Ok, I have a lot to catch up on. Let’s begin with Thailand. I chose Thailand for our first venture outside Japan because it sounded exciting and I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know much about. It also is a Buddhist country and that intrigued me too. So, off we went to Thailand. We arrived in the evening, traded in some Yen for some Bat and were directed to the taxi stands. It was a long way into the city to the airport, and the highways were much wider than Japan. It looked a lot like the States. The driving there is insane. The lane divisions are more “implied” and most drivers only loosely adhere to them. Once we got to the city, it was after 9pm, we had no hotel reservations, but we did have the name of a hotel recommended by a couple friends. We were dropped off on Koh San Road, which our travel book said was a good place to find a room for the night if you’ve just arrived late in the city.
Steve and I were a bit disorientated. (With all the vendors and neon lights, it was a bit like being George Bailey in Potter’s Ville!)
No one seemed to know the hotel we were making for and we were tired and jet-lagged. We decided to just sit down somewhere to have a drink and get our bearings. One immediate issue was getting used to the currency- and it wasn’t just the conversion rates. (We’d converted from yen to bat, but then usually had to think in terms of the bat to the dollar, so that was a whole other challenge, but I disgress…) The value of a dollar is sooo different in Thailand. In Japan, its not too different from living in a city in the US, things are a bit more expensive, but that’s all. In Thailand, everything was so cheap that my $6 drink at the bar could have paid for a 2 nights stay at a guesthouse in the city!
As it was, when I ordered my whiskey and coke, they were a bit surprised, then they brought me a whole 5th of whiskey and a full bottle of coke!
We couldn't find the hotel our friends had told us about, so we ended up walking down a little alley to a place called ‘The Apple House’ which I thought I’d read about in the guide book.
It turned out to be a cool little guesthouse and we chatted with the other guests- a couple girls from Italy who had biked to Bangkok from China (yes, its as long a trip as it sounds!) and a couple guys from… I can’t remember now. We sat out in the alley and watched the cats wander by (they are everywhere) and avoided the flying cockroaches. We retired to our room, which was just a plain ol’ room with a bed and a fan, that’s it. But it was comfortable and we were tired and grateful. Later that night I ran into another issue: bathrooms. There was a western-style toilet, a hose, and a basin filled with water with a ladle. No toilet paper. There was no back to the toilet, it was a septic system. Later, Steve and I found the section in the travel book that described how your supposed to use the toilets: you use the hose to cleanse yourself, and then ladle water from the basin into the toilet to ‘sink’ your waste.
In the morning we tried to talk with the older woman who owned the guesthouse (she slept on a cot out in the middle of the main room, so it felt like you were crashing at your grandma’s place) and with the help of her European friend, we were guided to a street that had several travel agencies. We were making for Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side. It’s the western and south part of Thailand that has the more tourist-y, popular islands, (and the ones hit by the tsunami) but Steve and I wanted somewhere less developed and less populated. Koh Chang seemed like a chill, hippy hideout, so we opted for it.
We had planned to leave in the late morning and get there by evening, but discovered that we’d already missed the morning bus and would have to take the late, overnight bus, which was fine. We got some info from a tourist booth and then took a tuk-tuk (think of a golf cart and then put fringe on the top and speed it up, there you have it) to TAT (tourist association of Thailand) and had a very nice lady call a few places on Koh Chang for us and finally book us a place there. The price sounded good to us, but she said it was pricey because a lot of places were already booked up. She was nice, but I’m sure she made her own hefty commission on the arrangements.
We decided to explore Bangkok for the rest of the day and the tuk-tuk driver said he could take us wherever for the whole day at a flat rate. Now, at TAT, the lady had told us these dudes get paid by the government, so they really shouldn’t be changing people, but Thailand is a tourist-based economy and everyone is trying to make a buck. The people aren’t rude, but they can be very crafty and sly about getting their money. With the daily wage being so low, you can’t blame them, but the attitude unnerved me. The tuk-tuk drivers had a bad reputation for conning people, but Steve wanted to use them rather than a plain old cab, so I went along with it. We asked the guy to take us to the Reclining Buddha. I think it is the largest statue of a Buddha in a prone position and its supposed to be impressive. Of course, I wouldn’t really know, because we never made it there. The driver said he had to refuel and dropped us off at a jewelry place- just the kind of thing the guide warned us of. When he picked us up and it was obvious we hadn’t bought anything (and he hadn’t made his cut), he dropped us off at the first wat (a Thailand Buddhist temple) and told us “oh, yeah, the reclining buddha’s here” and asked for his cash. Here's a couple pics I took at the wat (which had a 'Standing Buddha' but no reclining Buddha).
We walked back to Koh San Road and shopped for the rest of the day. Between shopping, I drank down a couple coconuts and watched the roaming dogs and cats.
Beneath the vendor’s table that lined the streets, you could usually see children or dogs dosing. Cats walked around the many open-air kitchens set up on the street. Kids were bathed in plastic tubs on the sidewalk. We noted the many people wearing pale yellow polo shirts with the Thailand flag logo on them. Later, on the cab ride back to the airport, we learned that the sales of these shirts supported the Thai monarchy. Interesting, ne?
So, that night we were on our way to the island of Koh Chang. The bus was a double-decker and had AC, thank heavens! But the tiny toilet still had no tissue and only a basin of water! The ride was 4-5 hrs. We arrived early and slept on the bus until morning.
The ferry ride was about 20 minutes. The next few days were spent chillin’ in Koh Chang.
Though not as developed as some islands, it’s definitely in development- construction is everywhere. It’ll look quite different in a few years by all accounts. Too bad really. Our little hut had its own bathroom (bonus!) and was small, but cute. Here's a shot of the inside...
And the view from the outside...
And the cat that adopted us and visited nearly everyday...
There was a white sand beach within walking distance.
The beaches were one of the main reasons I chose an island local for the bulk of our time in Thailand. The water was clear and blue and bath-water warm! It really was gorgeous, though it somehow didn't feel real- like we were walking in a painting. The only problems were a worry that the coconuts might fall on our heads (I hadn't thought of it and as soon as Steve mentioned it, I couldn't get it out of my head!) and the fact we got sunburn. It was pretty unavoidable after being bundled up all winter then going to the tropics! It’s was ok, though, because we treated ourselves to some treatments at a local sauna/ day spa that became a highlight of the trip. It was run by an English ex-pat and it was wonderful! The sauna itself was in the center of the outdoor spa (it was a circular structure lined with benches that surrounded the sauna) and the steam inside was infused with all kinds of natural herbs. Here you can see the wooden doors leading inside.
The inside of the sauna had several 'windows' created from installing colored bottles in the walls. When the light from outside came through, you could see the colors reflected in the steam. It made everything glow in a wonderful, soft light, though the rest of the space stayed dark enough that if you moved out of the light, your neighbor only a few feet away couldn’t see you. When it became a bit too hot inside, you could step out and cool down by going to the one of the outdoor showers. We went there a lot in the evening. Here's a nice night shot I got with my tiny, tiny new Japanese camera I bought (with the help of my pal Doc, whose Japanese is very, very good!):
We also both got Thai massages, a milk/honey/tamarind & tumeric body treatment, a lime hair treatment, and I opted for a fresh mint and lemon smoothee that was unbelievable! All of it was so damn cheap! The only downside was that to get there we had to walk past a bridge that often had a pack of dogs ‘guarding’ it. All they did was bark, but it always made me nervous.
We also ate well. Check out the crazy bruchetta!
We went a couple times to a place called the Mangrove, which was beautiful, right on the beach, and even had an old guitar they let Steve play after he went into music withdrawl! Here's a shot from the main room looking out toward the beach (it was all open to the outside).
We talked with one of the managers there- an artist who had a friend that ran one of the elephant excursions further north. We never rode the elephants. Steve kinda wanted to, but we were in the south and they were way north and the 2-hour roundtrip ride by truck to get there and back was daunting. We also ate almost everyday at this one woman’s little restaurant.
Super good food (I got heartburn from some of the other places- too spicy!) and her- and her cat- were quite excellent people! We talked with some of the other business owners- Europeans who wanted to get out of the rat race and live life a little slower. Very interesting people.
I bummed around in the hammock outside our hut and read ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ one day.
The book was ok, nothing spectacular. I’d picked it up at a used bookstore along the beach. The store, however, wasn’t technically open… There was a lovely ad for it in the Koh Chang magazine we picked up, but no sign on the building whatsoever. Some people I asked at a neighboring restaurant pointed it out to me and just told me to knock. There were people inside using the internet, but the lady who owned it hadn’t really opened for business that day. Don’t ask me why, that’s just how things run in Thailand sometimes!
We explored more of the area near us on foot- we could have used one of the many mopeds available to get around and go further, but the roads are hilly and curvy and neither one of us really wanted to drive. Besides, we only had one day of rain and despite the heat, walking wasn't too bad. It also afforded great photography opportunites. Steve got a great pic overlooking the main beach, called 'Lonely Beach' (don't let the name fool you, it still had quite a few tourists).
During our ventures, we found the ‘Treehouse’- a place I had hoped we could stay at, but was unfortunately booked. It was a cool place, though- like its own little village with a series of huts along the rocky shore and stone-covered outdoor showers. The check-in area and bar were right along the water and led to a walkway that took you to Lonely Beach.
The beach itself was full of European tourists (Koh Chang is known for having many Scandinavian tourists and we heard that Russians are coming quite often now too) and locals selling their wares. Though many locals live in little tin huts that provide pretty little shelter, right beside them you will see businesses for the internet and even skype access. In fact, on Koh Chang, a rather small island, you will probably find more internet cafes than in all of Osaka. McD’s has wi-fi in Japan I hear, though. (On a side note, our friends from South Africa say that in-home internet isn’t an option there- too pricey. In fact, our pal Doug’s family owns a mayonnaise factory and his dad only *just* got internet access at his office! So we’re totally spoiled in the US.)
Anyway, relaxing on Koh Chang was great. We could have gone to Cambodia or Vietnam (both weren’t too far away- Cambodia was *really* close), but we decided we needed more time to chill than to explore. After all, it was only the second country we’d been to outside the States and we had no idea what to expect. And I think we were rather under-prepared to deal with traveling in a ‘developing nation’. It was pretty crazy at times.
After 3 nights, we were back on the ferry, then back on the bus to Bangkok and then back in the taxi to the airport, and then back on the plane to Osaka! (Did I mention I *hate* being in transit??)
So, overall, it was a crazy experience for me! But that’s what traveling is all about. Steve had a great time and he really wants to return to Thailand. I did have a good time, but there’s a huge learning curve when it comes to traveling abroad and its just going to take some time to get acclimated.
My next post will be all about the awesome sakura (cherry blossom) parties and chilling out in Mitsue-mura for Golden Week. Oh and then the festival in Osaka and Steve’s performce at the Mac store downtown… wow, what a busy spring!
I shall leave you with some of my best Thailand pics- mostly of the *spectacular* sunsets!