Ok, we're now a full week into 2015 and my vacation is officially over. Well technically, I've been back since last Friday the 2nd and, super-technically, apparently I didn't actually have to be at work today...but I thought I did and I'm here so vacation = over. It was an awesome trip and we saw and did a lot so without further adieu...here's the highlights:
1st Stop: Phetchaburi
Phetchaburi was mostly just a stop due to it being on the way to Hua Hin. I think that it only took a couple of hours to both get to Bangkok and then catch a van to Phetchaburi. Apparently it's not a huge tourist destination so we didn't have any trouble finding a place to stay. The place was cheap, and kinda cute, but overall it was actually my least favorite of places I've stayed so far. The cabins were poorly constructed, and the mosquito netting around the bed was purely for show (it had tons of holes) so I spent the night restlessly fending off mosquito attacks which is pretty much exactly as fun as it sounds. Luckily, we were only there for one night so I wasn't too worried about it. Oh, also the bathroom in Michael and Catherine's cabin had a tree growing up through the floor in the middle of it...so there's that.
The city itself was pretty cool though. After checking into the guesthouse, we went on a little walk through the city and checked out a couple temples. One place we went had some chedis built up into the mountain with walking paths up to the various sights. Also, it was completely overrun with monkeys who, as it turned out, were far more aggressive than any others I've seen in Thailand so far. Michael and I were both robbed of our sodas by some, apparently thirsty, monkeys. Catherine had one follow her for a little ways trying to grab her ankles for some reason. The monkeys definitely had the tourists outnumbered as well. Some of the paths were basically monkey hangouts, which made walking a little bit scary. We made it out fine though so it was all cool. I don't have many pics from Phetchaburi, and we didn't spend much time there, so we'll leave it at that. Moving on...
2nd Stop: Hua Hin
There are super cheap buses that run between Phetchaburi and Hua HIn so we jumped on one of those. It was a cramped ride but wasn't too bad. A random lady on the bus gave us some apples which was pretty friendly. Finding a place to stay in Hua Hin was a little bit trickier. With the area being a much bigger tourist draw, and with Christmas fast approaching, a lot of the places we'd looked up ahead of time were already full. Luckily, in touristy areas there's no shortage of guesthouses so we were able to lock down a place to stay without too much trouble. Paradise guesthouse, the place we ended up in, was nice, close to the beach, and was pretty much heads and shoulders above the place in Phetchaburi, so it worked out pretty well.
Hua Hin was pretty cool. Our first night we explored the giant night market that takes over a few of the streets each evening. I'd been searching for a decent hat for a few weeks, and I finally found a really nice one for only 300bt (about $10) oh and also some cool lounging around pants with elephant designs on them. We actually ended up wandering around the market for a few of the nights we were in Hua Hin. There was a lot of cool things to see plus the street vendor food is almost always a cheap, delicious option for either dinner or dessert. They also had Christmas lights strung up around the city which was a nice substitute for Downtown Frederick.
There were a ton of various bike tour options in Hua Hin, but Michael, Catherine, and I didn't feel like dropping a ton of money on a guided tour so we decided to wing it and rented some bikes to take our own tour. The goal was to make it all the way to a national park we were trying to visit, but it was really far away and the seats were super uncomfortable. After an hour or so of riding, we stumbled across a couple cool Wats on the shoreline. I don't remember the exact name of any of them (I'm not a very good tour guide) but they were really pretty. One also had some monkeys (including the baby monkey being groomed up above) who were way friendlier than those jerks from Phetchaburi...
After visiting one of the Wats we got back to the bikes to realize that the lock was completely broken and that two of our bikes were now locked together like some weird, impossible to use tandem bicycle. Luckily, we had the owners number, and he had a bolt cutters. After freeing the bikes, and realizing that we weren't even halfway to the park, we decided to call it quits just get a bus to the park tomorrow. That plan ended up working out super well. The next morning we were headed to breakfast but, before we decided what we wanted to eat, we saw a bus that was headed towards Khao Sam Roi Yot national park, so we jumped on and waited on breakfast until we got there.
Khao Sam Roi Yot was amazing. We hiked up, and back down, a mountain that goes into the main park area, and then went on a trail to the Phrayanakohn Caves which were incredible. There are sinkholes in the land above the caves that act as natural skylights so there was a lot more light and plant life than you'd expect when exploring a cave. Really the only bad thing about the park was that they wouldn't give us a discount to get into the park. Most national parks are free, or very cheap, for Thai nationals but cost around 200bt or so for foreigners. Usually, we can show our teacher ID cards and they'll give us the Thai citizen rate, but the park ranger lady at Khao Sam Roi Yot just wasn't having it.
We ended up having a pretty laid back Christmas. We ate a huge breakfast (that may or may not have started with ice cream) and then scoped out a decent area on the beach where we spent a majority of the late morning/early afternoon. For dinner we had a very non-traditional feast of Mexican food. Michael and Catherine hadn't had any since orientation in Bangkok, and it doesn't take much to convince me when Mexican food is concerned. It was definitely way different than any Christmas I've had before, but we ended up having a really nice day.
3rd (and final) Stop: Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai and Hua Hin are super far apart, so we decided that train would be the best way to traverse the distance, and boy were we right. We put down a little extra money to get seats in a sleeper car so we had a place to lay down for the 15 hour trek. It was totally worth it since we rolled into Chiang Mai nice and well rested. There were actually people at the train station advertising various guesthouses and hostels so finding a place to stay was super easy. After talking with a few of the people we decided on a place that was fairly cheap, looked pretty decent, and was in a decent location for exploring the city.
After settling in for a bit, we went out for some food and found an awesome little place nearby. They had a huge variety of food to choose from, fresh delicious ingredients, and pretty moderate prices (Actually Chiang Mai in general was much cheaper than other places I've been to). I think by the time we left we'd eaten there at least 3 or 4 times.
Kind of like in Ayutthaya, the old part of Chiang Mai city has Wats and some old ruins scattered in and around the city. Since our self-guided bike tour was a little spontaneous, we did a little research on some walking tours through the city. We ended up doing one that took us to maybe 5 different Wats and we saw quite a few more as we were walking around as well. That night we went to the night market that pops up every Sunday. It was packed! The market was huge, and there were so many people, we didn't end up spending too much time looking around.
The next day we went to Doi Suthep, a big mountain with some temples at the top, a few hiking trails, and even a couple of waterfalls. Our ride to the park unfortunately drove us to the top of the mountain which took some of the fun out of being at the top of a mountain. We did hike down on our own though which was a decent compromise I guess. Apparently a majority of people drive both ways because there was almost no foot traffic on the trails.
I think Chiang Mai was definitely the right choice for New Years. We'd missed the lantern festival that takes place during Loi Krathong, but Michael discovered that they do a similar thing for New Years with the addition of fireworks. We walked around the city during the afternoon and into the evening a bit but ended up hanging out on the balcony at our guesthouse which had a pretty decent view out over the city. Pretty much as soon as the sun set, people started lighting off candle lanterns. There was a steady stream of lights floating up into the sky throughout the night accompanied by the occasional firework. Once midnight hit though they went crazy with the fireworks. Rather than one set location, it seemed like there were various firework shows going on all over the city. Some low...barely making it over the buildings, some shooting way up into the sky. Basically left to right and up and down, it was a panorama of fireworks.
So yeah...my vacation was pretty sweet. I tried to keep it short but 2 weeks of traveling is a long time. I'm planning on making a post within the next day or two dedicated entirely to pictures. I'll be back updating semi-regularly again...I've got a couple ideas in mind. Happy New Year!