#header-inner { margin: auto; text-align: center; }


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rules for "playing" Songkran in Thailand:

Songkran, or Thailand's New Year celebration, happens every year on April 13-15.  When I visited Thailand in 2004 with my brothers we were unaware of this holiday and all that it entailed, so this time I made sure I was armed and ready.
These days, Songkran is pretty much one giant water fight for locals and farang alike, but it hasn't always been this wild. For some historical context, I'll hand it over to my good friend Wikipedia: "The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder." Today, it's pretty much grab a water- gun/hose/bucket/chunk of ice and throw it on anyone who may decide to cross your path. Thais refer to the celebration as "playing Songkran" (it's pretty obvious why) and although it's a nationwide celebration, the real place to party is up north in Chiang Mai where people play Songkran for a whopping 6 days.

So what are the rules for playing Songkran? In my humble opinion...

  • Be prepared. If you go outside, you will get wet. Mai pen rai, don't get mad, get even. Be ready with a waterproof bag to protect your money/phone/camera, and don't wear anything that can't handle a little, ok a lot, of water.
  • Be armed. Don't expect people to be nice to you because you are unarmed. You're going to need a weapon. Emily, Amy and I pretty much bought the first set of water-guns we laid eyes on when we got off the plane, but they were not of high quality and only lasted about 25 minutes before they started to leak more water than they could spray.  My next weapon of choice? A bucket.  The perfect tool for grabbing some of the muddy canal water and tossing it to the crowd. 
  • Be creative. The party pretty much stops at night, but you can never be too sure when you round a corner that there won't be someone waiting to douse you with water.  The last night of Songkran, the party was still raging when we decided to head out to dinner so we made some mad dashes across streets, down alleyways, and entered a restaurant from the back entrance crossing an abandoned parking lot in order to avoid getting wet. 
  • Have fun.  Songkran is a celebration unlike anything I've ever participated in, in America or any other country I've traveled to.  If you can't have fun in a giant water fight when it's 100 degrees outside, we're probably not meant to be friends.  Thai people know how to have a good time, and taking part in this celebration is seriously one of my favorite experiences in my 25 years on Earth.  Being able to take part in this nationwide party, and watching Thai people turn an entire city into their personal playground, is a beautiful thing.  Sanuk mak mak! 
Now for some visuals:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

THAIsland Time!

I made it home from the epic adventures with Megh and Nell on a Tuesday and had just enough time to do some laundry and repack my backpack before heading into Bangkok to pick up my sister Emily on Thursday.  We met up with Emily's college roommate Amy and after spending Friday checking out Bangkok we hopped on an overnight bus to Khao Lak, about 100Ks north of Phuket and known for its amazing scuba diving sites. We arrived to Khao Lak at 7am and Emily and Amy immediately took off for scuba diving while I parked myself at the beach for the day.

The next day I opted to join Emily and Amy out in the Similan Islands - about a 2 hour speedboat ride from Khao Lak. There was only one other person snorkeling with me so it kind of felt like I was on my own in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fish, of course.  At one point I nearly had a panic attack when my fellow snorkeler grabbed me with a nervous look and started pointing at something right next to me, but I was relieved when I turned just in time to see not a shark, but a large sea turtle swim right past me.  It was quite a beautiful sight and I was tempted to grab on and go for a ride but still also recovering from my momentary freak out, so I snapped a pic with my underwater camera and found my way back to the boat.  I love snorkeling, but there's no way I'll ever try scuba diving, I tend to get way too scared by the unfamiliar animals swimming with me.
Our last day in Khao Lak we decided to do a tour of Khao Sok National Park, a gorgeous rainforest full of limestone mountains and one of the world's largest flowers (which was not in bloom, unfortunately!)We rode some elephants, took a canoe ride, tried our skills at a rope swing into the river, and stopped at a viewpoint for some great scenic shots.
After grabbing some banana shakes the next morning we made our way to Ko Phi Phi for an experience that is thus far one of my favorites in Thailand.  I had some friends a few months back who found out about the opportunity to camp overnight on Maya Bay, one of Thailand's most famous beaches due to its appearance in the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio.  If you head to Maya Bay during the day, and I had been there twice before, you will find the beach teeming with tourists and longtail boats, so as soon as I found out about the chance to have the beach to yourself at night, I was all in.  We started off the trip with some snorkeling stops on our way to Maya Bay from Ko Phi Phi and once we arrived we waved good-bye to the tourists and waited until the last longtail boat left before the party got started.  Since it is Thailand, there were of course buckets to be served and fire shows to be seen, and as soon as the clock struck midnight Songkran, or Thai New Year, had officially begun so we were immediately involved in a full scale water war.  Luckily our fellow campers - there were only 25 of us - were good people, so we had a really fun time.  We went to sleep on straw mats in the sand watching for shooting stars (I saw 3!) and trying to remember the names of various constellations.  Maya Bay Camping is definitely the way to experience Maya Bay away from all the crowds, and easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

When we made it back to Phi Phi the next day, Songkran revelry was in full effect and we were eager to catch our plane up to Chiang Mai to join in the party...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hong Kong & Macau: We love SARs!

The last stop on the Tour De Asia with Nell and Meghan brought us to Hong Kong and Macau, officially two Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China.  As we were paging through the guidebook on the plane, our seat mate from Hong Kong could not stop raving about how efficient we would find Hong Kong, and he was most definitely right on the mark.  I suppose that sometimes compared to Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia almost anything would seem efficient, but Hong Kong really knows how to keep things running smoothly.  It's hard to compare Hong Kong with the rest of the stops on the tour because it was so clean, big and modern - but it was one of my favorite stops along the way.

The first night our plane didn't get in until 9pm and by the time we got to our hostel it was almost 11 so we walked down the street to try and find some food and stumbled upon a restaurant called "Black & White" full of toothless waiters and a giant tank of fish that you could choose to eat for dinner if you'd like.  I played it safe with a bowl of noodles that the chef cut up with scissors, it was salty and had a strong taste of shrimp/seafood which I do not like at all so it ended up being my only disappointing meal during the 3 weeks - but from there all of our culinary experiences in Hong Kong would only go up.
We spent most of our time in Hong Kong walking around, taking the MRT (subway), eating dim sum, hanging out by the waterfront, shopping at all the markets (ladies, goldfish, bird, Temple Street, etc.), riding up the world's longest outdoor covered escalator, and dancing in the streets of Lan Kwai Fong. The first full day we also took the tram up to Victoria's Peak where we spent a few hours checking out the incredible views of the city's skyline by day, sunset and night.  We camped out with a few photographers who told us they were waiting for "the magic moment" just after the sunsets and before it gets too dark out - it definitely made for some beautiful photos!

We also took a day trip to Macau, another SAR, that is heavily influenced by its history as a colony of Portugal.  We checked out some of the architecture, the casinos that dominate much of Macau's economy, and had an amazing Portuguese feast at Fernando's Restaurant on Hac Sa or Black Sand Beach. Due to a long ferry ride and a really slow process at immigration, Macau was definitely not my favorite place, but I did get to add some passport stamps from my stopover there.

We finished off our time in Hong Kong with 3 of the most amazing meals I've eaten since leaving America.  The first stop was 208 Duecento Otto where a friend of a friend was the head chef, he took care of us all night and brought out some truly amazing Italian dishes that you cannot find in Thailand - bruschetta, fresh mozzarella, salami pizza, New York style cheesecake - it was heavenly! Our last day we decided we had to follow the New York Times recommendation and check out Tim Ho Wan for its dumplings.  Apparently, Tim Ho Wan is the world's cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant- in order to get a seat we had to come by the restaurant at 10 am to pick up a ticket that told us we would have a table in 2.5 hours, we then came back at the designated time and waited another hour to be seated, but it was well worth the wait.  The bbq pork buns and spinach dumplings were sooooo delicious! I want more. That night, we checked out the light show from the Kowloon side of Hong Kong before heading back to the island to meet up with one of Meghan's family friends for dinner at the "American Club" up on the 48th floor of a building on the Harbor.  With amazing views once again, we were treated to a meal of steak, Caesar salad, red wine and apple pie - once again all things you won't find in Thailand.  It was an amazing ending to a whirlwind trip through Asia, I'm so glad I'm about to hit the road again to explore the islands and Angkor Wat in Cambodia - traveling is truly an addiction!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Two Motorbikes, Two Girlfriends

The next morning we were on the move once again, this time via bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.  Thankfully, this border crossing was much easier and because we had secured our Visas in advance all we had to do was walk across the border and get back on the bus.  As soon as we entered the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City we were swamped by motorbikes.  I had heard that Vietnam was full of them, but HCMC has entire lanes dedicated to motorbikes.  Also, the amount of stuff that people can carry on their motorbikes will blow your mind, I saw people riding along with: a refrigerator, 10 large car tires, 3 small children and a dog, it's amazing that these bikes can stay upright.  We were also told by our guide that motorbikes are a good sign of status in HCMC, if you have a good motorbike, you have a beautiful girlfriend.  And...if you have 2 motorbikes, you have 2 girlfriends! : )

I won a Twitter contest the day before we left for our trip thanks to Art of Backpacking for a $200 hotel voucher that goes very far in Vietnam, so we got to stay in a nice hotel in perfect location in HCMC. While in HCMC we sampled all of the local delicacies (well, not dog meat or fried baby birds) including fresh pastries and baguettes, Pho noodle soup, crushed rice dishes, and lots of iced coffee. One of my favorite things about the city was the process involved in crossing the street, there are no stoplights so cars, food carts, cyclos, and motorbikes are coming at you from all angles.  The best strategy is just to start walking and assume that people will swerve to avoid you, and if you're feeling local just put out your hand up and bat the cars away.  We also relied on the locals to escort us across the street, we would wait until someone came up and then just kind of stalk them across the street - it worked out great! We also took a cyclo tour and had fun sitting back and watching the bikes zoom by while we checked out the Post Office, the Opera House, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
One day we took a trip to the War Remnants Museum - an extremely interesting experience to see the Vietnam War presented from the Vietnam perspective.  As an American, you can't walk through this museum and not feel a tremendous amount of guilt.  Reading about the atrocities that occurred in Vietnam during the war and seeing it presented through such gruesome photographs and personal stories was a very difficult thing.  It was especially hard to walk through the section dedicated to the victims of the Agent Orange chemical attacks by the American forces, and to learn that people are still being born with birth defects and disabilities because of the chemicals spread over 30 years ago.
On our last day in Vietnam we signed up for a tour of the Mekong Delta.  For $10 we took a boat ride along the Mekong, checked out a coconut candy plant, took bike rides around a local village, had locals take us down the Mekong canals by canoe, and got to pose for a photo with a boa constrictor - or some version of a very large snake. It was really interesting to see how people live in the Delta region and to be able to see what life is like in the Vietnam countryside. Up next: off to explore some SARs!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Phnom Penh: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The next stop on the tour was Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It is kind of a hard stop to blog about because it is a very dynamic city full of highs and lows.  While our stay there was short, only 2 nights, we managed to see and eat our way through much of the city. Luckily, a friend of a friend helped us to track down an apartment to rent for the 2 nights we were there.  Since we were a little nervous about safety, we paid extra and definitely got our money's worth in a 3 story fully furnished apartment right on the busy Street 240.  We kicked off our PP experience by meeting our friends for happy hour at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, where Jackie O. once stayed and many reporters set up camp during the Cambodian Genocide. That night we also walked along the riverfront, hit up the night market where you could buy almost anything for $1, and then checked out some live music and a rooftop bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club before we called it a night.
The next day we decided to rent a tuk-tuk since it would be our only full day in PP and we had a huge list of things to see/do.  Our friend hired a driver outside her apartment and for $15 he took Nell, Meghan and our friend Alex around for the whole day.  We began the day at the Russian Market by sampling what is known on Facebook as the "Best Iced Coffee in Phnom Penh."  The coffee definitely lived up to its billing and the taste was as good as the presentation.  We did a little shopping in the market before hopping back in the tuk-tuk where our day took a turn from the light and fun to the dark and heavy.
Our next stop was the S-21 Museum, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, right in the center of PP. During the years of Cambodia's Genocide (1974-1979), in which more than 20% of Cambodia's population was killed, this former school was used as a prison, interrogation, and extermination center by the Khmer Rouge regime.  Walking through the halls of this former school was an extremely difficult experience.  Metal bed frames, torture equipment, and hand-shaped blood stains can still be found in the classrooms turned torture chambers.  Before I came to Cambodia, I read up on the Genocide by reading Loung Ung's memoir of the events titled "First They Killed My Father," it was a moving and inspiring book and if you're interested in learning more about the Genocide, I encourage you to read it.
From the S-21 museum our tuk-tuk driver drove us about 15 kms outside of PP to Choeung Ek, better known as "The Killing Fields."  In these fields, the Khmer Rouge executed about 17,000 people, many from S-21, including women and children.  Today, Choeung Ek is the home to a museum and memorial stupa that contains around 5,000 skulls dug up from the mass graves on site.  After walking around the fields for around an hour I couldn't help but feel physically ill.  After visiting these sites, I was amazed and inspired by the will of the Cambodian people to survive and move towards peace after such a tremendous national tragedy.  That night we kept it low-key and went to Friends Restaurant/Shop/Nail Salon.  Friends is an NGO that helps to reintegrate street children into society by giving them training and education in the restaurant, hospitality and beauty industries, among other things.  The meal was amazing and an excellent end to our time in PP.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sihanoukville, Cambodia: The original Snooki

Before MTV introduced this Snooki into the world, another one was well known among backpacker circles on the "Banana Pancake Trail" through Southeast Asia. That would be Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  I first heard of Snooki from some backpacking travel bloggers that I follow on Twitter, and after it kept coming up as a place to see, I knew we had to add it to our itinerary.

Snooki was pretty much exactly as advertised: lots of hostels, lots of bars, lots of beaches, and lots of cute children on the beach who try to sell you manicures, bracelets, hair braiding, anything you want! Of course, if you follow all the warning signs around town (which we did) you aren't supposed to buy anything from these children as it would only perpetuate their exploitation. (Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clx1ZlmYu2I).  It was hard to say no to these children, but luckily there are a multitude of NGOs working on their behalf that you can support by visiting stores, restaurants and even hostels/hotels.

We stayed on Serendipity Beach which seems to be the main spot for backpackers and is bustling with hostels and beachside bars and clubs.  The first day we did a little market shopping before heeding the advice of our hotel manager, Damien, who told us that the nicest beach was about an hour and a half's walk on Otres Beach, and apparently it was the place to watch the sunset.  Since I'm a sucker for beautiful sunsets on the beach we decided to head that way, it was a nice walk there but unfortunately started to rain just as the sun was about to set, so instead of a great sunset we huddled under a metal bungalow to wait out the thunderstorm.  Once it was over, it was already dark and we were quite a ways away from our hostel so we hopped in a tuk-tuk for the return trip.  The tuk-tuk ride ended up being one of the more terrifying rides of my life as it was on a red-dirt road that had just been soaked by the rains, so our poor driver had to drive in figure eights the whole way home to avoid potholes and puddles.  At one point I said to the other girls, "this is one of those moments where if our parents could see us - with no idea where we are in the middle of a field in Cambodia, driving next to yaks, through a shantytown and with no lights in sight - they would probably freak out." Luckily, our driver was an expert and we made it back to the hostel safe and dry, ready for another night out on the town where we found ourselves in the middle of a "white party" that required florescent body paint that will apparently never come out of clothes. The next day we packed our bags once again and hit the Cambodian highways for the journey to Phnom Penh.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Koh Kong, Cambodia: Don't Drink and Tuk-Tuk

I think it's safe to say that going into Cambodia the three of us were slightly apprehensive.  We had heard and read about a lot of petty theft, purse snatching, even "brick attacks" on foreigners (these are the types of things you don't tell your parents before you go somewhere...) and from the moment we walked across the border it was clear that Cambodia had a bit more of a renegade feel than Thailand.  I was, however, very pleasantly surprised by Cambodia.  The countryside was beautiful, the people were very friendly and helpful, the food was delicious (Khmer curry!) and the beaches were great.

When we arrived at the border by minivan we proceeded to stamp out of Thailand and were ushered through a gate on to a dirt road that was surrounded by trees on one side and water on the other.  With no one directing us and no signs, we were unsure of where we were supposed to go or if we were even across the border, but we stumbled upon the immigration stand.  We were immediately surrounded by men in skinny jeans and trucker hats (Cambodian fashion) who held a contraption near our head that supposedly measured our temperature and gave us a clean bill of health.  They then took control and filled out all of our forms and paperwork before we realized we should be doing this by ourselves and they began to ask us for their "tip."  We also paid double the price for our Visa but at that point decided it was a moot point to try and argue. Definitely not the typical border crossing/immigration checkpoint.  Once we survived this debacle we had to get ourselves into the town of Koh Kong to find a place to stay. Using our trusty Lonely Planet guidebooks we decided on Ramsey Buntam Guesthouse.  It wasn't the most luxurious of places, with dead mosquitoes littering the sheets and a giant dead cockroach on the ground, but it was monsooning outside and we weren't in the mood to traipse around town to find another place.

The location turned out to be perfect, however, because right next door was Paddy's Bamboo Pub - a very small pub with just a few tables. After enjoying a delicious meal of Khmer Curry and some Angkor Beer, we were invited by a group of Cambodian men behind us to join their table and have a drink.  Only a couple of the men were fluent in English so we stumbled our way through some hilarious conversations and taught them some of our favorite Americanisms such as the fist pump and "Booyeah!" The owner, Paddy, came out and joined us for a bit and told us about his dream to start a hostel and his goals of helping his fellow Cambodians to have work and learn English, quite the amazing fellow! After a few rounds, which involved a "cheers" every other drink, literally, we were invited to join the group at a club for some dancing.  We were wiped out from our trek though and decided to take a pass as our only way home would be from one of the guys, a tuk-tuk driver, who had been downing beers with us until he stopped so he could be the "designated tuk-tuk driver." I'm sure it would have been a very memorable experience, but I was ok with skipping out this time around.

The next morning we had some great breakfast with baguettes (real bread! Can't get this in Thailand!) before Paddy personally gave us a ride, by tuk-tuk of course, to the bus station so we could head down south to the beaches of Sihanoukville.  There wasn't a whole lot happening in Koh Kong, but Paddy's Pub made it a very worthwhile stop on our trip!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thailand: It's Easy!

Time for some deets on exactly what I've been up to while I've been wondering around SE Asia for the past few weeks. The adventure began with a trip to the BKK airport to pick up Megh to bring her back to show off our little hometown among the rice paddies.  Suphanburi is small so we were able to show her the whole town in a day - the school, the market, the dragon, the tower, and then on to our favorite Som Tom restaurant.  If you've never had Som Tom - spicy papaya salad - I highly recommend you test it out, I'm not sure if it's as good in the States as it is here with all the fresh fruits and veggies, but add some sticky rice to the meal and you are golden.

That night we headed into Bangkok to hit up the bumping backpacking hot spot that is Khao San Road, home to countless street vendors, beer tanks, and blasting techno music.  It's definitely the place to be for backpackers.  The next day we tried to cram in as much of Bangkok as possible - The Grand Palace, Siam, and Chatuchak Market before hopping an overnight bus to the island of Koh Chang.

 Unfortunately, the overnight bus ended up only taking 4 hours, so we left Bangkok at 11:30 pm and were dropped off literally on the side of the road at 3:45 am.  Luckily, we were dropped off at a tourist office where we hopped in a songtow for a ride to the island ferry and we finally made it to the island and to our hostel (exhausted!) around 7 am.

Koh Chang is a gorgeous place and one of my favorite island stops in Thailand so far.  We stayed in a great little hostel called Rock Sand Resort with a balcony that was directly over the clear blue ocean. Our first major character of the trip was the hotel owner who we lovingly nicknamed Mr. Whiskers due to the very long hairs growing out of his chin - a trend we spotted all over Asia.  We could not understand anything he said to us, in Thai or English, during our stay there, but he would finish almost every answer to our questions with "It's easssssy." One of our first stops was a trip into the main area for one of the more interesting massage experiences I've had so far in Thailand.  As soon as we got there they had us strip down and covered us with little hand towels... interesting.  Due to some lucky timing on our part, there just so happened to be a parade going through town at that very moment, and the ladies doing the massage couldn't bear to miss it so they opened the curtains wide, and as we lay there covered in hand towels a line of children dressed like dragons and beating drums strolled past the windows while we put on a show of our own for the crowds outside.
Our last day in Koh Chang we had to give Megh the typical Thailand experience of riding an elephant.  We had a friendly elephant named Hong Thong (after a brand of Thai whiskey) who took us on a journey through a bit of jungle, over some rocks and through the trees.  Megh got her turn to sit on the elephant and play mahout and was quite the driver, if not a slightly nervous one.  We finished up our time in Thailand with another sampling of Pad Thai for dinner and toasted with some Singha beer.  Next stop: Cambodia!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tour de Asia by the numbers...

I have returned from part 1 of my epic summer adventure! It was a whirlwind trip with two of my best friends that was full of delicious food, beautiful scenery, crazy characters, lots of shopping, immigration lines, jazzercise, Asian beer brands, florescent body paint, dim sum, tuk-tuks, flash mob dances, tour guides, and jumping shots. Sadly, it ended this morning with a tearful good-bye to Megh at the Hong Kong airport, but it was so much fun having a visitor from the US and checking out so many amazing places together, definitely a trip I'll remember forever.

I'll post some more details on each stop later, but for now here's a breakdown by the numbers of my 3 week jaunt around Asia:
  • 3: Countries visited.  Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam.
  • 2: Special Administrative Regions (SARs) visited. That would be Macau and Hong Kong, which are SARs of China. 
  • 10: Cuisines sampled.  While my life in Thailand revolves around rice or noodles, the rest of Asia sure has a lot to offer.  I ate some of the best meals of my life in the past 3 weeks, including a few Michelin starred hot spots.  It was definitely a treat for the taste buds! We tried out some Cambodian, French, Vietnamese, Chinese (Cantonese), Italian, American, Thai, Mexican, Australian, Portuguese - delish! 
  • 16: Passport stamps added. With lots of back and forth and in and out for the odd day trips, the trip to Bangkok a few weeks back to add pages to my passport certainly proved to be necessary. 
  • 13: Modes of transportation.  Tuk-Tuk. Cyclo. Minivan. Chartered Bus. Longtail Boat. Airplane. Ferry. Cab. Bicycle. Canoe. Songtow. Car. Elephant. 
  • 1: Number of poisonous snakes held. Yep. For some reason we decided to take a photo with a boa constrictor. Booyeah! 
  • 348: Impromptu singing sessions.  Megh and I tested our harmonization skills and Nell attempted to tune us out but joined in with the occasional high note, for some reason we were human jukeboxes for the entire trip, not necessarily a bad thing in the land of karaoke. 
  • 5: Currencies used. To put our singing skills to good use, we decided to make up a song for every currency: Thailand - "I like big BAHT and I cannot lie" (Sir Mix-A-Lot). Cambodia: "I've got RIEL" (J-LO and Ja Rule). Vietnam: "Let me see that DONG." (Sisqo). Hong Kong: "DOLLAR, Dolla bills y'all" (Wyclef and Akon).  Macau: "Who's down with MOP? Yeah you know me" (Naughty by Nature). 
  • 5: Types of accommodation. From the room full of dead creatures in Koh Kong to the 3-floor private apartment in Phnom Penh, we definitely hit some highs and lows in our choices of accommodations.  There were mosquito nets, hotel slippers, overnight buses, dead cockroaches, bunk beds, cold water showers, beachfront views, t-shirts as towels, and outdoor toilets. 
  • 896: Pictures taken. My camera ran out of memory the very last night of the trip -success! Here's a very small sample and a couple of my favorite shots from the trip. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...