29 Jan

Do Elephants Ride Motorbikes?

No, I don’t think so either. They also don’t like torrential rain, which is probably why we didn’t see any during our visit to Khao Yai National Park in Thailand.

We arrived to our guesthouse near the park (Greenleaf Guesthouse, which I highly recommend…cheap rooms, great staff and kick-ass tours!) in the morning and immediately signed up for both the afternoon ‘bat tour’ and the following day-long jungle tour. I was excited to see the bats but I really, really wanted to see a wild elephant.

We headed out late in the afternoon, stopping along the way while the guides spotted snakes and birds for us to have a look at. We got to the cave early enough to go inside and see the little critters before they woke up. It was a little stinky – all that bat poop – and dark but the guide coaxed us all inside to have a look. He explained about all the guano (bat poop) on the floor and how the locals come to collect it to sell, which sounds kind of gross but  I guess it’s a living…and then he got all excited and started grasping at the walls frantically.

Cave Creepy Crawly, Khao Yai Nat. Park-2 He finally settled down a bit and beckoned us all to come have a look. We were hesitant – I mean, who knows what is down there? – but we all inched forward. Our combined headlamps soon revealed that he was holding the biggest, creepiest, creepy-crawly I had ever seen. The thing looked prehistoric with a large body and lots of long, gangly legs. I must have stopped listening as he told us all about it because I can’t even remember the name of it! He soon let it go,  but then caught a spider for us to look at, and then a cave cricket, and then the tarantula…okay, he didn’t pick up the tarantula…thank goodness!

Bat Cave Ceiling, Khao Yai Nat. Park By now we were deep in the cave with only our headlamps lighting the way. We could hear the bats chirping above our heads and, every once in a while, I could see the flash of one flying through a light beam. Then he took us to a particular spot and had us all point our lights up at the same time…the ceiling was filled with bats, all hanging upside down and starting to wake up. Another spot was like a cavern within the cave and our lights showed bats flying around inside. I wasn’t scared by it all, but it was a little creepy and I can’t say I exactly liked it. I was happy when we left the cave and drove to another spot to get a good vantage for viewing the bats leaving the cave.

Bat Trail, Khao Yai Nat. Park Looking through the spotting scope, I could see the bats all flying around at the mouth of the cave and then, all at once, it was time and the bats started to stream out. Slowly at first, but then gaining strength and number, until there was a river of bats flying out. They streamed out in one long, meandering line, stretching from the cave out over the field  we were standing in and into the hills beyond. The sound of their wings and chirping permeated the air as we all watch in awe. In total, more than 2 million bats disgorge from the cave every evening…it was amazing.

The following day was the ‘jungle tour’ but, really, I was just passing time until the afternoon when I knew there was a chance of seeing a wild elephants. We started by driving along the parks roadway, watching the monkeys that line the road waiting to be fed by passing cars. It was here that I realized that not everyone comes to the park to commune with nature. Apparently, the highway that runs through the park is a shortcut in the area and it’s many curves make it popular with motorcycles and scooters. The tourist trucks were all earnestly trying to see monkeys, gibbons, and hornbills while the locals really just wanted to get through thank-you-very-much.

Gibbon, Khao Yai Nat. Park Eventually we parked the truck and headed into the jungle on foot. It was much quieter in here and, in no time, the guide had spotted a family of gibbons high in the tree tops and had set up the spotting scope so we could all have a good look. It was pretty cool to see them swinging, Tarzan-style, from tree to tree (well I guess, technically, Tarzan swung ‘gibbon-style’, but…whatever).

We moved on until we heard the unmistakable (once you know it) sound of a hornbill flying overhead. This bird is huge with a large toucan-like beak and a tufted head. The guide trained the scope on a nest and we were able to see the male bringing food to the female inside…pretty cool.

Grassland Trail, Khao Yai Nat. Park Not long after that the rain started. It doesn’t just rain here, it pours…torrentially…and we were soaked within a matter of minutes. We continued to trudge through the jungle and eventually came to a grassy clearing that we had to traverse to find shelter. While walking through the grass I could see elephant tracks and kept my eyes and ears open just in case I might be extra lucky and see one while on foot. No such luck though and soon we were walking, slipping and sliding down a muddy embankment to the wildlife viewing shelter for lunch.

Waiting For The Rain To Stop, Khao Yai Nat. Park We waited at the shelter for some time for the rain to stop…my eyes searching out the surrounding grassland for that elusive elephant. It was not to stop though and, eventually, we headed out again to reach the truck.

Once at the truck a phone call came…elephants had been located at the other end of the park. We all hurriedly loaded into the truck and went speeding down the highway. I was so excited that I might get to see a wild elephant – once the truck started to slow I peered around every corner, and looked deep into the jungle just waiting for that first glimpse.

Elephant Footprints, Khao Yai Nat. Park Soon, we saw elephant poo on the road and I shouted ‘elephant poo, we must be close!’…and, around the next corner we saw muddy elephant footprints on the road and I shouted ‘elephant footprints, those are elephant footprints!’. We slowly drove for several kilometers up and down the roadway, but spotted no other signs of the elephants.

The sight of another tourist truck on the side of the road made us stop and their guide signaled that elephants were just up the hill in the jungle. And then I heard a trumpet!! I could hear Motorcycles, Khao Yai Nat. Park-1 the elephants up there! We waited ever so quietly, willing them to come out and let us see them…but then a band of motorcycles rounded the corner with their whining engines. My heart sank and I knew that I would not be seeing any elephants that day.

The guides were great, they really wanted us to see an elephant, and we drove up and down ‘elephant row’ for more than an hour until the sun set, but the torrential rains and the hordes of motorcycles were too much and we didn’t see another sign.

I know they are out there though…playing their little elephant games just beyond the reach of our eyes in the jungle…hopefully we will have another chance to see them another day.

24 Jan

One Night In Bangkok

And the world is your oyster…

Actually, in total, we have spent 8 nights in Bangkok and loved every minute.

Our first time here, more than a month ago now, we landed from India shell-shocked, bewildered, and numb. Although reportedly overcrowded, polluted, and noisy we found Bangkok to be clean, orderly and, above all else, a ton of fun!

P1070537 We spent our first day getting our bearings and discovered the famous Koh San Road…the magnetic travelers street of the city where food stalls, clothing stands and streetside bars all compete for attention. As frenetic as it can be we lapped it up and ate and drank to our hearts content. In fact, Koh San has P1070542 turned out to be our favorite place in the city. We like how everything is accessible…no wondering where that elusive bar or club is or where the best food might be…it’s all out in the open and choosing super easy. We prefer to eat our meals from the vendor carts (pad thai is my absolute favorite!) and have our evening drinks at one of the ‘insto-bars’ that set up out of nowhere every evening on the sidewalks. We pass the time by watching people (and there are plenty to watch) and striking up conversations with our fellow sidewalk drinkers.

Floating Market, Bangkok-10 We spent one morning visiting the floating market outside the city. It turned out to be super-touristy but gave a glimpse into what life on the canals must be like for more rural Thai people. It was fun to be in a long-tail boat, buying fruit and snacks from floating vendors and seeing the mayhem that too many boats on one small canal can cause.

The Whole Gang, Bangkok Our first visit to Bangkok also gave us an opportunity to join up with some great friends from home. Lisa, Dwayne, Nicole and Luc (www.ProjectRunaway.com) are on their own world journey and our paths crossed again in this corner of the world. We spent a great couple of evenings together catching up, laughing and having a great time. We left them the following morning (with a great hangover, I might add!) to head south for some well deserved beach time.

We were excited to return to Bangkok a few days ago. We were transitioning from the south to the north of Thailand and decided to stop for a couple of days to get our Vietnam visa and see a few of the sights we hadn’t seen on our last stop.

P1070561 We, again, managed to get out of the city a bit to explore signing up for an all day bicycle tour of the countryside. We cycled through the narrow alleyways and sidestreets of the old city, crossed the railways tracks and headed into the banana  plantations and villages of the countryside. We pedaled along the canal walkways, stopping at temples and monuments along the way and having lunch at a local hotspot that produced killer Tom Yam soup. We returned to the city after 6 hours of riding…my bum is still sore today!!

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Bangkok…but tonight we’ll visit our favorite pad thai vendor and stop by the ‘insto-bar’ for one last cocktail. For anyone planning to come to Thailand let me tell you that One Night In Bangkok is not enough!!

19 Jan

On Belay

Learning To Climb, Railay-26 My heart is pounding, my breathing is heavy, and my palms are sweaty which is not a good thing as I am trying to hold on for dear life to the teeny tiny handholds that keep me on the rock face some 10 meters from the ground. I struggle and struggle to maintain my grip, my feet scrabbling to find a better outcrop but to no avail…I cannot keep hold. All my limbs give way at once and I am suddenly dangling high above the ground.

We had not practiced ‘falling’ and letting the rope, and the person on the ground belaying, catch us and so I was momentarily petrified. I let out a little yelp and then whimpered a bit until I realized that I really was safe, that the smaller-than-me woman belaying really could hold me up there. And so I grabbed onto the rock face again, replacing my hands and feet where they were, and tried again…and fell again…and tried again…and fell again…and so on…until I finally reached the top and we all gave a cheer.

Going down was the most fun. I just sat back on the harness and jumped against the wall as Helly lowered me to the ground. Then there were ‘high fives’ all round and it was my turn to belay.

It was almost more scary to be the belayer than the climber as now I was responsible for holding a person up there. Luckily Helly is smaller than me so I didn’t have to worry about the reverse weight difference – although I do understand the mechanics of the belay and realize that I could hold up someone heavier than myself it was just better that, for the first time, I was the heavier one.

Learning To Climb, Railay-1 ‘Climbing’, she said. ‘On belay’ I replied, and up she started. I took the job very seriously and watched her every second, keeping the rope taut, and making sure she felt safe. This being in contrast to some other belayers around who, obviously more experienced than me, felt comfortable to chat and smoke and hang out while, at the same time making sure their climbers were just as safe as mine. I was exhausted by the time I finally lowered her to the ground and was probably sweating as much as she was, only mine was from stress not exertion.

We moved to a more difficult section of the wall for our second climb. I got a boost up the overhanging start and then I was on my own again. This one didn’t go as well as the first. My arms were tired from the first climb and belaying, and I just couldn’t see the handholds when I needed to, even with Tsu (our instructor) pointing them out from below. I got to one point and, despite repeatedly trying to get past, I just couldn’t keep on and so, reluctantly, they  lowered me to the ground. This time, instead of high fives all round, it was the ‘nice try’ handshake…not the same at all and I was disappointed.

My observation of climbing in the past was that there always seemed to be a lot of hanging around involved. I had seen groups of climbers all lounging around under a rock face, faces tilted up watching one or two climbers above and wondered why more of them didn’t get up there. Well, now I know it’s because they are exhausted! I hung around down below, my face tilted up watching for a good while until my arms stopped shaking and I could feel them again.

Learning To Climb, Railay-15 Jason went first on the third climb and I could see that he was taking to climbing quite nicely. The puzzle part of finding the way up appealed to him and he looked far more graceful at it than I felt when I was on the rock face. He seemed to climb quite quickly and soon was back on the ground, making it my turn again.

I climbed the first part without too much trouble, finding the hand and foot holds quite easily. There came a point at about the halfway mark that I realized that I was going to have to straddle a rocky outcrop to make it to the top. I was quite off center by then and knew that if I fell off the outcrop it would be a long swinging fall and so I decided that I was not going to fall off…I would hang on no matter what. I listened to Tsu’s directions and threw my left foot around the outcrop to some unseen foothold – it held. I then reached around with my left hand until I could feel a suitable handhold. I took a deep breath and, on the count of three, hauled my ass around that outcrop and hung on for dear life. I made it and did a small victory dance…in my head of course.

It wasn’t over yet though, and the hardest part was still to come. Right before the top Learning To Climb, Railay-29was a piece that looked, to me, to have nowhere to hold onto. Following Tsu’s instructions again, I tried and tried to make it up the section but I kept falling off time after time. I was frustrated and tired but also very determined – I needed to have a  successful climb to finish the day. Tsu was also determined to see me finish it, and so we kept at it. I can’t really say that I climbed that portion of the wall…Tsu would have me pull myself as far as I could and, even if it was just an inch, he would hold me there so I could reach the next inch…until I was past that portion and could hold myself up again. It was enough though and I was able to climb the last piece myself to touch the ring at the top. Wooooo-hooooo!! High fives all round.

We were exhausted after our day of climbing, our muscles are still sore days later and my hands are raw from grabbing and clawing at the rock…bring on the Thai massage!!

12 Jan

Visa Run To Malaysia

I’d read of travelers spending too much time in a country and overstaying their visa, or having to make a last minute ‘border run’ to secure more time, but I never thought that I would be one of them. It always sounded so exotic…the type of stuff that ‘real’ travelers did. And then we realized that, because we had left India early, we were going to run out of time in Thailand and that we would be two of those people. We were going to have to make a run for the Malaysian border to get a Thai visa.

It turned out to be super simple to do too. There are a million and one travel agencies in Asia and they are all more than happy to help a traveler get from point A to point B, even across the borders. So, we just hooked up with one of these, got on a boat, got on a bus, got on a minibus, got on another minibus, crossed the border and SHAZAM, we’re in Malaysia.

Getting our Thai visa was even easier. We walked into yet another travel agency, they took our passports, pictures and particulars, we handed over 5 Ringetts (about $1.50 CAD…seriously!) and at 4PM that day we had our brand new shiny 60 day Thai visas in our hands.

While in Malaysia we thought we would see a little of the country. Not too much, as our goal is to head up to northern Thailand so we didn’t want to go too far south, but there were a few spots I had heard of that I thought would be worth seeing.

Georgetown was where we headed to get the visas. A recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list, it has plenty of old colonial buildings to look at but, other than that, we didn’t find it overly interesting. It could have been the heat…it was extremely hot and walking around was not comfortable at all…it could have just been that we just weren’t interested…either way it was a bit of a bore.

Overlooking The Highlands What really interested me were the Cameron Highlands…and they did not disappoint. A four hour, very twisty, ride from Georgetown, the Cameron Highlands offer respite from the heat of the coast and stunning views over rolling hills of tea and jungle.

The weather changes here like clockwork…morning is warm and sunny, pleasant for touring and hiking…but every afternoon the clouds roll in, the temperature drops and the rain starts. And it starts instantly…one minute we’re out on the patio reading and the next we’re running for cover as the heavens open up.

BOH Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands-5 The tea plantations were what I wanted to see and they were absolutely stunning. Vibrant green, rolling hills as far as I could see. Some of the hills were so steep I wondered how the trees stayed put, never mind how the pickers possibly picked the tea on those slopes. I had expected the scent of tea to be on the breeze, but there was none, just fresh and clean air. I picked a leaf to taste it…it tasted only of bitter and I had to spit it out! I guess the tea taste comes in the processing.

Enjoying Our Tea, BOH Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands A visit to the tea factory showed us the four step process in making tea from the fresh leaves…drying, rolling, oxidation and sorting…and it was here that the tea scent permeated the air. It was a great visit and we topped it off with a cup of tea in the teahouse.

Watch Your Head, Cameron Highlands Next up was a walk in the ‘mossy forest’. This, centuries old, forest is part jungle, part rain-forest and is indeed as mossy as advertized. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, picking various leaves and flowers from plants and explaining their usefulness or harmfulness and showing us where we could get drinking water and food from should we ever get lost in the jungle/forest…I’m sure that we could now last all of 5 minutes on our own in there!!

It really was fascinating though and made us wish that we had time to visit the Taman Negara region further south which offers even better jungle viewing but our quick visit to Malaysia was over so we jumped on our minibus to connect to another minibus to cross the border back into Thailand.

06 Jan

Thai Mass-‘Ouch’

The massage platform is on the beach with soft sand leading up to it and, when the tide is high, the waves lap underneath in a calm, rhythmic pattern. Dappled sunlight filters through the palm trees and the scent of tiger balm is carried on the breeze as the Thai girls call out to all who pass ‘mass-age, would you like a mass-age’ in their lilting voices.

It’s hard not to give in to the call. At home, a massage costs upwards of $60 for an hour whereas here it’s a measly $9! We have seen massages offered throughout all of our travels but kept telling ourselves that we would wait for the infamous Thai massage so, as soon as we got to the beach, we made a beeline for the platform.

Massage Platform, Koh Pha-Ngan It all starts out nice enough, with a soft mattress and a pretty draped sarong, but before too long I am writhing in pain as the once-kind-and-gentle masseuse digs her elbows into my back and I realize that this is no spa experience. In fact Thai massage is not supposed to be like getting a massage at the spa. It is based on energy channels, pressure points and stretching…and it can be painful.

Massage, Koh Pha-Ngan-2 She starts by pressing gently but firmly all down my back and legs and then slowly increases the pressure and the pointed-ness of the pressure until she finds a knot. Then I know I am in for it. Next, she works on the knot with her extremely strong fingers until it’s released or I beg her to stop.

She is small, but deceptively strong, and can bring me to my knees with one hand tied behind her back…luckily she is also very kind and constantly asks if I am okay and offers to make it ‘less strong’…I  take her up on the offer.

Massage, Koh Pha-Ngan-6 J seems to be even more manipulated than I am. I open my eyes to see his masseuse standing on him pulling his arms and legs in various directions, or twisting him into various impossible positions and then ‘helping’ him to stretch. He communicates with her using grunts and groans as she giggles and seems to get some perverse pleasure in delivering the pain.

When it’s all over we both lie there, exhausted even though we haven’t done anything. She gives us some instructions for stretching later and we drag ourselves to our deckchairs to recover.

On the way to breakfast the next morning we pass by her platform. She calls out and asks if we are ‘kaput’…we respond that ‘oh yes, we are kaput’…and promptly make an appointment for the next morning…it’s addictive.

01 Jan

Happy ‘Full Moon’ New Year!!

Happy New Year 2010 Normally we are the stay-at-home, make-a-nice-dinner, have-a-good-bottle-of-wine kind of New Years revelers. Pretty low key…nice and quiet…just the way we like it. But this year we were near one of the biggest New Years parties on the planet (OK, I just saw that Rio had 3 million partiers, so maybe I’m exaggerating)…how could we not go?

The Full Moon Party is legendary in Thailand and this year, with the full moon coinciding with New Years Eve, it promised to be bigger and better than ever with an estimated 40,000 people expected to come from all over Koh Pha-Ngan and the neighboring islands.

We opted to take the last hotel taxi heading to the beach in order to be there for midnight and to catch the height of the action so, at 10:30, we climbed into the back of the pickup truck with 10 other people to be ferried across the island.

The island is hilly, very hilly, and soon there was a line up of trucks and vans waiting by turns to make it up the steepest of the hills. This was hampered by the 100’s of scooters that honked and scooted their way around all the stalled vehicles only to, themselves, stall halfway up and have to push the rest of the way. The end of 2009 was ticking away and we all wondered if we would make it to the party in time for the big countdown.

Soon, people in neighboring taxis gave up, jumping out into the road and frantically running towards the beach intent on making it in time. As midnight drew closer I realized that I just might be ringing in the New Year with my 10 new ‘truck friends’. And then the line-up started moving, we made it to the drop off point and rushed to the beach with 4 minutes to spare.

Crazy Full Moon Crowd The music was pumping, there were 1000’s and 1000’s of half-dressed, more than half-drunk, fluorescent-streaked bodies moving to the beat and the DJ was marking every passing minute closer to 2010. Soon enough we were all chanting the classic countdown and then, at the stroke of midnight, the fireworks started.

Raining Fireworks They fired skyward right from the edge of the crowd, bursting over our heads and illuminating the whole beach even more than the full moon already was. On and on they went, bigger and brighter…some coming closer and closer. Spent material starting raining down on us making it difficult to continue looking up. Some didn’t seem to go high enough and we watched to make sure that burning embers didn’t fall on us. A few didn’t make it up at all and exploded right on the ground…and then it seemed as though one landed on the fireworks platform…and that’s when we decided to run in the opposite direction in case the worst should happen and the whole kit-and-kaboodle blew up. That’s what comes with age…we ran away while others looked closer to see what would happen…it did explode right there on the platform, and sprayed those closest with burning embers, but the worst did not happen and the rest of the fireworks went off without a hitch.

Full Moon Bucket Time to find a drink. The drink of choice at a Full Moon Party is ‘the bucket’…yup, a sand pail filled with your favorite drink…for Thai’s it’s cheap whiskey, Red Bull, and coke, but we opted for vodka and tonic. I could see how quickly one could plow through a few buckets as there was something fun about sipping our cocktail out of a child’s plaything…the bottom comes very quickly!

Full Moon Fire Limbo I have to say that the Full Moon Party was not as crazy as I had expected it to be. We wandered around for a couple of hours and, yes, I did see plenty of dancing, lots of people drunk and passed out and there was a fire limbo contest, but mostly I saw people like us….wandering around just trying to take it all in. I think I expected more ‘dancing’ (rather than the jumping up and down to the electronic beat), I surely expected to see some nudity (I saw not one single nude person) and I even thought there might be some public copulation going on (although we did see one close encounter). It was fun but, just like many a New Year celebrations, the hype outdid the actuality.

G And The New Years Lantern Before leaving we lit a lantern and, putting all of our 2010 wishes onto it, released it to float skyward towards the New Year full moon. Our 2010 looks bright as we complete our journey, reunite with our family and friends and look forward to what our next Giant Step might be.

 

Happy New Year!!