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Friday, December 19, 2003

Another 10 Women...
Bangkok, Thailand

So, remember how I was saying how unlikely it was that we'd joined a tour in Nepal that had 10 females and 2 males? Well, what are the chances of this happening AGAIN? Yep, the Bangkok to Hanoi tour that we're joining up tomorrow apparently has another 10/2 ratio, at least if we're reading the names on the Intrepid board correctly. Just my luck. Hmm... not that I'm complaining of course, just as long as the leg-hair and fashion trend discussions can be kept to a respectable minimum!

It has been a very relaxing few days hanging out in Bangkok, somewhat ironically. From what we've seen of Bangkok, it's an incredibly vibrant and busy city, and just as crazy, polluted, and congested as Hong Kong, Istanbul, or Marrakech. But because we've not been in a frame of mind that we "have to" see all the attractions and sights, we've actually had quite a relaxing, pleasant time here. We've been stuffing our faces like crazy, catching up on e-mail, and getting lots of errands done, which has been really nice. I'm in the process of uploading the Nepal and Bhutan pages right now; we've been taking a bit of a break from picture taking as well. However, I'm sure we'll be back in Photography Mode once we start our tour on Monday.

We saw Lord of the Rings-Return of the King yesterday, opening day here in Thailand. It was the only movie that I've really been looking forward to seeing this year, and it didn't disappoint. The ending was perhaps a bit drawn out, but we still enjoyed it anyway. Siam Center, the complex where we watched the movie, is a pretty swanky shopping area... probably more high-end than the nicest high-end places in Seattle! We gorged on some really good sushi (for a change), which cost us a whopping $4 each.

We've definitely been getting a bit more exposure to the fact that Christmas is around the corner... they are playing Christmas carols and in the fancier hotels and shops, they've got Christmas lights and decorations up. We haven't had much in the way of any reminders that it's supposed to be holiday shopping season, which has been nice.

Going to check up on the upload now. Talk to you later!

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Bangkok: It's all about Eating and Shopping
Bangkok, Thailand

Arriving back in Bangkok, we prepared ourselves for a week of getting used to this bustling city. We caught a taxi to the Viengtai Hotel, in the famous Khao San Area. This hotel is the one used by Intrepid, so we thought it'll just be easier if we stayed here. The most expensive hotel in this area, it's certainly very affordable by western standards.

We were both quite tired (I didn't sleep well the night before, and Winston was recovering) so decided to do nothing the rest of the day. We hung out in our AC room, watched movies on the TV and ordered room service. At 10:30pm, we got a call from our friend Derek. He was downstairs in the lobby, so we hurried down to join him. Derek is a friend from our undergrad; we hadn't seen him since 1999 so we were happy to be able to meet up with him when we found out that we would all be in Thailand at the same time.

It turned out that Derek and his friend Miles (both doctors living in Rossland, BC) were just staying a couple of blocks away. We walked with Derek and met up with Miles, along with Gene and Christian, who are from Golden, BC. We chatted over a few bottles of Chang (cheap beer) and Phad Thai (just 25cents each for a plate). It was fun to catch up, but it was past midnight by the time we split up and made plans to meet up again for dinner the next day.

Tuesday morning, after having breakfast (buffet every morning was included in our room rate), we took a taxi to the Vietnamese Embassy. Bangkok is known for lousy traffic; it took us almost an hour to get to the embassy. We received our 30 day visa from Vietnam, and hopped into another taxi towards the Cambodian Embassy (luckily it was just a few minutes away).

There was a lineup of over 20 people when we got there, so after lining for an hour, it was finally our turn to submit our application. To our surprise, the officer there told us to return at 5pm to pick up our passport. Yippee. Instead of heading back to our hotel and travelling another hour out there, we decided to walk around the shopping area just southwest of Lumbini Park.

We went into the Pan Pacific Hotel, and Winston asked the concierge where we could go watch the LOTR: Return of the King. It is scheduled to be released on Friday morning here, so we plan on heading out to Siam Center to catch a show tomorrow. We found an optical store where Winston was able to get a pair of new prescription sunglasses that afternoon. We did some souvenior shopping, but mostly just walked around. At 5pm, we reached the Cambodian Embassy and picked up our passport and headed back to the hotel.

We met up with Derek and gang, and then walked to a nice local restaurant not too far away. Gene and Chris were flying that evening, while Derek and Miles were leaving early the next morning. We ordered several yummy dishes to share and then said our goodbyes.

Yesterday, we didn't do a whole lot. Winston spent most of the day on the laptop, working on the Nepal and Bhutan pages, and I walked around the area. There are street stalls selling all sorts of things: sushi, toys, hair accessories, clothing, souvenirs, fruits, pretty much anything you can think of. I also found several fun pastry and spice shops and got fun food to try.

We dropped off a bag of laundry and then bought some chicken satay on the street. Yummy. Winston also got some fried noodles, then we finished off with pineapple and watermelon juice. It is great that we have access to so much variety and cheap food just on our street.

Today is very similar to yesterday. I had noodle soup for lunch (seems to be a daily thing here), and did some shopping. We'll probably be online quite a bit today, catching up on email, etc. It is overcast outside, and not too hot today. It's been nice having these few days to just hang out and get caught up. Bangkok is definitely a very busy city, dirty, noisy and full of people, but it certainly has earned its reputation as a very easy and fun place to visit. Food is good and cheap, as is the shopping. Hm, I think I'll go pick up another watermelon juice today. It sounds sweet and refreshing. Bye for now.

Relaxing in Phuket
Bangkok, Thailand

We're back in Bangkok now, with several days to hang out until we meet up with our new Intrepid group this coming Sunday. We had a great time in Phuket, hanging out with Lisa and Simon, our friends from Vancouver who we don't get to see too much when we're at home. Unfortunately Winston got sick on the island, so he didn't get to go diving (Phuket's one of the world famous dive places).

After checking out from the Marriott in Bangkok, we took a taxi over to the Impact Center, the site of the E-Expo. We brought our luggage with us since it didn't make sense to go all the way back to the city when we were staying out by the airport. Luckily for us the nice people at the welcome booth were willing to let us store our bags behind the counter as there was nowhere else we could've left them. It was also thanks to nice people at the ticket counter that we got to go in for free. Apparently this was an industry sponsored event; most people who showed up had invitations. The girl probably felt sorry for us confused tourist and gave us 2 visitor stickers.

The event itself wasn't quite what we expected; I guess we were hoping to see more high tech state-of-the-art devices, but it was mostly displays of laptops and peripherals (lots of digital cameras). After finishing a round of the entire place, we had some food at the food court downstairs. We were surprised that food was still cheap considering it was a convention. The prices would've gone up by 100% if this was back at home. We hopped into a taxi and made it to the Asia Airport Hotel.

The hotel is part of the Zeer Complex, which is a multistoreyed shopping center, mostly of computer stores. We had never seen so much computer related equipment in one location; cdroms (many with colours and pictures on them), cases, monitors, laptops, all kinds of adapters, etc. Pretty much everything you would need that goes into or connect with a laptop or PC is for sale. We were looking for a portable digital storage device (to have a duplicate copy of our pictures) but there wasn't anything like that there.

We did not realize that immediately outside of the Zeer Complex, was a night market. That was a huge treat! We walked around non-food area but didn't get anything. Then when we hit the food area, we were as excited as little kids on xmas day. Hehe. We bought watermelon, spring rolls, chicken satay, fishball kebabs, coconut juice, pickled mango, and something else which I can't remember right now. Everything tasted so good, and extremely inexpensive. YUMMY!

We slept in the next morning (10th of December), and just had enough time to catch a quick bowl of soup noodles at the food court downstairs before getting on a shuttle for the airport. It was very easy flying to Phuket out of the domestic airport. We got to enjoy some goodies at the Royal Orchid VIP lounge first (I have been taking advantage of the fresh pineapple, papaya and watermelon wherever we go). It was a huge plane to Phuket (economy ended in row 66) but I suppose it is a very popular route. In fact, our flight was quite full on the way there, with many of them passengers who had just connected from international arrivals.

We landed just 10 mins ahead of Lisa and Simon, so the timing worked out great. Winston went to talk to the folks at the Marriot Vacation Club to see if we could get a 2 night free stay there for attending a 90 min presentation, but unfortunately those were all full during our visit. No matter. We paid for a pre paid taxi to Patong Beach, and on the way there, our taxi driver made an unannounced stop at a travel agency and got out. A lady showed up at our window waving brochures and asked if she could book a hotel or tours for us. Needless to say, we did not give our taxi driver any opportunity to earn a commission.

The Club Bamboo Hotel is nestled at the foothills, so away from the beach. The hotel did provide hourly shuttles to the town and beachfront, and we made use of this service. Our rooms were side by side bungalow suites (king bed, 2 sofas, TV, mini fridge, A/C and full bath). The first evening, we caught a shuttle to the middle of town and walked around until we found a cafe to have dinner. There are tons of tailors and souvenir stalls in Patong Beach, along with seafood restaurants. There were also tons of foreigners, probably the most fair hair we've seen since being in India.

We walked for a bit after dinner, scoping out where to go shopping the next few days. It was interesting to see so many bars, serving mostly beer and cocktails, fronted by young Thai girls in skimpy clothing. We went to the night market but it was more food than anything else, and the people there all shouted at us in Mandarin to eat at their stalls. We bought some fruits (longan, mango, jackfruit), then stopped by a coffee shop while Winston went to use the Internet.

It was drizzling a bit the first day there, but the weather held up and improved over the course of our stay. Winston stayed up all night playing with the new laptop (installing software) that Lisa and Simon so kindly transported it for us all the way from Seattle. As I'm typing this, he's in our hotel room across the street (at the Viengtai) working on the new homepage and pages for Nepal and Bhutan.

Breakfast at the hotel were quite good; we usually had rice broth which is what we call congee. They use lots of ginger in their preparation, so it turns out quite tasty. In the morning, we headed out to Santana Diving, where Winston and Simon signed up for a 4 dive trip out at Phi-Phi island, on Saturday. Lisa and I will go on a snorkel trip instead, to the same island, but with a different company. We didn't want to be out till 9:30pm!

After making the arrangements, we walked along the beach (it was a nice sandy beach with turquoise blue water) then took a tuk-tuk to Phuket Town, which is 15km away. We attempted to bargain for our fare, and finally agreed to stop in at a 'tourist stop' to save 100 baht (so the driver could get free petroleum for his vehicle by bring us there). We wandered around the store admiring the jewellery and nice silk products there. There were actually decently priced gemstones set in silver, but we were out of there before Lisa or I could actually decide to buy something.

We went up a hill in Phuket Town, and enjoyed a delicious lunch overlooking the city and the bay. Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us when we came out, and drove us down to the city, where we got off and walked around for a bit. It was quite warm in the mid day sun, and there wasn't too much activity around town. So after an hour, we hopped back into our tuk-tuk and headed back to Patong.

We booked a sea cave canoe trip for the next day, and tickets for Fantasea (a huge theme show on the island) through our hotel, and received 4 coupons for a free tailor made silk shirt. So before dinner that night, we headed to Creative Tailoring and got measured for the shirts. Lisa upgraded hers to Thai silk, and paid a little extra to get the better material. We were told to return the next evening.

Dinner was at Baan Rim Pa (highly recommended if you are ever in Phuket). The food was delicious, and there was a lady making art out of fruits. I think Winston will post the photo we took; the finished products were quite exquisite. Poor Winston had begun to feel sick after lunch, so he didn't get to eat as much as the rest of us.

In the morning, we were picked up at 7:30am and driven to the pier which was about 40mins away. There we were transported to a boat (about 20 of us) on a floating jetty and then spent an hour out into Phang Nga Bay. With this trip, every canoe is guided and paddled by excellent guides who took care of us the entire day. Our guide Billy, wore sunglasses, and could speak Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and Mandarin. He was an incredibly strong paddler, and made sure that we were safe the entire time.

We visited 4 caves (Diamond, Mangrove, Hong Island, and Bat) and 3 islands (Panak, Hong, and Lawa). The sea was rough so it was quite interesting getting in and out of the first two caves. In many cases, we have to lie flat in the canoe, while depending on the guide to paddle or use his hands such that we were never in contact with any of the staglatites or barnacles of the caves. On our way out of the first cave, we were the very last canoe and the water was rising out. It was quite an adventure as we laid there, listening to the sound of air being released out of our canoes, to make it soft enough so that we could just squeeze with less than a foot of space between the water and the canoe. Whew...

It was a fun day, with great food on the boat. We also go to relax on the white beach of Lawa before heading back to Phuket. In the evening, Simon, Lisa and I went to town while Winston was too sick too join us :( We picked up the guys' shirts, but had to get fitted for ours. They called in the dress makers, and at the time, our shirts were just roughly sewn together, Lisa's looking very much like a rice sack. Oh by the way, Lisa's also 5 month pregnant, which is very exciting. Baby is due in early April!!

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was very clear that Winston was going to be too sick to go diving the next day. By morning time, it was decided that Simon would take my place going to Phi Phi Island with Lisa, while I stayed back to look after my husband. By lunch time, he felt well enough to get up and eat, and watch TV. So, I went to town, and got a Thai massage as well as foot reflexology. Can we spell RELAX? :) It was very nice indeed. I went shopping for a bit and then headed back to get ready for the evening.

Lisa and Simon returned, quite sunburnt from their trip. They fell asleep on the deck of their boat (2 hour ride). hehe.. We went out for dinner at a seafood restaurant in town and then took a tuk-tuk to Fantasea. The whole thing took us by surprise. We had all seen pictures of the event, with elephants, dancers etc on a big stage. What we had not realized what how big the park really was.. sort of like Disneyland. There were neon lights of various designs, fountains, xmas music, village with whimsical buildings and tons of toys and gadgets to buy, restaurants, carnival games and rides.

The show itself was very interesting. An hour long, there were many people and animals involved: dancers, clowns, magicians, trapeze performers, circus elephants, shadow puppets, pigeons, chickens, water buffalo and other animals. Lights, musical instruments, fire, smoke and songs filled the program. See http://www.phuket-fantasea.com for more info.

The next morning, we headed into town in hopes of getting massages and doing some shopping. We learnt that Phuket isn't much of an early Sunday morning town. The shops and bars were open late the night before, so at 9am, there was not much activity around town. To our disappointment, the tailor where Lisa and I had to pick up our shirts was not due to open till 5pm that evening. We were leaving Patong beach for the JW Marriott Resort and Spa which is located north of the airport; about 50 minutes away from Patong. We just made plans to call them and hope that they would be willing to deliver the clothing to the Marriott.

Walking around, we finally found a massage place that could take all four of us. We each received an hour of Thai massage. It was very nice; Lisa didn't get as much done on her back (or butt) due to her belly. The guys on the other hand, were offered 'special massages' but both declined. You can ask Winston more about that :)

We checked out of Club Bamboo, and rode up to the Marriott. Wow.. what a beautiful resort. Too bad it cost $200 a night; it would have been nice to spend more time there. We got to use up Winston's Marriott Rewards for our free stay there; we had a nice garden view room, with 2 beds, and a humongous bathroom. After a fantastic lunch, we changed into our swimming trunks and walked down to the ocean. The beach here is private, since the resort is quite remote. The sand wasn't soft white like Patong beach's, but orange with fine grain (there were tons of seashells laying around). The surf was quite strong, and it was neat to sea the white waves on the sand as the water fell back into the ocean.

We ended up all getting wet (with our clothes on still) as we were quite unprepared for the strength or the height of the surf. Hehe.. quite funny. Winston and Simon decided to be brave and pose for pictures in the water so we could show how high the waves were. In the process, one of the waves returning to the ocean took Winston's sun glasses with it. One second it was on his face, next second, gone. We looked for a while, but there was not way we would be able to find his shades with the strong waves.

Later, on our way back to the pool, we noticed the beach flag. RED: for swimming not allowed. Ooops!! The pool was comfortable, clean and smooth. We enjoyed our poolside lounge and cocktails. Ahh.. that was a great way to end our stay in Phuket. For dinner, we enjoyed the seafood buffet. We could hear the waves crashing onto the beach, so went for a walk after dinner.

We left Phuket on Monday, December 15th. Lisa and Simon were connecting to Hong Kong via Phuket, so even though we were on the same flight, they went to a different terminal to clear immigration. We met up on the plane (they were in business class) and then had to say goodbye after we landed. They had a 3 hour layover in Bangkok, and we were hoping to have lunch together, but because of the security clearance, they had to be whisked away to the International lounge. It was fun, you guys!!

I'll end this for now, and start another blog for Bangkok. I did start this a couple of days ago, but just haven't been able to finish it in order to publish it on the web.


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