Phuket? Meh.

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Oh, Phuket.

Obviously, Phuket was on our travel itinerary since we’re in the South of Thailand and everyone and their drunk best friend has a travel story from Phuket. I guess it’s safe to say the place is more infamous than famous, and we quickly found out why.

I don’t want to completely rule out Phuket, because I’m sure there are lots of sides to it, but we really didn’t enjoy it. After seeing much of the South already, Phuket was a big let down. It had a grimier feel than Bangkok with much more in your face sex (ping pong shows, girls dancing on poles, and Asian girls teetering on platform heels galore) on the main drag and the beaches we checked out were sorta…meh.

Mind you, we stayed closer to the Patong Beach area (which is the main tourist area) and maybe that was our issue. I’m sure there’s lots to explore in Phuket but if you’re coming to Thailand, please just hop to the islands sooner rather than later and enjoy what the South really has to offer.

IMG_6165Our trip was generally uneventful. We had a hotel mishap and had to endure the blaring sounds of construction every morning, but we got a free meal out of it at least. We made a trip to the mall to replace our broken Mac charger, bought a second-hand GoPro Hero 3 (yay!), and explored the more local eateries.

One highlight was No. 9 2nd Restaurant which we only noticed due to the massive line out front. Intrigued, we lined up and we were glad we did. About a 10 minute wait (as we were salivating over all the food being brought out), we finally got to sit down and enjoy some of the tastiest Thai food we’ve had this trip. Trust us, it’s worth every minute of standing.

I’m sad to say we don’t have much else to say about Phuket. We enjoyed walking the main strip, popping into some clubs and checking out the crowd, and we liked watching the sunset on the beach.

Overall, I’d say that it’s worth checking out but only for a night or two. If you’re into partying and not knowing what happened last night (or, which ladyboy happened…) then it’s definitely the place for you. For us? Back to the islands!

Taking in the beauty of Krabi

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After several days of island hopping, it was time for all the natural mainland beauty that Krabi had to offer. We were looking forward to Railay Beach, as well as the mountain scenery everywhere.

 We arrived in the evening and were welcomed by the night market where we snagged $1 crab cakes and delicious smoothies. Every evening, the night market comes alive with so many different kinds of foods all for super cheap.

We woke up early the next morning to ride our motorbike to the Emerald Pool and the hot springs waterfall. Many tours offer a package to the pool, the hot springs, and the tiger temple but we opted to go on our own time to avoid the crowds and schedule.IMG_5575

The Emerald Pool (Sa Morokat, Crystal Pool) is a natural pool of water filled with clean, pure, glistening water. It’s at an absolutely perfect temperature for lounging all day, surrounded by forest. We got there around noon and it wasn’t too busy. The water was so clear; you could see the ground and everything through it. It was a perfect crystal blue.

Close by was the Blue Pool, which is spring water that has this almost fake-looking aqua blue color. It was really pretty to look at. There’s no swimming allowed at the Blue Pool, since it’s surrounded by quick sand! When you clap your hands the sand bubbles up underneath the water, which was pretty cool to see.

IMG_20150210_153041Next we were off to the hot springs, which was home to a small series of waterfalls. It was basically a naturally made jacuzzi. Getting in at the top, the water is pretty hot but as you go from the top level down to the other levels of the waterfall, it slowly cools down. The waterfall has tons of areas to sit and relax or find some gushing water to play under. When you get to the bottom, you can jump into the pond to cool off before heading back to the top again. Words don’t do this place justice… it was as beautiful and refreshing as any spa could ever hope to be.

On our way home, we got to enjoy the beautiful limestone scenery, as well as rubber tree plantations and jackfruit farms. It was one of the most incredibly beautiful motorbike rides of our trip. We pulled down a side dirt road as we pulled into town to watch the sunset, and were greeted by a few local boys and an elephant. The locals who owned her let us take pictures and enjoy the view of the sun setting over their property.

Thailand is filled with so much beauty, and Krabi especially gives you chances to see nature at its very best. It was refreshing to feel somewhat off the usual tourist path and being able to take in the sights Thailand has to offer.

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How to: Two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos

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(An assortment of slow boats just like the one we took)

Reading online about the journey from Pai (or Chiang Mai), Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was quite daunting. We had read many horror stories and began to dread our prospects. There were several options, and each had a long list of complaints and critiques. At the end of the day we chose the path most traveled, and we bought a ticket for the 3-day slow boat.

On Saturday, we headed down to aYa travel agency in Pai and grabbed a packaged journey to Luang Prabang. For a five hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, one night’s stay (breakfast included), and two days on the slow boat, it cost us 1750 baht ($61 CAD) each. On the second night, we would have to spend a night in Pak Bang on our own dime, which was not included in the price.

Sunday evening we left at 6:30 PM for our second round at the 762 curve drive to get out of Pai. It was pitch black and Samie was struggling a bit with the curves this time around (she hates night driving, let alone speeding around twists and turns). After about two hours, we finally mastered the hardest part and were on a straight away to Chiang Khong.

We got into Chiang Khong late at around 2 AM and checked into a less-than-ideal hotel. We were exhausted, so it didn’t matter that much to us. A lot of reviews online complained about the hotel but really, for a few hours it’s not bad at all. We had our own room with an en suite bathroom. It wasn’t entirely cleanly, but we closed our eyes and pretended we were at the Hard Rock Hotel and drifted off.

The Laos border

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(The shuttle bus at the Laos border)

In the morning at 7 AM, we got free scrambled eggs and toast and took some passport photos for 100 baht ($3.50 CAD) before jumping into the back of a truck and heading to the border. At the border, we needed to pay 20 baht for the shuttle to cross the friendship bridge into Laos.

Once at the border, it was pretty painless. Again, we’ve heard that the visa process can be a nightmare but luckily it wasn’t busy at all when we arrived at 8:30 am. We had to go to a counter, get our visa ($42 USD for Canadians — we’re the only country that had to pay that much!), and give them our passport. After about 10 minutes, they called our name and we got our passports back. I can see how easily this could be a big mess, but again we were lucky.

The slow boat – Day one

After we had our visas, we headed to the slow boats 10 minutes away. Once there, we grabbed some sandwiches from a local café and boarded the slow boat. The guy running the tour told a few fibs, such as ‘the boat wasn’t even at the dock yet’ (when it was, and already almost full 20 minutes prior), and that he had booked reserved seats for us at the front of the boat (it’s actually impossible to reserve seats). Thanks to him, we were all pushed to the back of the boat right next to the engine, which was extremely loud.

Luckily, there was a lot of floor space at the front of the boat, and we went up for fresh air and sat on the floor with a bunch of other travellers. The view was spectacular and the breeze was perfect. The locals on board had cute toddlers playing with everyone and the captain let some people sit at the bow of the boat outside.

The boat had old van/bus seats throughout for passengers to sit on, which was nicer than other boats which have wooden seats. We heard most of them are being upgraded to these sort of seats.

For a five hour journey, it was a really nice way to go. The views were unbeatable, and we got to see water buffalo, stray dogs, goats, and locals clear-cutting and farming the mountainous hillside. The Mekong River winds through some incredibly lush, dense jungle forest – the kind of stuff you expect to only see while watching Jurassic Park.

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(Sitting on the bow – the view was alright…)

Pakbang

When we arrived in Pakbang, we stuck with some travellers we met and walked up to the town. Avoid the tuk tuk offers — you won’t need them! It’s a short 5-10 minute walk into the city where there are tons of guest houses to choose from, ranging from about 30,000-50,000 kip/person ($4.25-6.25 CAD).

We found a private room for 50,000 kip called Vassana. It was clean with wifi and cold showers. For the price and location, we were happy. The power went out a few times (but we heard this is normal for Laos), only lasting for about 20 minutes. We went to dinner with some American friends we made and went to bed early since the boat was leaving at 9 AM.

Slow boat – Day two

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9 am, but it didn’t leave till 10 am (but, we’re on Laos time, so this is to be expected). We got to the pier at 8:30 am to get a nice seat right up front. Once we got moving, it was an eight hour trip to Luang Prabang.

A note to anyone thinking of taking the slow boat: bring food! We only brought a few sandwiches and were pretty hungry by the end of it. They sell ramen noodles, beer, pop, and chips on board, but nothing of substance.

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(A village on the Mekong River)

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5 PM, and the boat didn’t take us to the proper pier. We had heard this was a common scam happening these days. There is a pier downtown, but the boat instead takes you to a shoreline 10km outside of the city claiming that the downtown pier doesn’t allow for passenger boats to dock. A woman on our boat was getting pretty mad with the captain, but he didn’t seem to care.

This part sucked a bit, but we had expected it. We walked up a huge sandbank to the road where the tuk tuk’s were offering obscene prices (20,000 kip/person, or $2.50 CAD) for a ride into town. Considering tuk tuks usually charged no more than $1.50 total for a ride, and these tuk tuks were filling up with 6 people at a time, it was a pretty clear cash grab. Some friends and us decided to walk a few minutes before we finally found one we were comfortable paying. We payed about 10,000 kip each, 60,000 total ($7.50 CAD) to get into town. We wouldn’t advise walking all the way into town, since it was definitely a hike.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience. If you come into it with no expectations, it’s really not that bad. Yes, the sleeping arrangements weren’t five star, but who cares? On a shoestring budget, the slow boat provided the best views, time to relax, and opportunity to meet some new friends.

– L & S

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Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.

Backpackers, Buddhas, and bold street food in Bangkok

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Our week in Bangkok has flown by. We finally got our bearings and decided to try some street food, check out a temple, and meet some other backpackers.

We felt a bit lost in Bangkok, so our hostel host mentioned we should check out the backpackers’ street, Khao San Road. It was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and when we got there, we could tell why it was aptly named. Almost everything was in English, Thai locals were selling everything under the sun, Lady Gaga music was blasting from open bars, and there was a sea of other backpackers.

Luke decided he needed some lighter shorts, so we haggled with some venders to get him two pairs for $12 CAD. We sat down and had some Pad Thai and garlic chicken, watching all sorts of backpackers walk past. While it was a welcome change to the confusion that Bangkok had been thus far, it still left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing hordes of loud, obnoxious and predominantly very white pedestrians from our restaurant table was at first amusing, then disheartening. Is this how we looked to the Thai locals? Our bar had a band of overly vocal Aussies draining draft beer from a tower, and the bar across the street wasn’t faring much better. Still, we were eating something that had an English label on it, so we took the good with the bad.

After that, we headed back to our hostel to meet up with some friends so we could head to the vegetarian food festival in Chinatown. The seven of us piled into two Tuk Tuks and swerved through rush hour traffic before hitting the busy Chinatown festival. The streets were packed and there were food venders everywhere.

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At long last it was time to dig into Thai street food in earnest. We ate veggie fried noodles, roasted chestnuts, and a delicious cashew fruit slushie. If you’re not sure what to picture when we say cashew fruit slushie, don’t worry – neither did we. It looked like a Sunny D concoction, but tasted like they had added butter and some subtle herbs. We tried imitation sausage, which was tofu seasoned and seared just right. For sweets, we had coconut griddle dumplings and pure frozen coconut ice cream.

There was a man selling Durian fruit, which could be described as a mix between avocado, mango, a spike ball and a stink bomb. Our American friend told us that it’s illegal to transport fresh Durian on public transit in the United States on account of the smell. IMG_2633To get to the edible part, you have to crack open and discard nearly 80% of the fruit matter to get to the heart of it. Our verdict: It tasted pretty gross. It had the texture of foam but had a sweeter taste with a sulphur finish.

The next day, we woke up nice and early to check out of our hostel. After I made sure Luke didn’t forget anything, we wandered towards our first temple in Thailand. We had decided on Wat Pho so we could see the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 43 metres long and fully ensconced in gold leaf; the feet have over 100 symbols of Buddha engraved on it. To say impressive and ornate would be an understatement. The entire chamber seemed unable to fully showcase the beauty and overwhelming size.

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The entire area was awe-inspiring. Beautiful gardens, many little Buddha’s, all wrapped in gold-leaf, mini-waterfalls, and decorative bonsai trees, all littered the grounds. Since it’s Thailand’s rainy season, we got caught in the daily monsoon-style rain at the end of our tour. We took cover in one of the shrines while the water absolutely beat down for an hour, but we didn’t mind.

When the rain let up, we headed back to our hostel and collected our bags and headed to the train station. Up next, our overnight trip on the Oriental Express.