Road Trip to Siem Reap / Angkor Wat

For the second week of our Songkran Holiday from school we decided to take the less expensive route of road-trippin’ to Siem Reap rather than purchasing 4 flight tickets.  We were curious about how well our children would cope with the upcoming 4 hour ride to the border, 1 hour for customs, and the 2 hours by taxi to Siem Reap.  Either way we packed our things after two restful days from our previous trip and set out for Siem Reap early one Wednesday morning.  We left at 7:30AM from Rayong and were at Aranyaprathet (Thai-side of the border) around 11:00AM.

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We parked our car at a border parking lot and walked our way to the departure gate to be stamped out of Thailand.

Once stamped out you walk across a bridge in “no mans land” to the arrival gate into Cambodia.

As we walked across the bridge we were surrounded by beggars, peddlers, young children, and lots of people trying to offer their help.  We knew we had everything sorted already so we ignored the chatter and made our way through.  There are a few casinos between the two countries to gamble in should you choose to.   This was my first experience land-crossing into another country and it was surprisingly not too bad.  We had already purchased and printed e-Visas’ so I believe that helped a little.  We were able to pass through customs in about 45 minutes.

Once we walked out into Cambodia at Poi Pet (Cambodia-side of border), we were mobbed by countless men trying to offer us a taxi ride to Siem Reap.  We walked as far as we could before striking a deal with a driver.  Prices quoted ranged from $30-$50 and they were quick to drop the price.  We got our ride in a Lexus SUV for $30.  My first impression around the Cambodian border was the amount of trash on the sides of the road.  I also noticed that the majority of vehicles driven are either Toyotas’ or Lexus’.  I’m serious, like every car!  Our trip from Poi Pet to Siem Reap was about 2 hours.

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It was a very intense ride into Siem Reap, which seems to be common.  There is only a two lane highway into Siem Reap and it is consistently traveled by taxi drivers moving tourists back and forth.  Our driver would fly down the road, passing people when it seemed dangerous, honking the horn relentlessly, and “playing chicken” with cars and motorbikes countless times.  We even had some cattle stop us a few times.  Luckily, we made it safely into Siem Reap and checked in to our hotel, Sonalong Boutique Village.

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Sonalong Boutique was an awesome accommodation set in central Siem Reap but enough outside of everything to have some peace.  It was surrounded by lush, tropical gardens and included a very nice pool.

The hotel manager immediately greeted us, checked us in, gave us a welcome drink, reviewed a city map, and helped to line up a tuk-tuk driver for the next few days to help with our travels around the city.  We knew that if we purchased our 1-day ticket for Angkor Wat after 5pm, we could see the sunset that night and then continue to use the ticket the following full day.  So, we placed our bags in our room and had the manager arrange a driver to pick us up at 4:30pm to ensure we could get the tickets after 5pm.  First of all though, we had to get lunch.

The tuk-tuk driver took us to an awesome Mexican Restaurant called “Viva” in Central Siem Reap near Pub Street.  As we drove in to the city center it was obvious how much more tourism was present.

 

It was a variety of cultures all mixed together!  We saw Americans, Italians, French, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Khmer, Russian, and many more.  There were even some guys from near where we used live in Atlanta staying at our hotel!! Crazy.  Anyways, I digress.  For $4 our driver waited until we were done eating at the Mexican restaurant.

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Afterwards, he then returned us to Sonalong to get ready for our trip out to see the sunset.

At 4:30pm we left to see the sunset.  We first purchased tickets at the Angkor ticket center.

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We then headed to what I believe is called Phnom Bakheng Hill.   This is a giant ruin that is somewhat treacherous to climb in places but is a hot-spot for people looking to watch a sunset.

We scaled up to the top and wandered around.  I’ll admit it was frightening at times because there are no ledges or railings so I was concerned about my children getting too close to the edge.  There had to be 100-200 people all sitting on top of the structure with us.  After spending a little time there we returned to the hotel to catch some rest as we were having an early start to see more of the archeological park in the morning.

At 7:30AM on Thursday we hopped back in to our tuk-tuk and made our way to the first stop, Angkor Wat.  Although early in the morning it was extremely hot!  The tuk-tuk driver (“Top”) parked and we made our way under a lane of hanging ribbons and then onto a plastic floating bridge.

The bridge extends across the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.  This was by far the most populated ruin we visited during the day (for good reason).  Everything was amazingly impressive.  The details and imagery carved into the stones, the height of some of the structures, the shear ingenuity was astounding.  I’m told that Angkor Wat is also one of the main religious sites still in use.  Due to this there were many monks and people in prayer throughout.  Words and pictures can’t describe it.

Our second stop was Angkor Thom.  This ruin was not as well preserved but very detailed.  It was surrounded by vendors selling fruit shakes, coconuts, grilled meats, etc.  After walking up into Angkor Thom I was amazed a the detail.  There were smiling faces everywhere carved and sculpted into the walls!  Inside the temple you find yourself in a labyrinth of passageways.  The temple was swarming with people but we were still able to walk through corners, nooks, and crannies to find ourselves alone, only hearing faint sounds of others talking.  Although it was hot you could find cool pockets in the shady areas throughout the temple.  I kept wondering what it must have been like when it was new and fully functioning! Wow.  I believe this was my favorite temple of the three I saw that day.

Our final stop was Ta Prohm Temple, often called “Tomb Raider Temple” because of the film featuring Angelina Jolie.  This temple was the least preserved of the three.  There was loose stone everywhere.  Wooden supports were built to hold walls, ceilings, etc. that were leaning or sinking.  The most impressive site, which is also the most photographed, is the giant tree growing over and into the temple complex.  The roots are overtaking an entire corner of the structure and have wrapped beautifully around it.  We were met with lines of people looking to take their photo in front of this ancient amazing melding of nature and human ingenuity.

After seeing this temple it was about 2:30pm and we were hot and exhausted.  We decided to make out way back to town to grab some lunch.

Very hungry, we had our tuk-tuk driver stop at one of the many happy pizza joints in the city.  Essentially, you order a pizza and then you can choose to make it happy should you desire.  We made ours ‘happy”.  It was indeed happy so we made our way back to the room to relax by the pool and take a rest for a while.  Haha!

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The next two days of our trip were spent simply enjoying all that Siem Reap had to offer. There are so many little markets, places to eat, spots to drink (Pub Street), and sites to see that we roamed with leisure and truly relaxed.  I’ll say we don’t normally relax on trips, it’s usually GO GO GO.  It was nice.  I highly encourage anyone considering a trip to Siem Reap to go for it.  It’s a beautiful place with lots of history and an interesting assortment of people!

 

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Songkran in Hatyai and Koh Lipe

Once again we have approached the Songkran Holidays in Thailand.  This is essentially the spring break at our school, giving us two full weeks to travel.  We decided to make our way to the furthest southern parts of Thailand by flying in to Hatyai and then traveling to a small remote island located on the Andaman Sea called Koh Lipe.  This proved to be a fairly inexpensive and enjoyable holiday!

We flew out of Pattaya’s Utapao airport on a Wednesday afternoon and arrived in Hatyai around 6:30pm.

We checked into our hotel (Aloha Hatyai) located in Central Hatyai and were quite hungry so we walked outside in search of some food.  We often eat Thai food but were instead in search of something a little more Western like maybe some pizza, a sandwich, fish and chips, etc.  We walked around a few blocks only to find lots of Halal, Muslim, Malay, Thai, and Chinese foods but not what we were in search of.  We weren’t too keen on walking around much at night because of our slight paranoia due to the past turmoil that has occurred in Hatyai on occasion (look it up). We finally gave up and settled for a restaurant next to our hotel called Washington I believe.  This was a Chinese restaurant that was set up with banquet-style round tables each with their own lazy-suzan wheels in the center for sharing food.  There was also a revolving group of people who got up onto a stage in the corner to sing traditional Chinese karaoke songs. We got lots of stares and attention as we were the only western people in the place. At one point 7 or 8 servers gathered around our children, pinching their cheeks and rubbing their heads.  We got a quick dinner of stir-fried noodles and rice and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

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The next morning we were met in our hotel lobby by a gentleman from Dee Travels Hatyai to take us on a two hour shared-van ride west to Pak-Bara Pier.

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We left around 8:30AM and made our way towards Pak-Bara.  We had a brief scary moment along the way when we reached a police check-point.  The police let many cars go by but stopped our van and made us pull aside. He asked our driver to step outside and began talking to him.  Eventually he made the driver take a breath-a-lizer test.  Luckily the driver passed and we were on our way again but it was briefly scary.  It also made sense because we were driving during the first day of Song-kran and it is common to have many drunk drivers on the road.  By 11AM we arrived at Pak-Bara and walked towards the pier to check in.

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We boarded our large speedboat with about 30 others and departed for Koh Lipe at around 11:30AM.

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We arrived at Koh Lipe at about 1:00PM.  It was a beautiful island surrounded with soft white sand and clear, bluish water.  You could easily see the floor of the ocean from above in our boat.  Pockets of coral beds were everywhere.

We were dropped off at Pattaya Beach (there are three beaches; Pattaya, Sunrise, Sunset) and unloaded our bags to make way to our bungalow.  Pattaya Beach is the main beach that tourist are dropped off at so there are lots of long tail boats and speedboats parked out in the water at all times.  Also the beach has lots of people at most times of the day.

We checked in to a very chilled out, kind of hippie-style bungalow called Blue Tribes Resort.  We were given one of the best bungalows on the property which was literally steps from the water and had a wonderful view of the beach and ocean.

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Our only complaint eventually was that there was only two fans and no A/C which was difficult on the children at night, but not a deal breaker.  We placed buckets of ice in front of the fans at night to drop the temperature a little.

After checking in we walked a few meters from Blue Tribes to Walking Street which has lots of shops and restaurants.

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We had lunch at Elephant which is a very popular spot on the island. Great food!  Great ambiance!  Great music!

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We headed back to the bungalow to get some snorkel gear together and take a swim.  There were many beautiful multicolored fish and coral that could easily be seen through the ultra-clear water.  We did this for about an hour and then took a break from the sun inside the bungalow until dinner time.

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We found dinner at a place a couple of buildings up from Elephant called The Box which had Spanish tapas, good wine, pasta, and burgers.  Our waitress there had just moved to Koh Lipe the week prior from Spain.  She encouraged us to check out both Sunrise and Sunset Beach.  As it got darker it was time to head back to the bungalow to settle the kids down.  Blue Tribes was set up with beach mats out front in preparation of viewing the fire show happening in a few hours.  We hung out long enough to watch the show before crashing out for the night.

The next morning we took a tuk-tuk to the other side of the island on Sunrise Beach, next to the Andaman Resort (the tuk-tuk driver insisted it was the best view).  We immediately noticed how much less crowded this beach was.  It also sit closer to the mountains of a nearby island, Koh Adang.  We felt as if we had the beach all to ourselves.

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There none of the long tail boats or speedboats like on the Pattaya Beach side.  It was tranquil.  After about an hour we decided to make our way back towards Blue Tribes on the other side of the island to get our water guns, etc. for the Songkran festivities going on off of Walking Street.  After doing so we made our way up Walking Street greeted by the relentless onslaught of people dousing you with ice water, spraying you with supersoaker water guns, or simply smearing talcum paste on your face screaming, “Happy New Year, Happy Songkran!”  This was as exciting as we had remembered from last year’s Songkran in Ao Nang.  In front of a 7-11 people stood posted up ready to attack any tuk-tuk, motorbike, or passerby who was brave enough to walk through.  Very cool!

After a good hour or so of water wars and a quick lunch we decided we were ready for a second helping of the calmness of Sunrise Beach.  We eventually made our way back, around a small cove on Sunrise beach close to Mountain View Resort.  This vantage point was especially impressive and very secluded feeling.  It felt like a true paradise.

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This was an excellent location for snorkeling and the water in this cove never seemed to get very deep.  It is instantly awe-inspiring from the moment you see it.

The next day it was time to catch our speedboat back to Pak Bara Pier and then catch the van back to Hatyai for one more night.  We were slightly sad to leave this paradise but also welcomed the idea of our next night in an air-conditioned hotel room.  We arrived in Hatyai around 3:00PM and checked in to our hotel.  This time around we were able to find an Irish pub within walking distance to find dinner and swung by a Tops market or a couple bottles of wine.  It was a chill evening.

On our final day we had afternoon flights back to Pattaya so we decided to find somewhere to kill some time before heading back.  We made our way to Hatyai Municipal Park.  This was a nice little find that offered expansive views of Hatyai and some impressive Buddha sculptures. There was also a planetarium that had a very retro feel.

If we had more time, there was the option of taking a aerial cable car to another mountaintop across the way, where there was supposedly more temple complexes to see.   We instead caught our flight and were in route back home.  All in all, I loved Koh Lipe and Hatyai was OK.  Now, onto Siem Reap.

Luang Prabang, Laos

For our holiday break this December, we decided to spend a few days in Luang Prabang, Laos.  We knew little of the country of Laos or the city of Luang Prabang but were pleasantly surprised at the quaint atmosphere of the place.  We flew in to Luang Prabang International Airport on a Wednesday and spent 4 days in LP.  Upon arriving at the airport I was very surprised at how quiet the airport was.  There were not many people moving around and you could nearly hear a whisper! We walked to the taxi desk to arrange the ride to Cold River Hotel & Guesthouse alongside the Nam Kahn River in LP Town Center.  Walking outside we were met with a chilling temperature difference we had not felt in some time!

As we entered the town many sights immediately reminded me of Thailand, but as we continued I started seeing slight variations to the architecture and the overall cleanliness.  The old town portion is a peninsula of land created by the divergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.  LP was occupied by the French for many years and you could see the influence in the architecture throughout the city.  I noticed many more backpackers and younger travelers than we normally see around Pattaya.  The city is very funky, hipster-catered, full of western tourists (lots of French and American) and expat friendly all-in-all.  We arrived at the guesthouse, checked in, and went out for a nice dinner because we happened to arrive on our 9th wedding anniversary for my wife and I.

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After a short walk (1 km?) we reached Sakkaline Road which is a touristy area filled with nice restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, wine bars, tour package salespeople. and more.

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We went to a French-Laotion fusion restaurant, called Tangor.  OH man, amazing!  The food and the wine were more great examples of the French and Laotian cultures melding together in wonderful harmony.

Feeling stuffed after a great anniversary dinner we stopped next door for a bottle of Bordeaux and retired to the guesthouse for the night.  I’ll mention that our room was VERY cold as the temperature outside had dropped to about 9 degrees celsius!

The next day we decided to spend roaming around LP town center.  We had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, crepes, baguette with butter/jam, and spicy noodle soup (separately, not together) and started walking.  Our first adventure was to scale Mount Phou Si, which is a 100m tall mountain in the old city center.  The steps up were winding and steep, with little presence of side-rails in some portions to prevent you from falling down the side of the mountain (this made me a worrisome father at times).  As you ascended this mountain there were many different buddhist shrines. Two notable shrines were Wat Tham Phou Si which was located halfway up, and What Chom Si which is on the very top.   Exhausted and proud of ourselves, we finally made it to the top of the hill and enjoyed a wonderful sweeping view of LP and surrounding terroir for a few minutes.

Afterwards we made our way down the opposite side of Phou Si which led us down to Sakkaline Road again which was perfect for an early lunch at Le Banneton Cafe’.  We had heard of this cafe on Lonely Planet’s website as a must-see stop off in LP.  It is essentially a classic french-style bakery which serves crepes, baguettes, tart tatin, pate, etc.  Again, the food in LP did not disappoint!  Wow.

After lunch we began a walk back towards the guesthouse but made a stop off at a bamboo bridge located over the Nam Kahn River.  Supposedly this bridge is only constructed 6 months out of the year as is cannot withstand the currents of the river during the rainy season.  For a 20.000 kip per person you can walk across this swaying and flexing bridge to the other side where you are greeted with a bar and gift shop.

We walked across and then returned back and caught a tuk-tuk back to the guesthouse for a couple of hours of downtime so the kids could rest and enjoy some cartoons.  Just before getting off the tuk-tuk, our driver asked if we wanted to go to the Hmong Tribe New Year Celebration.  We declined the offer as we were not aware this was going on and wanted some rest but it sparked our interest.

We decided to check out the Hmong New Year Celebration later that afternoon as it seemed something we might never see again.  The celebration lasts for 3 days!  So around 3:30pm we caught another tuk-tuk for a 40-minute ride in the middle of NOWHERE to witness the event.  At times we were honestly a little worried about where the driver was taking us as we traveled further and further away from the center of town.  Finally we arrived in the middle of a teak tree orchard filled with people.  There must have been hundreds of Hmong people in traditional dress and adornments.

WE STUCK OUT to say the least.  Haha.  Out of the many people we were probably 4 of the maybe 10 people who were not Hmong.  We got some interesting looks and smiles but this is all something we are pretty used to at this point.  The vibe was far different that LP town center where expats seem to outnumber the locals.  The New Year celebration was filled with vendors selling food, carnival games, live music, clothing for sale, people with elaborate backdrops and clothing for photo opportunities, farmers selling fruit, and the locals playing a traditional game of “pov pob”.  The game is played when teenage boys and girls line up across from each other and look for someone that peaks their interest.  They then throw a cloth ball back and forth in a game of catch until someone drops the ball.  If one person in the pair drops the ball the other person receives a gift. The presents are taken back by singing love songs to the other person.  It was interesting to see lines of Hmong teens in traditional clothing playing this.

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After about 45 minutes at the celebration our tuk-tuk driver (who waited for us) drove us back to the guesthouse, or, almost there because his tuk-tuk broke down a few 100 meters from our guesthouse.  That was lucky for us considering it could have happened 20/30 minutes out of town.  That evening as we came back into the lobby of the guesthouse we booked an excursion for the following day.

At 9:00am a songthaew driver greeted us to take us on our excursion for the day.  We booked a half day trip which included the following:  a trip down the Mekong River by boat to a whisky village, then onto Pak Ou Caves, and finally a trip down to the Kuang Si Falls.  So, our songthaew driver took us down to the Mekong riverside where we were greeted by our boat driver and his wife, standing next to their impressively long, wooden and enclosed, long-tail boat.

We stepped inside and made our way upstream towards the whiskey village.  We had the boat all to ourselves so our kids entertained themselves by running up and down the vessel.

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The views along the river were spectacular!  We saw small rice fields, rows of various crops alongside the water, fishermen, houseboat communities, wild cattle, and steep mountains.

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After about and hour we arrived at the first stop, the whisky village.  We stepped off the boat and walked up a bamboo bridge into the village.  The whisky was being made over a wood fire and the men had their finished products on display.  Some bottles had scorpions, snakes, spiders, preserved in the bottle.

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I asked him if there was any purpose to it or just for looks and he said, “Old Chinese people believe it gives them energy for the boom-boom”.  Hahaha..  Ok.  I tasted a few of the whiskeys and we toured around a few other parts for about 20 minutes.  Lots of the village people were selling handmade textiles. We made our way back to the boat to continue on to the Pak Ou Caves.

An hour later we were at Pak Ou Caves.  Twenty or so boats were parked alongside the cave where you would then step onto a floating bamboo dock to get to the cave entrance.  After a few steps you are inside the cave which is filled with lots of images of The Buddha.

If you continue up higher via the very steep steps you reach another much deeper cave.  After making a small donation we were given flashlights and entered into the cave.  There were impressive statues and sculptures of more Buddha images hidden in this dark cave.  It was impressive and gave me a sensation that we were discovering something “secret”.  It was very cool.

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After seeing this we returned to our boat to go back downstream on the Mekong to LP city center.  After about an hour and a half we were back to where we started and caught a ride with our songthaew driver to the Kuang Si Falls, our last destination for the day.

Kuang Si Falls was about a 40 minute drive outside of LP city center.  The journey there was awesome, allowing us to see much of the untouched countryside and rice fields.  Upon arriving at Kuang Si our driver directed us to the entry area which was flanked on both sides of the street with vendors selling all things tourist.  We paid the entry fee and walked our way towards the falls.  As you walk in, there is a bear reservation where you can see a variety of different bear species.

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When we saw the falls I cannot describe how beautiful they were.  The aqua-blue/green color looked UNREAL as it cascaded from a still pool of swimmers down into the streams below.  I had never in my life seen such clear, pleasantly colored water.

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We made sure to get as many photos there as possible and then went our way back to LP for a nice dinner and a relaxed evening as it was our last night in LP.

On Saturday morning we checked out of our room and made one last venture into the city before our early afternoon departure.

We grabbed a couple of cheap Beer Laos on tap and sat with the kids admiring this hip, kinda trendy, clean and cultured city.

We both agreed that Luang Prabang was one of our favorite cities we had visited in SE Asia thus far.  I doubt we’ll ever be able to make our way back but I would recommend a visit to this pleasant city to anyone!

 

 

Good Times in Chiang Mai

Ever since we moved to Thailand countless people have RAVED about Chiang Mai.  They talk about the overall relaxed vibe, the temples, the cooler weather, the coffee, the food, and the culture.  We were excited when our midterm break from school arrived and it was time to set out for our first venture to Chiang Mai.  On a Tuesday afternoon we hopped on an Air Asia flight from U-Tapao airport in Pattaya and within about an hour we we had arrived at Chiang Mai International Airport.  We grabbed a taxi and were at our hotel within 20 minutes.

Our first hotel was the Pha-Thai Guesthouse in Old City Chiangmai (within the walled portion of the city).  Because we arrived late and it was dark, we checked in to the hotel and walked down the street for a late snack/dinner.  It started raining rather hard so we didn’t go far. Luckily the first place we stopped had one of Chiang Mai’s most popular food dishes, Khao Soi. It’s essentially a curried soup with fried and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, chili’s, coconut milk, etc.  I had mine with chicken.  AWESOME.

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Afterwards we picked up a couple of Leo beers and headed back to the room for the night.  Before going to bed we did manage to schedule an excursion to the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary the next morning, an essential thing to do when visiting Chiang Mai I believe.

At 8:30am Wednesday morning a songthaew driver arrived in the hotel lobby to pick us up for the trip to the elephant sanctuary.  After stopping by two other pick-up locations we were in route to the sanctuary.  We were accompanied by three other people who turned out very cool to hang with.  One girl was from Israel and had just left her boyfriend in Myanmar after a breakup, there was a couple on their honeymoon from Washington State, and there my wife and I and our 2 children.  We were an interesting mix of people.  After arriving at Maerim we were greeted by some of the tour guides who walked us to the elephants to “say hello”.  Afterwards we were presented with traditional denim clothing and changed into them.  We filled every pocket of the denim garb with as many bananas as possible and entered the gated area with the elephants.

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There were 5 elephants in total, one being a baby.  However sweet, hungry elephants surrounding you when you have pockets full of bananas can be intimidating.  I felt like I had bait tied to me. It was awesome and humbling to stand with such huge creatures.

We walked with the elephants alongside a stream running through the woods to a mud pool where we were asked to bathe them.

The elephants loved it.  We basically paid to give them a spa day. I think they should have paid us.

Afterwards we all headed out and changed back into clean clothes in order to learn how to make a traditional Thai noodle soup for lunch.

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By 1:30 we were back on the songthaew and heading back to our hotels.  This was an experience I highly recommend as it was like nothing else I’ve ever done.

After returning back to the Old City from seeing the elephants we decided to venture out and see some of the sights within the Old City walls.  Pha-Thai guesthouse was conveniently located so we were able to walk a short distance up the street and we found ourselves near Wat Chedi Luang.  This temple was supposedly built in 1441 when the area was known as the Lanna Kingdom.   I was thoroughly impressed with the striking nature of this structure.  It is said that “The Emerald Buddha”, now housed in Bangkok, was held within this building until 1475.  There is a Jade replica of the original inside it now.

All around the grounds were other smaller temples and bells.  I am to sure of the exact names of all these others we saw.  All very impressive.

After all this temple-trekking and the morning we had had, we decided to catch a tuk tuk for a Mexican dinner and then head back to the hotel for the night.

Thursday morning we decided to call a taxi to see Baan Tong Luang, a tribal village nestled within the northern hills of Chiang Mai.  This village is made up of 8 different refugee tribes from Myanmar and Laos all living amongst each other in a setting surrounded by bamboo, water buffalo, and rice patties.  It was like no other place I have ever been and I had only seen on television.

For about 600 baht (kids were free), we entered the hill tribe compound and walked by each group.  Each tribe still seems to retain their tribal identity in clothing, accessories, trade, etc.

The most memorable was the long-necked women of the Karen Tribe.  These women often start placing rings around their necks as young as 5 years old.

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Every tribe sold a mixture of textiles, handmade musical instruments, jewelry, handmade cigars, dolls, etc.  The whole area is definitely geared towards the tourist but is still well worth the visit.

We departed Baan Tong Luang around 1:00pm and headed back to the old city to check into a new hotel, V-Lodge.  Most of Chiang Mai was quiet on this day because it was The Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.   Most of the businesses, including 7-11 and Tesco Lotus, were closing around 3pm to show respect.  Our taxi driver, Chom, was very kind and offered to take us around the city the following day which we arranged.  He himself was going to a ceremony for The King that evening, which is another reason we wanted to get back to the hotel early so he could make it there in time.  We ate lunch at an awesome place called “Cat House” and even purchased more food from them for takeaway so we could eat it later for dinner when everything was closed.

Around 11:00am Friday morning, Chom returned to our hotel to pick us up for a day of temple-hopping.  We initially only wanted to go up Doi Suthep mountain but Chom mentioned he would not only take us there but also show us two other temples.  We were pleased to see what else he might take us to.   We journeyed our way out of the old city and went northwest towards Doi Suthep.

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Our first stop was Wat Sakithaka (Pha Lat) while in route to Doi Suthep.  This place was very secluded and was positioned deep in a quiet, lush, green forest.  When we arrived there were many people presenting the morning alms to the monks.  We passed by them and made our way through the grounds.  There was a peaceful waterfall and astonishing views of the city below.  Many people go to this temple & monastery for a place to meditate. I could see why.  It was gorgeous.

After a solid 45 minutes at our first stop, we jumped back in the car to continue our trip up the winding mountain road towards Doi Suthep.  Chom stopped at an overlook spot where we were able to see magnificent unobstructed views of the city.

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There were vendors selling barbecued meat, coconuts, and fruit.  There was also a man sketching photos of whomever wanted to sit in front on him.  Our two kids took a seat and he went to sketching them.  Within about two minutes he completed their portraits.  He did not ask for money but we of course gave him a tip.  This was an unexpected treat!

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We got back in the car and within 15 minutes we arrived at Doi Suthep.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Chiang Mai.  This day in particular was fairly busy.  Chom dropped us off at the funicular train lift and would return in an hour.  The roadside was covered with vendors selling clothing, strawberries, coffee, bbq meat, and fried insects.  We took the train up the mountainside and made our way around Wat Phra That.  It was a very impressive golden temple.  The sun reflecting off of it made it somewhat difficult to look at.  Surrounding the temple grounds at a few other smaller temples, restaurants, and gift shops.  Again, the views from the summit of this mountain are amazing.

Our third temple stop with Chom was Wat Umong.  It is a 700 year old buddhist temple at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain located very close to Chiang Mai University. The temple itself has a series of connecting tunnels, each leading to areas with various buddha images.

The tunnel walls feature worn paintings of bush scenes.

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Resting on top of the network of tunnels is a massive stupa you can reach by walking up a series of steps above the temple.

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The grounds that it is located on are filled with trees, fish ponds, ducks, and turtles.  Outside the structure is a garden area filled with very old broken buddha statues.

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There are signs hanging from the trees on the footpaths that feature proverbs written in thai and english.

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The entry to the temple is a slanted wall covered with ivy.  I highly recommend visiting this place.

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Once we has seen the three stops that our taxi driver/tour guide had planned, we asked him to take drop us off somewhere for lunch.  He recommended this place below.

When we got in we sat down, took off our bags (we had all our luggage at this point), I placed the drawing of my children on the table, and we looked over the menu for a late lunch.  The food we ordered was delicious, although I ordered “fat noodles” which had a slightly unappealing texture.  I tried butterfly pea tea for the first time too.  We had no idea where we were actually but planned to catch a Grabtaxi (kind of like Uber) back to the airport as we had a flight departing around 7:30pm.  After leaving we instead grabbed a songthaew to Central Mall as we had some time to kill.  The entire ride there took almost 45 minutes because of heavy traffic.  The moment we get to the mall I realize that I left the sketch of my children at the restaurant.  We decided to catch a Grabtaxi back to the restaurant (luckily I noticed the name of a place nearby and traced it’s location) to see if they might still have the drawing or instead threw it in the trash.  After arriving in about 30 minutes we tried to gesture to the waitress that we lost the drawing. She did not understand at first until I flashed a photo of it on my phone.  She immediately nodded and ran to the back to grab the scrolled drawing.  We were ecstatic that we did not lose it!  AMAZING!  After this we were on the way back to the airport to wait for our flight.

The entire trip was random and diverse, relaxing and stimulating.  I know we will be back in Chiang Mai again whilst living here.

 

 

Lost in the Forest

This past weekend we decided to check out a place we had heard of before but have never visited.  We went to the Royally-Initiated Siri Charoenwat Forest Plantation Project, located in the Chonburi province around She-Ohn Mountain, about 15 minutes from our home.

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Supposedly 26 years ago this area was a barren, bald mountain with few animals or plants.  The king of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ordered the restoration of the forest to return the natural balance and as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit on her 60th birthday celebration in 1992. This is why it is called “The Forest of Love.”  We have always loved going though parks, nature trails, etc. so it was nice to find out about this place.

Upon our arrival we parked and walked out amongst the trees where we immediately passed a few Buddha statues.  We walked a paved path to an interesting junction of visual stimulation.  On the left was a huge lotus pond and on the right was a garden of indigenous varieties of thai banana plants.  The lotus pond was striking with its carpet of lily pad leaves and its jutting lotus flowers.  There was a bridge that led to the middle of the pond where there was a covered gazebo.  It was beautiful.

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We looked at the bananas from afar and then made our way into a forested walking path.  The path itself was probably 1-1.5k and had multiple stop-offs for taking a rest.  We saw many varieties of bamboo and thai trees and fauna.  Trees that you pass are labeled with the name of the species in both thai and english.

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Once we reached the end of the trail we found ourselves at another small pond in a space we were unfamiliar with.  We weren’t sure of where we parked and luckily there was group of thai people approaching.  They waved at us and smiled at our children.  We asked and gestured, “where is the car park?”  One lady nodded and said, “Yes!  Come with us!  No worries!”  We fell in line with this group of about 15 very friendly thai people and assumed that we would be led back to the car.

As we walked, the woman who flagged us over told us she was visiting the forest from Bangkok, and that she and her employees were going to do an activity with the rangers.  She said “you should join!”.  We smiled and told her that we needed to find the car and would not have time for the activity.  She nodded and seemed to understand.  We continued to walked a paved road and then veered off onto a dirt path.  This dirt path soon got narrower and narrower.  We assumed that they were perhaps taking us through a shortcut?  Eventually we found ourselves stepping over thorny branches, hopping over ravines, balancing across logs, and pushing bushes out of our faces.  This might not be too difficult normally but we did have our 3 and 5 year old with us which was a little difficult.  We finally stopped in the middle of the forest and realized that they were all there to build a dam out of bamboo and rocks.  As they began tossing the rocks into the bamboo frames we asked the original lady again, “We need to go, we need the car park.”  She apologized and said she misunderstood us.  She motioned to a park ranger who said she would lead us out.  Before doing so she asked our kids, “Selfie first!” She took a selfie with our kids and then grabbed my son’s hand to help lead us out.

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After about 20 minutes of forest-trekking, we were out and on our way back to the car.  What originally would have been a light journey turned in to a deep forest trek.  Ha.  Everyone was so kind and we won’t forget that trip to the “Forest of Love” anytime soon!

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A Whirlwind

I title this entry “A Whirlwind” because that’s exactly what our trip home to the USA was.  From the moment we re-entered the country, we continuously traveled from place to place seeing friends and family.  So much happened in 6 weeks that it can be a bit difficult to even recall everything!

The first culture-shock we experienced was when we stepped into our rental car in Atlanta and had to re-acclimate how to drive on the right side of the road while in the left side of the car (as well as the whereabouts of the blinker and windshield wipers, ha).  Once out of the car rental parking area and onto the 5-6 lanes of highway, it’s immediately obvious how much more intense driving can be in the states.  It was also funny to see how FEW motorbikes (or any) were present on the road.  There is definitely a busier, faster pace to life that we immediately felt upon our return.

Once out on the road, we did exactly what we had planned which was to go directly to our favorite Mexican restaurant “El Solecito” for lunch.  The owner remembered us and we made sure to let him know how long we had thought about sitting in his restaurant.  We went rather indulgent for lunch by ordering carnitas, tacos, ceviche, rice, beans, cheese dip, margaritas, and micheladas.  It was heavenly to say the least.  We sat there deliriously enjoying our lunch while simultaneously trying not to fall asleep from the near 30 hour journey we just experienced.  After we all had our long-awaited fill of Mexican food we headed to our hotel to check in.  We noticed a Target store next to the hotel so we decided go there as we hadn’t experienced a store with that kind of variety in nearly a year.  WOW.  You don’t realize how much choice you have everyday until you aren’t surrounded with it.  We definitely saw Target in a different light/perspective.  Consumerism is king in the US.  After we lazily zombied our way through we came back to our hotel and immediately passed out.

After that first night in the USA, the following weeks of our trip focused more on the family we hadn’t seen in so very long.  We spent our weeks jumping back and forth between Perry, Savannah, Milledgeville, Atlanta, Athens, and countless other cities and small towns all around and in-between throughout Georgia.  We were fortunate enough to borrow a 1998 Buick Park Avenue from my aunt which we mercilessly drove about 3000 miles within just 6 weeks.  We were able to spend lots of quality time with our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, coworkers, and countless friends.  We visited the new and revisited places of our childhood witnessed with brand new eyes.  River Street, Historic Savannah, Ocmulgee Indian Mounds, Rock Eagle, Lockerly Arboretum, Uncle Remus’ House, Rose Hill Cemetery,  Downtown Macon, childhood playgrounds, old back roads, pool parties, etc. were amongst the detours and stops we made whilst home.  Nostalgia was running high and emotion was full.

Towards the last week of our time back home, I felt a real sense of melancholy.  I was so happy with the QUALITY time I experienced with our families and friends.  Even when we lived in Atlanta, we rarely had the opportunity to spend so much time with family.  This allowed us to create some real memories and share some wonderful conversation.  Of course, as with all goodbyes, it was sad hugging everyone knowing it would be another year before we could see each other beyond a Skype session or say “hello” beyond an online chat.  It is the most difficult aspect of international living.  Yes, it is a 22 hour flight but I’m seeing the world much smaller these days.  Although vast and full of stimulation and things to witness, it is indeed a small world after all.

 

Mama, mama I’m coming home.

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Yeah, I cheesily quoted Ozzy Osbourne with the blog title.  Anyways..  After about 11 months abroad, we our making our very first return trip to USA for the summer.  We are very excited to say the least.  It will be a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and friends and share the stories and experiences we’ve encountered while being abroad.  We’ve even got the first few hours planned and pretty set.  Once we hit arrivals at the airport, hop in that rental car, we will be heading straight towards our favorite Mexican restaurant for a lunch which will consist of el pastor tacos, ceviche, carnitas, refried beans, micheladas, and strong margaritas. You just can’t find amazing Mexican food in Thailand!  We have definitely fantasized about that moment for quite some time and IT WILL HAPPEN!

The flight is the only real hurdle we must tackle.  This time we only have one connecting flight and the entire flight time is only 22 hours versus the flight here, running about 26 hours.  Still long as hell either way you slice it.

I am curious how much different the bustle of American life will feel after spending time in a rural area of Thailand.  It will be strange to be amongst so many people who speak english again, to drive on the right-side of the road, to encounter such a prominent police presence, to eat western cuisine, the cost of living, etc.  Life here is essentially the same.  People have needs, they fulfill them. However, many things are done more simplistically here and it will be interesting to see things from our home with different eyes.  I’m looking forward to it!

Georgetown – Penang, Malaysia

For the second week of our two week break we decided to get another stamp in our passport by heading to Penang, Malaysia.  We flew out of Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok and were there fairly quick, with the total flight time only about 1hr45m.  We arrived at about 6:30pm Malaysian time and caught a taxi to our hotel.  On the ride there I was first struck at how well our driver’s english was.  He sounded almost American.  We have gotten used to the english language being rarely spoken in most areas of Thailand we’ve visited.  This is a very tourist populated area of Malaysia.  My first impression of the city was how extremely clean it was!  Georgetown was colonized by the British, so you find lots of colonial architecture everywhere.  Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site so much of the original buildings are well preserved.  I was very impressed at the beauty of city and found that parts reminded me of places I’d been before, like Miami, FL and parts of the South East United States.

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After a 40 minute drive from the airport we were in the middle of historic Georgetown and at our hotel, the Apollo Inn.

After checking in we asked for food recommendations and the front desk clerk told us to walk outside, go to the right, and we would be amongst the Kimberly Street hawker stalls.  We took her advice and had our first food experience in Malaysia.  Hawker stalls are basically street food vendors who you order from and then you go sit down in a seating area near/behind them.  If you want drinks/beer, etc. you order that separately from a different vendor.  We found a spot and I ordered one of the most popular dishes in Malaysia, char kway meow.  This dish is stir-fried rice noodles with soy, chili, blood cockles, prawns, bean sprouts, fried egg, and chives served on a banana leaf.  I would compare it to pad thai.  This dish was only 4 ringgit ($1) and I paired it with a cheap lager beer, “Skol”.  My wife had the same dish only without any shellfish. It was decent and much appreciated after the journey there.

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We went next door afterwards to try some desserts.  The below is Bee Koh Moy (warm black sticky rice pudding with salted coconut milk) and our kids had an ice bowl dessert with cherry and longan fruit called See Guo Tng.

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After all this we went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

The next morning we had breakfast and were greeted by a tour guide in the lobby of our hotel.  He took us on a 3-hour tour of sites in Georgetown.  He drove us first to Wat Chayamangkalaram which is a Thai Buddhist Temple that houses Penang’s version of The Reclining Buddha.

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This building was amazing!  It housed the cremated remains of both Christian and Buddhist people, stored in shelving behind the buddha.  It was surrounded with different chinese/buddhist statues marking each year in the Chinese calendar (Year of the Dog, Year of the Dragon, etc).

After this we went across the street to see the Burmese Buddhist Temple which was also very striking and impressive.  There was a series of Buddha sculptures from many different Asian countries.  It was interesting to see the different looks of The Buddha as depicted by each country.  The detail in each figure was astonishing.

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From there he took us to the Penang Botanical Garden.  This was a sprawling open space filled with exotic plants and trees, birds, monkeys, dogs, joggers, and people doing Thai Chi.  There are many varieties of palm trees in the gardens.  The areca is Malaysia’s most popular and it produces the betelnut, which when chewed is a fairly strong stimulant and will turn your mouth and teeth red.

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Next stop was a row of Malaysian artisan shops selling a variety of teas, chocolates, coffees, and textiles.  We sampled about 20 varieties of coffees and teas.  We watched the handmade textile printing.  After seeing all of this we hopped back into the car to head back to central historic Georgetown.  We visited Armenian Street which is well known for the street art placed whimsically around the main road and side alleys.  At times it was difficult to snap photos due to the queues’ forming at each spot from other who were looking to take a shot.

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At the recommendation of our tour guide we saw the Chew Clan Jetty area which is a collection of rustic wooden homes built by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.  They are built on wooden posts and sit over top of the seafront.

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Our final stop was the grandest one, the Khoo Kongsi Clanhouse.  This is an elaborately detailed, chinese-built structure which is one of Penang’s most popular attractions.  It was built by the Khoo family and was completed in 1906. It was AMAZING.

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After the tour we decided to explore the streets of Georgetown on our own.  We passed though these immaculate streets we awe-inspired by the sights that surrounded us.  Georgetown appeared to be such a mash-up of chinese, malay, and indian peoples.  You could see the influence everywhere from the food, art, and language.  We occasionally heard what sounded like prayers blasted from a loudspeaker throughout the city.  We asked someone and were told it was hindu music of some sort.  Buddhist, hindu, muslim, and christian religions are all practiced here.

The next day we decided to do more kid-friendly activities so we headed towards the beach area, Batu Ferringhi, to visit “Entopia”.  This place was perfect for the kids because it is an education center which houses a variety of spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, lizards, toads, worms, roaches, beetles, fireflies, and most of all a large indoor butterfly atrium.  Kids loved it and had fun running around playing with and looking at all the stimuli.

The final day before leaving Georgetown we decided to see the last big attraction, Penang Hill.  We traveled to the foot of this hill and took a funicular train up to the top.  The entire trip took about 10 minutes to reach the summit.

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From the top there are striking views of Penang and a variety of tourist-focused activities.

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We spent about an hour or so and then returned down the hill to catch a taxi back to the airport to fly back to Bangkok.  Overall we had a fantastic time in Penang and would recommend it to anyone considering it.  It was a pleasant experience!

Phuket & Ao Nang – Songkran New Year

For the kid’s two week break, we planned a couple of ventures for our free time.  The break is considered spring break from school, Easter break for many, and/or Songkran break in Thai culture.  Songkran is the Thai Lunar New Year’s celebration.  Thai’s use this time to celebrate the New Year, a fresh start, and sometimes it is a time to deep-clean their homes.  Everywhere around the country you see sculptures of The Buddha surrounded with flowers and accompanied with a basin of Thai-scented water.  A golden cup is used to scoop the water and then you are to pour the scented water over the buddha sculpture to symbolize the cleansing of the New Year.  This cleansing, however, has become an all-out water fight amongst most Thai people during these 9 days of Songkran celebration.  Below is a picture of a hotel employee lifting my son to allow him to pour the water over the buddha.

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Our vacation began with a flight to the Phuket International Airport.  We flew from U-Tapao airport Pattaya which is only a short 15 minutes from our home.  The total flight time was about 50 minutes which was fantastic!  Upon arrival we caught a taxi to our hotel in the Karon Beach area of Phuket.  Phuket was a nice setting that I would compare similar to Pattaya but with a slightly calmer feel.  There is a large expat presence.  I had never seen so many Russian vacationers and most of the restaurants catered to Russian tastes and had menus translated into Russian.  We took in the sights of the beach the first day and then decided to see the Big Buddha the next day.

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Big Buddha was awesome!  It is one of the most notable landmarks on the island of Phuket and boasts impressive views.  We took a taxi up the mountain which took about 20 minutes of going round and round the bumpy road leading up to the top.  On the way up you pass many different bird shows, elephant shows, etc. as well as people selling food or tourist kitsch.  The sculpture is massive and is surrounded my smaller sculptures as well.  We did out tourist duty of walking around and taking snapshots around this monument.

Off to the side is a spot where there is a supposed “footprint” of the buddha.  We walked onto that side which was filled with monkeys who had gained attention of many tourists. These monkeys were trying to shake hands, steal water bottles, etc.  The kids loved to see this.

After the monkey visit, we went back to our taxi to return to the hotel to rest before our journey to Ao Nang the following day.

The next morning, we woke early (6:05am) to meet our driver who would take us to the Rassada Pier.  We rode about 40 minutes to the pier where we boarded the Ao Nang Princess Ferry for our two-journey to Ao Nang, Krabi Province.  It was a little rainy that morning but quickly cleared to reveal a beautiful day by 11:00am.

 

Arriving in Ao Nang was an awesome sight!  We were surrounded by those iconic towering limestone cliffs jutting out of the blue-green waters.  We docked at the pier to catch another shuttle to our hotel in Ao Nang.  As we entered the Ao Nang city area, it was obvious this was the first day of Songkran.  Everywhere you would see truckloads of people equipped with barrels of water and water pistols, ready for an all-out water battle.  On the sides of the roads were people with buckets, cups, soaked towels, water guns, herbs dipped in water, garden hoses— you name it… ready to get the next passerby soaked.  We checked into our hotel and changed into our Songkran clothes in preparation of our walk down the road in search of a late lunch.  The walk down the street during Songkran was fantastic, especially for our children.  They loved running back and forth spraying complete strangers in the most friendly, fun-loving way.  Within just a couple hundred feet, all four of us were absolutely drenched.  Our faces were covered in the white smear of talcum-powder paste that you so often see during Songkran.  The streets were filled with the sounds of traditional Thai music but more often BOOMING electronica.  We finally found a nice resting spot for lunch and a cold Leo Beer alongside the beach.

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The next day we decided to forgo the Songkran activities still happening and instead see some scenery around the island.  We bought four longboat tickets to Phranang Cave Beach portion of Railay Beach, a 10 minute boat journey from Ao Nang Beach.  This was probably the most beautiful and scenic part of our whole trip.  The water here was an clear emerald blue, the forests were lush and thick, the limestone cliffs were absolutely massive, and there were a series of caves you could walk into.  This was a fantastic places for photo opportunities.

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We swam in the water, watched people climb the mountainous cliffs, watched stand-up paddle boarders, and witnessed an unusual “phallic” shrine inside a few of the caves.  It is believed that the spirit of Phranang (Princess Goddess) resides in the cave .  People who pledge good luck to her spirit by offering gifts, flowers, incense, and often times these hand-made penises.  It was interesting.

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After grabbing some lunch off a longboat vendor, we decided to make our way back to Ao Nang to relax before preparing to head back to Pattaya the next morning.   We had a wonderful trip and look forward to the next, Penang Malaysia!

The DMV is a Universal Experience

So about a week ago I finally got my Thai drivers license.  I’m legal!  It takes quite a bit of paperwork and time vested to achieve.  We had to collect together photocopies of our American drivers licenses, the first/second/visa pages of our passports, certification of residency, work permits, certificate of health, and finally our international drivers permits.  Each photocopy had to be signed as well.  We had to meet a Thai affiliated with the school at the “Land Transport Office” aka the DMV and present these documents.  Once we did this we then got into a line for a reaction test. In front of me was two pedals at my feet and an LED string of lights about 5 feet away.  When you pressed the “gas” pedal the lights would illuminate from the bottom and quickly travel upward.  You have to hit the “brake” before the lights hit an indicated threshold.  It was pretty easy, however many people I watched had trouble with it.  They then showed us multiple colors and we would indicate the color verbally.  After completing this we then went to a different building and presented our documents along with the certification that we passed the tests.  We then went to another room and sat through an hour-long class completely in Thai.  After this went back to the first room and took a queue number and waited to be called for payment.  Licenses were 205 baht per person.  Not bad.  You then took another number to wait to be called for pictures.  Once the picture was taken the license was produced.  Just like in the USA, the Land Transport Office is also a somewhat painful experience.  And just as the employees of the DMV in the states appear unconcerned about the person looking to get the license, things are the same here.  Haha.