Friday, January 29, 2010

The Flights of Thailand

[Part 3]

I spent the entire flight to Bangkok trying to plan what we were going to do in Thailand. For the moment we had a ticket for the flight there, that we were on, and a returning flight from Bankok to Saigon on AirAsia, the only airline I know that still uses the sex appeal of their stewardesses to sell tickets. In the end, I went with two nights in Bangkok, two nights in the south on the island of Ko Samui and two nights in the north in Chiang Mai. After collecting our luggage at the airport, we immediately went to buy tickets with Bangkok Airways. It occurred to us that we were doing a lot of flying on this trip, but none of us as much as my mom, who in her three weeks of vacation will have flown on fifteen planes.
On our first night in Bangkok we got rained on. But lucky for us, the rain was short lived. Furthermore, rain was advertised to go on for the entire length of our trip there, however we were lucky that the storm on our first night was to be the last rain we would see on our trip.

[The Wat at Ko Ratanakosin, the Grand Palace]

Our second day we head over Ko Ratanakosin, the Grand Palace of Bangkok, which used to be inhabited by the royalty but is now a tourist site. Bangkok has no shortage of transportation options, so we took the really fast sky train for part of the journey and a river taxi for the other half.

However, when we got to the entrance we were turned away by a worker who said it was closed for a ceremony until noon. He recommended another couple of sites we could see in the mean time, quoting how much it would cost for us to get around with different forms of transportation. He advised that a tuk-tuk would be the cheapest, as it would take us around, wait for us, and bring us back for only 30 Baht[<$1USD]. He shows us on our map the places we should see, and as we thank him for his advice he calls over a tuk-tuk driver for us. While we're riding to the first temple, my dad recalls something we read in Lonely Planet about a scam that sounded very similiar to what was going on: You show up to a temple, someone pretending to work there says its closed and offers you a cheap ride to some other sites, but you have to stop in a bunch of shops on the trip, where the drivers get commission. Sure enough, after we explore the first temple the driver says that he's going to take us to the center where the shops are. We politely say that we're not interested in shopping, to which he quite rudely tells us to get out of his tuk-tuk. A bit upset in being scammed, we found some small consolidation in that we didn't pay, and that the price of the taxi back to the Grand Palace was also 30 Baht, so we got to see this extra temple and didn't lose a penny over it. Just a bit of pride.
[Our Captor]

Back where we began, we went through the gates of Ko Ratanakosin[which were open since 8am] and spend a couple of hours exploring the splendor.

[This Jataka tells the Thai version of the Ramayana and circles the entire inner wall of the temple complex]

[I followed the entire wall, depicting the entire story which would take days to tell, and this was the only character of thousands who was looking right at the viewer]

After lunch we made our way to another nearby Wat that housed a Reclining Buddah[depicting his death] which was 46m long and 15m tall.

All Watted out, we took another river taxi and went to what may be the tallest building in Bangkok to share some expensive drinks and see the sun set over the city. On the way home, I made us stop at the Siam Paragon to check out the bookstore, where I bought a couple Hurakami books and Haunted. Very small English book selection back in Saigon, usually limited to travel themed books for backpackers[On The Road, Bill Bryson, The Beach, etc.]

The next day we flew to Ko Samui. Not much to report, other than spending two days on the beach, doing little of anything but relying and getting a sunburn. Wifi was tricky, though, as hotels charged the equivalent of $1 for 15 minutes. In one quite cafe, that I picked so I could Skype with Daphne in peace, the owner offered free wifi. But when I was running out of power and wanted to plug in, the drunk German spinstress tried to charge me for using the power. Luckily I found another spot with a better connection and better vibes.
One of our favorite things about Ko Samui was the airport that looked like a resort.

[This is already past security]

At the gate, our airlines offered free food and drinks, as well as a meal on every flight regardless how short. They were still running their airlines like it was the nineties!

As on every flight, I spent the time researching what there was to do in Chiang Mai. The city was home to some three hundred temples, so after checking in we spent the remaining day light exploring the temples of the Old Town.

After seeing enough temples to last us a few years, we explored the Sunday Night Market which we were lucky enough to arrive during. The prices here weren't that flexible on account of them already being so cheap. I bought Daphne a couple purses made by Hilltribe people, and my parents bought Aidan a panda shirt.

[A merchant scouting for prospective customers]

The next day we took a tour out to the countries highest peak, Doi Inthanon. The tour was a bit more driving than walking than I would've liked, but it was good to taste the cool fresh air and water from some of the falls that were there.

[To honor the Queen]

[To honor the King]

The next day we got on a plane to head back home. Though it shouldn't take too long to write about a trip that only takes hours, this one will. So I'll have to save the conclusion for later.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


[Part 2]
The Capital
Finally getting to see the capital up close I couldn't help comparing it to Saigon. They were very similar in some ways. The traffic was still really bad, though perhaps a degree or two better than its southern sister. Fresh flowers were readily available whereas vegetables were served with prejudice. Shopping was easier as the merchants weren't grabby and the bargaining was more amiable. Plus, the tree coverage was better than in Saigon, along with the many lakes scattered throughout the city it gave the city a greener feel.
We spent three nights there, but it was both more and less than what we needed. Daphne was only able to stay for two nights and then had to go back to Saigon for work. We had exhausted the street market from end to end, my mom almost completing her souvenir shopping in one go. Saw the water puppet show, I liked, mom didn't get into it. Ate some really good food, went to an excellent jazz club and ate more from our wallets than our plates at a French restaurant on the last night.
Some photos from Hanoi:

[Double stitching I hope]

[There's gotta be a way to refine this system]

[Daphne checking on her covered yoga class in the reflection of a street barber's mirror]

[Uncle Ho says, 'Safety first']

[Birds as pets is a Hanoi trait, don't see these in Saigon]

[Streetside barber]

After Daphne left us Tuesday morning, we went to an agent to see if we could get a tour outside of the city, having exhausted it, for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, the premiere choice, Perfume Pagoda, was way too far out for leaving so late in the day. We settled instead for taking a private car out to two lesser pagodas that weren't as far away, Thay and Tay Phuong. For being the lesser attractions they weren't bad at all.

[Happy to be away from the traffic]

[A tasty offering]


Long Time No See

[Part 1]
[Edited since initial publication to include a couple new pics and better grammar and spelling]
Way, way, way overdue for a blog entry. So bear with me if it takes a few installments to cover everything that's transpired over the last month.

Christmas Eve Housewarming Party
To celebrate our new digs, and give our family-separated friends something to do, Daphne and I threw a housewarming party on Christmas Eve. At about the same time, Daphne got hired as a part time English teacher at ACET and was stuck working that night until 8. No big deal, it just meant a later start time and that the cooking and cleaning would rest solely on my shoulders.

[As usual, I wasn't done cooking yet when guests started to arrive]

[Notice the cleaning rag that guy's carrying? So many spills]

The best part about the party? Getting to sleep in the next day. Daphne and I have conflicting schedules now, so long gone are the lazy mornings. But alas, the repose was interrupted when we saw what a mess was laid outside the bedroom. Not having the foresight to have arranged for a maid to come for only 100,000VND[$6USD], we spent the afternoon cleaning up the apartment.
Meanwhile, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, my parents were on their way to visit. They were going to spend three weeks here, but unfortunately I could only get time off for the latter two. So after a 26 hour flight and one night of rest in Saigon, I had arranged for them to fly to Hoi An the next day for a few nights until I was off from work. Daphne was kind enough to show them around town on Saturday before their flight while I was at work. By the time they left for Hoi An, she had spent more time with them than I had.

A New Motorbike
On Sunday, Daphne sends me a text while I'm at work celebrating her new purchase:a Yamaha automatic motorbike. She had gone with her friend, Yen, to pick it out and had gotten it for 7 mil VND[$390]. She had already payed the deposit on it and later that week we returned with the rest of the money to pick up the motorbike. When Daphne handed the money over, the owner counted and looked at us confused. He then wrote on a sheet of paper the number '17'. English, being Yen's second language, meant that when she had translated the price for Daphne she had made a common, though in this case expensive, pronunciation error.
Daphne was at first distraught by this turn of events, the deposit already being paid it was too late to negotiate on the price. After some careful consideration on the bike, we agreed that the original price was way too little considering that the bike was only three years old and in very good condition. So she paid the remainder and we drove home, each on our bike.
Whatever doubts Daphne had on her purchase melted away between the mechanic and our place. Initially, she had wanted us to take a taxi and have me drive the bike home since she was still inexperienced and the traffic in Saigon is a fright to the uninitiated. But I insisted that if she didn't start driving the bike immediately it would stay in the garage and rust. In just a few days, Daphne was driving the bike to work on her own.

New Years and Family Vacation
My parents arrived back on the 30th, delayed by Jetstar for the second time. Aside from a bit of food poisoning they seemed to have enjoyed their time. We took them to one of our favourite spots, Din Ky, a Chinese place that served anything from steak to shark fins soup, but that we always come to for the excellent crocodile. The next day, I have dim sum with Daphne and then go to meet my parents for a a day of touristing while she goes off to work. The problem with Saigon is that its more of a place to live in than to sight see, so planning what to do was a bit tricky. For a start, I took them to get cheap massages, then some VN iced coffee...and then I was stuck. For one thing, my parents were afraid to get on a motorbike which meant the only way to get around the city was by taxi which is way too slow. In fact, my mom was so stressed out by the traffic that even walking around the city was a problem. But after we consumed our coffees and I had flipped through the guide book, we settled on taking a taxi to a pagoda on the far side of the District. After that, a trip to our old neighbourhood in District 4 to have some baguette sandwiches at my favourite stand. Unfortunately, she was out of baguettes, so we went to a nearby bakery instead, picking a few treats up, and had a seat at another coffee spot to watch the sun fade.
That night, we had reservations at a nice, swanky place called the Temple Club to celebrate New Years Eve and for midnight we went out on the street and counted down with the rest of the town, in Vietnamese.

[Le Loi crowded by festivities]

Sleep? Only a couple of hours, because we had an early flight for Hanoi the next day. Our original flight had been canceled so I had to take the earliest time they had available in order to make it on the bus for Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay.

Dragon in the Mists
The short flight to Hanoi didn't leave enough time to make up for the sleepless night before. Nor did it help that it was cold and rainy on arrival. My heart sank. My parents had left the vacation in my hands and here I've sent them up north where its cold and wet for their holiday. I hope that it will be more clear in the Bay when we get there. Driving to the bus station in a taxi, I gaze out the window, noting how different the vibe is from my first visit back in June. Where there was life now it was in hiding.
A couple of bus trips later we were at the ferry to the island. It was still pretty cold but at least it had stopped raining. Seeing the rocky crags of Cat Ba changed all of our moods. A heavy mist hung over the islands in the bay, giving them a magical charm. It was different than my first visit, but still utterly beautiful. The island itself was comparatively empty without the summer beach goers.
We rented a boat out on the bay for the following day with Slo Pony, the climbing company I used last summer. It was still occasionally rainy and cold but it didn't stop us from enjoying the scenery and doing a bit of kayaking.

When I went out on the kayak with my dad, we were directed to steer towards a place called Paradise Cave. "Ten minutes that way, turn left." So paddle we did until we get to an opening in the rock face on our left hand side that opens to another body of water. It seemed like the place, though it wasn't a cave, and there was a sign in the cliff face that read: no entry. My dad insisted that we paddle on and that the entrance must be further down the wall. But after about twenty minutes we get to another similar opening with the same sign. I infer from this that 'Cave' is an incorrect VN translation and that both openings are for the same place. My dad isn't happy with this, especially because of the sign, but I convince him to paddle in for a look. The current at the opening is strong and against us, so we have to power our way in, noticing that the floor is quite shallow at the opening and a larger boat would not be able to pass here. When we finally muscle in, the site is truly paradise. The water, so still it reflects the green rocky cliffs perfectly. I was sad not to have my camera with me. The scene was like something out of a pirate novel or Robinson Crusoe. I wouldn't have been surprised if pirates had at one point used this cove.
At this time, my dad is still nervous about the sign and the fact that we only have thirty minutes left. But I convince him that if we circle the rock on the left we'll get to the opening we saw earlier and get back faster that way. So we paddle until we get to just such an opening that resembles the one we first passed. As we make our way through, the water gets so shallow that we strike ground and have to get out to push it through. On the other side we look around and notice that we are still not out of the cove! Further to the left we see another opening in the rock and some other kayakers paddling their way to it. Surely this was the opening we were looking for. As we paddled over we noticed that the counter stream was even stronger than the first one, with the addition of sharp coral that made it too shallow for passage in parts. But we succeeded in muscling our way through[note, my dad is 63] and made our way through a beautiful stalagmite[or stalactite?] roofed tunnel with colorful see plants below us only to come out into another cove. Although there were other places we could swim to to look for the exit, we only had five minutes until we were supposed to be back on the boat and way more than five minutes of paddling to cover. So we conceded to the cove and turned around, back through the tunnel maneuvered through the coral rapid[but not without getting stuck a couple times and cutting our feet on the coral trying to get out], and muscled our way back all the way through to the boat. We were only thirty minutes late and only ten second later than another group that we managed to catch up to through vigorous paddling[used this word too much, but I don't know any other synonym]. The next day, we got on the bus to go back to Hanoi. The sky was blue, the air was warm. What a tease. But no matter, everyone had a good time and I didn't feel bad anymore about taking my parents up north. Besides, after Hanoi there was still Thailand to look forward to.