the water clearer, and there were less people. We settled into our beach chairs and enjoyed the glorious rays of the sun. I ended up going for a nice 2-3 km run along the water, which was very enjoyable and felt nice!

 That night, Meg, Trav, Mitch, Steve, and I headed down to Phuket Town to buy our bus/train/ferry tickets for our next stop. Steve and Jay were heading back up to Bangkok to fly back to Seoul, while Meg, Trav, Mitch, and I were heading to the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao for another week. After we purchased our tickets, we grabbed a bite to eat. We wanted to go out, but the entire town had pretty much shut down by 8 pm! So we just ended up heading back to our guesthouse, played some cards and called it a night.

On Tuesday, the six of us headed down to the port and boarded a boat bound for the island of Koh Phi Phi. This secluded island just off the coast of Phuket is breathtakingly beautiful! Sadly, due to the wacked ferry schedule, we were only able to spend about 4 hours on the island. However, it was 4 hours well spent lounging about on the sand, snorkeling in the crystal clear water, and soaking up the sun's fantastic warmth!

 We spent our last night in Patong out on the town with Ben and two other guys that we met at our guesthouse from England, Ben and Tom. We had a great last night out on the town, enjoying some drinks, laughs, and even a few encounters with some street animals!

Koh Phangan
The next day, Trav, Meg, Mitch, and I were picked up at our guesthouse around 8:00 am and taken to the bus station for our bus/ferry combination to Koh Phangan, the second in a series of three islands located in the Gulf of Thailand. The bus ride was extremely long (about 7 hours) and when added to the 3 hour ferry ride, we were some pretty pooped and tired travelers when we finally reached our bungalow that night. We grabbed some food at the restaurant down by the beach, played some cards and then turned in for the night.

The next morning (Thursday), we rented some motorbikes and set off to explore the island. This was the first time that I had ever been on a motorbike and after a few near accidents (in the presence of the bungalow staff nonetheless), I got the hang of the bike and had a really awesome time riding/driving around the island. The only thing that took a getting used to was the fact that they drive on the left side of the road in Thailand. Every time that we pulled out onto the road, someone was always yelling "LEFT!!" as a friendly reminder to avoid a devastating and gruesome head on collision with on-coming traffic.

Glorious Messages!
While on Koh Phangan, we visited three different beach. Each beach was equally fantastic and offered something a little bit different. The first beach, coconut beach was on the north side of the island and was super relaxing. I got my first Thai massage and it was heavenly! Best hour of my life! The next beach near Haad Mae Haad was really cool because there was a small island just off the coast that was connected to the island by a sand barge. During low tide, you could actually walk out to the island! Pretty sweet! The last beach that we went to, Bottle Beach, was the most secluded and glorious beach of them all. This beach could only be reached by a long-tail boat and was well worth the ride/price! All in all, Koh Phangan had the most amazing beaches in Thailand! Hands down!
Boat ride back from Bottle Beach

Coconut Beach
 The nightlife on Koh Phangan blew the other experiences out of the water! One night, we headed to Haad Rin, one of the main cities on the island and were treated to this amazing fire show! Along the way, we met to 18-year-olds from Australia, Mason and Amber, and ended up hanging out with them for the course of the night. Back to the fire show...

    We stumbled upon this bar that was set up on the beach and were instantly drawn here due to the fire spinners that were out front on the sand doing their thing! It was super impressive! Fire sticks, fire balls and chains, tossing fire back and forth across the beach - you name it, they did it! Even the female bar tender got into the act and she was pretty good!

The beach at Haad Mae Haad with the island
Now the real fun began when they brought out the jump rope - and set it on fire! They started swinging it in a circular motion and I was instantly drawn in!        Mason and I instantly jumped in and actually did pretty well! I ended up jumping with fire 3 or 4 times and managed to come away with only a very tiny scar on my foot. Not too shabby! Once they retired the jump rope, the next attraction to make an appearance was a ring of fire! Needless to say, I did a few jumps through that as well, unharmed and loving life! The rest of the night was spent dancing on the beach, running into the gulf, and enjoying the company of new friends in near perfect conditions! By far the best night out of the trip!
Mitch's camera tricks caught this awesome picture!
Here I am jump roping!

 Another night, we decided to check out some of Thailand's official sport - Muay Thai. This spectator sport is a mixture of MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting and kick boxing. It was my first experience with this type of activity and I surprisingly really enjoyed it. We were treated to 7 different bouts, including one all female round. The entire event was a really neat look into the sporting world of Thailand. Watching the Thai supporters cheer for their guy was really invigorating and added to the excitement and the buzz in the air.

Muay Thai Boxing
Our last night in Koh Phangan was spent in the jungle at a Jungle Extravaganza. We hailed a truck-taxi, which took us deep into the jungle and dropped us off. Black lights, lasers, and loud music greeted us as we entered the party area. We got there pretty early, so it was very dead upon arrival, but over time more people showed up. Sadly, we were pretty burnt out from the activities of the day and week and ended up heading home and calling it a night fairly early. Despite the early exit, I can now say that I have partied on a beach, in a jungle, and (safely) with fire! Check. Check. Check.

Koh Tao

The last stop of our adventure through paradise took us to the island of Koh Tao. This island is renowned for it's amazing snorkeling and diving opportunities and it did not disappoint. We spent most of our time here either on the beach or in the water. We even took part in a day long snorkel trip that took around the island to five different dive spots. Each spot had it's own special feature. My favorite was definitely Shark Bay - aptly named due to all the black-finned sharks in the area! Swimming with sharks - check!

Instead of write about Koh Tao, I'll just let the following pictures do the talking for me...
View of Koh Nangyuan, just off the coast of Koh Tao
Swimming with the fishes!
Some of Mitch's underwater camera mastery!

 After 13 glorious days in paradise, it was time to head back to Bangkok. We took an overnight ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, then a bus back to Bangkok. Our flight didn't leave the airport until 1 AM, so we spent some time in Bangkok, doing some last minute shopping and Baht spending. We made it safely back to Seoul, passports and belongings all in tact and accounted for. All in all, it was an amazing trip and really makes me look forward to wherever I may land this summer for vacation.

Early favorites - Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia (or maybe all three!)

Finally, a belated Happy St. Patty's Day to all everyone! Seoul had a pretty fun Irish festival that included live bands and lots of people. I leave you with a video clip from that experience!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mai Thai Paradise: From Tree Top To Tree Top

Our first full day in Thailand was spent outside of Bangkok, away from the scams, smog and fumes. The 6 of us (Steve, Jay, Travis, Meg, Mitch, myself) all piled into a 10-passenger van at 6:30 in the morning and headed out to the wild. The day was spent out in the jungle!

The hour and a half ride took us through some shanty towns and run down areas of both Bangkok and the Thailand countryside. Upon arrival at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo, those images were soon replaced with luscious green trees, stands selling hundreds of bananas and other foods, and the smell of nature and living things. It was a welcome reprieve from the concrete jungle we had all come to know as Seoul.

The first thing on the agenda was breakfast. Now this was not your ordinary, Friday morning breakfast. While the meal was very western (fried eggs, toast, ham, bacon, sausage, butter/jam, tea/coffee, orange juice), the special guest was anything but. That's right folks - we ate our breakfast in the presence of Lisa the Orangutan! Granted, she didn't sit at our table and eat WITH us, but she was about 6 feet away, on her little perch, chowing down on coconuts, bananas, a cup of yogurt (she got every last big mind you!), and some other fruits that are native to Thailand. We were so enamored with her that we forgot about our own breakfast, leaving to become a massive smorgasbord for the resident flies. But we didn't care! How often do you get to be THIS close to an orangutan??

Following our delicious and extraordinary breakfast experience, we piled back into our van and headed to our next stop - the Flight of the Gibbons, aka jungle zip-lining!! Now this was not my first time zipping through the trees. My first time was when I was in Costa Rica, which followed an amazing horseback ride through the jungle. I also went zip-lining while I was in Switzerland over the 4th of July two summers ago. That was more of an ropes course/zip-line combo, but it still counts. Needless to say, I was super pumped to add Thailand to my list.

After getting all geared up, we met our guides, Peter Pan and Mr. Tiki. Awesome names. Awesome guides. We made our way up into the jungle a bit and then came up Platform #1. 24 platforms later we had zipped our way through the trees, seen a live monkey, and had an absolute amazing time doing it. There were some breathtaking views of the tree tops and the mountains surrounding us. Heck, I had such a great time that I even bought a clock with my picture on it!

Geared up and ready to go!
The group!

After coming out of the trees, we headed back to base camp and had a magnificent lunch! Fresh fruit, rice and steamed vegetables, and an amazing chicken soup! It was such an awesome break from Korean food. Following lunch, we headed out to ride some elephants. We took a nice, leisurely stroll up a hill, around a bend, and back to the beginning. The ride was slow and methodical, but not much else is to be expected from an elephant. The elephant that Mitch and I were on kept trying to pass Jay and Steve's (more like push it along the way - literally!), but to no avail. It still was a cool little journey. Check that "To-Do" off the list!

We then headed off to a couple of shows - a bird show and a mammal/tiger show. Prior to the tiger show, we had some time to walk through Den of Cats. Lions, Tigers, and Jaguars! Oh My! There were about 4 different kinds of tigers. I also learned that Siberian tigers are not just white! Did anyone else know this? Surprise of the day! During the tiger show, the heavens opened up and rain descended upon us. Luckily we were under an awning, so we didn't get TOO wet, but this also meant that we weren't able to feed the giraffes, hippos, and rhinos. This was a bit of a bummer, but still didn't put too much of a damper on the entire trip!

We all piled back into the van, exhausted, but fully satisfied with our day in the jungle. It was so great to be back out in nature, breathing in fresh air, and interacting with non-human beings. Hello Thailand!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mai Thai Paradise: Scam Artistry 101

Midwestern people are known for the kindness and honesty. Growing up in this environment has helped to shape me and who I am today. However, for one afternoon in Bangkok, these morals failed myself and my friends.

Scam Attempt #1: Tuk Tuk drivers (small, open air taxis that line the streets of Bangkok) are known for their attempts at scamming and screwing over foreigners. Meg, Travis, Mitch, Steve, and I wanted to go to the Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha and hailed a Tuk Tuk to take us there. Mitch and I shared one, while the other three piled into the tuk tuk in front of us. Before we left, their driver started showing them pamphlets and saying that he had to make a 5-minute pit stop before we could go to the Palace for gas. Not so much.

We ended up at a shop that sells suits. The driver ushered us all inside (though I was very reluctant and had no desire whatsoever to go in) and we left immediately, demanding that they take us to the Palace and no more detours. We got back into our tuk tuks and ended up at a restaurant that was also selling jewelry. This was the last straw. We piled out of the tuk tuk and went to go and find a different way to get to the Palace. Scam avoided - for now.

Tuk Tuk's waiting for customers

Scam Attempt #2: Following the disaster of our first attempt to get to the palace, we decided that we wanted to take a regular taxi there. Thankfully, this taxi used his meter (the only taxi driver that did this the entire trip) and got us to the palace in a decent amount of time. Once we embarked from the cab, we were approached by a guy dressed in a really nice suit that spoke amazing English, telling us that the palace was closed for 2 hours in respect of a Buddhist ceremony. Naive Moment #1: There were loads of people entering and leaving the palace as we were being told this, signaling that the palace was obviously open.

In order to pass the time, the man suggested that we go and visit some other sites around Bangkok, in which he would get us a tuk tuk that would stay with us the entire time and then bring us back to the Palace. We would each pay 20 baht (about 75 cents) for this. Seems like a good deal, right? So, being the trusting Midwesterners that we all are, we said sure. We got into a tuk tuk, who took us to a monument of a massive Buddha, which actually turned out to be pretty cool. We purchased some birds to set free that were supposed to bring good luck, and then headed back to find our tuk tuk driver.

As we returned to the parking lot, we discovered that our tuk tuk driver was no where to be found. It turned out that he was actually playing "hide and seek" with us. Once we finally found him, he would run towards another tuk tuk driver and hide behind them, acting like he didn't see us. When we finally cornered him, he led us to what we thought was going to be our tuk tuk. Turned out that it was little stone statues of the signs of the zodiac. While we were looking at these, our driver disappeared again. Naive Moment #2 - instead of thinking this through and trying to find another tuk tuk driver, we hunted him down once again.

Finally finding him for a third time, he led us to the tuk tuk, then stated that he needed to go to the bathroom before we took off. Almost immediately, another guy came over and started talking to us in near perfect English. He asked where we were going and found out that we were heading to Phuket. He inquired about our accommodations and when we told him that we didn't have any at the moment, he freaked out! He told us this sob story that he had just returned from Phuket and had to sleep in his car for two days because everything was booked. Naive Moment #3 - Before realizing that Phuket was an island, I was under the impression that it was just the name of the city we were going to. Chalk one up to lack of research and preparedness.

Upon seeing the distressed looks on our faces, he told us a travel agency that would help us find accommodations for very little. They didn't work for the government, meaning that they weren't trying to make a commission. We were all intrigued and thought about telling our tuk tuk driver to take us there. While we were contemplating this, our driver returned and started up the tuk tuk. Before we pulled out of the parking lot, the guy that we were talking mumbled something to the driver in Thai. Naive Moment #4 - Obviously they were working together and the guy was telling our driver "we got them" or something along those lines.

We left the big Buddha statue and headed back out into the streets of Bangkok. After driving for what seemed like an eternity (and making a U-turn into oncoming traffic), we ended up at the travel agency! Miracle! We head inside and are met by a "travel agent" that helps us find some accommodations in Phuket, Kho Phangan, and Kho Tao, the next three places that were were set to visit. He was a super friendly guy and totally played on the fact that we were all young, college aged students by saying that he was a bit hung over from drinking the night before. Bait and catch! Native Moment #5 - The guy just chose the places for us. He never asked where we wanted to stay or any options that we could chose from.

With our spirits "lifted," we got back into our tuk tuk and headed back to the Grand Palace. We all felt amazing that we now had places to stay and didn't have to sleep on the beach. We arrived back at the Palace and went inside. Mitch and I actually went through the palace area, while Meg, Travis, and Steve waited outside. We saw the Emerald Buddha, which was pretty spectacular and took in all the sights that the palace had to offer. It was magnificent and definitely put Korean and Japanese temples to shame.

Inside the Palace complex

The Emerald Buddha - we weren't allowed to take photos inside the building, so this is the best i could do

The building that the Buddha was housed in
It wasn't until about two days later, when we were on the train down to Phuket, that I put two and two together. The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized how convenient it was that the guy came to talk to us at the Buddha statue as soon as our driver left for the restroom. It was also pretty convenient that he knew to take us to the travel agent without us actually saying anything to him. I delivered this analysis to the others and we all agreed: we had been taken for a ride and fell for it.

What finally confirmed it for us was the fact that in the Thailand book that Travis had purchased, there was a blurb about scam artists at the Grand Palace, dressed in really nice, expensive looking suits, telling visitors that the Palace was closed for 2 hours (sound familiar??). It warned against falling for this scam and avoiding them at all costs. Fail.

However, it wasn't all bad. The places that we booked actually did exist, which was a blessing. We didn't have to spend multiple hours wondering the streets trying to find a place to stay when we arrived. The only real harm that happened was that we definitely overpaid for our accommodations. We're pretty sure that the places we stayed were not in on the scam, but the other four people (guy at Palace, tuk tuk driver, guy at Buddha statue, and travel agent) all were. That's also another reason why our tuk tuk ride was so cheap. The driver was going to be getting a nice cut of the profits in the end.

I've always considered myself to be a very conscious and alert traveler, always doing my best to avoid getting scammed or put into awkward situations. On this day, we avoided one scam while falling right into another. Needless to say, lesson learned. And as we put it the rest of the trip, "It is what it is - Learn and move on!" 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mai Thai Paradise: Overview

I made it back to Seoul, safe and sound and in one piece.
2 weeks of bliss have come and gone.
Now back to the grind of daily life in Seoul.

However, before I let my memories of Thailand slip away into oblivion, I might as well chronicle the adventure for all of you to enjoy as well. I'm going to do this is a series of posts so as not to bore/make you go blind by trying to fit the entire 2 weeks into one post. To start things off, here are the Top 10 ideas/lessons/thoughts that I took away from my time in Thailand.

10. The country of Thailand is absolutely gorgeous! Mountains, rain forests, beaches - it pretty much has it all.

9. Thailand loves their king! Bhumibol Adulyadej (a.k.a. Rama IX) has been emperor of Thailand since 1946! He is the longest-serving current head of state in the world and helped with Thailand's transition to democracy. It's no wonder the people of Thailand absolutely love and adore him! His picture is literally everywhere in the country. On huge banners lining the streets. On the overpasses. Calendars. Keychains. Postcards. You name it - his face is bound to be there!

8. Driving in Bangkok is mad! Between the tuk tuks, taxis, motorbikes, cars, cargo trucks, and other modes of transportation that people are brave enough to use, it's an absolute mad house! Throw in the fact that traffic signals and normal driving courtesy are mainly ignored and you have the recipe for one crazy time on the roadways!

7. Everyone drives on the left hand side of the road, similar to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and England. That took getting used to!

6. Public transportation can be a huge headache and hassle. It was super difficult to try and find a taxi that would use their meter, despite the fact that each taxi was equipped with one. Here in Seoul, you always pay by the meter and never negotiate a price. Thailand is a totally different ballgame. It gets frustrating and old real quick!

5. Scams, scams, scams! I will devote an entire post to this, but scams are everywhere you look, especially in Bangkok. More on this in the upcoming days.

4. Thai food is absolutely amazing! Pad thai is by far one of God's many gifts to mankind! Not only is it super cheap, it's also super delicious! When trying to find a place to eat, we would immediately look at how much the pad thai cost and then go from there.

3. Thailand has some of the most beautiful beaches and water that I have ever seen. The islands in the Gulf of Thailand (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao) all offered awesome opportunities to lay out, catch some rays, and do some amazing snorkeling.

2. Thailand is definitely still a developing country. Despite all that the emperor has done for his country over the past 50+ years, there is still a long way to go. Clumps of shanties line the roads on the outskirts of Bangkok and other major cities. Some children are forced to sell goods on the streets and beaches. The water is not safe to drink. There are plumbing issues. Despite all the beauty that the country has to offer, that alone cannot cover up the problems that they are facing still today.

1. Muay Thai is the spot of choice! Muay Thai is a form of kick boxing that is the national spot of Thailand. Some children start training when they are as young as 5 years old! It's the equivalent of tee-ball or pee-wee soccer leagues, except substitute the balls and bats for gloves and a boxing ring. The passion and enthusiasm that the Thai people show for this sport was absolutely amazing!

There's a little preview into my trip through part of SE Asia. Stay tuned for future installments!!