September 30, 2014

three days in pai

i had 3 - 4 nights that i could do some thing outside of Chiang Mai and i chose Pai.  the last time i  was in Chiang Mai i really wanted to go there but did not have time.  the trip started with a very windy 3 hour minivan ride over the mountains.  thirty years ago the reviewer for LP said 'there was only one place to rent rooms, a two storey teakwood building with six rooms, a shared toilet and shower and a one-room opium den out back'.

well it's a little bit bigger than that now with closer to 500 accommodations scattered in town and along the river.  the minibus station is in town which is four streets in a square and some alleys running inbetween.  there are a few stoplights that are completely unnecessary but are good for orienting.  as soon as you step out of the minivan you are approached by touts for tours and of course it's the hottest part of the day so i grab my bag and a free map and navigate my way over to the yoga studio [via the longest possible route].  i wanted to spend a few days at one of the yoga spa/retreats outside of town but i didn't plan far enough ahead for that and so i go to scout out the local option, Mam Yoga.

Mam is the spunky 69 year old woman who runs and teaches yoga.  she is a force to be sure.  she is Hindu and starts each yoga class with a 30 minute meditation.  on the second day i was there one of the temple dogs followed us to yoga and stayed through the whole class.  her yoga is a very gentle yoga with more stretching than sweating.  it was perfect for me since i was out of practice and after three days i was feeling more flexible.  there are tons of organized activities and one afternoon i join an Australian for a two hour river float on tubes. in the two hours we saw only one other person, a fisherman.

the following day after yoga, it was my birthday so i booked in for a two hour massage and then met up with some new friends for cocktails and dinner.  the massage school is tucked away off the street but they give great massages and the two hours cost $10.81US.  one of the girls i met at yoga is doing a three day course in Thai massage which would be a great way to spend a few mornings.  next time i'll try to schedule a class because i can definitely see myself coming back to Pai.

the next day we hit up the hot springs after yoga and wandered down the walking street [in a lot of the tourist areas they close down a street to traffic and turn it into a market at night].  they way i pick a food cart is to see which ones are most crowded because people tend to return to the carts that have the best food.  another vegetarian pointed out this cart to me and the food was fantastic.  the woman makes each spring roll on demand so there is always a line.  everything is super fresh and at 30 Baht [$1US] a very good dinner.

there isn't a lot of stuff in the markets that i wanted or would carry around but i did find these rings and at $2US each i decided i should have them.  it was after all my birthday weekend.  as we were walking down the street we stopped to discuss something and a guy invited us down a hall way to a lounge.  it was dark with some low light colored light bulbs, reclining seats around low tables with privacy screens in between and an open fire in the center of the room.  it was surreal, we didn't stay long enough to look at the menu but i'm pretty sure we found the opium den that was mentioned by the original lp reviewer.

i stayed at a great place in Pai, the LiLu Hotel.  it was super clean, with a very contemporary feel.  it is still the low season so it was a great deal at $15 a night.  the staff was great with a small misunderstanding on the last day.  it was just two blocks to the bus station so i walked over to catch the 10AM minivan back to Chiang Mai.  the maid from the hotel roars up on her scooter and starts shaking a paper at me and although i didn't understand a word of the Thai she was speaking i knew exactly what she was saying.  as i was leaving the hotel room i knocked over a basket that held a blow dryer and some other items.  i was already half out the door so i didn't stop to pick it up and the blow dryer had fallen behind the safe.  she assumed i had stolen it and chased me down to the bus station to recover it.  enter the tourist politce who fortunately spoke english, but unfortunately wasn't of any help to me.  so i hop on the back of the maid's scooter, go back to the hotel room and show her where the blow dryer is.  she thinks this is really funny and laughing and smiling tells the front desk that i have not after all stolen the blow dryer.  i make her give me a ride back to the bus station where she explains to the tourist police and everyone else that i am not a thief and it's ok for me to leave.  in the moment i was put out by the whole situation but in the end i was leaving and she having made an idiot of herself would be living there.

here are some random signs i found in Pai.  they do not allow car taxis in town and most everyone gets around on scooters or motor bikes which you can rent at one of the many bike shops.

the unintended result is there are a lot of tourists riding around who don't have enough experience on two wheels and you see a lot of crazy things.  the bandage on the calf is pretty common not just here but everywhere in SE Asia.  i thought this was kinda cute because this couple had matching burns.

oh, and remember the booking nightmare using my credit card?  well i contacted the Elephant Nature Park via email to schedule my arrival one day late because i set up a meeting with a Chiang Mai NGO called We women foundation.  they said they never take bookings over the phone and have no reservation for me so i'll be sorting that out when i get back to Chiang Mai.

September 28, 2014

credit cards in SE Asia

i need to book the reservation to the Elephant Nature Park but online it says the week is full so i can't get the reservation to go through. i get the girl at the hotel desk to call them and it is just a disaster because no one at the ENP office speaks english well.  i understand them to say give my card and the phone to the hotel staff and i do.  the next thing i know they are taking pictures of my card, front and back, and texting to the ENP office.  but apparently that wasn't enough and i watch the staff swiping my card through the machine.  not once or twice but like fifteen times.  i'm sitting calmly but freaking out on the inside as red flags are wagging in my head.  i do trust both the ENP and the hotel staff but i make them delete the pictures off their phone.... it's not like texts last forever and can be forwarded around, right?  i have a chase explorer card which has really good protections against illegal activity so i relax a little knowing the worst that could happen is that i would need to arrange to get a replacement card.

that night i checked my account and had only been charged once so it all worked out in the end although this is the perfect example of why using a credit card in Asia is never an easy transaction.  something that would have taken me two minutes online was a tense, twenty minute transaction when a Thai is presented with a credit card.  to be fair, i did see someone use a credit card in a store yesterday and it went through really easily so some merchants have it figured out.  i mostly use cash because there is usually a 3 percent charge by the merchants for using cards.

i make a mental note that this could have been avoided by better planning and i vow to myself that i will plan better in the future.

September 25, 2014

elephant pants

the elephant pants are just a must have for every tourist in Thailand at the moment.  young, old,  male, female, thin, fat - they are one size fits anyone and with elastic at the top and bottom they look like clown pants.  these are everywhere and yes, the cost is around $3US a little more or little less depending on the moment but they aren't flattering on anyone.  i hope this is a fad that burns out  quickly.

September 23, 2014

a rare wine bar

the climate and lack of refrigeration makes SE Asia not a good place for wine.  i found a HOW - its' the House of Wine in Chiang Mai.

September 22, 2014

laundry day

... there's always a special excitement when you pick up your laundry and know all your clothes are clean ... tonight I went to pick up my laundry and the woman picked up my bag with a huge smile, gave it a big sniff and then offered me a chance to smell it as well.  I was expecting that clean clothes smell but no, somehow she made it smell like bubblegum, on purpose!  I just couldn't be rude in the face of what she obviously felt was a huge favor so now I have my laundry strung around the room hoping the smell will go away quickly.

September 21, 2014

goodbye Kha San Road - hello Chiang Mai

i'm ready to leave the tourist ghetto and take on Chiang Mai.  i decide to fly [1 hour 15 minutes $60US] instead of taking the night train {12 hours $25US].  i was looking at Lonely Plant guide for recommended accommodations and they have the Four Seasons listed .... since when did LP start listing 5 star resorts?

the trip to Chiang Mai goes really easy and i head out to explore some of the old city.  a group of three  teenage girls approach me on the sidewalk.  they want to ask me some questions and i say yes.  they pulled out a school note book and they have a whole lot of questions and i thought they were going to ask me to do their homework but it was  just a list of questions like, what is your name, where are you from, where are you going .....  they were very serious about it all and i tried to make them laugh a little bit.

September 20, 2014

water taxi in Bangkok

the water taxi on Bangkok's main river, the Chao Praya is more of a ferry than a taxi.  they work like a subway where they slam into the dock, unload and load, take off ... all of which takes just a few seconds.  there's a set fee 15 B [30 cents US] one way and you can just pay for your ticket on the boat.

more like a taxi are the long tail boats.  they are mostly around the popular tourists docks and fees need to be negotiated.  they also decorate the prow.

temple hopping in bangkok

temples in Thailand are like churches in Europe - one on every corner.  the biggest, most elaborate, with the tallest, longest, or most emerald seem to be in Bangkok.  it just takes a day or less to see the trinity of temples in Bangkok, unless you take a detour through Chinatown, which I did.  just the highlights, i skipped the Palace Compound because i did it years ago and the number of tourist buses outside made me dizzy.  i did go to Wat Pho and here's the proof in the form of the reclining Budha.  it's all gold so it is pretty cool.  the whole compound was pretty quiet and it was nice to wander around without  the tour groups.  they must have been through earlier in the day when it was cooler.  it is so hot and i'm drenched in sweat.

there are lots of fancy budhas here but more interesting is the conversation i have with a local Thai man who says he is pleased with the  military coup earlier this year and the subsequent installation (last week) of the new prime minister and council.  they expect elections in another year or two.  i didn't comment on how the rest of world frowns upon military coups and supports the results of democratic elections.... last time i was here they were burning tires in the street but that's going to have to wait until another post.

 i got a photo of the Wat Arun lit up at night from the water taxi the previous night when i was making my way ovver to the tourist ghetto a/k/a Khoa San Road.

i limp over to the Wat Arun which is pretty cool because it was decorated with porcelain discarded from Chinese ships who used it as ballast and it's monkey designs are the reward for climbing the very steep steps.  very steep steps, but totally worth it to explore the area and has great views of the city.

September 18, 2014

tourist ghetto

back in Bangkok i decide to stay in the tourist ghetto.  mainly because it's close to the temples i want to see and it's just exhausting running around Bangkok's transit systems.  the tourist ghetto is based around Khao San Road and has basically everything a traveler needs and the signs are in english.  every large or gateway city has one of these.  in Nepal it is the thamel.  it always feels like penance for some sin i haven't yet committed.  let's just call it a right of passage for travelers entering the country.

there are three levels of transport around Thailand.  the first, and least expensive, is shared taxis and the buses/trains.  the shared taxis are the songthaews which are pickup trucks with benches in the back along each side.  you flag these down, then tell the driver where you want to go.  if it's the direction he's going, he gives you a price and if you agree you hop in the back.  typically the cost is less than $1US.

the second level of travel is via a network of minivans that allow a traveler to skip the bus/train stations and cater directly to the tourist crowd on a budget.  the cost is usually 2X or 3X the cost of the public transport options but are air conditioned.  i remember from the last time i was in Thailand that once you get into the network of minivans/hotels it's hard to get out.

the third level of travel is reserved for those travelers who have booked a managed tour.  the travel buses are very nice.  i've been advised when using a private taxi it's better to flag down the old taxis because the newer taxis are on rental to drivers newly arrived from outside the city.  the idea is that the older taxi drivers know the city better and can get you where you are going more easily.

September 17, 2014

back to bangkok

i negotiate a fair taxi price to get back to the ferry which just goes to show that not all the taxi drivers on the island are trying to rip off tourists.  when i say taxi, it's a bit of a stretch .... in the past we called them songthaew but now everyone refers to them as taxi.... yeah, it's an open back pickup truck with some benches. goodbye Koh Samet with your freakish sculpture that greets tourists.....

the ferry ride is nice but the alternative speed boat service probably works out close to the same price.  i'd probably use the speed boat service if i did it again to avoid the surly taxi drivers plus it saves time because they will drop you directly at the beach you are staying.  the prow of the boat is a sacred spot where the spirits dwell so they are typically decorated, most often with fresh flower garlands that are sold by 
hawkers on the side of the road.

back at the 'dock' i'm waiting for the bus back to Bangkok and it feels like 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity.  a bus pulls up and for a moment there is a   burst of excitement but then the american couple waiting with me points out - that's way to nice to be our bus.  yes, we have bus envy and for a moment, sitting in the heat at the stinky, trash ridden ferry terminal i wonder why i travel the way i do.  then a group of chinese tourists all wearing the same shirt line up to get on the bus and i'm reminded why i travel independently. 

back to Bangkok we go on our just a little bit better than a chicken bus.  i hop the skytrain to the boat taxi and head over to the tourist ghetto where i previously scouted out a guesthouse.  it takes like an hour but only costs $2US and a taxi which would take about the same amount of time would be around $30US.  it is a pain is the a$$ to get around Bangkok.  and yeah, there is a road in Bangkok actually referred to as the tourist ghetto.

September 16, 2014

dogs of samet

on the beach i am staying the dogs run in packs associated with each property.  if a dog from one property transverses another it's escorted along the waterline.  it's all very civilized and they are better mannered than a lot of pet dogs in the US.

September 15, 2014

the beach

going to the beach was a fantastic idea.  i stayed at the Siver Sand Resort and my balcony looks down over the beach.  the island has a cozy feel to it but not crowded.  there aren't many americans except a few older men with younger, asian women which is creepy.  it's not just me thinking that either, two european women commented to me about how dizzying it is to watch these asian women accomodating these men.  the western women i know who are of asian descent are strong and independent so it's just odd to see the much different dynamic playing out here.  perhaps it's a situation where eveyone's happy and no one is being exploited and we shouldn't judge.  but we do.

what is spectacular is the beach here ....  in the evening the beach chairs are put away and it transforms into a dining and entertaining area.  i haven't been staying up late because i'm still jet lagged but trying to get onto a Thailand sleep/wake schedule.

each beach has developed it's own atmosphere and they are all connected to a path that runs along the coast.  the zen beach has an area where the stones have been piled up.  it's pretty hot - like in the 90s with high humidity but it's not so bad when you can pop into the water and cool off.  the snorkeling is good but not as great as down in the lower island chains. 

September 13, 2014

Koh Samet and the taxi mafia

the ride to the ferry port should have been about 3 hours but it ended up being closer to 4.  i remembered the tourist buses being pretty nice last time i was in Thailand so i didn't think twice about taking the bus.  this bus was however just a notch or two above a chicken bus.  sure there was ac but they only turn it on for the first 30 minutes.  i don't know why it doesn't make sense.  also since i arrived for a 6AM bus and the first bus left at 7AM i had an extra hour to sit around the bus station.  i hate bus and train stations because i always feel like i need to be hyper alert for thieves and touts.  fortunately for me they are still asleep at this early hour and after i find the bus for Ban Phe [port city for Samet] i take a seat and wait.  as it gets closer to the time i see a man wearing a towel... yep, just a towel, walk up to the bus and emerge a few minutes later dressed as a bus driver.  so i guess there's a live aboard situation going on here.

 with time to kill and not knowing if there's a break in this trip i get a bag of chips.  it says sweet basil right there in english and being that i am adventurous i give it a go.  see the red chiles in the picture?  yeah, i burnt my mouth up.  and speaking of heat, the red chili flakes here are served on the side with everything [like having salt and pepper on the table in the US] and they are about 100X hotter so i've learned to use those quite sparingly.   otherwise, the food has been just amazing.  a plate of pad thai is about $3US.

having not been taken by any thieves or touts at the bus station i arrive intact at the ferry pier.  which is a stinky, hot, trash ridden area with a few wood planks nailed together.  in a flash as i walked out to the boat someone tried to sell me a ticket.  since i already had one they insisted i needed to purchase from them the national park fee [that's a real thing but most people avoid paying this] from them.  when i hesitated they included a 'free' taxi ride to the beach i was staying.  the park fee is 200B $6US and the taxi fee 30B - 200B so i pay the 200B thinking it will be fine.

then, instead of a receipt i get this sticker and i know i've probably just paid for something i  shouldn't have and by wearing this sticker i will be advertising to all the other touts that i'm an easy mark.  i'm going to put together a list of ways you know you have been ripped off and getting a sticker like this is one of them.  needless to say, upon arrival on the island, there was no 'free' taxi and i stood with several other people who had stickers while a taxi driver tried to get an additional 200B out of each of us.

i spoke to him quietly on the side protecting his ability to rip off the other tourists but when he insisted the other passengers wanted to know what the problem was.  at that point i told them the fare should be 25 Baht per person and not the 200 he was asking.  when i asked his name and said i would report him he said his name was 'i don't know'.  previous to that his english had been excellent so i asked again and when he said 'i don't know' the second time the gig was up, the others refused to pay as well and in the end we did get a free taxi.  i'm sure this won't be the last time i have a taxi issue and it's not like it was a lot of money but it reflected badly on the island and put me in a bad mood for about 15 minutes which is how long it took me to get from the ferry to a beach with a cold drink in my hand.

September 6, 2014

visa for Myanmar

yesterday i spent most of the day arranging for my visa for Myanmar where I plan to go at the end of September.  It was the usual cluster when getting a visa for a developing country.  i stood in 4 different lines but the crowd was a cheerful bunch and helped anyone who had questions about the application.  there were some runners who had stacks of passports and seemed to know each other so i'm guessing it's a daily thing for them.  lots of people interested in going to Myanmar.  the reason it took most of the day was because you could only submit your application between 9 - 12 and had to pick up between 3:30 - 4:30.  i wanted same day service so i could leave for the island in the morning and the Embassy wasn't convenient to anything else i wanted to do so i burned my time up in a coffee shop and getting a foot massage.  Ahhh, the Thai foot massage is so refreshing ... 

especially because on my way to the embassy i got a bit lost and ended up walking much further then i planned.  i put on my headphones and rocked the extra two miles because i needed the exercise anyway.

what, lost?  here's a sample of the road signage.  Bangkok is spread out, doesn't have an efficient public transport system and the roads are so congested the taxis move along at a snails pace.  reminds me of NYC at rush hour but it's like that all the time.

finally i found a sign that signaled the end of the trail.... and it was in english

around 3 i headed back to the embassy to queue up for the pick up.  the line started outside and i was standing next to the sign that said visas applications accepted between 9-12.  a girl in her 20s walked up read the sign and then said to everyone and no one in particular she had just walk for an hour to get there and needed to talk with someone from the embassy.  the guy in front of me politely explained she'd need to come back in the morning and I asked if she needed an application because i had been handed two in the first line i stood in (this was confusing to me because it wasn't clear if I needed to fill out the exact same document 2 times - I've been asked to do stranger things so I've learned to expect anything). she said again quite urgently that she had QUESTIONS and needed to speak to someone from the embassy.  she had the backpacker who hadn't showered for a week look about her and I thought she might have some extreme situation - like perhaps she was going to seek asylum  in Myanmar - but no, as she rambled on it turns out she had basic questions about what docs were needed.  i thought to myself, WTF? you spent an hour walking to the embassy but didn't take 2 minutes to Google 'visa requirements for Myanmar' first?  i hope i was never that annoying but I'm sure I've had my moments.

in the third queue when i paid the money and turned in the application/passport this is the receipt i was given. there isn't anything on here that contains my passport number or name!  i got the right passport back and i had a stamp in it so i left happy. the detailed information on visa-in-bangkok/ about getting a visa from the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok was spot on!

there is a new option that was added September 1 2014 and had i known about it i would have used it.  for a tourist visa [not business which is available upon arrival] they now accept applications online and process in about 10 days.  the cost is $50 US which is only a few dollars more than same day service in Bangkok which is now 1260 Baht [$39] two day service is 800 Baht and next day is still 1000 Baht.

after two days in Bangkok I'm ready to head down to one of the islands and sit on the beach for a few days.  i picked Koh Samet which is just a few hours southeast of Bangkok.  i've never been so that will be a new adventure.