Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thai'd up in Bangkok (Chestnuts roasting on an open wok)

The Christmases that Colin and I have spent on our own, we have tried to do something particular to the location where we live. For example, when we lived in L.A., we spent the day in Joshua Tree National Park hiking in the desert. In Canyon City, we went sledding at Star Ridge and had a fireside picnic lunch. This year, we did as the locals do, and...took a bus ride. Being that neither of us was really in a beach-y mood, we nixed the plan to spend the holiday in Sihanoukville and instead opted for the fourteen-hour bus trip to Bangkok from Phnom Penh. It started out as okay as an all-day bus ride can, in apparently the only two seats (they assign seats on the buses in Cambodia and get really grouchy when you try to switch) on board that didn't recline. Knowing it was going to be a long day, we had baguettes and fresh mandarins, Ipods, and reading material. It was actually an uneventful ride to the Cambodia/Thailand border and hop back into Thailand. Once all the passengers finished at immigrations and customs, the driver guided us to a "minibus" for the remainder of the journey. This turned out to be a 13-passenger van stuffed with 13 passengers, ALL of our luggage, and the driver for the last 3-4 hours. All was going reasonably well until we hit the outskirts of Bangkok, when traffic began to slow to a crawl. Our slow speed did allow me to mentally process the COW (really, the BOVINE version) trotting counter-race toward us along the jersey (and I always thought it was for New Jersey, not the cow variety) barrier on the superhighway into the city. While stopped for an hour and a half in city traffic, I heard the British guy in the last row of seats say, "I really could kill for a fag right now." Seeing as he was seated directly behind me, and not wanting to get between a desperate man and his nicotine habit, I opened the window and flung my seat forward so he could, literally, sit on the window ledge outside the van and smoke. The traffic finally did move, and we arrived in the Khao San Road district (the backpackers' ghetto) at about 9:00pm. Colin and I got to the guesthouse, dropped our packs, and ventured out to look for dinner. We found a middle-eastern restaurant and had chicken shwarma, falafel, and baba ganoush for Christmas dinner. It wasn't exactly traditional, but after a long, stressful day, it sure tasted GREAT. And, as a footnote, I realize that world peace ain't gonna happen in my lifetime, but I found a little glimmer of hope from the Israeli restaurant and the Lebanese restaurant coexisting harmoniously down a side alley in Bangkok!
Our plan for Bangkok was to spend a few of days seeing the sights and arranging our train travel (much more civilized than the bus!) to Malaysia. We did spend some time wandering through Chinatown (it smelled soooo good from all the spices!) and the market and did see several people cooking chestnuts in giant woks. ((And speaking of nuts, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, WHY DID THAT GUY HAVE TO SEAR HIS DANGLY BITS IN THE NAME OF ALLAH IN HIS P.E.T. MANTIES ON THE AIRPLANE? DOESN'T HE KNOW THAT ALL HE'S GOING TO ACCOMPLISH IS TO GET UNIVERSAL FEEL-UPS FOR ALL AIRLINE PASSENGERS?!?!?! sorry, I digress, but it really doesn't make me want to hurry on home))
Unfortunately for us, everyone in Thailand is apparently trying to get elsewhere, and the southern trains are full. After spending a good chunk of two days at the train station, where the attendants seem to lack any curiosity about why the Thai Railway e-ticketing website shows sleeper berths available (but won't accept our credit cards online), yet they have none to sell us in person, we said, "screw it, let's get outta here," and took a bus to Kanchanaburi. We arrived here yesterday afternoon and found a lovely guesthouse right on the River Kwai to rest our heads. Today we went to the Death Railway Museum and the Cemetery where many of the Allied POWs are buried and to see the bridge itself. What a heartbreaking piece of history it all is. The museum does a really good job explaining the whos, hows, and whys of the period with a level of respect the people deserve.

Monday, December 28, 2009

New pictures!!!

Batteries dead in the new favorite toy? Run out of things to chitchat about with the relatives? If you're looking for something to fill your holiday time-glut, Colin loaded ALL of our photos on smugmug (colinandre.smugmug.com) before we left Phnom Penh. There are now over 400 new pictures in a variety of galleries, and I started labelling a bunch of them, but that's going to take some time to complete ( gotta go back through the notes and memory bank for some things ). We are in Kanchanaburi, Thailand and the surrounding area until after the new year. Happy viewing and a safe and happy new year to everyone! Rebekah

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, December 21, 2009

Taken for a ride (to Phnom Penh)

To catch everyone up, we've been in Cambodia since December 9th. We felt relatively confident in our ability to cross the border from southern Thailand without too much trouble having gotten visas in advance to avoid the extra fee the Cambodian border officials reputedly try to collect. We did have to pay our "helpers,"" who got the arrival forms and filled them out for us and the doctor who took our temperatures (to make sure we weren't going to infect the nation with H1N1), and then went off in search of the bus to Phnom Penh. We arrived at the bus station (after being told we needed to hurry because the last bus was at 9:00am by the taxi driver) to be told that the last bus to Phnom Penh (P-P hereafter) for the day had already left, and we would either need to stay overnight in town or hire a taxi (mind you, it was 8:30am, the town of Krong Koh Khong looked like the set from a spaghetti western and has a reputation for smuggling and prostitution, and P-P was about 180 miles away). Two bus tickets the following day would cost the equivalent of $30, and the taxi drivers told us they could take us to P-P for $70 (way more than our entire daily budget for this whole trip). We opted for the private taxi ride ("very comfortable, air conditioned, whole backseat to yourself," said the driver). So off we headed in a mid-90s Toyota Camry with the a/c blowing and the stereo blasting music that sounded like go go music from a Flint movie soundtrack with Khmer lyrics. Roughly halfway into the ride, we pulled off to the side of the road and were ushered out of the car and into another Camry, this one with three people across the front seat and one already in the rear. The driver made the woman in the back seat get up front also (FOUR adults in two bucket seats) since we paid to have the back to ourselves. I kept saying, "it's okay, sit back here," and patting the seat next to me, but no one would move (I did bathe with soap that morning). We arrived in P-P safely and got ourselves situated for the night and had dinner (having already totally blown the daily budget anyway, we figured we deserved at least one meal for the day). Later, after some further reading online, we learned that the buses don't actually leave from the bus station, the last one each day leaves at 8:30am from the bus company terminal in Krong Ko Khong, oops... and we thought the taxi driver was being helpful...
The next morning, we went out for a walk to orient ourselves and figure out what we wanted to see and do here. Unfortunately though, Colin wasn't over whatever he had in Ko Samet, so he stayed in the room and I went sightseeing for a couple of days. The Royal Palace is on many people's must see list, so I started there one morning. It was the king's residence and is actually where he was held, basically under house arrest, by the Khmer Rouge. Much of the grounds is off limits because he still spends time at the palace. The manicured gardens are just gorgeous, as are the buildings themselves. The Silver Pagoda, which is floored with pure silver tiles (the ones where you walk are covered with rugs, but you can still see many of them), has a solid gold Buddha statue that's about three feet tall (if the floor wasn't decadent enough on its own, but as Colin says, it must be good to be king).
The next afternoon, I went to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a school that the Khmer Rouge took over to use for interrogation and torture. Only 7 people were found alive at Tuol Sleng when the regime was toppled. I can't adequately describe the feelings I had standing in the buildings looking at row upon row of "mugshot"photos of prisoners of all ages. To see a classroom with only a metal bedframe, leg shackles, a munitions box (used as a toilet by the prisoners), and a solitary photograph of a torture victim, knowing that was just one of many who died horribly, makes me wonder if people are inherently good or if most of us just try REALLY hard to overcome our evil tendencies. Anyway, it was a saddening and sickening experience. After that, I needed to see pretty things, so I went to Psar I Russei, one of several markets in the city. It's a dark, cramped, rabbit warren of stands selling foodstuffs, electronics, and housewares on the first floor and new clothes on the second. They save the best for last though, because the third floor is a drag queen and beauty pageant HEAVEN of silk, satin, lace, beads, sequins, push-up panties and shapers, shoes, and hair salons. I was obviously in the very wrong place to be shopping for myself, but it was really fun to see.
Once Colin felt better, we took the bus to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. The first day we did a walking tour of the town and plotted our 3-day visit to the temples. Siem Reap itself is built around the temple tourism industry, so there are lots of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops, but not much of substance. We did manage to find a guesthouse with a pool (yay), which was a welcome respite after tromping through the temples each day playing Lara Croft. Angkor Wat was one of the big highlights of our whole journey, and to see it in person was truly amazing. Every wall is decorated with carvings, inside and out. The craftspeople did some fine work a thousand years ago! We walked around tripping over stones because we were looking up at every surface around us saying, "Wow." We took a bazillion photos there, but they don't do it justice, Angkor needs to be seen in person.
We are back in P-P (it seems that all roads in Cambodia lead here!) and will be heading to Sihanoukville, which is on the coast, for a few days before going back to Thailand (Bangkok specifically). I can't believe it's almost Christmas. We have seen fake trees and Santas around here, but no snow (HA!). I hope you all have a very happy holiday, stay safe and warm, and be thankful for all that's good in life! Rebekah

Monday, December 7, 2009

So, what did you do before you moved to Thailand?

Hi everyone, we're back in mainland Thailand after a week relaxing on the beaches of Ko Samet. Internet access on the island was very expensive and slowwwww, so I will try to summarize the past couple of weeks.
The trip from Chiang Mai to Lopburi was our inaugural train ride on the Royal Thai Railway. Even second-class express is pretty darned civilized, I must say. On a ten-hour trip, they fed us a breakfast and a lunch snack, and the car had a/c and reclining seats. Colin's favorite part of the journey was the hostess, whom he christened , "the rear admiral," because of her fancy uniform and her nice caboose. When she walked the aisle facing toward us, we noticed she bore a rather unfortunate resemblance to a Pekingese. Once we arrived in Lopburi, we found a guesthouse for the night and headed to the market to locate some dinner. We each had an interesting bowl of duck-part soup, which was tasty but had some unidentifiable and grisly bits. Colin did manage to eat all of his congealed blood this time, though I did not. The next morning, we ventured out to visit Wat Phra Prang Sam Yot, which is the 11th century ruins of a Khmer Buddist temple, famous for its community of monkeys. We paid our admission and entered unarmed, noticing that a number of people (who had obviously been there before) had monkey-hitting sticks and slingshots to fend off hungry monkeys. Fortunately for us, the annual celebratory monkey feast was held the previous evening, so most of them sat lazily munching on leftovers and left those of us without food in hand alone. After a wander about town, we got our bags and hopped on the bus to Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya was once the capital of Thailand, which is reflected in the beautiful ruins and temples throughout the city. We rented a motorbike for the day and rode out to see several of the wats that are a distance from town. We went to one working temple that has been partially restored and where a community of Buddhist nuns live, as well as to the ruins of a 17th century temple. Both were beautiful, and in fact, we rode back to the ruins that evening to view them alit. My favorite spot in the city was the elephant kraal (of course). This is where the royal army elephants were trained but is now a home for rescued ones. At the kraal, you can buy baskets of vegetables to feed the elephants. As you can imagine, I went through several. They loooove cucumbers especially well (one of the big females took the basket out of my hands and wouldn't return it). We saw some of the huge bull elephants in town later in the day being bathed by their mahouts (one looked like he was only about 11 or 12 years old and, without a doubt, was in control) after giving rides. All in all, it was a good day of sightseeing.
The next day, we took the bus to the monorail above Bangkok (now we are excited about visiting Bangkok when we come back from Cambodia! It looks like a neat city from above!) to another bus to the ferry to Ko Samet, an island off the coast in the Gulf of Thailand. We struck up a conversation on the ferry with an American guy who lives in Pattaya (on the coast) and owns a burger shack on the beach. After finding out we were practically neighbors (he's from Tacoma, WA), he asked what we do for a living. We told him I was an xray tech and Colin was a prosecutor, and I in return, asked him what he did in the US of A, and how he managed to move to Thailand. He replied, "I was a professional marijuana grower, got caught, and spent two years in federal prison, after which, I went home, dug up my money from the yard, and moved here." That was a new one for me. He gave us his card and the location of his burger joint if we end up in Pattaya and was also kind enough to let us use his phone to find a guesthouse on the island. We spent the week reading (if anyone is looking for a really good read, A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Tolz, is a fabulously hilarious book- contains some f-bombs and pretty heavy philosophical concepts, so maybe not appropriate yet, Judith Ann!!), swimming, and relaxing.
We are now in Trat, and tomorrow will cross into Cambodia for some amount of time. Will update when we have something to write about, probably when we get to Phnom Penh.