Hua Hin Bike Ride
Khao Sam Roi Yot Park
Christmas in Hua Hin
New Year's Eve Chiang Mai
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!
Alright! It is now safe to say that I am officially done with my first term teaching. I actually haven't really taught a class since the 4th. The high school students test earlier than the rest of the school, so my past two weeks of work have mostly involved proctoring/grading tests, grading projects, and getting my grades turned in. If that sounds like a lot of work, just remember that two weeks is WAY more than enough time to get all of that done, so I've been pretty bored here at school. It really hasn't been too bad...I've had a lot of time to draw, shoot some hoops, and I even finally figured out how to solve a Rubik's cube, but when there's a 2.5 week vacation coming up it's pretty easy to get a little antsy. We could have requested to leave earlier this week (like Jen, Kaila, Kristen, and Margaret all opted to do) but today was payday, and Michael, Catherine, and I all figured that having some extra dough for our travels was worth the sitting around the school doing nothing for a few extra days.
Depending on how early we're able to duck out of school tomorrow, we'll be leaving either tomorrow or Saturday...and I really couldn't be more excited. We're planning on two main stops. First, we'll be hitting up Hua Hin to enjoy the beach for a couple of days including Christmas day. Then, after Christmas, we're planning on catching a train up to Chiang Mai for the rest of the break. Chiang Mai has pretty much been #1 on my list of places to visit in Thailand. It's a huge area up in the north that's supposed to have some beautiful temples, some great national parks (with giant mountains for hiking!), and some delicious food. It is also apparently a great place to spend New Year's Eve. They do something that's basically the same as the lantern festival but includes fireworks as well...so it should be a pretty awesome time.
This brings me to the main point of this post. I'm going to be taking a brief hiatus from updating here so I can enjoy the vacation. I'll definitely be taking plenty of pictures to put up when I get back. I'll also probably be brainstorming some ideas for future posts. I want to come up with some things to write about that will add some variety to the journal style posts that, so far, comprise the majority (possibly entirety) of my postings. So Merry Christmas, Happy New Years, and I'll see ya in 2015!
As they said on The Simpsons (and possibly also a more 'legitimate' source); "A stranger's just a friend you haven't met". Although that might not always hold true, our trip this weekend made a strong case to support the validity of that statement.
The King's birthday (which is a huge national holiday in Thailand) was on Friday, so we got to enjoy a nice 3-day weekend. We'd all been craving some Mexican food pretty much since we got to Thailand, so we decided to hit up Bangkok on Thursday night to grab dinner and then head up to Khao Yai National Park for the rest of the weekend. We had a hostel booked for Thursday night and a few possible restaurant choices in mind, and everything ended up going exactly as planned. Dinner was a tad pricey, but totally worth it. I probably would have gladly paid twice as much for my steak fajitas and the delicious bowl of guacamole that I had. The hostel ended up being pretty decent, except for the one smelly dude in our room...but he came in late and we left early so we didn't really need to deal with that for too long.
We didn't have much of a plan for Khao Yai other than show up and figure out what to do as we went...and that ended up being quite interesting. Normally in Thailand, there isn't much need to book a place to stay in advance. In fact, aside from the hostel in Bangkok, I haven't reserved a room for any of the places I've traveled so far. After talking to Air, one of the park rangers we met when we got to Khao Yai however, we learned that apparently there was a music festival going on nearby and pretty much all the places were booked up already. As we were contemplating our admittedly limited options...Air called a couple nearby places, found a place that had room for the 5 of us, and then took the time to drive us over to the place. She even hung around while we negotiated the price with the owner to make sure we had a place to stay. Also, she arranged a songthaew to pick us up in the morning and show us around the park. Unfortunately, the room was already booked for Saturday night, but, thanks to Air, we at least had a place to stay for the night.
The next morning, the songthaew driver picked us up as promised and took us to a couple scenic overlooks before bringing us to the visitor's center to arrange a tour guide to take us on a hike. I had assumed that it would just be our group on the hike, but our guide had also booked a tour with another group from the UK who, as it turned out, are also teaching English here in Thailand. They had camped out in the park the night before and didn't have a songthaew, so we all piled into ours to drive over to the starting point. Even though we didn't see any animals, the hike was still super pretty. Since the other group still didn't have a driver of their own, they offered to split the cost of our driver for the rest of the day. They all seemed cool, and our driver didn't seem like he cared even a little bit about 5 extra passengers, so we gladly accepted and spent the rest of the day checking out a couple waterfalls around the park.
While it would've been super cool just deferring the cost of our songthaew and having some cool new friends to hang out with for the day, John, Enda, Grace, Ashley, and Natalie also helped us figure out a place to sleep for the night...which was awesome. After we were done hiking, they took us back to their campsite (which was packed due to the long weekend), showed us where we could rent some gear for the night, and moved their tents around a bit to give us room to set up. They also invited us on a night safari that they had booked. As it turned out 'night safari' is mostly driving around in a truck at night while a dude shines a spotlight in trees and fields. Oh, and every once in awhile you see a deer! Even so, we still had a good time.
Since Khao Yai is a bit of a drive from Amata, we wanted to get a moderately early start. We packed up our camping gear, said goodbye to our new friends, and started trying to figure out how to get out of the park. A bunch of the other campers were leaving as well and we were able to flag down a pick-up truck who agreed to give us a ride back to the park's entrance. He had friends, or teammates (they were all on a soccer team) camping in another area of the park, so we made a little detour so that they could get their convoy all in order. While we were waiting, we introduced ourselves to the driver, Nat, and his wife, Yam (pronounced with more of a soft 'y'). After talking with them for a bit, they realized that we were attempting to get to Bangkok so we could get a bus the rest of the way to Amata and, even though it was slightly out of their way, insisted on giving us a ride to the bus station.
We thought it was just going to be a simple ride to Bangkok, but apparently Nat, Yam, and the rest of the group wanted to show us some Thai hospitality. First they stopped at a giant dam and drove up to the top where there was a gorgeous view of the lake (made by the dam) and mountains. Then they asked if we were hungry...which we were, so they took us to lunch. They even asked if we wanted to check out a temple that Nat's brother likes to visit every time they pass through. It was really amazing. Once we arrived at the bus station they parked, got out, made sure we knew where to buy tickets, walked us to the bus, and made sure that the driver knew where he needed to stop to let us out. We tried to offer them some baht for all of their trouble, but they refused. We thanked them profusely, and told them that if they're ever in Chon Buri that we are treating them to dinner which seemed to make them very happy.
I would have been happy with just a ride, but the few extra stops they made to show us parts of Thailand that we might never have seen, and the extra effort they made in ensuring that we would get where we were going was extremely touching. Between Air, our friends from the UK, and the random soccer team we met, pretty much this whole weekend, we were the benefactors of a lot of kindness and generosity. It feels good.
I have no idea what TLC thought they were talking about, because, as it turns out, chasing waterfalls is totally awesome. Erawan National park was completely amazing. Not only does it sound like a character from the Lord of the Rings (which is pretty cool), but it was breathtakingly beautiful as well.
There are 7 levels of falls to hike up, and apparently the top few are closed for periods of the year, but we were lucky enough to be able to see all 7. We didn't go swimming at each level, but we definitely stopped to cool off in the water at a few of the steps. The 3rd level was pretty cool and, like the picture above, had a little cave underneath the waterfall that we were able to climb up into.
I think my favorite was somewhere around level 5. There weren't as many people around when we were there, and there were a few tiered pools of shallow water. It was a bit harder to swim around, due to the shallower water and the random rocks on the riverbed, but climbing up the tiers and relaxing in the pools of water was a lot of fun.
So basically, another successful weekend trip. Kanchanaburi was a bit farther away than anywhere else we've traveled on our own, and we ended up spending a decent amount of time on getting there and back...but it was totally worth the trip. Apparently there are some cool waterfalls a little bit closer to Chon Buri as well, so I'm probably gonna need to check that out sometime soon.
For now however, it is time for lunch and I am super hungry...so that's all for now. I'll probably come back and add in a few more of the pictures I took in a gallery.
Lunch was pretty bad today...but I'll upload some more pictures anyway.
Last Thursday I got to tag along on the M.2 (8th Grade) excursion to Ayutthaya. It's about an hour or north of Bangkok, and was the country's capitol city before Bangkok. The city was incredible. Even though it's not the capitol anymore, it is still a working city, so all through the city there are old ruins and temples in between the more modern shops and buildings. In addition to a small museum where we learned a little bit about the city's history, we ended up visiting 5 different Wats. I wasn't able to pick up as much of historical info as I would have liked (due to the tour guides speaking in Thai), but luckily some of the Thai teachers who were chaperoning as well were nice enough to translate some bits and pieces for me.
I ended up enjoying Ayutthaya so much that I actually ended up going back this past weekend. Jen, Kaila, and Kristen (who weren't able to be part of the field trip on Thursday) and our friend Clay, who were all planning on going for the weekend, talked me into going back as well. I didn't have my camera on me for Ayutthaya pt. 2, so I don't have any pictures, but we saw a couple new places and had an awesome time. Thanks to an offline travel app that Clay had downloaded, we found an amazing little hotel next to the river to stay for the night. Although our original plan was to go exploring right away, the hotel was so nice and relaxing that we ended up hanging out at the there for the afternoon and evening. I mean there were hammocks, lounging chairs, a bench swing, and some great music playing on the computer...so it was tough to justify going right back out again.
We met a few other people who were staying there (and all seemed very nice), but Ya, the hotel's owner, was by far one of the nicest people I've met in my travels. He sat and had a beer with us, talked to us about the area, and even brought us some fish food to feed the fish in the river which was cool. Later that night him and his (I assume) wife made a delicious (and free!) dinner for everybody. There was this stir-fried veggie dish that I think was primarily morning glory with a few other greens and plenty of garlic which may have been one of the tastiest things I've had in Thailand so far. After dinner Ya busted out his guitar and had a little sing-a-long. I mostly played along on a little drum box that he had.
The next day we rented some bikes from the hotel. Ya took us down the street a little ways and showed us around a floating market on the river where we had some lunch. After that he gave us some directions on how to find the closest temples and we went off to explore Ayutthaya. The last place we'd visited on Thursday (which was also my favorite) ended up being the closest to the hotel so I was pretty excited to get to check that out again, and for everyone else to be able to see it. Wat Chaiwatthanaram (which is what I think the actual name is) is a Cambodian style temple that was apparently constructed after having defeated the Khmer in a war. Unlike a lot of the other temples, this one is a bit more spread out...with a lot of grass and fields surrounding the main structure which I really liked.
Next, we rode across town awhile trying to find Wat Mahathat. We didn't know the name at the time, but knew there was a place where tree roots had grown around the head of Buddha sculpture. Overall the site was a little more ruinous, but it was still an amazing place to tour around. More so than in some of the other temples, there were a few preserved pieces of wall that had the intricately carved designs which likely covered the walls back in the day...so that was cool to see. Plus the whole tree roots growing around the sculpture thing was pretty sweet too.
Basically, Ayutthaya was the tops. I'm super glad I had the chance to go back not only to get to experience the city a little more hands-on than I was able to on the school field trip, but to also see a few things that we'd skipped over on Thursday as well. I just realized that I've now been procrastinating for at least 40 minutes...and these mid-term tests aren't gonna write themselves so I should probably go do my job now.
On the 6th we went to Bang Saen, one of the nearby beaches, to celebrate Loi Krathong. The name 'Loi Krathong' basicially translates to 'to float a basket'. I didn't get a picture of any of our Krathongs (or even have one of my own), but you can check out a picture of one HERE. Traditionally, they're released in rivers in order to pay respect to the water spirits but now apparently any body of water is sufficient (hence the ocean). It was really windy so we weren't able to get any of the candles lit, but, after a lot of effort, we were able to get some of the incense sticks lit so that probably counts for something.
In addition to Loi Krathong, there's also a full-moon festival going on which is what the floating lanterns are for. The main festival takes place up north in Chiang Mai where people simultaneously light off thousands of the lanterns all at once. I've only seen pictures, but it looks freaking amazing. Unfortunately, due to a combination of distance and unavailability of tickets, we weren't able to make it up to Chiang Mai...but we bought some lanterns on the beach and it still ended up being pretty awesome. Standing on the beach, watching the lantern floating up and away until I couldn't see it anymore was really cool. Plus since there were only a handful in the sky at any time, tracking our lanterns until they disappeared wasn't too difficult. So there's that.
So yeah, little candle boats, floating lanterns, random fireworks, water spirits...that's pretty much Loi Krathong in a nutshell.
Alrighty...it's been a minute since my last update, and it's been an interesting couple of weeks. Unfortunately, my phone decided to take a quick dip...and, as it turns out, water is bad for phones so I've been without both my camera and easily portable Wi-Fi since around the 7th or so. Good news though is that I was able to find a pretty decent camera at the mall this past Friday, so I'll still be able to take pictures of awesome things I see.
I went back to Ko Samet last weekend. A bunch of the OEG teachers in the area (and a few from a bit farther away) made the trip. It was really cool seeing a bunch of the friends I'd made at orientation and getting to hear about their first few weeks of teaching. Plus, as I've said before, Ko Samet is a ton of fun and it was nice just hanging out enjoying the beach for the weekend. Usually the water there is pretty calm, but on Sunday there were some legitimate waves so I got to spend the day bodysurfing and it was awesome.
Ok! So...I know the Grand Palace was super inspiring and junk, but holy crap I got to hang out with monkeys this weekend! I'm pretty sure our songthaew (a taxi pick up truck thing with benches in the truck bed) hadn't even stopped before I was jumping out to buy some bananas. It was only 10 baht (like 33 cents) for a small bunch of bananas and it was totally worth it. A few of the monkeys were super stuck up and didn't accept my offering, but most of them seemed really excited about the deal. I also may have coerced one of the monkeys into walking next to me for a little ways before giving him (or her maybe?) the last banana.
Here are a handful of pictures from our visit to the Grand Palace. I would honestly love to explain every single one of the pictures, but there were so many different things to see, and our tour guide breezed through everything pretty quickly. As I think I mentioned in my last post, Thailand is really big on taking in and adapting artistic and architectural styles from other countries. So we’d be looking at one temple based on Sri Lankan design, then immediately be looking at a Cambodian influenced temple.
If I remember correctly, the wall paintings tell an adapted story, taken from Hinduism, of a deity/prince battling a demon who had kidnapped his girlfriend. There were a couple hundred sections of the story illustrated on the walls and I probably could have happily spent the entire day just looking at and studying the details on the walls. Sadly, we only spent a couple minutes looking at a few of the sections so I wasn’t able to get too many pics or even learn too much about the source material. It’ll definitely be worth a trip back at some point in the next year.
So yeah, the Grand Palace was super awesome. I pretty much spent the entire morning geekin’ out super hard art history style. The fact that there was so much to see, and the massive amount of stylistic inspiration from other cultures, was almost too overwhelming.
In other news, I’m still in the process of obtaining pics from the elephant camp we went to. It was super rainy when we arrived, and we also did a river rafting thing, so I figured that leaving my camera on the bus was probably the best plan. There’s definitely some pics floating around out there somewhere though, and, as soon as I get my hands on a few, I’ll throw em up on here.