The Most Comfortable Bed In The World

After a 1 1/2 hour long bus ride, a 2 hour flight, an 8 hour layover, a 6 hour flight, and a 13 hour flight, I was ready to for some r&r at the Clarion Inn in Houston, just a short drive from the airport. I didn’t check in until 11:15 and I had to be back at the airport at 7 the next morning, but once I collapsed onto the bed, I knew the few hours of sleep would be definitely worth it. Nothing against SE Asia, but it was good to be in a decent hotel room again where the shower was strong and hot, the toilet worked, and the bed wasn’t too hard or sagging in the middle. It was actually probably the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in and I’ve slept in a lot of hotel beds. Who knew it would be at the Clarion Inn in Houston, Texas?

The journey from Bali to Panama City, as I first stated, was long and tiring, but one thing I’ve learned about long journeys is that if you don’t think about them much, you sort of fall into the rhythm of traveling and time seems to stop. You enter a limbo world of airplanes, airports, and hotel rooms, until the trip ends and you suddenly arrive back in the real world, many hours and even days after you first started. Time just doesn’t seem to matter. Unless, of course, you only have an hour to catch your next plane, you’re in an airport you’ve never visited (in this case, Beijing), you need to go through customs, you don’t have a boarding pass, and you have no idea where to get one. I was sure I would miss my plane, but after 20 frantic minutes of asking official looking people where to go without any official answer, I was approached by a man in all black who handed me a piece of paper, which just happened to be my boarding pass. It wasn’t a printed boarding pass, but had my name and destination written in in blue ink and seemed official enough. I have no idea who the man was, how he knew I needed a boarding pass, or where he got my information, but I didn’t stop to ask questions, just thanked him, hurried through customs and security and then, ironically, ended up standing at the gate for 45 minutes. It was strange.

After 13 hours in the air from Beijing to New York, I had a 2 hour layover in the Newark airport and was looking forward to grabbing something to eat and walking around for an hour. I should have known better. When you fly into the US of A from any foreign country, it’s not a simple matter of debarking the plane, getting a stamp in your passport, and moseying your way to the next gate. Instead, it’s an hour and a half affair of waiting in line, getting asked questions like “how can you finance a two month trip as a massage therapist?”, waiting at the baggage claim for your bag only to carry it 100 meters to drop it off at security, waiting in line again to get another boarding pass, taking off your shoes, belts, jackets, etc… to go back through security, and finding your way to the gate with 15 minutes to spare. At least I got to walk around.

So now I’m in Panama City. I explored the city a little bit, looking for a place to eat, but didn’t find much because it’s New Years Eve and everything is closed. Tomorrow I return to the airport to meet the incoming guests and drive two hours to Colon to board the Sea Lion. My journey is almost complete! This one at least…

Kuala Lumpur

I’m sitting in a Starbucks in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, listening to Christmas music and drinking coffee, which I’m trying I give up. In about an hour, we move on again, south to Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ancient sea port on the west coast of Malaysia.

The first evening we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia Kris, our guide took us to the Petronas Twin Towers, which were the tallest skyscrapers in the world from 1998 to 2004. Then we walked a sweaty half an hour to the Menara Tower and took the lift to the top for a panoramic view of the city. The sun was just setting, so the light was glinting off the buildings and the horizon was hazy. It was beautiful.

Yesterday we had a full day to explore Kuala Lumpur and we managed to pack in a lot. Sarah, a girl from Germany, and I set out early to first find a post office so she could send a few things home and then to get lost in the maze of busy streets and tall skyscrapers. The majority of the group wanted to spend the day at a water/theme park, but I had no interest whatsoever in doing that. We found the post office and since it was starting to rain, we ducked into Central Market, a shopping complex filled with East Asian souvenirs and crafts. I’m not a big shopper, but there were some beautiful handmade crafts from around Malaysia, like clothes, jewelry, pewter mugs, carvings, and my favorite – a pottery shop that had beautiful tea sets, vases, cups, and jewelry. All too expensive, though, unfortunately. Sarah and I had a delicious Thai lunch in the food court, followed by my favorite dessert – mango sticky rice. I also bought a large bottle of coconut oil, which is good for pretty much everything – lotion, hair conditioner, massage, or taking a tablespoon a day for health, which is what I got it for.

The rain outside had turned to a sprinkle, so we set out again, this time towards Lake Gardens, a park on the outskirts of the city. I’m actually quite amazed at how good my sense of direction is. I’ve never been to this city, but I seemed to know exactly where to go with only a glimpse at a map. I guess once you figure out your way around one city, you can figure out them all. At the entrance to Lake Garden was the National Mosque (Malaysia is a Muslim country) and we were just in time for non-muslim (aka tourists) visiting hours. The catch was that we had to wear long purple robes with hoods over our (too revealing) clothes and no shoes. Inside was interesting. It actually didn’t feel “inside” because everything was open – no walls except in the huge prayer room where we weren’t allowed to go. On the way out I glanced at the visitors book and I was the only American listed that I could see.

Lake Gardens was a nice respite from the traffic and pollution of the city center, and Sarah and I spent a few hours wandering around the orchid and hibiscus gardens. It was still raining slightly, but I didn’t mind because the place was deserted. There was also a bird park nearby, but it was expensive, so instead we were entertained by a troop of monkeys playing and monkeying around on the roof of a snack shop. After lounging for a bit on benches beneath a hibiscus-covered trellis, we headed back down towards town. Once on the streets, it started raining again, so we ducked into the nearest building, which happened to be a textile museum. It was a beautiful old colonial building and the museum had some interesting old clothes and jewelry.

It was around six, but neither of us were hungry, so we decided to head to Little India to look around. We stopped to ask for directions and the man said he was headed that way, so we followed him. He even stopped and waited while we took pictures. Little India wasn’t very India-like – just a lot of crowded tents selling everything imaginable – so we retraced our steps and went to Chinatown, which wasn’t much better. Now hungry, we headed back towards our hotel and the Indian restaurant across the street where I’ve eaten at for almost every meal. You’d think I would be getting sick of Indian food… But I’m not.

In The Mountains of Malaysia

Wow, I have some catching up to do. It’s only been a few days since I was “island hopping”, but it feels like ages ago and I’ve done and seen so much. After we left Krabi, we took a full day bus ride (private mini-van) to the Thai/Malaysia border and crossed into new territory. I’d never been to Malaysia before, so it was exciting. The landscape is similar to Thailand (at least in the north), but Malaysia is a wealthier country, so the roads were better and everything felt and looked more modern. We arrived in Georgetown, Penang, where we would be spending the next two nights and after getting settled into our rooms (at the Minimal Good Hotel – which was actually quite nice) we headed out for some street food. Penang is an island off the west coast of northern Malaysia and it’s well-known for its delicious street food. I had a vegetable soup and it was quite good.

The next day we had free to explore, so Jo (a girl from England) and I hopped on a bus and headed out of town to see the Kek Lok Si Temple. It was enormous and rather touristy, but still impressive. We didn’t have too much time to walk around because we were supposed to meet the rest of the group at noon for a walking tour of the city, led by our tour guide Kris. Asia isn’t known for it’s timely public transpiration and we got back just in time to meet the group heading down the street. Kris took us around the Colonial part of Georgetown and told us some of it’s history, but after about an hour the rest of the group was getting hot and tired and bored. So they took a bus back and Kris, Jo, Sarah, and I continued on to Little India and Chinatown.

We all met again at 7 for dinner and headed to an Indian restaurant that I saw in my guidebook. When we got there though, it was all vegetarian! Good for me, but most everyone else picked up and went down the street to another Indian place where they could order meat. I was disappointed to see that they couldn’t eat vegetarian for just one night. Sarah, Jo, and Kris stayed with me, though.

The next day we had another long bus ride into the mountains of Malaysia – the Cameron Highland, known for it’s tea plantations and strawberry farms. As we made our way up several thousand feet (4800 I think) on a winding road, the air got cooler and cooler. It’s actually cold enough to wear jackets, scarves, hats, and Uggs (yes, one girl brought her Uggs to southeast Asia) at night. We arrived late again, so we only had a little time to look around town before dinner. We ate at another Indian restaurant (I have a new obsession with Indian food) and my meal was served on a banana leaf!

Finally (I’m almost caught up), today we went on a full day tour of trekking, tea plantations, a butterfly garden, and strawberry eating. We first stopped at a roadside village where the locals showed us how to use a blow dart gun that their ancestors used to use to hunt. We got to try and I hit the bulls eye dead-on 🙂 After, two local boys who spoke no English led us into the jungle in search of the Raffelsia – the largest flower in the world and it only grown in southeast Asia. We hiked a very sweaty and muddy 45 minutes into the lush rainforest before coming across it. The Raffelsia is a parasitic plant that has no roots, stems, or leaves. Some species can grow over 39 inches and weigh up to 22 pounds! The one we saw was about 2 feet across with red flesh and a lot flies buzzing around (apparently they smell like rotting meat, but I didn’t stick my nose in it). It was pretty cool and looked very out of place in the surrounding greenery.

After hiking back out, we stopped for lunch at a roadside Indian restaurant 🙂 Then we visited a 600 acre tea plantation. It was massive. Everywhere I looked there were tea plants. The plantation (called Boh) was started in the 1920’s by a Scottish family and it’s still run by the same family. They now live in Kuala Lumpur and visit the plantation via helicopter. It was beautiful, though – the steep hills and mountains were all planted with tea plants and the sun was glinting off the leaves. There are only five types of tea – black, green, white, oolong, and flavored – and they’re all made from the same leaf. It just depends on how the leaves are dried, fermented, and processed.

We had a tour around the factory and a cup of tea in the “tea-ria” before moving on to the butterfly gardens. It was actually really cool. Butterflies were everywhere and we could hold them in our hands. They had other critters as well, like snakes (one of which I had draped around my neck), giant beetles, leaf insects, stick insects, chameleons, leaf frogs (they actually look like leaves!), scorpions, etc… All from around Malaysia. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at an open market and bought some strawberries from the surrounding farms. I actually didn’t try any because they were expensive and I’m a little skeptical about the pesticide use…

Tomorrow we move on again. We leave early and head south to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Looking forward to more adventures!

Island Hopping

It has been a couple of days since I left the craziness of Bangkok and entered the craziness of Krabi, a province down south on the Andaman Sea. I’m staying in a town called Ao Nang, aka Tourist Central, with the rest of the Gap Adventures group (more on that later). At first I was horrified and couldn’t wait until we move on, but after I got settled in a bit I realized it wasn’t that awful. Part if traveling is taking the good with the bad and so far I’ve had a whole lot of good.

I met the rest of the group (10 of them) in Bangkok on the 6th of December and had a few days to explore the city some more. The group is really nice, but they like to drink and party, so I don’t hang out with them much at night. I did a yoga class with several friends from Yoga Thailand who were still in the city and after, we randomly met up with some more classmates in a sky-train station. Small world. Aoy, who lives in Bangkok treated us all to an amazing lunch at a vegetarian Japanese restaurant.

On Tuesday we traveled down south by overnight train, but I didn’t get much sleep because the lights stayed on the whole night (we had curtains, though) and I was either too hot or too cold. Like I said before, Ao Nang is very touristy and the beaches are packed, so on the first day I set out by myself to explore and hopefully find some solace. At the end of the beach I came to a trailhead and followed the rickety stairs up a steep hill and down the other side. I found myself at a private resort with an empty beach. Mission accomplished.

The second day in Ao Nang (yesterday) two friends (Jo and Dan) and I took a fishing boat over to Railey Beach, a 15 minute ride from Ao Nang. Again, I was disappointed with the masses of white bikini and speedo clad tourists, but we found a spot on the beach and spent a few hours swimming and soaking up the sun. We were about to leave when Dan offered to show us where a troop of monkeys liked to hang out (he’s been to Krabi before). We set off down a worn dirt path and soon came across the monkeys (I have no idea what kind they were). We decided to keep walking down the path and head over to the other side of the island. Unlike the beaches we just came from this side had no white sandy shore, only mangroves and dirt. I liked it better, though, because it was less crowded, more laid back, and had a backpacker/traveler feel. Krabi is world famous for its rock climbing because of its tall limestone bluffs and as we made our way down the shoreline, we saw why the area draws so many climbers. At the end of the beach we came to some limestone caves, which were really cool with the stalagmite and stalactite formations. We also came across a “trailhead” that supposedly led up to a viewpoint and secret lagoon. When I say “trailhead” I mean a slippery red clay path the leads almost straight up with jagged rocks as foot holds and a knotted rope to hang on to. I had to try it. Dan and Jo weren’t so keen (although Dan did end up going after me – I met him as I was going back down), so I set off on my own. It really wasn’t that bad, just muddy (or clayey) and quite steep. I asked a few others I met on the way up about the lagoon and they said it was too difficult to reach. So I settled for the look out, which I reached about 20 minutes later. It was so beautiful and definitely worth the orange hands and feet (I went barefoot). The view was out over the two sides of the island, so I could see both beaches with the limestone cliffs in the background. The drop down was probably about 500 feet. It was incredible. Dan said looking over the edge was the scariest thing here’s ever done, but he also thought the climb up was particularly difficult.

Today was another adventure. Nine of us hired a speed boat to take us around to some of the islands. At the first stop we snorkeled with the fish and around the reefs. Then we headed to Maya Bay which is where The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. It was more than a disappointment. The beach was absolutely packed and there were some many speed boats that the air was polluted. Maybe it would have been beautiful if there weren’t so many people and boats. The next stop was better, though. We had lunch on Phi Phi Don island (yes it’s pronounced pee pee) and after eating I headed out to explore. The beaches were still crowded, but it had a more laid back, island feel, so it was nice. Then the last stop of the day was my favorite. We went to Bamboo Island and after wading to shore, I once again took off by myself (I’m starting to realize that I’m quite different from the average traveler who doesn’t explore farther than what they can see). I wasn’t complaining though because as soon as I walked around the bend an climbed over some rocks, there was absolutely nobody. White beaches and turquoise waters all to myself. The only problem was that I didn’t know how big the island was and we only had an hour and a half there, so I couldn’t stop and relax. I found some really cool stones, though, and eventually, after climbing over sharp rocks, tip-toeing over scorching sand, and wading through waist deep water, I made it all the way around the island with lots of time to spare (unfortunately! I would have like to have spent more time on my own private beach).

Tonight is our last night in Ao Nang, then tomorrow we take mini-vans down to Malaysia and the island of Penang. I can’t wait to do some more exploring!

New Pictures

I spent a good portion of my afternoon today organizing and uploading pictures onto Facebook. Check out the new albums and pics!

Out Of Bangkok

I have to admit, Thailand is an easy place to get around. I just had to learn to get off the roads and out of the traffic jams. This morning I took the sky-train to Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok. Then, after walking around there for a bit and photographing a giant (although not nearly as giant as they can get) monitor lizard, I went underground and took the MRT (aka the subway) to the train station.

A modern, crowded place, full of Thais and foreigners alike, the train station offers service pretty much anywhere in Thailand and beyond. I was headed to Ayutthaya for they early afternoon, an hour and a half (and .50 cents) north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya was the Thai capital over 400 years ago. It served as the ruling center for 33 kings and several dynasties until 1767 when the Burmese ransacked and pillaged its temples and palaces. Now Ayutthaya is a place of ancient ruins, but still spectacularly beautiful and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Along the way to Ayutthaya I saw first hand the extent of the flooding that occurred in then past few weeks. Trees stood in the middle of what looked like lakes and the roofs of buildings were just visible above the roiling surface of the swift moving Chao Phraya river. I thought it humorous when we passed a flooded field, then a manicured golf course surrounded by freshly dug ditches and sand bags to keep the water out, then more flooded fields. I guess they like their golf.

I arrived in Ayutthaya around one and crossed the busy street to the ferry dock that would take me across the river to the island of Ayutthaya. Today, Ayutthaya is actually a large, modern city. It’s spread out along the banks of the Chao Phraya as well as on the island where the ruins are located.

After a short ride, I arrived at the other side. The guidebooks say that the best way to see the ancient city is by bike, so I hired a green and white beach cruiser with a basket (I wish I had gotten a picture because I know I looked ridiculous) and was on my way. The first temple I came to was Wat Maha That. I was in awe. It was so amazing to see the tall, crumbling brick ruins and know that hundreds of years ago they were part of a resplendent city. Part of me wished I had stuck with my desire to be an archaeologist. I meandered among the ruins, taking photo after photo and climbing up and into the more preserved temples. In one, you could go down a steep staircase into what was probably a crypt, but is now home to a family of bats.

Back on my bike, I peddled to some of the other sites, each equally beautiful and each as breathtakingly majestic. All of the temples and palaces once had hundreds of stone carved Buddhas lining the walls, gracing places of worship, and overseeing entrances. But when the Burmese attacked, they cut off all the Buddhas heads because they believed it would weaken their enemies.
Only a few statues remain whole and others have the severed heads lying by their sides. In Wat Maha That there is a Buddha head entombed in tree roots.

I spent about 4 hours wandering among the ruins, biking over wooden bridges and admiring the beautiful sites. Then it was back to the train station and back to Bangkok for my last night in the city. Tomorrow I board a bus that will take me south to Surat Thani and then a ferry over to Koh Samui!

Thailand On The Cheap

I think I’m getting the hang of things here. The first few days I was struggling to figure stuff out – constantly looking at maps, taking taxis because I was unsure if where I was, and eating at nice sit-down restaurants rather than buying from the street vendors. But now, although not quite an expert, I feel more comfortable and at ease in the city. I took the sky-train into a different part of the city to explore and I found my way back without any trouble. It’s also a lot cheaper to travel this way. The sky-train costs about a dollar each way and the one hour amazing foot massage later in the afternoon was 7 dollars with a tip. For dinner I hit the streets and bought a plateful of stir-fried noodles for .35 cents, some longan fruit for .27 cents and 4 tempura-sesame balls filled with sweet potato also for .35 cents. That doesn’t even add up to a dollar! Hopefully I won’t regret it later…