Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Buses, Trains and Automobiles...the Road to Siem Reap (Day 15)

Well, I have to say, this is probably the most boring of the days because I did not take any pics. We woke up bright and early at the bus station in Bangkok only 15 min. late. It was still very dark out. We were informed that the subway did not start running until 6:00 am, so we caught a cab for a whopping 225 Baht to the train station on the other side of town. Our plan was to take a train for 45 Baht to Arranyet-Prathet, better known as the border of Cambodia. We arrived early and waited in the station for an hour before getting seated. We had bought our third class seats again and were surprised when they told us to go to the front and sit in nice padded reclining seats. We were quickly pinched though and relegated back to our ghetto, uncomfortable seats. The same ones we rode on for our epic journey from the Thai/Malaysian border. Fitting, I think.

It wasn't too bad until the train got over crowded and we had to sit three to a bench facing three other people. I was sitting there reframing the whole thing thinking (and writing), "It's okay, we're on our way to Cambodia. We have our visas and in a few hours we'll be in catching a bus to Siem Reap. I really hope this smelly, very hungover Thai man sitting across from me with the leather jacket who sounds like he has emphysema and is drinking a bottle of Mei Kong whiskey in public at 7 am and offering sips to me does not yak all over me!"

Nevertheless, many people got off well before the border. However, our respiratory-challenged friend stayed with us until the end. He did not speak English, but we managed to communicate. I offered him gum, he offered me whiskey and boiled eggs. We survived the train ride and caught a tuk-tuk to the border. Our friend was nowhere in sight, but I suspect he was heading across the border to the Casinos. At the border, after crossing the Thai side, a man approached us and offered us the Cambodian entry and departure cards, then as we filled them out he asked for 50 Baht each. We laughed, left the cards and continued on. We met a middle-aged South African couple who seemed to have a lot of information, so we stuck with them and caught a cab to Siem REap as the buses did not seem to be a viable option. It was a 3-5 hr. ride and only cost us about $14 each.

We were glad that we got the cab because the road was bumpy and mostly unpaved. They were in the process of paving it. Short strips of fresh smooth pavement would end in bumpy, rocky, dirt roads that were too narrow for the number of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes on them. No to mention that in Poipet, just after crossing the border, people drove on the left, right, and in the middle of the road and just swerved around each other, literally because none of the streets were paved. On the "Highway" they seemed to generally follow American rules, but not always. Also, the cars had steering wheels on both the left and right sides. Some people spoke English very well, while others spoke none, and some spoke some French. They use American dollars as currency, but no coins. They use Cambodian Riels as change (e.g., 4,000 Riel = $1). The couple was nice and told us all about the countries they had visited around Africa.

Our guest house was lush and beautiful and our room was very nice, clean and had an AC option! We had hot and cold water, T.V. with cable, a huge ceiling fan, a minifridge, etc. I wanted to walk to town, but my sister was tired, so we waited. After it rained, we were on our way in search of some good authentic food. The place we settled on had lots of pictures, which seemed helpful. I ordered the lok lak and, unfortunately, the picture did not do it justice. The fried egg in the picture was scrambled on top of some sweet and extremely chewy beef that was nearly inedible. Chimay got some okay noodles, but for $5 total we were very unimpressed.

The town was small and seemed like a tourist trap. We expected this in a small under-developed country, but we had to figure out how to get off of the tourist track. It was somewhat reminiscent of Mexico. The people seemed genuinely humble, honest, and very real, which I appreciated. Everything had a real, raw feel to it. We picked up some groceries and went to bed before our big day over at Siem Reap (lot of picks to come in that post I promise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Elephants, Waterfalls, and Rapids, Oh My! (Day 14)

So we woke up bright and early for our morning excursion and headed downstairs to catch our van. We checked out and left our bags behind the front counter. I was feeling a little queasy from some wine I had bought the night before. I thought it was a 22 oz. beer because it was in that section, but the writing was in Thai, so I could not read it. The van pulled up with our Thai driver and our guide, Joy, who was a young, very energetic and enthusiastic Thai lady with a great sense of humor and pretty good English. There were four Brits in the back looking like the previous night had put a mean hurtin on them. We then picked up a German couple from another guest house and headed out toward the mountains. Throughout the hour and a half long ride and the rest of the day as well, Joy continually commented about how unattractive she was to Thai men because she was dark. She said that women were expected to be fair skinned and work indoors in the air conditioning. She preferred to be outside and got a lot of sun, so she had a really nice tan and was ashamed and felt guilty. She was very sad and felt that she would not find a husband. My sister tried to comfort her by pointing out the irony that Westerners try so hard to get tans like hers and that she would be beautiful by our standards and that seemed to help a little.

Our tour began by riding on an ox cart. Three of the Brits were guys in the 30's and there was one girl that was 19. They were pretty amusing and energetic despite being extremely hungover and, as my brother would say, wet-brained. The ox cart was mildly amusing, an ox, pulling a rickety little cart very slowly down a dirt path while pooping everywhere. hmmmmm....We then "trekked" (read: walked along a path) to this place, which was kind of our base camp.

We set up shop here and fed the elephants as the Thai guys got them fitted with their saddles.

They were not all that nice to the elephants, which made my sister very sad. We were nice to them though and fed them lots of fruit which they would gobble right out of our hands.

We then mounted these giant beasts and began our walk through the jungle up a steep, narrow, muddy path. We continued on and eventually got to a stream and the elephants did not hesitate to jump right in. The Germans had left us at this point as they were on a different excursion and would meet back up with us later. They let us ride on the neck of the elephant, but my sister was too scared. I rode it the rest of the way back, which was fun, but also a little unnerving at times.

The Brits were having a bit more trouble as one elephant ran up into the brush in search of food and the other just ran back to the camp. We were headed slow and steady though. When we got back, they served us a vegetarian pad thai and some very fresh pineapple for lunch. We then fed the pineapple rinds to the elephants, who seemed very grateful. I guess they let them run free for a few hours through the jungles in the afternoons, but it hardly seems like a desirable life nonetheless. Next up, we trekked to a "hill tribe village". The scenery was beautiful.

I didn't get any pics of the "village" though as it was just several bamboo huts and only one had a woman and her baby in it. It did not look like they actually lived there or anyone else did either. Joy told us that they move away for work and come back once in a while, but we all felt like it was pretty staged. We continued on to this ginormous waterfall.

and that was just the bottom half. Here's the top.

We swam and hung out under the falls. The British girl slipped on a rock and cut her side open. It looked pretty rough. We then got back in the van and headed to another "village". At first glance, no one lived there either because it was a bunch of stalls with vendors who dressed up just for us. Behind the stalls were some homes with families living in them. It was pretty cool to watch the kids running around, chasing chickens and what not. We then rode in the back of a pick-up truck to the spot where we would go rafting. It was pouring rain at this point, which made the water that much faster and more raging. My sister and I were in a boat wit ze Germans who met back up with us, as well as Joy and our Thai captain. The Brits were in the other boat with their Thai captain. The rapids were definitely fun and more intense than I expected. We had splash fights with the other boat between each of the rapids and had a great time overall. WE then got dried off, while the Brits smoked some kind of local wacky tabacky with the locals and then we made it back in perfect time to change our clothes and get to the bus station.

We caught a tuk-tuk there and grabbed some food before getting on the bus. The food was pretty disappointing overall.

It was fatty, bland pork, some dry beef, and stew with a meatless bone in it and no spice. But wait...what do you mean there's no toilet on the bus for a 10 hr. ride back to Bangkok? Luckily they stopped periodically. I listened to music and slept most of the ride back. I knew it was going to be a long day of traveling, but by the end of it all, we would be in Siem Reap, ready to go see Angkor Wat.

A Food Festival! What Luck?! (Day 13)

We woke up the next morning and decided that we had some quick errands to run before we got our day started. We rented bikes from one of the little stands around the corner from our guesthouse that will rent you just about anything for a couple bucks a day. My sister was set on going on an "excursion" before we left, so we went and booked one that included trekking to a waterfall and mountain tribe, riding elephants and white water rafting for just under $30. Sounded like a pretty fun day, but I was a big skeptical. We then headed out to the bus station to purchase our tickets back to Bangkok before they all sold out. On the way out there we had seen this amazing looking little restaurant, so we stopped on the way back just as it stopped pouring rain. There were actually a couple of restaurants as well as stands out front. We were overwhelmed by the variety. My sister got these potato dumplings from one of the stands out front that reminded me so much of a latke. They were amazing, especially the one with the spinach type greens in it.

She also got this seafood soup that had a very nice, light broth and the seafood was cooked perfectly.

It is difficult to not overcook calamari and the other things in here, but they were about as tender as the noodles in the bowl. The broth seemed so simple, yet was so flavorful and delish. I got this combo meal of red curry pork and char siu pork.

Let me tell you, this was an amazing meal. The red curry was very rich and spicy and the pork was cooked well. I had a woman translating for me that spoke decent English, so she was able to describe the different curries that they had. The char siu pork was a little different than what I normally get, which I expected because we were in Thailand. It had some different flavors and was delicious. They covered it with this gravy that really set it off. Man, I miss Chiang Mai! I don't remember the exact trivial amount of money that this meal set us back, but it was next to nothing. It might have been something like $2-2.50.

On our way back, we stopped at a book store so that my sister could pick up a book. When we came out of the book store, the streets were blocked off and were packed. Apparently there was a parade going through the city and it looked like about half of the citizens were in it. We watched and the caught some side streets out, only to run right back into the thing on our way to the old temple. Apparently that was the final destination of this thing. They were having a street fair. Now something that translates across many cultures is the elements of a party: Music, drinking, and food. Well, there was plenty of music and food, but I didn't see much drinking going on at this religious festival.

The temple was huge and pretty amazing. It was not in the greatest shape, but hence the name.

There was all kinds of food around the temple and they closed off about three or four city blocks and had the streets lined with food and clothing vendors as well. This man was selling these quail eggs like hotcakes.

He also had about four different types of noodles that we had to try. They were delicious and he served them on these little Styrofoam plates.

Then of course there were the bugs. My mother had told me about eating chocolate covered grasshoppers in Morocco when she was about my age, so I felt like I had to try them. Well, they definitely had some variety here. Big, small, jumpers, creepers.

But I wussed out big time. I wasn't really that hungry and just didn't feel like the time was right. They also had all kinds of meats? on sticks.

Then, of course there were more bugs...and there one were pretty big.

And then just about every part of the chicken made into sates. These looked so amazing, but, again, just not hungry yet.

We decided to check out a less crowded temple, which was really nice and peaceful after all of that activiity.

We headed up to the Northern side of the city and decided to follow the channel back to our room. This looks very peaceful, but there were tuk-tuks and motorbikes wizzing by, making this pretty dangerous.

We went back to our room to chill for a minute and have another Chang beer. We then decided to look for this Saturday Night Market that we had been told about. This thing was enormous. Bigger than the temple festival. There were vendors selling everything you could imagine and all crammed together down one really, really long street. This was a million times better than the Night Bazaar. The prices were reasonable, there was food, and the items being sold were actually pretty nice and handmade. It was so delightfully frantic. I was hungry now, so I had all sorts of things. I had all different meats on sticks, some spicy pork with green beans, some great fried bananas on sticks. It all happened so fast though, I only managed to get a picture of this deluxe satay type thing.

Eventually, I started to get worn down and we had to escape. My sister and I kept getting separated and it was so difficult to find each other again. We ended up returning the bikes a little late, but it was alright. They were so worth it because they enabled us to really cover some ground and see so much of the city and its rich culture. I went out to use the internet, but was unsuccessful because of faulty equipment. We had dropped our clothes off with a sweet lady next door who agreed to wash them for a very reasonable price. The were somehow dry when we picked them up despite being hung dry on a intermittently rainy day. We then went to bed in anticipation of our excursion the following morning.

Chiang Mai...How Beautiful (Day 12)

We made it to Chiang Mai, finally, after a very bumpy bus ride. We grabbed a tuk-tuk from the bus station, which brought us to S.K. guesthouse. It was right near the "action" and was about 500 Baht/night for a very nice room with a private bath. The room was supposed to have A/C, but it did not work, so they only charged us 300 Baht/night. My sister went back to sleep, but I was way too wired for all that because of the Coke and Coffee I drank in the morning on the bus. i went to the Internet spot in the guesthouse lobby and uploaded my pics online. Later on, we walked around the town and looked into some tours. They were expensive, as were the cooking classes, so we walked around some more and did some budgeting. We saw some temples and looker around a bit.

They were very beautifully decorated and peaceful and quiet.

There were many of these very, very large gold and bronze statues of Buddhas.

We found a little hole in the wall and my sister got an iced tea (Thai of course, but you don't have to say that because we're in Thailand).

My sister got some fresh jack fruit from the market next door and it was amazing.

I got some red curry chicken. Well, it was a Thai sized portion.

We went back to the room and were greeted by some new friends.

These things were bigger than they looked and could be pretty noisy. They mostly just freaked us out because they would all run when we walked up.

We then went out looking for the "Night Bazaar", which turned out to be a pretty far walk and reminded me of a bad version of Canal Street in NYC, with about the same prices. Only for tourists. We got away from the Bazaar a bit and found a street vendor and decided to get some food. This was our meal that we shared. Well, actually, I ate most of it. I got this amazing green curry chicken, the spiciest and best version I have ever tasted, as well as this piece of the best fried chicken I have ever tasted for about $1.50.

During our meal a Caucasian man pulled up in his pick-up truck speaking perfect Thai and handed a cooler off to some locals at a nearby restaurant. We were intrigued and he then turned to us and in perfect English, with an American accent told us that he eats there every day and that he grew up in Chiang Mai. He was a fisherman, but we could not figure out why he had grown up in Chiang Mai. We then walked around a bit and saw some of the nightlife, which looked pretty fun. My sister was tired though, so we headed back to the room to lay down. We saw some ladyboys on the way back congregating in this little square.
I knocked out as soon as we got back, but woke up to realize that it was Friday afternoon (about 2 am in Chiang Mai) back home and that I needed to call to find out about my income back home. I ran out to an ATM, but my card would not work. I went back to the room and borrowed some money from my sister and went in search of the internet. I found one and made my calls, but did not get the info I needed. I could not figure out why my card would not work. I went back to the room and knocked back out.

Running Around Bangkok and Back On the Road (Day 11)

After some amazing sleep, the embassies were already about to go to lunch when we woke up. We decided to go over to the Cambodian embassy, but could not find it anywhere. The address just did not exist. Eventually we asked some American lady that had been living there for years and she told us that they had moved, but she didn't know to where. We grabbed a taxi, which got us there, eventually. We had to pay for the visas, run and get passport photos, and then get back to get them stamped before the closed. After this ordeal, we stopped for a bite to eat around the corner at a little street stand. I got some very flavorful pork with this mini-eggplant type thing.

We then headed to the bus station to see what the schedules to Chiang Mai were like. We purchased some tickets for that night and headed back to get our things. We were caught in a down pour like I have never seen and were instantly soaked from head to toe. We quickly changed into dry clothes and grabbed some food from the restaurant in front of our guesthouse. I got the green curry chicken, which was so flavorful and spicy. I have always preferred red curries, but this made me a convert.

My sister got the Pad Thai, which was amazingly good. I am not typically a pad thai fan, but this was the real deal and it was amazing.

We headed back to the bus station as the rain died down. When we got there, we were told that our bus had already left because the guy had given us tickets to the wrong bus. The got us on the correct bus for a small fee and we were off to Chiang Mai. The trip was scheduled for about 9 hrs., so we got comfortable, grabbed some snacks at a stop and got some sleep.

Finally...Bangkok...Now What? (Day 10)

We did not sleep much and gave up. Instead we just sat up anticipating how much longer it would take before we could get off the train. When we finally arrived way late, we got our money from an ATM and paid Matt back. He was headed up to Khao San road (AKA tourist/backpacker central), but my sister wanted to avoid that area at all costs. So we went our separate ways and caught the train over to Siam Square. We stuck out with a few guesthouses, but finally found a decent place that only wanted 500 Baht/night (about $15), was right on the street, and had ice cold A/C and private bathrooms. We booked it and jumped right in the showers. We then relaxed a bit before heading out.

We then headed out for some food and internet cafes. We struck out on the cafes a few times due to large volumes of screaming kids, fresh out of school. We could not find a decent place with Skype and gave up. We decided to check out Little Arabia and stopped by some street vendors on the way. We got some grilled squid that was amazingly tender and delicious. I was amazed at how good it was considering how bad squid usually is.

I also got some grilled pork, which was also very delish, but pretty fatty. But hey, for about $.50 per skewer, this was a delicious little meal.

Welcome to Bangkok, the home of the street food.

Little Arabia was two long blocks right next to the sex district. There were a few Middle Easterners around, but mostly North Africans and some Malaysians. Everyone intermingled very cordially and seemed to get along very well. We walked around for a while, Chimay got some Arabian coffee and I got some grilled chicken feet in a plastic bag, then we stopped for a beer and some people watching. We saw a bunch of creepy old men with under aged prostitutes, working girls, ladyboys, etc. We decided to take one last trip through Little Arabia and met an African man while contemplating getting African food from a street vendor. His name was Emanuel and he was a tall, Liberian guy with a ton of raw emotion. He told us of the atrocities of war in his country that have been funded by the US and how he joined the military as a child and fought the US. He watched our troops kill people he knew right in front of him, including his father his mother, who was raped first, his little brother and sister as well. Only he and one other brother survived and he was taken to Europe, where he was discriminated against. He then received a scholarship to attend college in Kenya/Nairobi and eventually transferred to China, which he identified as the only culture that embraced him. His Chinese visa had expired though and he could not renew it because of the Beijing Olympics, so he was forced to leave and fled to Bangkok. I was waiting for him to ask for money or something, but he never did. He just wanted to educate us about his culture, background, and, of course, the food we were looking at.
We eventually found an internet shop and I got to call home. We were pretty beat though so we headed back to the room and crashed. We were planning to leave for Chiang Mai the next day, but wanted to get our Cambodia Visas so we wouldn't have to do it when we came back. We slept so well though that we almost did not make it.

Goodbye Paradise, Welcome to Hell (Day 9)

By my calculations, there was no way that we could make it to the Thai border and get on a train to Bangkok from the island all in one day. We planned to make it to Khota Baru and spend the night there before continuing on to the border and ultimately Bangkok. However, while we were checking out of our bungalow, we met a guy from Australia who was also headed to Bangkok and planned to hop the next boat to shore, quickly catch a cab to the border, cross customs, get to the train station and catch the last train to Bangkok, which left at 2:20 and traveled through the night. We decided to join him as splitting the taxi would save money and we figured we would make it there faster. We said goodbye to our friends

and our view and home in paradise

and were on our way. The boat ride back took forevere because of some confusion picking up passengers from the big island and we got to shore 40 minutes later than expected. We caught a cab that drove slow, but got us to the border faster than we expected. We rushed across the border and had about 10 minutes to get to the train station. We frantically grabbed a motorcycle with a makeshift side car that looked just like this

and rode to the station. We barely fit on the plywood bench of the sidecar and were bouncing all over the place. We had no Baht for the train tickets and they would not let us pay with Ringits, so Matt (our Australian friend) offered to spot us for the tickets and we promised to pay him back in Bangkok. We had to hurry as the armed military guards were holding the train for us and looking impatient. The only seats we could get were the 1st class sleeper or the 3rd class, no aircon, seats. We went with the 3rd class seats, which were upright benches with "cushions that were supposed to seat three people each somehow.

The windows were open and a nice breeze blew in. Fortunately, we would only be riding this things for...18 hrs! Well, that's what the book told us anyway. Because the train traveled about 24 miles/hr through the night, it actually took about 24 hrs. At least the seats weren't filled...until we reached Yai, when all of the people, vendors and livestock boarded. Well, just a couple of chickens here and there, but no big deal. This made it very uncomfortable and we were literally shoulder to shoulder. My sister found some open seats in another car and we just rode and took in the views.

I sat and talked to Matt for a while and he told me about his trip so far with the two British girls and how he was finishing his trip alone, despite being only 20. We ordered some food, which was surprisingly decent for train food. I ordered the green curry chicken, which was actually spicy and very delicious

and some cashew chicken, which had very good flavors and was very refreshing.

We then just listened to music and watched the amazing scenery that is Southern Thailand.

As the sun set, we tried to find a place to sleep. The train was so crowded that most people had to sleep sitting upright. A few people were sleeping on the filthy, disgusting floor underneath the seats, but we weren't going there. I managed to find a broken seat and lay across it with my feet across the aisle at least for a little while...until I was awoken by the loud screeching sounds of Thai women selling God-knows-what at about 1 am. Oh, this was the worst sleep I have ever tried to get in my life...