Bad Weather? Phuket, We’ll Go Anyway.

beachcollage.jpegOur flight to Phuket landed just after midnight, but we had found a place just a few minutes away from the airport. There was a guy standing there holding a sign with our names on it — just like in the movies! We arrived at the hotel, barely knowing what our surroundings looked like, and passed out. We awoke to a beautiful day, so we hopped in our suits and ran over to the beach. Gorgeous waters, bright sun… amazing.

IMG_3038We managed to soak up a few rays, but we knew this wasn’t where we were supposed to stay. We packed up and took a cab to Phuket Town, our jumping off point to get to Ko Phi Phi, one of those glorious islands you see in all the pictures you search for on Google while at work and dreaming of a vacation.

After a fairly uneventful stay in sleepy Phuket Town (it is the off season, after all), we experienced plenty of excitement on the ferry over to Ko Phi Phi. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the water was a shocking palette of blues and greens. The boat was crowded with all sorts of people from all over. At one point, we found ourselves tripping over a bunch of backpackers who had managed to position themselves in the most inconvenient spot. At first we were a little annoyed, then one of them pulled out a guitar and started playing songs by The Lumineers, which made everything better. It was the perfect soundtrack for the trip.

photo (5)The pier at Ko Phi Phi was bustling, and we elbowed our way into the little town. (Having a huge backpack really comes in handy when you’re fighting for personal space.) The town is mostly made up of beachfront bars, souvenir shops, tattoo and piercing places, and people selling day trip packages to tourists.  We eventually made it to our hotel and high-fived when we saw the view from our balcony. The view was so picturesque, it didn’t seem like there was any reason to leave the comfy lounge chairs that were set up… but we wanted to explore.

Our Let’s Go Thailand guide mentioned a hike that promised “stellar” views. What it didn’t mention was how long the hike was, or that getting there wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. The viewpoint was incredibly scenic and ended up being kind of worth it. It was, however, extremely windy at the top. Want to see how windy it was? Look what the Google Machine made for us!

We ended the day with a lovely dinner on the beach, complete with some fruity cocktails.

The next morning we awoke to some overcast weather. Up until that point, we had been pretty lucky, considering it’s the rainy season in Thailand. (But we really can’t complain because we got so lucky for the wedding.) We had big plans to visit Phi Phi Ley, a smaller island that’s home to Maya Beach (featured in one of Leo’s not-so-great movies, The Beach), so we hired a longboat to take us around.

The weather seemed to be getting a little bit worse, and the waves were… pretty impressive. We didn’t end up going to the beach because we had to swim to it from the boat and the water seemed a little treacherous. Plus, we watched as a bunch of tourists were paralyzed with fear as they prepared to climb down the rope ladder and then swim back to their own longboat. Our driver indicated that we had made the right choice, and we weren’t too upset as we had seen the beach on the ferry ride in. We did make it to another beach on the island and then swam in one of the bays, but we were thankful to get back on solid ground.

We did spend some time at the beach, but the weather just didn’t feel like cooperating with our plans to return to the States bronzed and beautiful. Most of our sun came from that first morning and our ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi. And this happened to poor Mike:

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We had big hopes that the weather would be a little better for our next destination, Ao Nang beach.

K+M

 

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

Elephants. Elephants. ELEPHANTS, YOU GUYS.

Sorry for the delayed post! We’ve been without significant interwebz time for a bit, island hopping and whatnot. (We know, we know.) So, to pick up where things left off…

We were picked up in the morning with our hangovers from the previous evening in tow. It was a long and bumpy bus ride, but we felt alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic by the time we arrived at Elephant Nature Park, a refuge for rescued domestic elephants.

Elephants have played a large (ha) role in Thailand’s development as a nation, aiding in the construction of its infrastructure and most recently in the logging industry, which is now illegal. While these animals should be revered, domesticated elephants endure the worst kinds of cruelty. In addition to physical abuse, the elephants in shows and at elephant ride parks also suffer injuries from the weight of the riders and neglect from their caretakers. Lek Chailert founded the Elephant Nature Park in the ’90s and has since grown the organization, housing around 35 injured and retired elephants and creating a safe space for them to roam. They range in age from just a few months (babies!) to almost 80 years old… and they are adorable. See?

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So, you might ask, what makes this place better than the rest? These elephants are already domesticated, so most of them cannot be released back into the wild. There are no performances, no tricks that the elephants must perform. If they want food, we feed them. And, with a few exceptions (like being led to the shore for a bath), they roam freely. If they don’t feel like being around humans, they don’t have to be.

But let’s get to the fun stuff — like when we met the elephants. When we first approached them to feed them, we were slightly intimidated. They are, after all, pretty enormous. They loved the bananas, pineapple, and watermelon we were giving them, deftly taking the fruit with their trunks and then tossing it into their mouths.

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After our first encounter, we walked around the park some more to see the elephants in action. There were two babies at the park (and they didn’t know who the father was for one of them… SCANDAL). Elephants raise their young as a community, and they are incredibly protective. We saw this in action as one of the babies took a bit of a spill after playing on a log and then all the other elephants rushed over to comfort and provide cover for it. Mike actually caught it on video, as Kathleen freaked out because it was just like she had seen on all of the nature shows on PBS:

We then helped bathe the elephants, which they actually seemed to enjoy! And just a friendly warning: Their ears move a lot and they might accidentally smack you in the face if you aren’t paying attention.

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Because these elephants were domestic, they were completely friendly and let us scrub them and pet their trunks. One of our favorite moments happened when we sauntered up to an elephant hoping for a good picture to put on this little bloggy. The elephant turned out to be a bit of a photo hog…

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We obviously loved the experience and would recommend the Elephant Nature Park to any and all who visit Chiang Mai. And while we wanted to stay for a while longer, we knew we needed to leave because part two — the beachy part of the vacation — was about to begin. We took a tuk-tuk to the airport and, in a moment of weakness, ate at the McDonald’s in the food court. To be fair, our only other option was a Burger King, but we were actually feeling a little noodled out anyway.

After consuming enough sodium for the rest of the week, we hopped on our 10:45 p.m. flight to Phuket, which we learned is pronounced “Poo-ket.” You learn something new every day, no?

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

We Learn to Cook… Chiang Mai, Oh, My.

We were actually a little sad to leave our hostel in Siem Reap — the people were amazing and the bohemian vibe made us feel pretty cool, like those real hardcore backpackers. But as we hopped in the tuk-tuk to go to the airport (no complicated border crossings this time), we were pretty excited to head back to Thailand and get to Chiang Mai.

IMG_2284The flight was only about an hour, and we landed with around five hours before our overnight train. We went straight to the train station to ensure we didn’t miss anything, but soon realized that it wasn’t really a place we wanted to hang out. We should have just eaten at the airport because it’s a well-documented fact: There is never good food around train stations. After a failed lunch at the world’s worst chain (so bad we blacked out the experience and the name of the place), we ended up at a 7-11. Oh, thank heaven. Because we were maybe still feeling more badass than we really are (thanks to the hostel), we purchased a bunch of crazy snacks. The chip flavors are RIDICULOUS. No sour cream and onion or regular barbecue for the Thai — they had flavors like “salmon with dill,” “hot chili squid,” and, our favorite,”lobster hot plate.” We haven’t yet cracked open the lobster chips (GET IT!?)… but we’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

We had second-class sleeper car tickets this time (oh yeah, moving on up) and our seats were pretty awesome and spacious. And, when we were ready to really relax, the seats were converted into bunk beds. Wild. We hung out on the bottom bunk, and the curtains made it feel like a fort. Not a bad way to spend an evening. Plus, when we woke up, we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city that’s located in the northern region of the country.

IMG_2890We found a breakfast place that served banana pancakes before checking out our new hostel. Thank god for the full breakfast, because our hostel was the worst. It felt like the Von Trapp family home… pre-Maria, of course. There were just so many rules and so many signs telling us to be quiet. We had to get out of there, so we spent most of the first day just checking out the old city, which lies within a moat. The day was pretty uneventful, but something major did happen… we had our first taste of real, authentic, pad Thai. We know it’s terrible, but we kind of prefer the pad Thai at our local takeout joint in DC. But really, this was only the first try. There’s more out there.

The next day included an activity that we had both really been looking forward to — our cooking class!

A group of us all squished into a van and headed out with the Thai Farm Cooking School. Right away, we loved our guide/instructor, Embee, a lovely woman with an inimitable laugh and a wicked sense of humor. The first stop was the market, where we learned all about the ingredients we would be using and ogled at some that we were thankful to not be needing.

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After the market, we went to the cooking school’s organic farm and learned more about the herbs and spices we’d be using. Mike, in a display of bravado and upon Embee’s urging, took a bite of a raw Thai chili and spent the next 90 minutes extinguishing the fire in his mouth and regaining the feeling in his lips.

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There were many more chilies to be tried, as we learned how to make different soups, green and red curries with chicken, sweet and sour chicken, our very own pad Thai, and finished up with a mango sticky rice dessert. The class was nothing but good times and giggles, and we ended up meeting a fantastic British couple — Matt and Anouska —  who invited us out for drinks later that evening.

Despite some rain, we had a ridiculously fun time. Anouska had found a bar that was off the beaten path of tourists and more for Thai twenty-somethings attending the local university.  When we first walked in, the live band was playing Thai pop songs. Maybe it was because we stuck out pretty badly, and maybe it was just fate, but the band switched to English songs and our evening really escalated. We heard a lot of Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, and Rihanna. The best though, was hearing Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” TWICE by two different bands. The second version was way better and we all got pretty into it. It was hard to tell if the singers actually knew the lyrics they were singing, or if they were just mimicking the sounds, but it didn’t matter.

Kathleen had made it perfectly clear that we turned into pumpkins at midnight (because we were being picked up at 8 a.m. the next morning to see the elephants), yet the hours flew by and we made it home — after a late-night trip to an aptly named burger joint called Mike’s — around 2:30. You know what? Maybe we actually are kind of badass.

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

Planes, Trains, and… Tuk-Tuks

We made it to Cambodia, but it’s been a long trip. We left Dulles at 12:30 on Thursday and arrived at our first real destination, Siem Reap, Cambodia early Saturday evening.

20130708-065550.jpgBelieve it or not, the 13-hour plane ride from Dulles to Tokyo was a piece of cake. Or, a better way to put it would be four glasses of champagne. We had a wonderful flight attendant who definitely spoiled us. Additionally, there were no fewer than 50 different movies to watch. We aren’t going to tell you which ones we viewed, because that would be embarrassing (mostly for Mike).

We had a three-hour layover in the Tokyo airport. Like mature adults, we giggled at some of the products being offered in the vending machines. Want to get a little wild? Try a Crunky ice cream bar. Feeling dehydrated? Replenish with a refreshing Pocari Sweat drink. We didn’t try the sushi, because airport sushi — even in Japan — seems sketchy everywhere.

The next leg of the trip was the six-hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. It was a little rougher than the 13-hour flight, maybe because there was no champagne involved, but also because we were starting to feel just a wee bit tired and our seats were uncomfortable. We landed in Bangkok at 10:30 p.m. local time. It was hard to justify getting a hotel room before our 5:55 a.m. train — and we’re clearly hardcore backpackers/world travelers — s0 we spent the first real night of our honeymoon sleeping in the airport. Ah, the romance!

20130708-065632.jpgWe were up and out the door by 4:15 a.m., but not after a quick trip to the Bucks. Not going to lie, their pastry selection is slightly better. We took a seat belt-less cab (with a driver who had a need for speed) to the train station, only to find a Dunkin’ Donuts. Fact: Thailand runs on Dunkin’.

We paid $1.60 per person for a third-class ticket (oh yeah) to Aranyapraythet, the jumping off point for those looking to cross the border into Cambodia. After a crowded, six-hour train ride, we avoided one visa scam and managed to get everything in order to cross over to Poipet. Once in Poipet, we took a shuttle to the bus and taxi station. We split a two-hour taxi ride with a mother/daughter duo from Ohio, who were fairly entertaining and had an interesting perspective on world travel. Of course, we ended up getting scammed at the end of the taxi ride. The driver had promised to drop us off at our hostel, but kicked us out at a hotel just after entering Siem Reap so the final leg of our trip was completed via tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are essentially motorcycles with little carts attached to back… so really safe, Mom.

When we finally arrived to our hostel, we had big plans to put our stuff down and go explore. But then we napped. And then it rained. The truth is that we were perfectly content staying at our hostel, HI Siem Reap. There’s a great vibe here, as well as a bar with $.75 draft beers. Life is good.

Sorry for a post mostly of travel logistics. It gets better, we promise!

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]