Planes, Trains and Automobiles in SE Asia (and scooters and ferries and tuk tuks and song taos and bikes and…)

At the end of our week in New Zealand, after completing our medical exams for yet another season to be spent in Antarctica,  we boarded an Emirates 777 and flew up to Thailand by way of Sydney. Dave’s two favorite airlines are Emirates and Qantas; (1) they actually treat you like human beings and (2) international flights serve free booze. I personally take great pity on the lady flight attendants on Emirates who have to wear heels the entire duration of their shift, which for our flight, was over fourteen hours. It made my free alcohol less enjoyable.

We landed in Bangkok at two in the morning and went straight to our hotel. The next day we took a taxi into the center of the city close to where the Hualomphong Train Station is. Due the political protests occurring in Thailand this short drive took us a little over two hours…and cost us 300 baht (or a little under $10) as we drove through scores of people protesting the government.

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Most of the trees in Thailand are gorgeous. They’re big and complicated and umbrella a substantial area. Most of them are, also, considered sacred – so monks will tie colorful ribbons around them to protect them from logging and being cut down. The Thai believe spirits live in the trees, so you’ll see these all over Thailand. This is a big Jackfruit tree.

From Bangkok we decided we were going to relax at a small island called Ko Phi Phi, where we had been told we could go climbing and unwind from our season at McMurdo.

Getting there was an undertaking.

We took a sleeper train to Surat Thani, then boarded a bus on the side of a highway, that later dumped us off into a small pickup truck that drove us to a random restaurant, where we waited for a van that drove four hours south to a ranch to await a large trailer that took us to the ferry, which finally took us to Ko Phi Phi.  Did you get all that? There were a couple times when the transportation situation seemed so precarious we were half expecting to be mugged or kidnapped.

Our first night there we spent in a beautiful bungalow that had a really friendly (rather sickly) kitty, which we affectionately named Mr. Sniffles. As we’d come to learn, Thailand is full of sickly stray cats and dogs, sadly. What I can say though, is that you’ll never find more friendly strays anywhere in the world. Which tells me the Thai are not needlessly cruel and ruthless towards them. I can’t tell you how many times I saw food put out for them, or kindness shown to them from the Thai.

I’m convinced the Thai may be one of the most generous and compassionate people in the world.

Ko Phi Phi was not exactly what we had in mind. We were hoping for a quiet and peaceful beach town where we could unwind, warm up, soak up the sun and relax. What we found, however, was something more like Cancun. There were open bars throughout the town broadcasting American pop music, drunken tourists stumbling through the streets, fighting, dancing, public foreplay, all while wearing thong bikinis and high heels. At three in the afternoon! Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude. I’m not here to judge thong bikinis or drinking. What bothered me to no end was that this was happening in Thailand, a country with a modest and reserved culture. I had carefully researched Thai culture and was careful as to what I wore, how I spoke, that I was polite and gracious – only to be witness to such blatant disregard for their customs. It was shameful and I felt embarrassed to be lumped in with this type of traveller. I could see the upset expression on the face of every Thai I saw, but they said nothing and turned their head because that’s also part of their culture; to be respectful, especially to guests. I understand the tourist business is also their means of financial survival in some areas of Thailand, however, that’s no excuse to act like a turd.

The reviews of the place we were staying at mentioned loud music from the main part of the island, however there’s no way I could have expected what we were in for. At 10:30 PM the music in town was turned up and to say it was loud is an understatement. Despite our bungalow being over a mile away from the main part of town, the music was so loud, even with earplugs, there was no possible way we could get to sleep. I can’t imagine how the locals live with it. Unfortunately for Mr. Sniffles, who was waiting for us outside our door the following morning, we decided to leave Ko Phi Phi and head back to the mainland where we instead went to Ao Nang, a more laid back beach town.

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The view from our room in Ko Phi Phi was awesome.

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Mr. Sniffles apparently thought we adopted him. I felt terrible abandoning him and seriously thought of shipping him home.
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The famous long-tail boats of Thailand. They modify an automotive engine and attach the prop directly to the drive shaft. Amazing.

We spent the first couple of days finding a place to stay. Ao Nang, being the tourist beach town that it is, is not all that cheap, even by Thai exchange rate standards. Any attempts we made to stay at reasonably priced places were futile. We did find one place that was inexpensive and quaint, but when I woke up in the middle of the night because of the gigantic roaches crawling on me in my sleep, I refused to stay another night. I’m not a girl who’s squeamish about bugs, but I draw the line there. I also proceeded to get a stomach bug of violent proportions, so our continuation to wander all over town for a room was becoming more and more unappealing. These things added up to us just getting a nice, comfortable room so I could dry heave in peace. Once I got to feeling a little better, we went a more mellow route than climbing and went SCUBA diving off one of the local islands. The visibility wasn’t all that great, but Dave did get to see a pair of incredibly venomous swimming banded sea snakes.

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Us riding a long-tail.
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Piloting the long-tail.

From Ao Nang, we took a bus to Krabi and then a flight up to Chiang Mai. It was definitely a much quicker way considering the train would have taken us two full days and the plane was about two hours.

Chiang Mai is beautiful. Incredible golden temples – everywhere. Every place you look there is another temple. The locals are friendly and the food is fantastic. We chatted with Buddhist monks, took a Thai cooking class, shopped in the local night markets, rode up Doi Suthep mountain to see the incredible golden temple, Wat Phra That – we relished every second in Chiang Mai.

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I am on the right side of the photo in the white shirt. I’m sitting this way because it’s forbidden to point your toes at the Buddha. Feet are considered the most unholy of body parts to the Thai (and most Buddhists).
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Buddha made of pure jade, at Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
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No shortage of gold. Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).

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The stairway to the temple, Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
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Sitting down, having a conversation with a young monk who was very interested in practicing his English. Monks are not permitted to touch a woman, so when I had a prayer string tied around my wrist, the monk had to pass it to Dave to give to me.
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For the cooking course we took, our teacher, Rika, took us to a local farmer’s market to see what Thai ingredients look like.
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She also showed us around the garden of the beautiful farm outside of town, where the cooking class was held, to see where the magic starts.

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The final product! We made stir fry, main course, soup and a desert. The food lasted us for days. It was delicious!
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The wall surrounding Old Town Chiang Mai. It’s also engulfed by a moat. There are over 30 temples in Old Town.
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Enjoying the lively and beautiful night market.
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It was suffocatingly crowded though. I don’t do all that well in crowds…

While in Chiang Mai, we took a trip out of town to stay at the Elephant Nature Park overnight to volunteer.

The ENP was set up to take in working elephants who had suffered different injuries typically from cruelty dealt to them by their mahouts. Some have been blinded, some have broken hips, some are perfectly healthy having recovered from previous injuries – however all of them have suffered at the hands of men. We were shocked at the level of cruelty it takes to “train” the elephants. They’re used in everything from begging for money in the streets, taking tourists on rides, transportation and manual labor. The ENP purchases them from these awful situations and rehabilitates them. All of them seemed to be very happy and are definitely well taken care of. We fed and bathed elephants, enjoyed an amazing dinner while watching a traditional dance performance by some local school children, and fell asleep in a quaint little studio to the sound of 500 happy and howling dogs, along with the occasional elephant trumpet. The founder, Lek, has taken in hundreds of animals (elephants, water buffalo, dogs, cats, primates, etc.) from the streets of Bangkok and cares for them. There are six full time vets on hand at the park and a slew of volunteers. We adopted an elephant to help support the organization; if you’re interested in donating money, supplies or adopting an animal please do so! It’s an amazing cause!

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Dave feeding an elephant a piece of watermelon. They have free range of the vast space and come up to the buildings for tasty snacks.

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Giving the elephants a bath.

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See the little baby between them? Her name is Dok Mai. She was born in the park. The elephants were incredibly protective of her.
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Nothing like a dirt bath after a wet bath.

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Dok Mai’s favorite game was to run up to people and knock them over, so we were always on alert – because her mother and ‘nanny’ would also come running after you to make sure she was safe. Having one of the full grown elephants charge at you (which happened only once) wasn’t something we wanted to experience with any frequency.

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Thai dance put on by students at the nearby school.

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We left the ENP and got a ride back to Chiang Mai for a night before heading back out of town to the Pasak Raebang Tree House. This place is amazing. The owner, Lee, built a single tree house for his family, and it caught on. There are now 7 houses of different heights and sizes and all of them are incredibly intricate and beautiful. We spent two nights, each in a different house and while there went on bike rides and hikes. We explored a couple small caves and hiked to a waterfall with little fish that nibbled on our feet.

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The first house we stayed in.
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There were chickens, roosters, chicks and cats all over the property. As is the case with most of Thailand. We enjoyed our morning coffee each morning alongside a boisterous rooster.
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On one of our bike rides, we stumbled across a funeral pyre. It was used to cremate the body of a local monk. The locals built an ornate wooden temple decorated with flowers and colored ribbons, for the sole purpose of burning it, along with the body.

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On one of our many bike rides, we came across a red sand jungle.
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We rode the bikes to a few caves in the area. Here, Dave is looking at a stalactite covered in calcite crystals.

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This ride took us to a boardwalk through a swamp.
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This picture does no justice to the phenomenal spring we went to.
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We made friends with two Americans who were also staying there. In the picture above, is Will. He builds treehouses as a profession in Austin, Texas and came to Thailand to see if he could learn new things. We spent an evening climbing this big ‘ol tree with him!

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Then, back to Chiang Mai for a night to once again leave the next day to stay in Mae On for a week so we could climb Crazy Horse.

Probably one of the most fun climbing spots we’ve ever been to. We stayed at a homestay and walked miles and miles everyday to get to the climbing spot, to get food, to get to everything. We wished we had stayed longer. There really were no places to get food and other commodities here other than a small, local street market that was only open for an hour in the evening. It was the best food we had eaten in all of Thailand, which says a lot considering all of the food is fantastic. There was also a small bakery in the square that made the most delicious pastries and sweets, we gorged on them daily. These were the most delectable things we’ve ever had. In particular, there were these spectacular chocolate balls – they were kind of like donuts, kind of like cake and kind of like fudge, and they were to die for. We would buy all the chocolate balls the shop had for the day, plus a few other items, every night after we’d pass by from a day of climbing.

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The morning walk to go climbing.

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Dave’s ego shot. We got to climb inside this cave.
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Wait, wait! Here’s my ego shot!
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San Kamphaeng Hot Springs park we visited.
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See the eggs? Doesn’t make much sense. It didn’t to us, either. Until we figured out why everything was about eggs…
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See, you buy a basket of quail eggs…
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Then you boil them in the hot spring..

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And eat them! They were wonderful! They gave us little packets of soy sauce that you drip on the peeled egg, it was incredibly good!

Next stop, Vietnam! We got our visas all lined up and had our photos taken and booked a flight to Hanoi.

Vietnam was a completely different experience than Thailand. The tempo of the culture is much faster, the locals are more focused on what they are doing and good luck crossing the street. Seriously. At first it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to the traffic patterns in Hanoi but after a while, you realize that everyone is completely focused on what they are doing, not to mention what everyone around them is doing. So when you cross the street, just cross. Do not pay attention to the five lanes of scooters that are barreling down at you. Just calmly start walking across the street and everyone will go right around you. Sound crazy? Well it is. Traffic lights mean absolutely nothing. Green means go, so does yellow and red. If you hire a taxi, that means they will cruise through every intersection, drive between lanes, all while honking and flashing their lights to get you where you need to in the least possible time. At intersections, since no traffic ever stops, lanes full of scooters and cars just seem to magically merge together like a flock of birds. Not once did we see a single accident, miraculously.

It’s heavily French-influenced in Vietnam, so the architecture and food is a cross between Asian and French.

Hanoi, while grey and rainy, was breathtaking. The coffee and baked goods were wonderful, though some of the traditional Northern Vietnamese cuisine we had was questionable. Questionable, as in, we weren’t sure what kind of animal was just thrown into our dish. Sometimes the eyes were still included in the meal. One evening, we decided to treat ourselves to an upper tier, traditional Northern Vietnamese meal at one of the nicer restaurants in town. Having no idea what we were ordering, we blindly picked something on the menu. Eventually, a mini cauldron was brought to our table and our bowls were filled with some kind of stew. There were identifiable animal parts in the stew, along with an entire crab, and other things that we had no names for. We could barely stand to eat it, it was such an acquired taste, but out of fear of appearing like rude Americans we forced down as much as we could only to have the wait staff instantly refill our bowls and stare at us, impatiently waiting for us to eat more mystery stew.

We walked all over Hanoi. We explored Hoa Lo prison, where Senator McCain was held captive during the Vietnam War (or as they call it over there, the American War). We saw some local pagodas and other landmarks, like Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

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A little Vietnamese lady pretty much forced this on my shoulders so we could take a picture…
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Then on Dave’s shoulders for another photo op…then demanded 200,000 Dong – the Dong is Vietnamese currency. The exchange rate to dollar is approximately 21,276 Dong to 1 US Dollar. It took some getting used to dealing with financial transactions in such high numbers. Sometimes we’d fork out millions of Dong and felt like high rollers! Anyway, we paid the lady $10 US…we got taken. She did however give us some pineapple and mango which was unbelievably delicious.

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One Pillar Pagoda.
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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We didn’t go inside. Strangely, we didn’t feel the urge to see his embalmed body. The Vietnamese are gaga over this guy.

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Hoan Kiem Lake with its famous red bridge.

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Yup, that’s a cobra inside this bottle of liquor.

After we had our fill of Hanoi, we went to Cat Ba Island. This involved taking a bus to a ferry to another bus.

It ended up being a miracle that we actually made it there because no one else on the bus seemed to know where we were going and the driver would tell you anything you wanted to hear, despite the route making no sense.

Oh man, the effort was worth it. Cat Ba Island ended up being amazing. I consider it to be the one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The town of Cat Ba itself has been, unfortunately, completely developed and sold out to tourism, complete with highrises and condominiums. The rest of the island, however, remained fantastic and nearly half of it is a national park. The island has everything, jungle, beaches, limestone karsts, mangroves, swamps, caves, and climbing. We rented a scooter for a couple days and cruised on every single road the island had to offer, we couldn’t get enough of it. We also spent a day climbing, however didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as we had Mae On. Way too many ants.

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Scooter ride!

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One of the famous floating villages of Vietnam.
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During the wars in Vietnam, the locals built a hospital inside one of the larger cave systems on the island. This was the eerie entrance to it. There were surgical rooms inside and various cells with locking doors, it was a disturbing place, to say the least.
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The stairs up to Hospital Cave.
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One of the quaint little villages on the island.

 

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We spent a day hiking through some of the trails in the national park, hoping to spot the world’s most endangered primate, the Golden-Headed langur. Not surprisingly, we didn’t see one.
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We hiked to the peak of one of the karsts. It gave one hell of a view of the island.
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Right after we took this picture, we hiked back down and entered a wall of mosquitos. Nothing in the Bahamas or the Florida Keys could come close to the volume of mosquitos we encountered. One of them gave me another nasty virus (I spent a week curled in the fetal position).
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We checked out Cannon Fort. This was a strategic defensive fort used during the Vietnam War, which received heavy artillery from the US Navy sitting out in the Gulf of Tonkan – presumably not firing the first shot.

Dave let me talk him into signing up for a week meditation retreat on the peak of Doi Suthep, at the temple Wat Phra That.

We slept in separate men’s and women’s quarters and were not permitted any physical contact or verbal communication. We spent the entire week in silence, in mediation and in class with a monk who was such a warm and silly guy.  The food was incredibly meager, two meals a day, usually just rice or noodles, though it was more closely similar to gruel to be frank, we had access to showers and had our own private rooms. Overall, we are grateful for the experience but I’m not sure we’d be tripping over ourselves to sign up again anytime soon.

We had originally intended on also going to Cambodia and Laos, but were feeling financially wrung out and exhausted from moving to a new place nearly every night.

We figured, instead, we head back to Thailand and enjoy the Thai New Year’s celebration – a week long water fight. It’s a way to wash away the old and start new, fresh. It’s also a ton of fun.

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This finished up our trip to Thailand and Vietnam.  We then flew from Bangkok back to Christchurch via Sydney to pick up all of our cold weather clothes from the Antarctic Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) and then two days later boarded a plane to go from Christchurch to Flagstaff via Sydney, LA and Phoenix.  Before we knew it we were back home and wondering what day it was.

  1. I love that you guys post this stuff on your blog for those of us that don’t get to travel to such interesting places! Thank-you for this!! 🙂