This blog is a conglomeration of Dave’s words and my words, good luck trying to tell the two apart. There are a ton of photos in this entry because everything was so amazingly beautiful. Enjoy!
After the completion of our season, we decided to spend a week in New Zealand in order to complete our Physical Qualifications (PQ) so we wouldn’t have to worry about doing it this summer. We had scheduled everything that we needed to while we were in McMurdo and were able to get almost everything completed for next season.
At the end of our New Zealand week of running around Christchurch 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.
We landed in Bangkok at 2am 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. Because of the protests this took us a little over two hours…and cost us 300 baht (or a little under $10).
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 down 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 impressive. 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 pick up truck that drove us to a random restaurant to wait for a van that drove four hours south to a random ranch where we waited for a large truck to take us to the ferry which finally took us to Ko Phi Phi. Did you get all that?
Our first night there we spent in a beautiful bungalow that had a really friendly (rather sickly) kitty, which we affectionately named Mr. Sniffles. While I had read the reviews of the place we were staying that had mentioned loud music from the main part of the island, there’s no way I could have expected what we were in for. At 10:30 PM the music started 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, despite wearing earplugs, there was no possible way we could get to sleep. So unfortunately for Mr. Sniffles who was waiting for us outside our door, we decided to leave Ko Phi Phi and head back to the mainland where we instead went to Ao Nang, another beach town, but different in that it was a bit quieter.
The view from our room in Ko Phi Phi was awesome.
Mr. Sniffles apparently thought we adopted him. Janae wanted to keep him (along with nearly every other creature she temporarily adopted along the way.
The famous long-tail boats of Thailand. They modify an automotive engine and attach the prop directly to the driveshaft. Amazing.
While there we spent the first couple of days finding a place to stay. Ao Nang, being the tourist beach town that it is, unfortunately is quite expensive and any attempts we made to stay at reasonably priced places were futile and ended rather abruptly. Not to mention, Janae proceeded to get a lovely stomach bug while we were there so travel and climbing were temporarily out of the question. Once she 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.
Us riding a long-tail.
Piloting the long-tail.
On the dive boat anchored at one of the local islands in Ao Nang.
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 to see the incredible golden temple, Wat Phra That – we relished every second in Chiang Mai.
I’m up there in the white shirt, on the right. 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).
Buddha made of pure jade, at Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
No shortage of gold. Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
The stairway to the temple, Wat Phra That (Doi Suthep).
Sitting down, having a conversation with a young monk.
Our teacher for the cooking course, Rika, took us to a local market to see what Thai ingredients look like.
She also showed us around the garden, to see where the magic starts.
The final product! We made stir fry, main course, soup and a desert. The food lasted us for days. It was delicious!
The wall surrounding Old Town Chiang Mai. It’s also engulfed by a moat. There are over 30 temples in Old Town.
Enjoying the lively and beautiful night market.
It was suffocatingly crowded though. Janae doesn’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 fine and have recovered from previous injuries – 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 to taking tourists on rides. 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 at the ENP. We fed and bathed elephants, enjoyed an amazing dinner while watching a traditional dance performance by some local school children, and fell asleep to the beautiful sound of 500 howling dogs. The founder, Lek, has taken in hundreds of animals (elephants, water buffalo, dogs, cats, 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!
Dave feeding an elephant a piece of watermelon.
Giving the elephants a bath.
See the little baby between them? Her name is Dok Mai. She was born in the park. They were incredibly protective of her.
Nothing like a dirt bath after a wet bath.
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 over and over.
Thai dance put on by students at the nearby school.
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 where there were little fish that nibbled on our feet.
The first treehouse we stayed in. Awesome.
There were chickens, roosters, chicks and cats all over the property. As is the case with most of Thailand.
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, solely to immediately burn down.
Another bike ride!
Another bike ride!
Another bike ride! We came across a red sand jungle.
We rode the bikes to a few caves in the area. Here, Dave is looking at a stalactite covered in calcite crystals.
This ride took us to a walk through a swamp.
This picture does no justice to the phenomenal spring we went to.
We made friends with two Americans who were also staying there. In the picture above, is Will. He builds tree houses as a profession in the States and came to Thailand to see if he could learn new things. We spent an evening climbing this big ‘ol tree with him!
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 home stay and walked miles everyday to get to the climbing spot, to get food, to get to everything. We wished we had stayed longer.
The morning walk to go climbing.
Dave’s ego shot. We got to climb inside this cave.
Wait, wait! Here’s Janae’s ego shot!
San Kamphaeng Hot Springs park we visited.
See the eggs? Doesn’t make much sense. It didn’t to us, either. Until we figured out why everything was about eggs…
See, you buy a basket of quail eggs…
Then you boil them in the hot spring..
And eat them! They were wonderful!
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 is 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 honking and flashing their lights to get you where you need to in the least possible time.
It’s heavily French-influenced in Vietnam, so the architecture and food is a cross between Asian and French. Hanoi, while grey and gloomy, 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.
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.
A little Vietnamese lady pretty much forced this on my shoulders so we could take a picture…
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.
One Pillar Pagoda.
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.
Hoan Kiem Lake with its famous red bridge.
Yes, that is 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. Dear god, the effort was worth it. Cat Ba Island ended up being AMAZING. Janae considers it to be the one of the most beautiful places she’s ever seen. The town of Cat Ba itself has been, unfortunately, completely developed and sold out to tourism. The remainder of the island, however, remained fantastic and nearly half of it is 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.
One of the famous floating villages of Vietnam.
During the wars in Vietnam, the locals built a hospital inside one of the larger cave systems on the island. This was the eery entrance to it.
The stairs up to Hospital Cave.
We spent a day hiking through some of the trails in the national park.
We hiked to the peak of one of the karsts. It gave one hell of a view of the island.
Ride 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 Janae another nasty virus (Janae spent a week curled in the fetal position).
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.
We made it back to Bangkok and went immediately back up to Chiang Mai for our mediation course. We signed up to stay at Wat Phra That temple on Doi Suthep for a week for silent mediation. We slept in separate mens and women’s quarters and were not aloud any physical contact. 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 (usually just rice or noodles) but 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.
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.