Adventures in Thailand

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I'm ba-ack...

Safe and sound in Canada with a hot shower and a good sleep in me.

There isn't much to report about our last day in Hua Hin - we picked up our clothing (wow, it's really fabulous to have something that fits), went back to the cloudy beach (the sun only came out for a few minutes) and then headed back to Bangkok.

Once in Bangkok, we went back to the same little place we stayed at originally. We had a drink when we got there and were rather entertained by the live entertainment who favoured the Eagles, Elton John, the Beatles, Eric Clapton and many other late 60's & 70's hits... There were still lots of police out everywhere while was nice to see. We got up super early the next morning so that Lisa & Jay could go to the Myanmar Embassey to get their visas. I poppeed into an internet cafe to make sure Air Canada hadn't changed drastically since I left while they waited but they ended up packing it in since they were numbers 34 & 35 and an hour and a half into things, it had only progressed as far as 12.

We went off to that temple that was "closed" earlier. Someone tried to scam us on the way in, saying the temple was closed to tourists in the morning and that we should go see sitting Buddha instead. Jay said a few things and the guy tried to insist that he worked there... We went further down to the real entrance and got in with no problem. There is a dress code so we had to borrow some clothing - I was okay in my skirt but Lisa needed to get a long skirt, Jay needed pants and Lisa & I both had to get shirts since we were in tank tops. Once we did that, we were off into the temple. It was absolutely amazing - there really aren't words that can describe how stunning these temples are and you can't really tell how much they glitter from pictures, though I took a whole big pile of them.

After that, it was running a few errands and then finishing off some shopping on Khao San Road. I managed to spend almost every last baht (are you surprised?) before the night was through, though at some points, the idea of bartering was starting to tire me so I'm pretty sure I overpayed for a bunch of stuff. Lisa had a cute experience where she bought a purse like one I had bought early in the trip (for 150 baht) - she asked how much and was told 100 baht so she just took it without bargaining. Another lady who was rather loud and obnoxious asked about a larger version and was told 350 baht. She asked about the little ones and how much if she bought 4 and was told 150 baht each. Tee hee hee.... We had one last dinner (hmmmm, fresh orange juice, spring rolls, pad thai) before heading back to the hotel to pack and call it a night. Packing didn't take too long - thought, it looked like a tornado hit the room. The bags weren't that heavy either!

I headed off to bed early while Lisa & Jay went out for a bit. The alarm went off way too early and it was up to get dressed and into a cab. The cab driver tried to get me to give him 400 baht, off the meter, to take me to the airport which was so silly (on the meter, it cost me 200!) and made me kinda sad that even on the way out of the country, they are trying to take advantage of foreigners. The airport was already SWAMPED when I arrived at 5:30 so it was a morning of long lines to check in, pay airport take, get through security, etc. The plane was full and much nicer than the plane I had from Thai Airways on the way to Bangkok. I tried to sleep but didn't have too much luck. Once landing in Toyko, there was another line up to check in for the connecting flight that moved slower than anything I've ever seen (three hour layover - some people were still checking in right before boarding). The flight to Vancouver went fairly quickly and then it was off to customs (the man seemed suspicious I was on my own), baggage (why was my stuff last off the plane) and to re-check my bags. Unfortunately, I was put in the wrong line and my bags almost ended up going nowhere since I hadn't been given new luggage tags. The guy sent me off to a new line where I waited for ages and then confused the lady by saying I had a boarding pass but no tags (her response: You can never expect things to be done properly in Aisa). By the time I got all through, I had to motor it across the airport to get to the domestic gates, through security and to my gate. I had just enough time to get a cinnamon dolce latte (YAY! they are back!!) before boarding. The flight from Vancouver was awful - I had the world's most obnoxious family behind me. Two parents who bitched about everything and called people tools and idiots, two kids who wouldn't shut up... Once into Toronto, I just had to wait for my bags before taking off. I caught Airways Transit back to Waterloo and am now snuggled up at home with only the terror of unpacking still looming.

I'll take a photo or two before I start... Just remember - the second bag is all Lisa's & Jay's stuff (I'm a very cheap courier... or very expensive if you consider what my plane ticket cost). Today is still a vacation day from work but I have so much to do so it should fly quickly and then tomorrow, it is back to the normal daily grind. I'll update this with a few pictures once I get those settled and sorted and let you all know where all my pictures will be (some won't be coming until Lisa is back in February).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

So where were we?

That's right... In Chiang Mai... Well, on our last day, Jay was back up over the weather so we did a bit more temple touring (including seeing a bronze Buddha and a crystal Buddha). The second temple was kinda far away so we rented bicylcles to get out there which was really quite fun. It's been a while since I was on a bike so it was quite a fun adventure. We also attempted to find a shopping mall, but it didn't really materialize so we went back to our hotel and had a swim before getting dinner and then onto an overnight bus to Bangkok so we could catch our bus to the beach town we were heading for. This overnight VIP bus was not as nice as our last one - it was very crowded and the air conditioning kept breaking down so it was either super hot or super cold. It was just super.

The beach town is called Hua Hin and I'm rather annoyed that it's very overcast here. It's not one of the most popular tourist town - it seems to be more for older folk and Germans (I'm am neither) - but Lisa got great reviews on it from a friend of hers (who is an older folk but not German). Yesterday was a quiet day since it isn't overly sunny. We wandered around the town a wee bit, figured out where the beach was and kinda layed low. We did have a lovely dinner of delicious pizza but we were all pretty tired from a long bus ride.

Today was a busier day - we went to one of the many stores here that makes clothing. We spent a fair while there looking at fabrics and patterns and getting measured. When all was said and done, we ended up with two silk dresses, two suits, two pairs of pants and three shirts. And no, it's not all for me. Just one dress, one suit and one shirt. We are off for a fitting in a few minutes and another one tomorrow - it'll be quite a treat to get something that fits perfectly, of course, that means no one can gain or lose any weight. After the shopping, we did the beach thing. The beach has a bunch of restaurants on it and you can get yourself a massage or pedicure or horse ride for an exhorbitant sum (well, compared to everywhere else, anyway). The water is super salty and the waves are much higher than what I can ever remember. It was pretty chilly and windy on the beach but you can't go to a beach town without going to the beach, right?!

Oh, and I caught a cold. I didn't come to this country to get a cold but they do have *great* cold medicine over here. And because I am such a good person, I've shared it with Lisa and Jay. We can all answer to "Sniffles" now :)

Bye for now! Cross your fingers for sun tomorrow. Tomorrow night, it is back to Bangkok tomorrow night so that Lisa & Jay can get visas for their next country and so I can get on my plane home (already?!).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

It's been a busy couple of days!

When I last left you, we were off to dinner with a real Thai person (you know, as opposed to a fake one) and it was one of the most amazing dinners I've ever had in my life. One of my CFM students is Thai and was home for the holidays and took us to experience real Thai food. We gave him the task of ordering a bunch of stuff to try and there wasn't a single thing that wasn't amazing. My favourite was some sort of fish in some sort of batter-like thing. I'm so descriptive, aren't I? The moral of the story is - it was amazing. I will have to ask for a list of what we had (again) so that I can remember it better and start wishing that we can get the same sort of thing in Canada (I doubt it). After that, it was off to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Chiang Mai in the northern part of Thailand. We had VIP seats - this meant we got blankets, seats that reclined to almost 180 degrees, snacks & drinks... It was a great trip - we slept since it was nighttime but it was an excellent way to travel. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Jay got a bit sick, so when we got to Chiang Mai, we hurried to find a hotel and let him get some rest. Lisa and I took the opportunity to start some adventures.

We started out by going to a temple that was quite lovely - I have a BILLION pictures of it and there isn't much to say other than that there were some beautiful Buddhas and some amazing murals as well. We also looked into trekking and cooking classes. By the time that was all done (we got a trek and a cooking class), we headed back to the hotel for a wee bit, followed by a trip to a market (nothing exciting) and then off to dinner. We finished up our night by getting Thai foot massages which were UNBELIEVABLE. We weren't far from the hotel, but Lisa & I seriously contemplated getting a cab back. Our feet felt amazing and our backs & necks felt better too since the massage incorporated reflexology. It was a great way to end the evening!

The next morning, Lisa & I went off to a cooking class where we learned how to make real Thai food. It started with a trip to the oldest market in Chiang Mai then back to the school. Lisa and I were in the group that learned how to make spring rolls, papaya salad, sweet & sour chicken, some kind of soup that I forget, and curry. We got to eat everything we made and I really loved the spring rolls and the sweet and sour chicken, with the papaya salad coming in a close third. None of it is overly hard to make either, which is nice. I took lots of pictures (duh...) so that I can remember how things are supposed to be. We finished up our class with bananas in coconut milk for Lisa and pumpkin in coconut milk for me. Our instructor also gave us a recipe book with the recipes for both the courses that were taught that day and many good tips and pieces of information in it. We finished up our night with a trip to the Night Market. It was massive and we didn't even put a dent in it, yet I still managed to spend about 4000 baht (honestly, most of it is presents, though I did get myself a silk robe). After that, it was back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep for what I'm pretty sure is the best day of the whole trip...

At about 8 this morning, we were picked up by a car for our "one day adventure trek". We thought we'd be in a tour bus with many others (up to 12) but it was just Lisa and I (Jay was still under the weather). We had a private tour guide for the whole day! Our first stop was the orchid and butterfly farm. Since it is winter here, the butterflies were not out but there were many beautiful orchids. We didn't stay there long as we had to head up the road for the elephant show. We got to pet a couple of baby elephants at the entry - I think Lisa has a couple of pictures of the elephant tickling me. Then, it was inside where we saw a bunch of elephants (imagine that) and we played with a couple more elephants, including a baby elephant that put hats on our heads and then we got hugged by a two baby elephants. After that, we got to see them bathing in the river and they were having a great time rolling around in the water! Lisa has a video of that, so the memory will last forever. After that, it was the elephant show which featured elephants doing all sorts of amazing things, like playing soccer, painting, playing darts, rolling logs, playing harmonicas and dancing (yes, the elephants were dancing... one of them was SERIOUSLY rocking out). It was one of the funniest and most amazing things I've ever seen.

Following our elephant adventure, we were off to see some of the northern Thai tribes that I believe were from Laos or China originally. We saw four different tribes in one area that was a sort of like a refugee camp. Our guide explained some of the different customs of the tribes (in one, the teenage girls get to kick a ball at the teenage boy she likes and if he picks it up, they become engaged. At the time of the wedding, she makes him a shirt and he wears it until it falls off). It was quite interesting to see these tribes (I can't remember their names right now). Then, we drove for a while to go get some lunch before the real adventures began....

Our first adventure was an elephant ride. We had a rather larger elephant that required a driver. Lisa and I took a few minutes to get used to the swaying of being up on an elephant and both of us nearly had heart attacks when the elephant decided that she wanted a snack on a very steep sloping hill and we started going down it. We both leaned way back, because obviously, if we shifted our weight back that way, the elephant would get the hint, right? Our driver had to convince the elephant that it couldn't go down there. We then got a chance to feed our elephant some bananas. She really liked those and spit on Lisa a couple of times in hopes of getting more, but there were no bananas left! Our second adventure was some white water rafting. Since it is the dry season, the rapids were not that rapid (good for a scaredy cat like me). We had a number of gentle passages so we could look at the scenery. Our guide thought he was a bit of a comic and tried to tell us to get out of the raft, etc. We stayed in though! It was quite the experience, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to be bruised and battered tomorrow morning. Our third adventure was a bamboo rafting ride which is supposed to be gentle, but our guide kept splashing us, so it kinda sucked. We were able to get really cute framed photos of us rafting, so I have photographic proof that I did it!

We finished up the day by coming back to Chiang Mai and grabbing some dinner. Jay and Lisa went back to the night market tonight, but I figured my wallet could use a break and since I'm exhausted, it seemed like a good night to take one. I'm off to bed now to get a good sleep. Tomorrow, we have a little bit more time in Chiang Mai before it is off to the beach! Yay! I need to start working on that tan :D

The Previously Mentioned Jewel Scam....

So as I had mentioned before, we almost got scammed while we were in Bangkok. We were attempting to go a temple, but almost just before we got there, we met a student who was studying English at the university nearby and he asked us where we were going and when we told him, he told us that because it was New Year's Day, only Thai people were allowed in for prayers and tourists could not go in today. We showed him our map of Bangkok and he showed us some other places we could go instead. There was a sitting Buddha, a standing Buddha and a temple that you could climb to the top of and see the entire city. He also explained to us the difference between taxis & tuk tuks owned by the government (drivers only pay gas) and owned by private companies (drivers pay gas and rent their tuk tuk or taxi). He told us that the government taxis and tuk tuks would have great rates because of it being the first day of the new year. He told us that we would be able to find a tuk tuk driver to take us to all three sites for no more than 40 baht. He also taught us the word "conyan" which he told us means "wait". We left him and went a little bit down the street to a tuk tuk that was pulled over on the side of the road and the Jay showed the driver what we wanted to do and the driver offered to do it all for 50 baht. We said 40, he agreed and we piled in. While we were doing this, the nice student came back and started talking to Jay again and when Jay got in the tuk tuk, he told us the student told him about a silk sale that was going on and was having it's last day today. He put it on our map, too, and it was between the first and second place. Our driver took us to the first site where we saw two really nice temples, one of which had a very large sitting Buddha that was quite lovely. We took some pictures, climbed back in the tuk tuk and when we did, the driver asked if we would mind if he went to the bathroom, which we didn't, so off he went. While he was gone, another man came over to us and started talking to us about where we were from, etc. He said he was a lawyer from New York (went to Cornell) and had been there for about 16 years and was home visiting his father and brother (who was a monk at the temple). He then asked us what we were up to that day and we told him what we were doing and he started raving about the silk sale, how amazing it was and how usually, tourists are not allowed in but for a few days they were and this was the last day. He said the prices were AMAZING for suits ($150 for an Armani suit) and that they kept your measurements on file and would send you a suit at Thai prices any time you wanted. Shortly after that, our driver came back and asked us where next and we said we wanted to go to the Golden Mountain (the last stop) and he tried to convince us to go to the silk sale, saying he got free gas if we did. He tried to get us to go for just one minute but we stayed firm and said we wanted to go to Golden Mountain. He finally took off and ignored what we asked and took us to the silk sale anyway. We got out of the tuk tuk, didn't pay him and went on our merry way, walking to Golden Mountain (and meeting someone else who tried to scam us on the way).

So, here's what one website has to say about the jewel scams here... See if you can find the similarities :
It usually starts with a male stranger approaching you on the way to or nearby any of main tourist attractions, and telling you that you can't go in at the moment. They can come up with dozens of reasons why: "Oh didn't you know it's a Buddhist holiday today", "closed for cleaning", "closed for repairs", "closed because the monks are chanting now", "it's only open on Wednesdays" etc. By far the best approach is just to ignore anyone trying to talk to you on the way in, which may seem rude but it can be very difficult to get away if you start any conversation with them. In the vast majority of cases, there is absolutely no truth in what they are saying, it's just a ruse to get you started in conversation with them. If the place really is closed, find out for yourself from the entrance and don't take anyone's word for it. No one is going to be offended if you try and enter, even if it really is closed for a holiday.

A lot of people understandably don't want to offend or appear ignorant of Thai culture and so are talked out of going to Wat Pho or wherever it is they really intended to go. But not to worry, your new friend knows somewhere equally impressive that is still open - "the famous 100m high Standing Buddha temple". It's not mentioned in your guidebook for some reason, but he will kindly mark the location of it on your map for you. He may also casually talk about a special promotion on gems or jewelry that is on today, but will put no pressure on you to buy any.

After another 5 or 10 minutes of conversation, he will usually offer to arrange a tuk-tuk ride for you to the new temple at a bargain price (10B/20B, say, or even for free) explaining that tuk-tuks overcharge tourists and so he can get that the price that cheap for you because he is Thai. Alternatively, they claim that by taking you there and then to a special export shop they get free petrol coupons and so that is why it is cheap. Either way it's worth remembering that tuk-tuks are no cheaper than taxis in Bangkok, and you can pretty much guarantee that if you are offered even a short ride for less than 40B there is something dodgy going on.

At the new temple (the so-called 'Standing Buddha temple', 'Lucky Buddha temple' etc - really just an average temple in an out-of-the-way location), the tuk-tuk driver waits outside while you go in. Inside you'll be fortunate enough to meet a smartly dressed Thai man who speaks excellent English, and claims to be a university professor / business man / student / tourist official etc. You'll chat for a while (they often have excellent knowledge about your home country), and eventually the conversation gets round to jewelry and gems, confirming the special deal on at the moment that the man on the street mentioned earlier. Essentially, this special deal involves bulk buying gems at a low price in Thailand in order to resell them for a vast profit in your home country. This is dressed up in any number of ways - you don't buy from a shop but from a special "international export center", today is a special export day, it's an opportunity previously only open to Thai students to finance their studies abroad but now tourists can do it as well, there's a special tax break today, it's part of a tourism promotion, it's a wholesale factory price, backed by the government, you get a certificate of authenticity and a money back guarantee etc etc...And if you don't want to buy, why not come along anyway because the experts are happy to teach you about the famous Thai gems for free ?

This is all an elaborate set of lies of course, and you're simply being set up to spend a small fortune on the 'bargain' gems. The man will even mark the location of the gem shop on the map in your Lonely Planet guide for you, so you can tell the tuk-tuk driver where to go. The tuk-tuk driver, who ten minutes before could barely speak any English let alone read a map written in it, looks at your map and strangely enough knows exactly where to go.

On to the gem shop, and you are well looked after with personal service from the manager, free drinks etc. There then follows a high-pressure sales pitch, after which far too many people are persuaded to spend in the region of 100 000B (US$2500), 200 000B (US$5000) or more on gems which they hope to resell at a profit in their home country. The gem shops often pay lowlife foreigners to linger in their shop posing as a customer and casually mention to you that for years they have bought Thai gems from this shop, sold them back in France / USA / Singapore / etc, and have made loads of money doing it. For many people, the knowledge that a fellow foreigner has done it successfully is what finally persuades them to buy. To ensure you get the gems out of Thailand safely, with no problems from customs etc, the shop will offer to mail the gems to your country for you. When you actually come to buy the gems, you may find the shop doesn't have the facilities to accept credit cards itself, rather you have to go and buy gold from a nearby shop with your card and then pay them in the gold you just purchased.

What most people find out soon enough when they try and sell them is that the expensively purchased "gems" are really only worth a tiny fraction of what you paid for them. If you're lucky, you're just sold pretty bits of worthless cut-glass (if you wonder why this is lucky, see what to do after being scammed). Either way, virtually all the money that was spent on the gems is now lost. The receipt, money back guarantee and certificate of authenticity are barely worth the paper they're printed on. The reason the shop wants to mail them abroad for you is, of course, to stop you coming back and demanding your money back when you realise what's happened. Though chances of getting your money back aren't great even when you still have the "gems" with you, they are non-existent if you have mailed them abroad. For a similar reason, after you've made your purchase they may take you sightseeing around Bangkok, take you for a meal, on a night out etc all to try and reduce the amount of time you have to realise you've been scammed. If you've sent the gems abroad, the time they spend taking you round Bangkok is using up the precious time you have of getting to the mail center on time to intercept your package before it leaves the country.

P.S. We later found out that "conyan" means "little penis"

Monday, January 01, 2007

I like Asia. I'm tall here.

Well, here I am! Made it here safe and sound. It's been very interesting so far.

My flights weren't too bad - I got to the airport at the perfect time (thanks Aunt Andrea!) as shortly after I arrived, the line was MASSIVE. The traffic director remembered where I was going and what flight I was on as I was one of the only white people in the line. I checked in very quickly and headed off through security with no problems, found my gate and started waiting. We boarded a bit later than expected and then had to get de-iced before take off so we didn't get out quite on time. The flight was very smooth and we flew over the Arctic and Russia (which doesn't have snow either). I could keep tabs on how far we were away, how much longer, etc. through the screen in the seat in front of me. The plane was usually going about 1000 km/hr and the distance update in increments of 200 km. It was nice to see it counting down! We got into Hong Kong a bit late but since I had a six hour stop, I was in no hurry. I wandered around a bit, didn't do any shopping (though it was tempting!) and our next flight got off pretty much on time. It wasn't as smooth as the first flight and we were in seatbelts almost the whole time (which everyone ignored anyway). We got into Bangkok around 11 and then I worked my way through customs & baggage claim before meeting Lisa & Jay on the other side. Lisa looks much the same as she always has, though her hair is longer. We got a taxi into the city and then took a while to find our hotel and finally crashed at about 2 am local time, ending my 30+ hours of travelling. I roasted from the minute I got out of the plane since it's about 30 degrees here, even at night so it felt great to get into light jammies and lay down for a bit!!

I woke up pretty early the next morning (which was yesterday) and after we all got up and going, we had a lovely breakfast with the most amazing freshly squeezed orange juice that was SO tasty. We then started our adventures by trying to get bus tickets for our trip to Chiang Mai. We tried to take a taxi to the Sky Train (like a monorail across the city) but the driver "mis-interpreted" what Jay said and took us WAY away from where we needed to go. Luckily, we could still get to the Sky Train, it just took us longer to get to where we needed to go. It took us a while to find the bus station but we made it and got our tickets. We then tried to find the weekend market and stumbled on it sorta by accident and started our shopping (I swear, all I got was a vase and a purse). Then, it was back on the Sky Train to head back to our hotel, wandering down Khao San Road where we did some more light shopping (three cheers for getting a dress for Michelle & Jeff's wedding for $10!!) and then back to the hotel to veg for a bit before dinner and New Year's. We headed out for dinner & some fun times back on Khao San Road where we discovered LOTS of police checking bags. Unbeknownst to us, terrorists were setting off bombs in the city (not even close to where we were staying) so the security was higher than usual. We had a great time for a few hours, even enjoying a fine beverage of Gin & Tonic out of a bucket. We named the bucket Winston Bucky V and we do have pictures :D. After that it was off to bed and getting some sleep.

This morning, after some breakfast, we headed out to do some sight seeing. We attempted to go to the Wat Phra Kaew (a temple) and the Grand Palace (where the king use to live). We ran into a bit of a scam and almost got totally sucked in (more details on that when I've got a bit more time) and ended up not getting there but seeing a few other temples instead with some amazing Buddhas in them. After that, we went to the Golden Mountain (another temple) which let us see the city from an amazing distance and some beautiful scenery. And now, we're here and I'm updating you!

In a wee bit, we're off to dinner with one of my CFM students who lives in Thailand and then it's off to an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. That's where we're riding elephants!!! Very exciting. I think that's all for now, I'll be back again sometime in Chiang Mai, so expect another update in a wee bit. I don't think I'll be posting any pictures while I'm away, but I already have a GAZILLION of them.

Miss you all lots (wait, that's a lie, I don't even notice you aren't here) and can't wait to show off my new tan (that's also a lie, I'm so covered in sunscreen it's not even funny). Back off to the 30+ weather (oh, life is hard)!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Apparently, blogs are the way of the future. And apparently, it is the cool new way to tell people about trips you take (Byran, you're a thinker!) and since I'm taking a trip, I figured I'd blog it. Also, I'm lazy and don't wanna take the time to e-mail people. E-mail is so 2004. I'm not sure what access to the internet will be like in Thailand, but I'm gonna give it a shot!

So without further ado, I proudly present:

As lots (hopefully most) of you have probably figured out (or have been forced to hear about), I'm taking a trip to Thailand. Lisa (remember her?) has been teaching English in Korea for the last year and is now travelling away and I'm flying across the world to catch up with her and get some time in the sun. I've got my passport, my ticket, and my tetnus shot. Oh, and my Visa. What else could a girl need? I'm even finished packing! And you'll never in a million years believe how little I'm taking.

So, I'm packed and ready to go. Keep your fingers crossed that on Friday morning, the runways are clear so that I can get on my merry little way. Cause if I don't, it's your door I'm gonna be knocking on!