Monday, December 24, 2012

Krabi to Koh Pha-Ngan, Koh Tao

Krabi to Koh Pha-Ngan, Koh Tao

Late afternoon I hopped aboard a boat from Koh Phi Phi to Krabi. On the boat I met a Dutch couple - they were planning to stay in Krabi for a few days to check out the local beaches, which is what I had in mind. I've had enough of the party crowd and crowds altogether. Krabi is a town that most people pass through on their way to or from Koh Phi Phi. We shared a taxi with another Croatian traveler and we all stayed in the same hotel. It's really amazing how complete strangers connect when they are abroad. These folks were cool, laid-back, and fun. I wish making friends on home turf was this easy.

Food Etiquette

We found a fantastic restaurant run by a French/Thai couple in Krabi. The food was AMAZING. I ordered a dish sans rice, which was unacceptable by the Thai wife. Apparently a Thai meal is not complete unless there is rice or noodles and so I ordered a small bowl of rice. I also learned that you cradle your fork in the spoon to signal that you are finished. When eating in a local's home or with locals it is a good idea to leave a little rice on your plate. If your plate is completely clear then they'll think you're still hungry and keep feeding you. Lastly, you eat rice with a spoon (totally logical because it's easier than a fork) and noodles with chopsticks.

Krabi Beaches

So we're off to the beaches in songthaew (truck with benches) and scenery was stunning. Limestone karst sprouting from the earth, covered in green from the forests, towering a couple of hundred feet. I understand now why the Krabi area is popular with rock climbers. The beach is surrounded by karst and they rise from the sea too. The local beaches weren't as pristine but it was quiet and peaceful - perfect for a Koh Phi Phi decompression.

Koh Phan-Ngan

The Dutch couple and I decided that an island resort would be good move. We were told about the resort Haad Gruad, which featured a picturesqu seaside bungalows and infinity pool. To get there is a 5-hour journey to the Gulf of Thailand, then a 2-3 hour catamaran to Koh Pha-Ngan's pier, followed by a hour in a songthaew. Well, the bungalows are tiny, which is fine because I spend most of my time in the water and on the beach. Next I discovered that swimming wouldn't be possible because the beach is rocky. So that's why they have a pool, but the pool is littered with passed-out and sunburned still-drunk-from-the-night-before British kids. That's it, I'm out of here.

Later in the evening I met a An island expat who suggested I check out the next beach over called Haad Salad, and he offered to give me a lift over there the next day. I found this place called My Way, which was exactly what I wanted...everything My Way. Within minutes I had a bungalow just a few steps from the jaw-dropping turquiose sea. The crescent shaped white sand beach was glorious with swaying palms, rustic bungalows and handful of higher-end resorts lining the beach. The water was warm, clear, and perfect for snorkeling. This is where I would stay for a week either in a hammock, in the sea, or on the beach. Paradise found.

Getting Down on Koh Tao

Koh Tao was my next stop. This is a small island near Koh Pha-Ngan and it's known for scuba diving and getting certified for much less than anywhere else. Being that I'm already certified I just wanted to do a shark whale dive. And don't you know it - it's not shark whale season. On Koh Tao I met some other solo-traveling women from the United States and the Netherlands. We also met a group of guys from South Africa and Britain. We were all complete strangers but within a day or so you would've thought we'd known each other for years. Each day we ate lunch or dinner together, snorkeled, shared drinks at the beachside bars, danced on the beach, cruised around in songthaews looking mini golf, or scarfed down 7-11 toasties and banana pancakes at 3am. Unfortunately everyone else needed to continue the journey home and I needed to figure out my next move.

Since I've grown tired of banana pancakes I think I'm ready for a little off-the-beaten-path low key action.

Next boat: Chumpon, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and love in Pai.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Koh Phi Phi or Koh Pyro Pyro

I am ready to start my SE Asia adventure! From Phuket Town I decided that Koh Phi Phi Island would be the next stop. Koh Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee) is known to be one of the most beauiful islands in the Andaman Sea. Nearby is the famous Maya Bay where the movie "The Beach" was filmed, which helped put Koh Phi Phi on the world-travel radar.

Getting to Koh Phi Phi

In Phuket Town I purchased an open ferry ticket from Phuket Town - Phi Phi - Krabi which included the transfer to the pier in Phuket Town. After the 2-hour ferry journey I arrived at Phi Phi without arrangements for a place to stay. This is not a problem as arriving travelers are bombarded by locals who try to direct you to the guesthouse/hotel that they are associated with or receive commission for bringing travelers. As I walked through town and checked out a few places, it was hard to believe that the entire town was leveled by the 2004 tsunami.

After getting settled I hit the beach. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that there are small tar balls on the beach, so my favorite sarong from Rio was ruined and my fliplops and toes were covered in the gross goo. If you go to Phi Phi be sure to stay above the high tide water line on the beach to avoid this problem.

Even though I was in Phi Phi during the low season it was wall-to-wall tourists by late afternoon. Throw in the relatively small island and narrow pathways which only intensified the crowded out feeling. At this point I decided that two nights on the island would be sufficient and that a day out in the bay on a boat was the place for me. 

There are tons of Maya Bay tour operators that range from smaller long-tail boats to large speedboats that can accommodate up to 50 people. I opted for long-tail and for the earliest departure knowing that this would increase my chances of a more personable and less chaotic trip. I booked my trip with a Thai man named Mai. At first he told me a half-day tour was 1000 baht ($32 USD) which is CRAAAAZY. He asked me what I wanted to spend so I told him 200 baht. Yes it sounds like I am low-balling but he high-balled me - I like to think my negotiating skills are up to par and apparently they are because we settled on 300 baht which I would pay the next morning.

Playing with Fire

For the evening I visited the Thai boxing bar that was mild in the sense that they were not trying to kill each other. This bar also encourages tourists to don protective gear and get in the ring with fellow friends. If you do then you will receive a free bucket. A bucket? Yes, a beach bucket filled with booze and a mixer that is usually shared between a couple of people, or single-handedly by those who want the worst hangover - ever. Eventually the tourists and some locals migrate to the beach where there are several bars and parties - music, fire throwers/twirlers, fire limbo and fire jump rope. I think an appropriate name for this island could be Koh Pyro Pyro. It's an entertaining way to spend the evening but from a safe distance unless you want to get burned. I played it safe by not playing with fire and headed home early in anticipation of my Maya Bay adventure.

Maya Bay

My long-tail trip to Maya Bay couldn't have worked out any better. On the boat was 5 other girls who were all traveling solo through Asia and we were all in the same age range. The six of us were thrilled when we arrived at the spectacularly gorgeous Maya Bay. Wow! Just like the movie and even what's even better is that we were the only people there! We ran around on the beach, jumping in the water, snapping loads of photos, soaking up every minute of having this gorgeous place to ourselves because we knew that the clock was ticking down. After 20 minutes of having the beach to ourselves the large speedboats arrived dumping 50-60 people at a time. Within a few minutes the beach was packed with over 300 tourists. We decided to make our escape to the other side of the island where our long-tail was waiting for us. Knowing that the itinerary is essentially the same for all boats. We wanted to stay ahead of the crowd and get our snorkeling on before them.

Sunset Junkie

The girls and I decided to meet for a hike up to the viewpoint for the Phi Phi sunset. The hike turned out to be several hundred steps and well worth the huffing and puffing and being drenched in sweat. The sunset over the two crescent shaped beaches surrounded by jagged limestone karst was truly serene, impressive, and better than I could have imagined.

Travel Tips:
Haggle with a smile and be nice. Haggling is part of Thai culture and it's a friendly experience where two people discuss an agreed upon price. Never say anything negative or imply that they are not being fair or the product is sub par. In most Asian cultures 'saving face' is very important and aggression is frowned upon - literally. Check around and haggle with other operators and sales people.

Happy shakes, happy pizza, happy brownies? No, it's not like a Happy Meal. Almost anything that contains "happy" throughout SE Asia means it contains weed or possibly mushrooms (not button mushrooms). 

Up next: Krabi, songthaews, and the local beaches.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Thai and I (1)

Kata, Phuket Town

My first stay in Thailand was at a small beach in Phuket called Kata. The guesthouse staff and owner were kind, helpful, and gracious. They helped me book some fun tours without getting ripped off, and cooked some amazing meals. The guesthouse was also located just a 5 minute walk from a gorgeous beach surrounded by coconut palms and turquoise waves lapping at the sand. There is where I first discovered the banana chocolate pancake made by street stalls/vendors. The pancake is a thin layer of dough that is quickly fried in a little oil, then it's filled with delicious local bananas and drizzled with chocolate. Oh. So. Good. 

Kata is also the place where I went to my first local market for fruit and whatever else I could find. As with many local markets around the world there is always something strange, something stinky, and something delicious. Strange would be the small fish and frogs kept in little plastic bags that locals examined and purchased. Something stinky would be the stench of dried fish that the Thais are so fond of, and something I would be forced smell regularly over the next 2 1/2 months. Something delicious is the fresh raw cashew nuts and mango. Mango here is unlike any mango I have ever had. The flesh is a yellow-green, firm, and the meat of the mango is not slippery and super sweet like the ones in the Americas.   

My second stay was in Phuket at the British International School, a boarding school for kids during the school year, summer camp when school is out, and home to International House CELTA for one month each year. I participated in an English language certification program called CELTA, a syndicate certification through the University of Cambridge. I think there was a total of 16 people in the certification course all from 10 different countries. That in itself was interesting for so many obvious reasons. The program was quite demanding and required work 6 days a week and up to 16-17 hours a day of study, planning, and assessment of students. The environment at BIS was sterile, but my co-CELTA partners helped the days go quickly by sharing work, sharing jokes, and a few beers at a mini mart, which we called the 'beer garden.' The beer garden was a small garden attached to the shop with a few tables, plants, and a "water feature" that probably provided running water for family that resided behind the shop. Either way, it became the place to escape, vent, laugh, and of course drink beer. Overall the CELTA experience was great and I really enjoyed teaching the Thai people. It gave me a peak at their culture and it also gave the students a chance to share their culture with us.  

After ceremony for the students and CELTA grads, we had a brief celebration that was held at the beer garden. The next day we were sent on our way with most returning to their countries and some staying abroad.

I spent a few days in Phuket Town while I tried to sort out where I would go next, after all I had 6 months to fill at that time. I thought Phuket Town was charming, authentic (as being a small working city of the Thai), and it has an interesting history, which is evident by the various colonial and Asian architecture in Phuket Town. There is an interesting colonial style clock tower that was built during WWI but the clock face never made it because the boat that it was shipped on had sunk. Phuket Town finally received its clock face in 1976. 

Phuket Town does not have the hard-sell atmosphere because it's not a tourist destination. Most people are passing through and stay one night before departing on the portion of their journey. Taxi drivers and motorbike taxi drivers (think scooters with a driver) are a hard-sell. My friend and I were approached every few minutes with "where you go?" and "50 baht take you anywhere." But to return will run you 200-300 baht (30 baht is about $1 USD). 

We attempted to walk to a market and after spending about 45 minutes lost we finally asked for help at a beauty shop (one with a/c). The ladies were kind and went to get someone who spoke English. We left the shop and made a heat and humidity induced attempt to follow her directions, which by the way is not the Thais' strong suit. We ended going back to the shop for better directions (and a dip in the a/c) and she insisted on driving us to the market, which she did. The market ended being one of those tourist filled markets with junk products and knock-offs produced from what smells like petroleum and who knows what else. After about 10 minutes we had had enough. To far to walk back so we opted for a tourist-price gouging taxi. Hearing 200-300 baht sounds expensive especially when you're used hearing $10 or $20 dollars even though it's significantly less. We then opted to hop on a motorbike taxi. All three of us squeezed onto the scooter and rode off for the fine price of 50 baht. My friend said to me that you know there is something wrong with you when you'll bargain over $1.00 and put your life in the hands of scooter taxi. It's all part of the adventure right?

Next up: island hopping in Thailand.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Buenos Aires to the Bolivian Border

During my flight from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina I discovered that the man sitting next to me was from New Zealand and he is a geologist.  He was not at all like the geology grade school documentary; you know the ones that just talk about rocks and sediment?  Murray is a consultant for mining companies searching for lithium; the material used in our cell phone and computer batteries.  He then asked me what I was doing and I explained that after living and studying abroad in Santiago, Chile and traveling the world for many years in a prescribed kind of way, I decided to trade in my Travelpro for a backpack and hit the airports, roads, rails, boats and whatever else comes my way in South America.

This is what I love about traveling and not having a defined itinerary.  You meet fellow travelers and most are helpful at pointing you or literally taking you in the right direction. After our flight Murray was kind enough to offer me a ride to the Salta Bus Terminal.  Some people I end up hanging out with for a day or so but in this case it was welcomed ride to the bus terminal.

The Salta Bus Terminal is somewhat new but nothing fancy.  There is a café where you can connect to their wifi as long as you make a purchase.  Buying bus tickets in Argentina is fairly easy to do but it can be overwhelming with a dozen bus companies trying to sell you tickets.  First, have a few questions ready.  Things to keep in mind are what kind of bus are they using like a microbus or a larger tour bus.  Ask to see a photo and photos of the types of seating.  Semi-cama is good for long rides up to 10 hours, but for me I will purchase a cama seat for 12+ hour bus rides.  Argentinean bus companies have rather nice buses.  There are one or two companies that could use some upgrading, but overall the buses are really nice, especially the “cama” seats that lie (almost) flat.  Some companies provide complimentary snacks and some for sale.  I usually bring my own supply fruit and nuts and water.  Second, ask how much it costs and what time it leaves AND arrives.  In some places ticket prices are reduced as it gets closer to departure time so don’t be afraid to ask for a discount.  If you don’t ask then the answer is no.  Thirdly, ask to see which seats are available.  I usually go for the front row window and far from the toilets. 

After purchasing your ticket you will head to the rear of the bus to check your larger backpack or suitcase.  They will tag it and give you a receipt.  Be prepared with a couple of coins to give a propina (tip) to the guys loading bags (equivalent to .50 - $1).  In most cases they will ask for propinas.  Because I want to ensure my bag stays on the bus or train and intact, I have no problem handing over a buck.  It’s money well spent. 

On this bus trip I have a front row semi-cama seat on the second floor that provided panoramic views.  The ride from Salta to La Quiaca, the Argentinean border town to Bolivia was a stunning ride.  My 7-hour bus ride departed at 3:00pm, which I got to cruise through the mountains during sunset and is was beautiful.  I had not expected such amazing scenery from Salta to La Quiaca.

Arriving in La Quiaca late at night leaves you nothing to do because everything is closed, including the border.  It’s best to just head to your hostel and make the border crossing the morning.  This is one of those times where I made my arrangement ahead of time because I knew I would arrive after border closing and rather late at night.  Upon arrival I recommend using a taxi and negotiate your fare before getting in the cab.  I think my 5 or 6 block ride to my hostel cost about $6 ARG pesos, which is about $1.50 USD. 

One thing you should know about most South American bus companies is that they show movies, which are usually Hollywood “B” or “C” shoot’em-up movies.  Listening to men screaming over helicopters and constant movie gunfire could be migraine inducing because it’s not like airplane where you can choose to unplug the headset because the volume is played throughout the entire bus.  Once or twice I told the bus attendant that the sound was “más fuerte” meaning very strong and they were kind enough to lower the volume.  Being that most of the movies are dubbed in Spanish and have Spanish subtitles no one will miss anything.  Either way, I recommend bringing a fully charged iPod or high decibel rated earplugs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Highway Cowboys - The Bolivian Bus

The title pretty much says it all.  Bus drivers in Bolivia ARE highway cowboys.

I had read that the road to Tupiza and Uyuni from Villazón was a bone-breaking washboard road so I wanted to take the train to Tupiza.  Since trains do not run on schedules like the modern transportation systems in developed countries and I wanted out of the border town!  I decided that the next bus to Tupiza (in 3-hours) was the way to go. 
The Bolivian buses are a completely different experience than that of the Chilean and Argentinean buses.  First, the prices are cheap, like really really cheap.  My ride from Villazón, Bolivia (border of Argentina and Bolivia) to Tupiza, Bolivia costs B$20 (B-Bolivianos), which is about $2.89 USD.  At that price I knew I shouldn’t expect much so I bought the window seat for my backpack and the aisle for myself. 

All three buses departing at 3:00pm from Villazón depart at the same time and each one was in a hurry to get there.  Sitting in the front row on a double-decker bus in Bolivia is not for the faint-of-heart types.  The ride was fast and furious.  It was as if we were playing leap-frog because the three buses kept passing one another throughout the entire 1.5 hour ride, which isn’t so bad when roads are flat and straight.  The twists and turns through the mountains had made me wish I had had a glass of wine, no, make that a bottle wine.  At one point we reached a detour where a tunnel through the mountain was closed for repair and a new makeshift tunnel had been carved.  The double-decker narrowly crept through the tunnel and successfully to boot.  Also, that washboard road I mentioned?  It was paved!  I made it to Tupiza in one piece with my nerves barely intact.  And of course upon arrival at my hostel I met a few other travelers who told me that I could have taken a taxi for B$25, $3.62 USD, minus the 3-hour wait and minus the nerve jumping bus ride.  Go figure.

In Tupiza I had planned to stay for just a day and I had hoped to catch a Salar de Uyuni tour, the 4-day salt flat tours going Uyuni since that was my next destination.  One thing I did not anticipate was that traveling solo to Tupiza and catching a 4-day tour would be a challenge.  I spent hours going from one tour company to tour company and had no luck of getting on a tour.  If the tour operators do not have enough people (usually 4-6 people) then the tour is a no-go.  Even after hanging around town and hitting some gringo hangouts I still could not gather enough people to make the trip happen.  Many of the people arriving in Tupiza are coming from Uyuni, on a tour of course.  Being that is was “off-season” did not help the situation either. 

So now what?  I can hang around Tupiza or make my way to Uyuni and hopefully get on a salt flat tour.  I decided to hang Tupiza for another night since it is situated in a beautiful mountain range.  As the sun shifts over the mountains the colors in the mountains turn from reds, orange, rust colors and then the clouds appear to be pink and blue cotton candy.  Besides, the train was leaving the next afternoon for Uyuni and I did not want to take a Bolivian night bus because sleeping in my brand new comfy hostel is a better choice for Bolivian bus rattled nerves.            

Monday, December 19, 2011

Time Well Spent - Family Time in Buenos Aires

Family time has its ups and downs and its ins and outs, but overall family time is usually a good time.  These days it seems that families are spreading out and it’s not uncommon to have relatives on other continents.  Staying in touch has come a long way and it is much easier to stay connected with the help of technology and applications like Facebook, Skype, Google Chat, etc, although I am still a fan of sending postcards.  After all, who doesn’t like to receive postcards?

Although I do not get to spend as much time with my entire family as I would like, I am appreciative of modern technologies that enable me to stay in touch.  Those same technologies are also helping me connect with other people who live abroad.  For example, I have a friend Isaias, who lives in Puerto Rico and thanks to Facebook we can keep up with each other.  Before leaving for South America I reached out to several people who I know also know other people living abroad, specifically South America.  Afer reaching out to Isaias, he put me in touch with his friend Daniel, who lives in Buenos Aires.  After meeting Daniel and family for a brief 24 hours, I knew I had to go back a visit with them in Buenos Aires before setting out on my journey across South America with a backpack. 

Daniel and family are just so kind and thoughtful.  When I stayed with them the second time I felt right at home.  It was so nice to spend time with a family that really enjoys spending time together.  They treated me so well and they made me feel like part of the family.  We shared wonderful meals and spent a day touring La Recoleta Cemetery where many of Argentina’s famous people have been laid to rest like Evita Peron. Also, we toured La Manzana de las Luces.  “Manzana” is an old name for a city block and “las Luces” refers to the area being an education or intellectual center in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Luces translates to “lights” in English, but more like the “light bulb” that goes on when you have a brilliant idea.  You get the idea? 

After spending five months in Santiago, Chile and not having any “family time,” it was a treat to spend a few days with Daniel and family.  It was the prefect way to recharge my batteries and feel somewhat normal and connected to people; to be a part of a family.  This really meant so much to me because I knew for the next 5-6 weeks I would be traveling alone through South America and I am especially grateful for their time and more importantly – their family time.     

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making it Happen in South America

For several years now my friend Paul had made several attempts at planning a trip to South America, specifically Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina.  Unfortunately those trips fell through for various reasons, some being that potential travel companions backed out or the timing just wasn’t right.  I have been in this situation several times so I know the letdown and disappointment.  Travel is exciting and for many people they prefer to travel with a friend. That’s usually the case for me but I think solo travel is also good for the soul.

Knowing that I was heading back to Chicago in November for a few days and returning to South America, I invited Paul to come to Argentina and Chile with me.  I knew I could help make it happen and all he really had to do was show up.  At first there was a bit of a glitch because the flights I wanted to depart on from Washington, D.C. to Buenos Aires (BA) were oversold.  I decided it was best to wait another day, which worked out wonderfully because we were both issued business class seats to Buenos Aires.

Upon arrival in BA, my new friend Daniel (that's another story) graciously greeted us in the arrival hall.  Although I had requested to be greeted with balloons, Daniel took a fantastic photo of our arrival.  Thereafter he whisked us away to city of Buenos Aires.  During the one-hour drive Daniel had suggested we had to give the Reader's Digest version of our life stories with about a 7-10 minute time limit.  It was perfect because we had arrived at Daniel’s house just as we finished our Reader’s Digest life stories.

Once we arrived at the house, Daniel’s lovely wife Teresa greeted us along with daughter Jasmine, two dogs and two cats.  Of course I felt right at home.  Unfortunately I could only stay for one day but it was a fantastic day!

After spending the afternoon walking the streets of BA, Paul and I met up with Daniel and family (minus the pets) and had a lovely dinner at a restaurant called Bahama.  It was the first time in almost five months that I have had beef, like really good beef.  What was even better was the company, which was a great start to making it happen.