Tuesday, May 28, 2013

We're home!!!

For everyone who hasn't heard already, we're back in Atlanta safe and sound. We'll head back to Raleigh tomorrow and take a few days to settle back in. However, we still have a few blog entries to make before we're done. As soon as we can, we'll tell you about our time in Malaysia and Singapore, our flight home, and then we'll finish with our thoughts on the trip as a whole, so stay tuned!

Monday, May 20, 2013

26 Hours of Travel

When we arrived on the island of Koh Samui, we made the mistake of not booking any onward travel from the mainland. Our plans officially ended when we arrived at our resort, and while we knew we had a deadline of when to arrive in Singapore, we had only a vague idea of how we were going to get there.

We started trying to fix this problem by walking into a random travel agency on the island and asking if they booked train tickets. No luck. They told us to try a place in the next village, but the next place we stopped at didn’t seem to be staffed. Hmm.

After a couple more tries, TJ pulled the bike over suddenly when we passed a sign that said “train ticket reservations.” We excitedly walked into the air-conditioned office and started talking to the agent. A few minutes later, we left with reserved beds on a train to Butterworth, Malaysia. We had to return later that afternoon to pick up the physical tickets, and we had to pay a mark-up that we have avoided the entire trip by buying tickets directly from the train station, but we were relieved to have somewhere to go at the end of the week.

The travel agent’s bus/ferry combination tickets to get us to the train station cost 500 baht each. We declined and set out to find a cheaper ticket. On the other side of the island, near the ferry pier, we found what we needed for half the price. We were good to go!

Our hotel offered us a late check-out, so around 1:00 pm, we climbed into the backseat of the fancy car they use as a shuttle. Our driver dropped us off at the bus, which took us onto the ferry, across the water, and onto Surat Thani.  It couldn’t have been easier.

Unlike every other train station we’ve been to on this trip, Surat Thani’s train station is nowhere near the town it is named for. It’s actually about 15 kilometers away in an entirely different town called Phun Phin. The bus we were on stopped in Surat Thani town around 4:30 Thai time (we got there at 5). Our plan was to wander a bit, grab some dinner, and then make our way to the train station later in the evening.

From the moment we got off the train, drivers were asking us “Where you go?” We learned that private transportation to the train station cost 400 baht, so we set our sights on the public bus instead. A kind tuk tuk driver (they do exist!) walked us through our options: we could take a bus up until 6:00 for 15 baht each, or we could walk around, get dinner, and call him when we were ready to go if we were willing to pay the 400 baht. We thanked him and then climbed aboard the nearest bus, hoping it was heading in the right direction. For a moment, we were afraid we had found the local school bus because every single person on it was wearing a school uniform. Then a ticket collector came by and selected the correct coins out of our outstretched hands, so we figured non-school passengers were allowed. We did, eventually make it to the train station.

Our train was scheduled to leave at just after one in the morning, so we had about seven hours, at a minimum, to entertain ourselves. We walked around with our packs for a while, found some dinner, squatted in an air-conditioned coffee shop until the shop closed, and watched episodes of the League on our laptop at the non-air-conditioned train station. It was insanely hot, and we were tired, but we were determined to enjoy our last few hours in Thailand.

Then I had the bright idea of brushing my teeth. I walked to the station’s restroom, which I had paid 3 baht to use earlier in the evening. I dropped the three coins on the counter and walked past the lady, who said “No, FIVE baht.” Apparently the price had gone up. I had absolutely no other coins on me, so I grinned and said “Three baht for just the sink, then?” She quieted down, and I went about my business.

A second later, I realized I had forgotten the toothpaste. I left my toiletries on the counter, told the lady I would be right back, and jogged over to TJ to find it. Within seconds, I was back, walking through the turnstiles to get to the sink. The lady/guard had an absolute fit. “Five baht!” she kept screeching at me, pointing at the sign in front of her (she had taped the number five over the number three). “I already paid you!” I told her, baffled. “Look, this is my bag right here.” She said a few more things I’m probably glad I didn’t understand. Suddenly, an older man reached over the fence toward me, holding a five baht coin. I just looked at him, but he said “Give to her,” gesturing at the lady. I’m so thankful that my last experience with Thai locals was not simply an angry woman yelling at me. It was balanced by the kindness I’m more used to experiencing here.

Around 2:30, our train finally pulled into the station, and we found our beds ready for us. I fell asleep almost instantly, but I kept waking up to dreams that we had arrived at the border and had to get off the train Right Now!

Instead, border control came at a pleasant time in the late morning. This time, Thailand had no problems letting us leave. We walked through Malaysia immigration and back onto the train with no excitement. A few hours later, we were getting off the train in Butterworth, waiting for a ferry, and on our way to Penang. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Island Paradise

From the time we hugged Peetim goodbye, we had about twelve hours of travel in front of us. First, we climbed onto the nearly empty coach bus with Peetim and her friend jumping aboard behind us. They made sure we were settled, said a final goodbye, and then they were gone. We were on our own once again, but not entirely. Robin happened to be going in the same direction. She originally planned on flying, but with prices higher for foreigners than for Thais, the train was a better option. We already had tickets for an overnight train to Surat Thani, so Robin was hoping to find a bed on our train. Peetim had called ahead to check, and there were nine seats left when we left Singburi. We just had to get to the station in Bangkok in time to buy one of them.

The ride to Bangkok was long but uneventful. The minibuses, while less comfortable, are certainly faster. We’ve come in and out of Bangkok enough times that we can recognize where we are, though, so it was no surprise when we pulled into the northern bus station called Mo Chit. From there, we had two options for getting to the train station. A subway line connects the Mo Chit area to the train station, but the route is long and circuitous, and the subway station was too far to walk. Since we would need a taxi anyway, we decided on the second option – hire a cab to take us all the way to the train station. It was a long ride either way, but the express roads helped, and we made it to the station in plenty of time.

We led Robin to the information booth, where they could check availability. As we were talking to them, two second class sleeper seats opened up. The information agent sent us running to the ticket window. In the time it took us to get there, one seat had already been booked. As our ticket agent was processing our request, the second seat disappeared. Disappointing! The end result was perfect, though. Second class seats are such a great way to travel that they are usually all booked. TJ and I had actually bought first class tickets a few days before because they were the only ones available. Robin ended up in a first class cabin in the same train car we were in, so we spent the evening eating dinner and hanging out together. When the attendants came by to make our beds, we said our goodnights and settled in for a good night’s sleep, confident that our 4:30 AM arrival time would be delayed until at least 6:00. The attendants promised to wake us up.

At 4:32, there was frantic pounding on our door with shouts of “SURAT THANI!” How could this possibly be the one time we were on a train that wasn’t delayed? Groggily, we collected our things and shoved them into our backpacks. The tiny cabin barely had room for two people to stand, so when we opened the door for the attendants to join us, we could hardly move. They “helpfully” grabbed bags and backpacks as the train rolled to a stop, insisting in panicked voices that we get off the train, NOW! TJ, wearing the backpack that the attendant was trying to drag off the train, managed to pull out of his grasp long enough to grab our onward tickets from the table before tumbling out of the train’s open door. Robin was standing there waiting for us, and the three of us blearily watched the train pull away.

Somehow, we found our way to the row of cafes that serve as a bus stop and spent the next two hours entertaining ourselves with their free wifi and eating breakfast. When the buses pulled up, they ushered TJ and me forward and told us Robin’s ticket was for a different bus. We heard from her later that she made it to the island and to her yoga class safely, but we were sad to say goodbye. After an hour on a bus and another two hours on a ferry (where we watched the second Garfield movie in Thai), we were on Koh Samui, our island destination.

The very first booking TJ and I made when we decided to take this trip was a resort on the island of Koh Samui. Even before we bought our plane tickets, we knew that three months of traveling would wear us out, and we would need a place to refresh toward the end. Had we waited until now to make those plans, there is no way I would have been able to shell out the money, but it turns out, it was one of the best decisions we made on this trip. We have been looking forward to it since we booked it back in November, and it was it was wonderful to just relax and be taken care of.

Our resort was called “Elements”, and it was on the beach on the south side of the island. We spent five days relaxing by the pool and eating delicious food.

The package we booked included a private longtail boat tour of neighboring islands. We went snorkeling and ate a picnic lunch on our own private beach, where we stayed until the larger tourist boats showed up in the afternoon. The driver of the boat set up our picnic for us, including a few bottles of beer, and then disappeared for a while. Nothing at all like the budget tours we are used to!

A few days later, we enjoyed a couple’s massage at the resort’s spa. Then we finished the day with an amazing dinner from the onsite restaurant, delivered to our balcony as the sun set.

When we weren't living the lives of the rich and famous, we were exploring the island on motorbike, playing "football golf" and visiting the local dog rescue in honor of Beau and Kaylee.

TJ got a high score!

We met a newlywed couple from Ireland enjoying the last few days of their honeymoon and became instant friends. After that, we spent our evenings at the hotel bar or near the pool, swapping stories with our new friends and Vasco, the manager of the restaurant, and his girlfriend.

Today, we took a short joyride before returning our motorbike, dragged our empty packs out of the closet, filling them up, and checked out of our little paradise. On to Malaysia, Singapore, and ultimately, home.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Because We Have Friends There

Our biggest reason behind returning to Thailand earlier than planned was to visit our favorite places before going home. So, after Pai, we packed our bags and headed to Singburi.

The journey from Pai to Singburi was similar to the first time we made that journey. We took the minibus along the winding roads back to Chiang Mai. We spent the night in the big city before catching the 2nd class government bus south. We called Peetim as we were arriving at the Singburi bus station to ask for a pick up.

Beyond the basics, though, the trip was remarkably different. First, instead of springing for a night at a hotel, we decided to try out Couchsurfing for the first time! Couchsurfing.org is a program of hosts who offer their spare rooms, beds, and couches for travelers to sleep on as they visit new places. We have heard wonderful things about it for years, but it had just never worked out for us to try it ourselves. Thanks to Fye in Chiang Mai, now we have!

Our experience began at the bus station, where Fye and two other Couchsurfers she was hosting picked us up. We piled into her car, bags and all, and drove through the rush hour traffic into the city. The Polish girls who with us had come to the bus station to buy tickets for their next destination (naturally, we steered them toward the bus to Pai), and now we were dropping them off to visit one of the temples in the city.

The three of us, TJ, Fye, and I, stopped at the market next, where Fye picked up bags and boxes full of interesting foods. Later, these bags became an impressive dinner that we shared with yet another surfer, a German guy named Andrew. We learned to eat with our hands in the traditional northern Thai style, by picking up a pinch of sticky rice and using it to scoop up various sauces, meats, and vegetables. After a dessert of sweet sticky rice and mango with Thai custard, we were stuffed.

We spent the rest of the night chilling out at Fye’s bar, making hand prints, and getting to know her, her roommates, and the total of five other surfers who were joining us for the night.  When it got late, we headed upstairs to the large, open room Fye had designated for her couchsurfers. We pulled out mats, blankets, and pillows and bedded down so we could wake up early to meet our bus.

The last bus we took out of Chiang Mai was at 8 pm, putting us in Singburi around 4 am. This time, we left on the 9 am bus so we could be at Peetim’s in time for dinner. After a long but pleasant bus ride, where we could understand just enough of the bus driver’s Thai to piece together his instructions (“I heard ’15’ and ‘toilet’ so I think we have a 15-minute bathroom break!”), we arrived in Sinburi at 6 pm. It reminded me of when we arrived in Sydney at the beginning of this trip.

Just like in Sydney, our first visit to Singburi was a venture into the unknown. Other than Peetim’s name and phone number, we didn’t know a soul. We were sleep deprived and unsure of ourselves. This time, we confidently leapt off the bus after giving Peetim a 15-minute warning that we were almost there. Almost immediately, we caught sight of a friendly face: Peemoo and his wife were there to pick us up! We threw our bags in the back of his truck, climbed into the cab, and drove to Peetim’s house for dinner.

Dinner, which was TJ’s favorite, Pad Kra Pao, lasted for the rest of the night. First, we greeted Peetim and her family with big hugs. Then we opened beers, met Robin, the newest volunteer teacher, and caught up. It was a Wednesday night, and everyone had to be up early for work. So we said our goodnights, took our much-desired showers, and fell asleep, so happy to be “home”.

Peetim's friend, teaching us how to eat lotus seeds
The new addition to Peetim's family: Robin, Jr.


The next two days were full of visiting friends and practicing English. We surprised the office where we had taught before by showing up to say Hi. They were thrilled to see us, but one of them explained that they were embarrassed that they didn’t know we were coming, so they didn’t have time to prepare a thank you gift. Of course, we insisted that we didn’t want anything, but that didn’t stop them from producing a few tokens to present us with. Just another example of the incredible generosity of the Thai community. We thanked them with a short yoga class, led by Robin, future Yoga teacher.

We also visited a couple other offices that are currently learning English. Thailand is a member of the recently-created ASEAN conference, which encourages English as the common language among member countries. As result, all of the service personnel in Singburi are learning English, so we visited the office of Local Administration (fire fighters, city planners, etc.) for an English lesson. The next day, we did the same thing at the local police station, where we received a tour of the station and a plethora of photographs with every on-duty cop. We even got to see them lock someone away in a jail cell (a rare occurrence in peaceful Singburi), and TJ got invited to come back and drink whiskey and sing Karaoke with the guys any time.

After a nice lunch with Peetim and her fellow English teacher, TJ, Robin, and I headed back to the bus station. We were on our way south again, through Bangkok, to the islands!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Episode VI: Return of the Pai

Pai continues to be one of my favorite places on the planet. I was a little worried that because of the wonderful time we had the first trip, I had built it up too much in my head. I hadn't. Pai is still awesome. We arrived via local bus from Chiang Mai in the late afternoon, and made the short walk to Baan Pai Village, our home for the next few days. We had just taken an overnight train from Bangkok, and then a five hour bus trip, so we decided an easy night in was just what we needed. It was a good decision. Once we settled in, the skies opened up and poured rain. Didn't bother us one bit. We relaxed in our private bungalow, and only ventured as far as the restaurant about 100 feet from our room to listen to a Thai guy sing his own renditions of "Wish You Were Here", "Tears in Heaven", and "American Pie" while we ate our dinner.

The next day, we headed down the street to a breakfast place we had found on our previous trip that has delicious breakfast crepes. On our way back, Courtney stopped at a little storefront and booked a motorbike lesson, while I went and rented a Honda Click 125cc as our transportation for the next few days.

She was a fast learner, and within no time, she was driving around like an expert.

Afterwards, we decided to see if we could find one of the many waterfalls surrounding Pai. We had ventured out to one on our last trip, so we picked one on our map and headed for it. We followed a paved road for a little bit. Then we followed a dirt road for a little while longer.

Then the road ended, so we did what any sane person would do. We marched ourselves up the stream into the jungle in search of the elusive waterfall. We followed a small path that lead up through the hills and past a few local farms, getting some good pictures along the way.

Eventually we came to a spot on the trail where the rain had washed a large chunk of it down the slope, and the skies were getting darker, so we decided to turn back. We'll get you next time waterfall!

We hopped back on our bike and headed back down the dirt road with a few other westerners that hadn't had any better luck finding it than we had.

We waited out the rain for a while in our cozy bungalow, and then headed back out to Pai Canyon. There are trails that follow the top of the canyon, and in some places, it only a few feet across.

The walk may feel a little treacherous, but the view is absolutely incredible.

Afterwards, we headed back for dinner and some good sleep. We got up the next morning and hopped back on our motorbike. Our destination today: Soppong. The drive is 43km of windy, mountain roads that are tons of fun. About halfway through the drive, we stopped at a lookout point on top of the tallest mountain in the area.

We were running low on fuel, so once again we bought gas poured from a recycled 1L Thai whiskey bottle. It's actually more normal here than it sounds.

If Pai is the party town of the area, Soppong is its quiet, nature-loving little sister that isn't allowed out after dark. It's just a little tiny one-road town that happens to be in the center of lots of rivers, waterfalls, and caves. We stopped at a little cafe for a freshly made honey-lemon soda, and then headed down another 'road' for Tham Lod (Lod Cave).

The cave is famous for the 'Swifts' which are small birds that nest in the caves. During the day, you can see hundreds of them swirling around the cave entrance, going to and from their nests.

Lod Cave was amazing. Not just pretty cool, but make-your-heart-race incredible. There are no electric lights inside the cave, so you hire a guide armed only with a reliable gas Coleman lantern to lead you through the cave. We opted to also hire a bamboo raft to help us float down the underground river in the cave to get from cavern to cavern. It's a little spooky, floating down a river, watching the light from the entrance disappear behind you, listening to the thousands of bats high above you, hoping your one lantern doesn't run out of fuel in the middle of a pitch black cave.

We huddled close to our guide, who lead us through these amazing caverns. The rock formations were bright white and beautiful, and there was a sense of awe that came from being underground and not being able to see past the 30 feet radius of our lantern, or not being able to see what was at the bottom of the rickety wooden stairs you were climbing down.

There was also evidence that people had been living in and around the cave for a very, very long time. There were cave drawings inside that dated back at least a thousand years. There were also remnants of ancient coffins in some places deep in the cave.

Eventually, we hopped back on our bamboo raft and floated our way back out of the cave. We stopped at a little roadside restaurant and had a delicious lunch of crispy pork with rice, and fried noodles with vegetables. We're comfortable enough with Thai food now that we don't need everything spelled out in English for us, and are perfectly capable of ordering lunch with the locals.

We got back just in time for the afternoon rains to come, which we had come to expect by now. During a break in the storm, we wandered down the street for dinner. Halfway through dinner, the skies opened up again, and we found ourselves jogging through the rain to get back to our bungalow. Surprise!

In the morning, we packed up our bags and headed back to the bus station.

After a warm send-off by the locals...

...we waved goodbye to Pai. It may be a little longer than a month until the next time were back, but I know for sure that we will. We'll probably stay a little longer, too... ;)